1. Establish breeding groups to produce native queens
To date, queen rearing in the north of Ireland has mostly been carried out on an ad hoc basis and has rarely been formally organized through branches of local Beekeeper Associations. This is in spite of the fact that there is strong demand for native queens. When I started to investigate this a few years ago, I was surprised about the lack of planned queen rearing going on locally, even though the Ulster Beekeepers’ Association (UBKA) has more than 650 members making up twelve local associations throughout the north. New beekeepers are mostly getting their first bees via swarms which are passed on in May or June, and these are headed by queens of unknown origin. Native queens reared in an organised way could be used to make up nucleus colonies for beginners and could also be used to requeen swarmy or aggressive colonies. This would have the double aim of spreading native bee genetics and giving beekeepers access to quality queens from carefully selected stock.
2. Educate beekeepers with regard to the dangers of imports
Closely related to the importance of breeding groups is the thorny issue of honeybee imports. The Native Irish Honeybee Association (NIHBS) and the UBKA are strongly against importing bees or queens in any form. Importing bees carries the risk of introducing a new disease, virus or parasite and in addition, having a mixture of different bee subspecies in one region complicates breeding efforts due to hybridisation. Hybrids have a reputation for being aggressive and difficult to manage. Ruttner did a lot of work in this area and he found that the Amm x carnica hybrid was the most defensive of the crosses.
We have to live with Varroa destructor and its associated viruses thanks to mite infested bee colonies imported into Ireland. Varroa was first detected on this island in 1998 and we can be pretty sure the mites did not swim over the Irish Sea! The known bee viruses have many variants and importing yet more bees could bring one which we do not currently have. In addition, it is highly likely that there are viruses in the bee population which have not even been formally identified. Imported bees are not routinely virus screened. Some beekeepers are tempted to try out queens of different races which are promoted as being ‘gentler’ or ‘better honey producers.’ These claims are questionable, and beekeepers going down this route should be aware that any new disease which they inadvertently introduce will eventually impact on every local beekeeper.
3. Conserve and create habitat.
One of the key problems faced by our native bee is habitat destruction, and this takes many forms. Modern agriculture tends towards monoculture and this is a poor option for bees. Bees in our climate need access to nectar bearing plants and a wide and varied source of pollen between March and October. Grassland without clover or wildflowers, and cereal crops such as wheat and barley offer no more to bees than a paved area does. The bee forage in areas like this is to be found in the hedgerows, the roadside verges, and from the trees; willow, sycamore, chestnut and Lime. We can help our native bee (and other pollinators as well) by encouraging farmers to hold back on cutting hedgerows more than is necessary. Perhaps we could also lobby our local councils? I have often seen council employees cutting park grass thick with flowering clover on a sunny afternoon. As well as removing a valuable food source, this must literally shred many bees, hoverflies and other pollinators busy gathering nectar and pollen. Cutting the grass at times when bees are not foraging would be an improvement and cutting the grass less often would be better still! And why are the roadside verges cut back so hard, removing most of the available bee forage. In addition, the non beekeeping public could be encouraged to grow bee friendly shrubs and flowers, although this is but a drop in the ocean given that a honeybee colony foraging within a two mile radius of the hive covers an area of around 8,000 acres. There may also be a possibility of having certain areas designated as conservation areas where our native bee would have adequate forage and be safe from the introduction of non-native subspecies.
4. Positive promotion of our native bee
Politics is full of negative campaigning and anyone who reads the online bee forums will have noticed that there are frequent arguments between the native bee enthusiasts and the fans of Buckfast, Carnica or other non-native bee subspecies. These debates often become very heated. The fact of the matter is that any beekeeper can keep the race of bee which takes his fancy and can legally import queens from an approved country such as one of the EU member states.
Given that we cannot currently stop imports, the main recourse we have is ‘education’ rather than ‘legislation’. There are many false or exaggerated claims made in favour of certain bee races and a lot of pejorative comment made against our native bee. We have to live with the old chestnuts such as black bees are vicious or will put you out of your garden. That will of course come as a surprise to those of us who breed our own native queens and handle our colonies with minimal protection. We need to make the case that Amm is as fit for purpose as any other bee race – but without overstating the case and making unsubstantiated claims. Promotion of the native bee should be based on firm evidence rather than old wives tales.
5. Effective management of bee diseases
Varroa, in conjunction with the cocktail of virus it vectors, has caused the demise of most of our feral colonies. A recent COLOSS publication highlighted that Varroa and its viruses are still the number one threat to honeybee health.
In this sense, the beekeeper has become more important than ever to the wellbeing of the bee. Pyrethroid resistant mites were detected in the north of Ireland in 2011 yet we still have beekeepers relying on Apistan and Bayvarol strips as an annual Varroa treatment – even though the mites now have resistance to the active ingredient. As well as breeding from our healthiest and strongest colonies, we need to make sure they are properly cared for. Treatment free beekeeping is a laudable aim, but the reality is that our bees are ill equipped in evolutionary terms to deal with a pathogen which has recently jumped species from Apis cerana to Apis mellifera. In a paper published in 2006, Ingemar Fries described an experiment with 150 colonies left alone on an isolated island. Over 80% of them succumbed to Varroa and virus within the first three years.
Jonathan Getty, April 2013