Honey bees not only provide us with delicious honey, they help produce some of our favourite foods through pollination. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the anther (male part) to the stigma (female part) of flowers. This can be achieved by transport by animals, wind or in water. A wide variety of organisms can act as pollinators, including birds, bats, insects and other mammals, with insects being the most common. Globally, 87 of the leading food crops (accounting for 35pc of the world food production volume) depend on animal pollination.
Bees are most active in summer due to the increase in temperature and forage availability. Ireland has 97 native bee species: 1 honey bee, 20 bumblebees and 76 solitary species. Six bumblebee and 24 solitary species are threatened with extinction from Ireland due to factors including changing environment, homelessness, hunger, poisoning and sickness.
Solitary bees do not produce honey and as the name suggests they do not live in colonies. When a male and female solitary bee have mated and prepared a nest for their eggs by provisioning it with food for the young bees to feed on, they die. The young bees emerge the following year and the cycle continues.
The honey bee (Apis mellifera) and the 20 bumblebee species (Bombus spp.) are social bees. They live in colonies and store honey to feed on when they can't go out and forage, for example during bad weather, or, in the case of the honeybee, over winter.
The queen of a true bumblebee species hibernates during winter and emerges in the spring to establish a new colony. Once this colony is well established, new queens and males (drones) leave the nest to create new colonies. The males and old queen and workers die off in the autumn/winter and the new queens hibernate. "Commercially reared colonies" are used in enclosed production systems, such as glasshouses, for pollination services.
Bumblebees produce small quantities of honey compared with the honey bee, and it is not commercially extractable. The honey bee is the most notable managed bee in Ireland and one hive can produce up to 25kg of honey per annum, the majority of which is produced during the summer.
Honey is a natural product produced from the nectar collected mainly from the flowers of living plants. It contains a mixture of sugars, enzymes, minerals, organic acids, polyphenols, proteins, vitamins and other phytochemicals.
The composition and quantity of these components vary according to floral and geographic origin, amongst other factors. Many polyphenols have properties including antioxidant, anti-mutagenic, anti-oestrogenic, anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory effects that might potentially be beneficial in preventing disease and protecting the stability of the genome. Reported biological properties of honey include: antibacterial, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, radical scavenging, and wound and sunburn healing.
My research project is going to determine the bioactive (having an effect upon a living organism, tissue, or cell) properties of Irish honey from both bumblebees and honey bees. This project will enable the development of a typical polyphenol constituent profile for Irish honey.
Saorla Kavanagh is an Irish Research Council-funded PhD Student working with Dr Blánaid White in Dublin City University and Dr Jane Stout at Trinity College Dublin.