Opinion: Bees and agriculture need each other

AT THIS STAGE, it is widely believed that bees hold superpowers in their tiny bodies. Not only do they produce honey, but they are the essential pollinators that this agricultural country demands of them.

Ireland has a long history of producing quality honey and was a major exporter of comb honey until the mid-20th century, when it was a significant income for many farming families. There is no reason why we cannot get back to this point.

Bees have a complicated and innate ability to create and pollinate; however, what they need to survive is surprisingly small. Pollen, nectar, honey and water.

Pollen and nectar are sought after in neighboring flowers. This is why it is so important that a bee colony is located near a good amount of flowering plants and trees. Therefore, it is necessary that these plants be free from pesticides, as the harmful chemicals can kill bees.

Hope for the Irish Bee

This circular connection between the pollinator and threats to the pollinator is often lost when an industry creates quantity. A shift towards organic farming practices should be encouraged and declining production levels should be compensated.

To get right to the point, now is the time to protect our agricultural industry and our native bees. It’s coming to a tipping point and beekeeping must move from being a hobby seen by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Navy to what beekeepers have known for generations: that the humble bee and food production are inextricably linked and should be a major priority for the Ministry.

I want to highlight three ways we can do this:

First, not all bees are born equal. There is a real need to protect the native Irish bee – Apis Mellifera Mellifera. We must protect it from all outside species and preserve the integrity of the native stock.

Today there is a growing body of scientific studies research Which one is to prove what beekeepers have known for generations is that our native bees thrive in their own climate and that exotic bees interfere with the native ecosystem.

Studies of the Limerick Institute of Technology prove that although the native bee should be considered endangered, nevertheless, there are currently roughly enough pure native bees in Ireland and if given the proper supports we can not only ensure its survival, but there would potentially be enough Irish bees to repopulate northern Europe, where the majority of Apis Mellifera Mellifera have become extinct or hybridized.

Biodiversity

In general, there is a lot of attention on bees and pollinators, but we must also direct our concern to native biodiversity. It could boil down to ecological nationalism or ecological protectionism. Experienced beekeepers have long known that locally adapted honey bees always outperform exotic imports. In other words, if we were to encourage love for any old bee, we would actually be doing more harm than good.

Second, coordinated action from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and the Navy is needed to ensure that every farm is involved and fully participating in our National Pollinator Plan. There is currently a huge opportunity here; The European Union recently approved the next seven-year Common Agricultural Policy budget and it is now up to national governments to implement and create the specific national measures contained therein.

The Irish agri-food sector is our largest indigenous industry and is arguably the sector most at risk if we do not protect our pollinators.

In the pollinator plan, bees are included but are recognized as different from other pollinators since they are mostly high. It is this concept of honey bee breeding that we need to expand.

The Ministry should review all programs and exploit the economic and environmental benefits by encouraging beekeeping. This concept should be part of the measures of the new CAP.

Third, it’s time to change people’s attitudes and understandings about bees. They are more often associated with a peaceful hobby of locally producing honey rather than genuine and sustainable farm income.

Perhaps due to their small size and the inability to fencing them into an area, they are generally not considered the massively distributed farm animal they actually are.

The Ministry should consider classifying an active beehive as a unit of livestock; they are already classified under Irish and EU law as cattle for import, so going any further is not a big step.

Allowing a farmer to count active beehives as livestock units encourages diversification. This would therefore allow the farmer to take control by being aware of the threats and having the knowledge base to effectively tackle the biodiversity crisis.

By providing the supports, education and incentives, farmers – especially the sustainable family farm – can create additional income. In doing so, we can create an environment that encourages the protection of biodiversity. Its effect will be to ensure that adequate measures are taken to deal with the many invasive species that are suffocating the native flora of this country.

Formally linking honey production to environmental measures in the new CAP will signal that this country is serious about protecting our biodiversity. The healthier the biodiversity, the more honey is harvested.

Bees and agriculture need each other; we should make beekeeping a full part of our agro-sector. Now is the time to act and the way forward is clear.

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Erin McGreehan is a Fianna Fáil senator for Louth. She is Seanad’s spokesperson on children, disability, equality and inclusion.

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