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Making a bee-line for native honey

With one in every three mouthfuls pollinated by honey bees, food would become unaffordable without them. John Rainsford talks to Frank Considine, Clare representative of the newly formed Native Irish Honey Bee Society, who hums the praise of the unsung heroes of Irish agriculture



LONG the forgotten heroes of Irish agriculture the tireless work of bees, in pollinating our fruit and vegetables, has finally been rewarded by the creation of a national organisation of their own.

The Native Irish Honey Bee Society (NIHBS), as the new agency is called, has been established recently to promote the conservation of the Irish ‘Black Bee’.

The society also hopes to raise public awareness of the importance of bees to the Irish economy while acting in an advisory capacity to groups and individuals who wish to assist their plight.
NIHBS, is an All-Ireland organisation, whose representatives are drawn from both North and South of the border. Together, they have dedicated themselves to preserving the native population of Irish honey bees.

Clare representative, Frank Considine, from Cree said, “I have been keeping bees for 30 years and beekeeping is part of what I am all about. Over the years, I have had every type of bee from all over Europe and found that the ideal bee for Irish beekeeping conditions is the native Irish honey bee. This sub-species of the European black bee is perfectly in tune with Irish climatic conditions, is frugal with its stores in the hive, produces a good crop of honey, and is docile.

“The NIHBS was set up in November 2012, as part of a 32-county initiative, to oversee the protection and future of the naive Irish honey bee. I am one of the Munster committee members. While I would not say the native Irish honey bee is in decline, it is under threat from imports and needs a group, like the NIHBS, to protect its future. We also need to educate beekeepers and the public, in general, about the importance and value of our Irish honey bee.”

There are now over 2,500 people registered as apiarists with bee associations in Ireland- an increase from just 1,500 over the past 10 years. A similar success story is to be seen in the growing demand for Irish honey.
Annual production levels currently vary from 200 to 600 tonnes and the potential market for ‘run honey’ is estimated to be in excess of 1,000 tonnes per annum. Honey is also a lucrative commodity said to be worth in excess of £190m sterling per annum in the UK and 60 times as much in the USA.

Indeed, honey derivatives currently appear in everything from medicine to car wax. It is, therefore, very much in our national interest to safeguard the livelihood of these tiny native workers.
Frank Considine said, “Ireland does not come anywhere near producing the amount of honey consumed here each year. Irish honey production can, therefore, grow significantly without any fear of oversupplying the market.

“For me personally, the subject is a continuous learning curve. Bees and beekeeping reveal something new every day. But if I were to be totally honest, they fascinate me anyway and I care that they have a future. Passing on the craft of beekeeping is as important as the bees themselves and making sure that every bee in an Irish hive is a native Irish honey bee.”

Honey bees play a vital role in the pollination of crops from oil seed rape and strawberries to the produce of small orchards and kitchen gardens that dot the countryside, towns, and cities.
Farmers, in particular, have a huge role to play in preserving the land of Ireland but the race to increase farm size and profit have played a huge part in the declining health of the Irish bee.

Indeed, existing stocks of Irish honey bees have been severly depleted in recent times by the arrival of the varroa mite, which is a non-native parasite spread by imported bees.
To counter these threats, the NIHBS hopes to play its part in advising farmers on the use of pesticides, the maintenance of hedgerows and the importance of the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) in increasing forage for these tiny insects.

NIHBS’s PRO, Aoife Nic Giolla Coda spent three years as secretary of Clare’s Banner Beekeepers’ Association (Banner-BKA).

“The founding of this organisation is essential for many reasons. Indeed, the majority of Irish people do not know that we have a honey bee which is native to this island at all. Education, therefore, is vital for both the general public and beginner beekeepers allowing them to understand how our native honey bee outperforms its rivals under testing climatic conditions,” she said.

“Given that there has been an upsurge of interest in honey bees over the last few years some people have been tempted to import them from abroad. This can have dire consequences for our native bee stocks who can cross breed with them and become aggressive with a resulting loss of good traits. The importation of honey bees has also the potential to introduce devastating pests and diseases to these shores.

“Parts of Clare, in particular, have had a history of importing bees. Indeed, in the late 1990s this county was one of the first regions where the varroa mite was found. However, there are some areas, in Clare, which still have strong black bee populations. Many Clare beekeepers are interested in conserving and breeding bees so our membership here is growing considerably as a result,” Aoife added.

Many farmers want to maintain their role as caretakers of the land and there are increasing numbers who want to take-up beekeeping. Indeed, farmers, have the perfect skill-set to make them ideal practitioners. However, the craft is a complex one, which involves hive making, nucleus production, queen rearing, education and science.

“Science and technology have always played a major part in beekeeping but these aspects were never as important as they are today,” Frank stressed. “Being able to research an aspect or topic of beekeeping has become very accessible online. Indeed, the growing number of beekeeping forums on the internet has given people, everywhere, the opportunity to quickly locate solutions for common beekeeping problems. New information technologies are now an important way of keeping members up to date regionally, nationally and globally.

“In the past, beekeeping in Ireland has been largely viewed as a hobby and, as such, has not had much in the way of financial grants. Our advice to those interested in beekeeping is to start in a small way, see if it is a suitable craft for them and allow plenty of time to grow and develop it,” he said.

“The costs of a start-up in beekeeping can vary from person to person, for example, those with carpentry skills can get up and running for as little as €400 but for others it can cost up to €600.”

Frank Considine began his support work with the Banner Beekeepers’ Association (Banner- BKA), which is the official bee association for Clare. Although, the agency was established in 1968, its main policies have remained essentially unchanged since then.
These are to promote beekeeping in the county, to educate people interested in the craft of beekeeping and to support and advise their members. Clare is now a stronghold for beekeeping and is extremely active with workshops, lectures and education for both beginners and the general public.

Banner Beekeepers run a beginners course, which caters for year one and year two of beekeeping. Members are always made aware of the importance of education and the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations (FIBKA) offer examinations in preliminary beekeeping, intermediate apiary practical examination, practical beemaster’s certificate, honey judge, and lecturer. All members can participate in study groups if they so wish.

“In Banner-BKA we would like to attract more members but beekeeping is not for everyone. Some people are more aware of the importance of bees to the environment and would, perhaps, prefer to become friends of the venture.

“Ironically, urban beekeeping is now the strongest sector of Irish beekeeping which mirrors a world trend. Today, towns and cities offer bees forage that they would never find in the country side.”

For further information about the NIHBS visit: www.nihbs.org.

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