Beekeepers in Northern Ireland have petitioned the UK Government “to ensure that people cannot circumvent restrictions” on the movement of bees from the EU to GB by moving them via the Province.
They warned: “Unrestricted movement of bees could allow Small Hive Beetle to arrive and devastate British beekeeping.”
They fear that honeybees, which play such important role in food and farming here, are facing a potentially serious threat due to Brexit restrictions on EU imports and large volumes of bees being shipped to Northern Ireland.
Leading beekeepers have already warned the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) that the potential importation of large numbers of bees from Italy, possibly as a staging post to Great Britain, could “threaten the established and unique genetics of local honeybees”.
Dr John Hill, Ulster Beekeepers Association (UKBA) chairman, and Gail Orr, treasurer of the Institute of Northern Ireland Beekeepers, and leading local producers of premium quality honey, have called on DAERA for urgent measures to protect our “internationally significant reserve of pure Dark European Honeybees”.
Guided by principles of sustainability and good husbandry, honey here is an entirely natural product from nectar foraged from blossoms in the fields, hedgerows, orchards and woodlands, then harvested by hand.
Local honeybees even help pollinate the country’s famed apples for cider, juice and other foods.
Recognised as the world’s most important pollinator of food crops, including vegetables and fruit, honeybees also pollinate clover and alfalfa for feeding to cattle.
There are implications, therefore, for the meat and dairy industry, which are vitally important to the local economy.
John and Gail, in their DAERA plea, explained: “Local beekeeping associations have worked to establish voluntary conservation areas in support of the black bee.
“We are concerned that the possible import of huge volumes of honeybees from Italy are of completely different strains and will be present at a time when local honeybee colonies are starting to breed.
“Aside from potential risks posed by pests and disease, the presence of large volumes of free flying Italian sourced bees, for instance, could threaten a negative impact on the genetics, temperament and population dynamics of the local honeybee, undoing in one stroke the work of generations to preserve a strain of bee suited to our climate.
“Beekeeping and honey production here is largely a low volume, low intensity and artisanal craft.
“It is more about husbandry than exploitation. It provides some of the best honey for consumption anywhere.
“It is a craft that supports farmers and growers. It is a craft that we must protect for future generations.”
The problem is the outcome of Brexit, which meant it is no longer possible to import honeybees from an EU country directly into Great Britain.
Honeybees can, however, be imported directly into Northern Ireland due to our continuing position within the EU.
“Once here, it would seem that those same honeybees can then be exported to Britain – importation by the back door,” they continue.
Honeybee imports into or through Northern Ireland had been minimal in the past.
“This has reduced exposure to potential threats from invasive pests and diseases.
“Prior to Brexit, honeybees were imported in large numbers from regions in Italy such as Puglia to Great Britain.
“It is thus of great worry that the Puglia region from which honeybees are sourced is close to areas that have experienced outbreaks of a hugely serious threat to honeybees: Small Hive Beetle (SHB).
“SHB is a pest that destroys colonies of bees. Recorded outbreaks of SHB in 2020 were sufficiently close to Puglia to raise the genuine and realistic concern that importation of bees from that region will bring SHB to Northern Ireland,” warned John and Gail.
They also expressed concern about the possibility of large consignments of millions of honeybees from Italy being imported at a critical time for local bees and for honey production here.
“SHB would have a devastating effect on wild bees and managed bees across the island of Ireland and throughout England, Scotland and Wales,” they said.
“SHB arrived in Florida in 1998 and within two years it destroyed 20 000 colonies of honeybees. It has since moved on to Canada.
“SHB has the potential to destroy beekeeping in Ireland. We must do all that we can to prevent this.”
They are concerned, furthermore, about other potential threats to local honeybees, including an “unsustainable demand on food for local bees”.
Existing colonies of honeybees cared for by “dedicated, artisanal beekeepers” here could also suffer.
“Other pollinating insects, including endangered solitary bees and bumble bees, could be significantly threatened, suffering from inconsiderate and needless overstocking of honeybees.”
They hope that “Ministers and departments will not sit back but will act now to preserve and protect beekeeping in Northern Ireland”.