Some years ago I was on a fruit farm in north county Dublin, which was cultivating strawberry plants out of season in plastic tunnels for the multiples. We were discussing a lot of issues, mostly multiple related, when the talk revolved around the more technical aspects of fruit growing.
It was the first time that I stated to understand the real importance of pollination, because the 'farmer' was using imported bumblebees to propagate his crop. In this particular instance, the advantages were that the bumblebees worked in relatively cold temperatures and operated in twilight hours, both very useful in an Irish climate.
So on a wider level did you know that bees, and honeybees in particular, pollinate the following crops: apples, pears, tangerines, peaches, soybeans, pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, carrots, broccoli, avocados and almonds?
In US terms, this is equivalent to $15b worth of crops. The US, in terms of bees is a basket case. On average 30% of hives have died off over the last three years owing to a variety of reasons, the most serious being Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD.
In CCD, the hive adults just simply vanish leaving the queen and a few hatched young workers. What makes it more unusual is that the hive remains untouched by neighbouring ones, who normally would plunder the honey and resources of hives affected by parasites and diseases.
As the bee genome has been completed, scientists researching the issue have identified differences between healthy and unhealthy colonies. It turns out that most of the various camps were right, although on a limited basis. So in other words the factors involved are viruses, fungi, pesticides, varroa mite and nutrition. Essentially, honey bees are under attack form all sides because increasingly they are operating in an artificial environment.
In the rest of the word, honeybee propagation of commercial crops is estimated as €215b. In Europe, CCD in conjunction with the varroa mite has decimated hives, but the carnage is far worse in the wild and native colonies. The dreadful effect of this is to reduce the pollination of wildflowers which in turn reduces the quality and quantity of honey produced.
Here in Ireland, where bees are reckoned to contribute €85m to the economy, the last three summers have been disastrous for our native and bred colonies. The key period of growth in hives in late June and July have coincided with the worst weather imaginable. The varroa mite has still to work its way through the existing colonies leaving behind more resistant strains.
In terms of a functioning population, our bee colonies are dying. There is very little or no commercial beekeeping in this country as we cannot compete with the more commercial and weather friendly countries in Europe, Australia and South America. All that remains is a steadfast group of hobbyists determined to maintain an ancient and essential tradition. CCD has yet to effect this country, one can only hope that our diverse spread in agriculture will ensure this won't happen.
So what can we do? I don't expect you all to become apiarists, but for those of you that have gardens or terraces or patios, think a little about what plants and flowers you will grow next year. Put a little time and effort into creating a wild area for flowers, or just plant flowers that are rich in nectar and bloom in the more productive months.
Bees are like canaries in a mineshaft, we need to take heed the damage we are causing to our environment.