Wexford People

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Love Island for the bees

A unique experiment has been taking place on the Little Saltee Island off Kilmore Quay in a bid to conserve the threatened native Irish honey bee


John Morgan, beekeeper

John Morgan, beekeeper

John Morgan, beekeeper

A 'Love Island' experiment of a different sort is under way on the Little Saltee off Kilmore Quay where mating bees are being monitored as part of a unique conservation project.

The three-year experiment into the native species of Dark Northern European Bee (Apis Mellifera Mellifera)is being carried out by Baldwinstown-based John Morgan, founder of the Menapian Bee Breeders Group and Menapian Beekeepers Association.

John, who developed a fascination for bees at the age of 12 when his parents bought a small holding with bee hives in Wicklow, was given permission by the owner of the island, Patrick Grattan-Bellew to use the Little Saltee which unlike the Great Saltee, is not accessible to the public and is therefore ideal for an isolation project.

'It's a Love island situation. They are completely isolated from the outside world', said John, as he explained that the first two years were devoted to testing whether or not queens or drones (which can fly up to 10 miles) would travel off or onto the island for mating, to ensure against cross-breeding with other species.

Last summer which saw the warmest weather in 40 years, a control group with virgin queens was placed on the mainland while hives with the same amount of virgin queens were brought out to the island along with food.

In about 12 days, all the bees on the mainland had mated while the queens on the Little Saltee were still virgins.

'We knew then that there was no bees flying out to the island and none flying back' said John, who set about completing the experiment at the end of June this year by creating 'an isolated mating station' on the Little Saltee, taking six drone colonies out on a trawler along with queens in 47 mini nucs or hives, to allow mating and the laying of fertilised eggs.

The team returned on a stormy crossing last week to the island where they had an uncomfortable overnight stay in wet clothes. They were nonetheless delighted to discover that the queens had successfully mated with the selected drones.

The bees and eggs were brought back for further monitoring to an apiary on the mainland where no other bees are kept, as there is not enough vegetation on the island to support them.

'The aim of all this is that we can fully control the lineage of the drones we bring out, thereby controlling the drones that the queen mates with so that she can only produce the native Irish honey bee. The experiment guarantees the parentage on both sides' said John.

The experiment is focused on the local black bee, a genotype that has been around for thousands of years but has been displaced and threatened through the importation of honey bees over the past 100 years.

Tests have shown that the local bee fares far better in the local environment than other species such as the Italian Ligurian or the Buckfast and is better suited to lower temperatures and windy conditions.

'Our bees will fly below 10 degrees centigrade. That is why it's important that they are retained. They have stronger wings and can withstand the wind. That is the reason you need a bee that can cope with the environment.'

Over the past 20 years, there has also been increased pressure on all bee species through adverse environmental factors, creating an ecological crisis that is now the subject of global concern, since without pollinators, the world's food source is threatened.

'There is growing public awareness. Everyone is trying to cultivate flowers that attract pollinators. A lot of people have bought bees, thinking they are helping to save the planet, but find that they can't handle them', said John.

'They swarm away or die off and hives are left to rot at the end of the garden'.

'There are a lot of good intentions but people don't have the experience or the knowledge.The awareness is useful but more information is what's needed', said John.

'I don't know how many people have asked for my help in starting off. I've helped hundreds of people set up hundreds of hives but only a few kept it on'.

He said many people blame the 'Varroa Destructor' mite for decimating the bee population but he believes that climatic conditions that create damaging fungal spores which are ingested by bees, have been among the most detrimental factors along with herbicides sprayed in agriculture to kill weeds and plants beneficial to bees and the wholesale switch from arable farming and crop growing to dairy.

'The lifeline to bees in Ireland is our hedgerows and our ditches They are the vein system and the food bank for pollinators'.

'A mature sycamore tree will give as much nectar as a small field of clover anywhere in the country', said John whose bees are used to pollinate Ballycross apple farm in Bridgetown and the crops of other large growers.

People should be encouraging more plants in their garden of a type to entice small pollinators but they should ensure that when they are buying seeds or plants in nurseries, that they have not been treated with additives such as neo nicotinoids which are toxic to bees and other insects.

A former supplier to Boyne Valley and other companies, John became a professional beekeeper in 2006, and while he has imported equipment (he brought the country's only full honey extractor line in from Finland) he has never imported bees and doesn't believe in doing so.

He operates hives on rural sites over a wide area of south Wexford including Rosslare and Wellingtonbridge and the area around Johnstown Castle.

Having spent his early childhood in Dublin, he moved with his family to Wicklow in 1980 when he was 12 after his father bought a property which was previously owned by a beekeeper and had a honey house.

'That's how I got started', said John who has been living in Wexford for the past 20 years, having moved here with his wife Susan and family after she took up a position in the decentralised Department of Agriculture.

As one of only three professional beekeepers working in the area, John at one point had 400 colonies of bees with about 50,000 bees in each. He is a founder of the south Wexford Beekeepers Association, a founder of Menapian Bee Breeders Group and the Menapian Beekeepers Association.

He is a national committee member of the Native Irish Honey Bee Society which is trying to persuade the Government to declare that Ireland has its own bee species deserving of protected status.

He has been actively working in the area of conservation of the Dark Northern European Bee for most of his life.

His project on the Little Saltee Island is called 'Plan Bee' and is about finding isolated areas around the country where the native bee can be bred to ensure its continued survival. It has been undertaken without any official funding.

Ireland's geographic position lends itself to such an ambition. 'We are living on an island', said John who laments the closure of an Irish beekeeping research centre formerly run by Teagasc in Clonroche.

He is grateful to Mr.Grattan-Bellew and said that 'without him and his enlightened spirit, this would not have happened'.

He also paid tribute to team member Leo Coy who is not in the photographs as he was holding the camera.

Wexford People