‘Plan Bee’ urges citizen scientists to help monitor endangered wild native Irish honeybee colonies

Native Irish Honey Bee Society announces seven queen bee rearing workshops to curb impact of hive hybrids

The public has been asked to support the monitoring of wild and native honey bee colonies as researchers at Galway Honey Bee Research Centre aim to use the recorded data on free-living bees to devise better conservation strategies.

Citizen scientists have already supported the recording of 541 nests of wild and native honeybees — Apis mellifera mellifera — but more data is needed, according to Prof Grace McCormack who is based at the University of Galway. This will be submitted to the National Biodiversity Data Centre and enhance understanding of the bees once thought to have been wiped out by the parasite Varroa destructor.

The project, funded by Science Foundation Ireland, involves samples from wild colonies being compared to those from managed and historical ones, combined with studies of the ecology of colonies, the extent and type of pathogens affecting the hive and bee genetics.

“When I first tried to embark on research into Ireland’s wild native honey bee, I was told they don’t exist. But they do and Ireland is the last stronghold for the black bee in Europe, which has been under threat from parasites, loss of natural habitat and biodiversity, climate change and hybridisation from imported bees,” Prof McCormack said.


“Our quest now is to learn as much as we can about our bees; to monitor colonies and confirm that they have survived in the wild for more than two years.”

The centre is asking would-be citizen scientists to locate colonies — but not to report individual bee sightings — and for some to become colony custodians, by regular monitoring and reporting on the survival of the colonies.

Black bees are smaller than a bumblebee. They are dark brown, almost black, with narrow or no bands on the abdomen and can be seen foraging in damp or drizzly weather. Free-living bee colonies are classed as having survived for more than two years in the wild — nesting outside a man-made hive/box. Wild honey bees are cavity dwellers and colonies can usually be found by observing the activity and noise of a large number of bees at a small entrance.

Colonies are usually seen in elevated positions, in trees in old woodlands or in walls and roofs of buildings which is common in Ireland. Hive entrances have been found in unlikely places such as hollow statues, compost bins, bird boxes and graveyard crypts.

Coinciding with World Bee Day on Monday the Native Irish Honey Bee Society is hosting workshops to show beekeepers how to rear their queen bees and prevent importation of non-native honey bees.

Bee society chairwoman Loretta Neary said: “Ireland is home to 100 species of bees, and a third of those are threatened with extinction. While the honey bee is not under threat, the native Irish bee is. Ireland is the last stronghold in the world of a pure population of Apis mellifera mellifera. This bee has taken 6,500 years to evolve to perfectly meet the demands of the Irish climate and it is in massive risk of extinction due to hybridisation as a result of imported non-native bees.”

Hybridisation in Ireland increased from under 5 per cent in 2018 to over 12 per cent in 2023, with some areas having more than 30 per cent. They lead to aggression and other undesirable characteristics. “If this trend continues, the genetics will be lost and part of our natural heritage — our native Irish honey bee, will be lost forever,” Ms Neary said.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times