All-Ireland Honeybee Strategy – by Dr Grace McCormack

All-Ireland Honeybee Strategy – by Dr Grace McCormack


All-Ireland Honeybee Strategy

Included in The All Ireland Pollinator Plan is the All-Ireland Honeybee Strategy, a standalone part of the plan that is covered in section 4 and includes areas such as education and biosecurity. The latter part of this, still under development, is the conservation of the native honeybee strain.

Below is a shortened draft of this document and as you will see it fits very well into the outcomes of the recent IBA and the separate NUIG surveys which many of you will have completed. 

Management Strategy for Apis mellifera mellifera in Ireland


In 2014 it was considered by many that honeybees no longer lived in the wild and that most honeybees in Ireland were hybridized by imported honeybees. This is because in the 1920s,  the population of honeybees in Ireland and the UK plummeted. Honeybees were imported to augment the stock and it was assumed that the native bee had become extinct. 

In Northern Europe the population of A. m. mellifera has become threatened across its distributional range and in some places is considered extinct (Pinto et al., 2014). Pockets exist in some countries, primarily in protected areas, but nowhere, it would seem, as widespread as in Ireland. Therefore Ireland possibly has a large role to play in the maintenance of the subspecies.

The honeybee is in the unfortunate position to be regarded as both a wild and a domesticated species. It is legal to import non-native honeybees into Ireland, a cause of the introduction of Varroa destructor and Nosema ceranae amongst other diseases. Ireland seems to have maintained a certain amount of A. m. mellifera biodiversity and purity in the face of imports happening since the 19th and 20th centuries but the subspecies here is under constant threat due to possible imports of additional diseases and continued dilution of the co-adapted gene complexes that have evolved here for thousands of years.

Management Tools

  1. Education & Awareness

Efforts are required to increase awareness of the status of A. m. mellifera nationally and

Internationally. Beekeepers need to be made aware of the types of honeybees available and the possible impacts of importing non-native stock for beekeeping purposes. Such topics can be included in beekeeping courses and can also be circulated via webinars, articles in beekeeping magazines, websites and via social media. Some action has been, and is currently being undertaken, by the Native Irish Honeybee Society and by local associations .This needs to be extended as there are many beekeepers who are unaware of native honeybees.

  1. Production of overwintered nucs of local bees for beginners ready for Spring.

One reason for bees being imported into Ireland is the requirement for queens early in Spring before many beekeepers with A. m. mellifera are ready to sell nucs. If beekeepers are not aware of the importance of native/local bees and none appear available when they want them, then importing may seem a logical solution. The importance of Apis mellifera mellifera can be promoted and supported by local beekeeping associations and also encouraged by the Native Irish Honeybee Society.

  1. Formation of reserves for A. m. mellifera (areas of national forest, nature reserves, national parks where no beekeepers are allowed bring in bees).
  1. Encouragement of dialogue between native bee and non-native bee beekeepers

 Extension of this approach into other areas would be beneficial to prevent hybridization from occurring. A common system of interbreeding avoidance may be possible.

  1. Stocking of remote reserves with swarms from wild A. m. mellifera colonies

Re-wilding needs to be carried out with some caution, e.g. not around urban areas due to honeybee’s acceptance of roof spaces in occupied buildings to make their nests. Boxes, natural cavities or log hives should be placed in reserves, well away from human settlements and the bees left to their own devices.

  1. Reduction of escaped swarms from managed colonies into nearby neighbourhoods.

Irish beekeepers should place catch boxes in all areas where beekeeping takes place. Associations must educate newer beekeepers on the importance of responsible beekeeping. Caught swarms can be checked for disease and passed on to somebody wanting a colony in order to reduce the impact of managed imported bees on wild native colonies of honeybees.

  1. Reduce impact of imported bees on A. m. mellifera in Ireland

Currently the EU CAP allows the free trade of honeybees between member states. However, efforts could be made by the relevant government agencies to minimise potential impact of non-native honeybee strains on native stock. Some advice could be provided on the value of local bees and directing beekeepers to local associations to find out what bee works best in their area, prior to them considering importing bees.

  1. Increase self-sufficiency in local ecotypes of honeybees with emphasis on A. m. mellifera

Ireland currently appears almost self-sufficient in honeybees, having only a small, although genetically significant, number of queens imported. With minimal assistance to existing queen breeders, local ecotypes could replace this import need, augmenting Ireland’s food security in the process. 

Additionally, the 2018 EU Parliamentary procedure (2017/2115/(INI)) on Prospects and Challenges for the EU Apiculture Sector, with a focus on livestock farming, invited the EU Commission to “provide the necessary incentives to encourage locally-developed practices, in order to preserve honeybee ecotypes and cultivation throughout the EU.” It should be noted that our unique position having a border with a non-EU country will require particular attention. 

  1. Establishment of isolated mating apiaries for A. m. mellifera in Ireland.
  2. Further research

Research can continue to provide evidence that can be used in management of A. m. mellifera.

Topics include:

  • continued genotyping to monitor patterns and impacts of hybridization and introgression on native honeybees
  • basic biology, distribution and survival mechanisms of free-living honeybees
  1. Banning imports of honeybees into Ireland.

Work is on-going by NIHBS in collaboration with colleagues both nationally and internationally to consider how this may be achieved. Further serious consideration of this should be carried out by DAFM and NPWS and its status reviewed regularly.

References omitted – This paper will be available in full on the new IBAclg website.