Why are we being asked to keep a lookout for bees in Ireland?

18 Aug 2016

Earlier this week, scientists at NUI Galway put out a national request, seeking sightings of bees for a broad piece of research. Why should the public bother taking part?

Honeybees, a crucial cog in our environment, are under threat. The public, a crucial cog in the research to save them, can help.

Pollinators, in general, are struggling, it seems, with figurehead species, such as honeybees, butterflies and bats, garnering plenty of interest from scientists in recent years.

Back in February, a UN report into pollinators found declines across the board, with the problem exacerbated by the 300pc increase in the volume of food in the world (in the past 50 years) that relies on the creatures to spread its seed.

A few months ago, a detailed report into pollinators in Ireland made for worrying reading, with one-third of Ireland’s near-100 bee species under threat of extinction.

The report was part of an all-Ireland pollinator plan that spans 2015 to 2020.

We spoke with one of the people behind that initiative last week, John McMullan, who highlighted several simple steps we could all take to make life a bit better for Irish honeybees.

Bees Ireland

A bee and a dog in a standoff. Image via Shutterstock

Answer the call

Soon after, though, NUI Galway put out the call. Looking for people from every county in Ireland to keep an eye out for native Irish bees this summer, beekeepers and bee enthusiasts, in particular, were being asked to report any feral or unmanaged hives in their area. But why?

“We’re starting from a point where the Dept of Agriculture says there are no wild bees left in Ireland,”explained Professor Grace McCormack of NUI Galway’s zoology department. “But there’s no evidence for or against that.”

The Veroa mite decimated Irish bee populations over the past few decades, with many fearing there are no wild bees left out in the wild. Why is this important? “Scale,” McCormack said. “There are far less bees handled by people then there were wild, before.

“From an Irish perspective, there is a lot of ‘grey’ literature on websites, in booklets, but there’s no empirical scientific research.”

The nuance between ‘wild’ and ‘feral’ is key to the study, the latter being bees that have swarmed out from beekeepers’ stock, looking wild but being something quite different.

“We have found 20 feral colonies,” she said, “including one in the statue of a lion on the estate of Mote Park in Roscommon. But diversity and numbers are so important.

Bee on a dahlia flower. Image via Shutterstock

Bee on a dahlia flower. Image via Shutterstock

A numbers game

“The estimated numbers of individual bees would be dramatically reduced if we proved that none existed in the wild. They rely on genetic diversity for bee health, the queen will mate with 15-20 drones to build a colony. Without those numbers they struggle.”

When hives are found, the morphology, genotype, and health of the bees are recorded. The genotype will be used to identify if bees are native Irish honeybees and if the same genotype persists over multiple years.

“I think this is the start of something long-term,” said McCormack. “Soon we will publish information on bee DNA in Ireland. This survey and investigation will be on top of that.

“If there are none in the wild, fine, if we can prove it then we will do so. If there are wild colonies found, though, the Dept of Agriculture will have to start protecting them, investing in them. Either way, this evidence will be key.”

Members of the public who think they know of a ‘wild’ hive or would like to know more about the project can email nuigbeeresearch@gmail.com,  call 091 494490 or visit this Facebook page

Main bee image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic