PRODUCING HONEY SUSTAINABLY AT WILDACRES

Beekeeping and producing honey are topics that are often fraught with misconceptions.

Pollinators and especially bees, deservedly so, have had quite a bit of media attention in recent years. Some relevant and accurate coverage and some not so much.

Yes, Bee’s certainly are in big trouble.

‘More than half of Ireland’s bees have undergone substantial declines in their numbers since 1980. The distribution of 42 species of wild bees has declined by more than 50%’. National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC)

Headlines frequently used are “Save The Bees” “Bees in Trouble” etc.

Often and mistakenly, the “Save The Bees” message has been interpreted to mean that Honeybees are in danger. Whilst, if we delve a little deeper the reality is very different. If we look at Ireland, and this same scenario is played out worldwide.

Here, we have 101 different species of bees, though only one of these species is our Honeybee, Apis melifera melifera.

This well know animal is effectively extinct now in the wild, but is doing extremely well as domesticated farmed livestock. So, there is no problem with regards to the population level of our Honeybees.

To look at the other equally fascinating 100 species of wild bees, this number is made up of mostly Solitary Bees, approximately 78 species and our much-loved Bumblebees, numbering about 22 species.

Early-Nesting-Bumblebee-on-Crocus flower

Early Nesting Bumblebee on Crocus flower

 

All these wild bees are critically important in our fragile ecosystems, providing pollination services that are equally as vital on our farms and in our hedgerows and other wild areas.

Studies have shown that Solitary bees are better at pollinating flowers than Honeybees and even Bumblebees. Source: NBDC

This is mainly due to the messy and haphazard way they collect pollen.

Solitary bees are to be found often going from flower to flower with their bodies liberally doused in pollen, meaning an effective pollen transfer between these flowers.

 

Solitary-Bee-Dandelion

Solitary Bee on Dandelion

 

The Honeybee and Bumblebee are more efficient, storing pollen in a clump on each rear hindleg moistened with nectar for transportation back to the colony, resulting in less pollen transfer from flower to flower, and therefore a lower rate of pollination than Solitary bees.

 

Honeybee-with-Pollen-on-Aster-Flower

Honeybee with Pollen on Aster Flower

 

In relation to the keeping of honeybees and their impact on local wild bee populations, we originally did not fully appreciate the ecological implications, of having many beehives sited in the one area.

Though after years of beekeeping, observing wild bees and much research on the subject, we now fully appreciate the effect beekeeping can have, on local wild bee populations. Especially if effective and substantial planting of (preferably native) forage plants is not carried out on the land honeybees are to be kept on or close to. This is vital to mitigate against a shortage of pollen and nectar for the resident wild bees.

Additional to extensive planting for boosting local pollen and nectar supplies, when keeping Honeybees, it is essential hive numbers are kept in very low numbers. The issue to be considered is that a hive of Honeybees, at the height of the season, can contain well over 50,000 foraging worker honeybees.

A Bumblebee colony might have 100-200 foraging workers. Then of course Solitary Bees (the majority of our wild bee species) “do exactly what they say on the tin” they lead a solitary life, so must fend for themselves.

Also, the distance Honeybees travel to search for pollen and nectar is far greater than Solitary bees, meaning that honeybees can easily outcompete solitary bees for local resources.

 

Nesting-Burrowing-Solitary-Bees

Nesting burrowing Solitary Bees

 

So, the issue is clear to see that if there are several honeybee hives situated in the one area, with many thousands of honeybee workers out gathering pollen and nectar locally.  Also, if this is in an area, (like most of our landscape is now) of intensive agriculture with few meadow wildflowers and probably degraded hedgerow heavily cut.

 

Honeybees-Dandelion-Willow-Pollen

Honeybees returning to hive with Dandelion and Willow Pollen

 

Or perhaps, in an urban setting with areas heavily concreted/built on and lots of non-native hedgerows.

All of this means a severely limited availability of pollen and nectar, which will be quickly depleted, meaning our wild bees can and will, suffer.

In some cases, well-meaning people and organisations have been advised, that to help “declining bee populations”, they should install some honeybee hives in their gardens, on roof spaces above office’s etc.

This is not an action to help bees, or biodiversity in general, and in fact has been proven to further reduce wild bee numbers locally, for the reasons as previously outlined.

Such well-meaning individuals or organisations would be better advised that to really help pollinators, they should plant native flowering plants and create wildlife habitats.

To that end at Wildacres, we have kept our beehive numbers very low and have planted, as part of our broader wildlife habitat creation, thousands of native flowering trees and shrubs. As well as creating a wildflower meadow, to help our wild bees and feed our small number of honeybee hives.

Why not visit us on the Nature Reserve for one of our upcoming events to find out all about our wild pollinators and other stunning and precious native biodiversity.

 

Nesting-Burrowing-Solitary-Bees

Nesting burrowing Solitary Bees

 

We hope to meet you soon.

Brian and Gilly

Gilly and Brian at Wildacres with awards