Beekeeping in Ireland

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Harry Clarke's design drawing for the Saint Gobnait window in the Honan Chapel, Cork, Ireland (1914). Saint Gobnait of Ballyvourney is a sixth-century patron saint of beekeepers.

Beekeeping in Ireland has been practiced for at least 2000 years and has seen a surge in popularity in modern times, evidenced by the numerous organizations promoting and assisting beekeeping. Despite the increased pressures on bees and beekeepers through new diseases and loss of habitat, there are now in excess of 3,500 members within beekeeping associations.


From early to modern beekeeping[edit]

Honey bees were brought to Ireland, most likely from Britain, sometime after the end of the last ice age.[1] Solinus in the 3rd century A.D. makes mention of Ireland as having "few bees". The earliest reference from within Ireland about bees are in the Bee Judgements of the Brehon Laws which among other issues dealt with the ownership and value of swarms, the compensation paid by the beekeeper to a person stung by one of his bees and the compensation paid to the beekeeper if a person's hens began eating his bees. The Brehon Laws began to be codified about 438-441 A.D. having been handed down orally from previous generations, they contain no Latin loan words relating to bees or beekeeping, which provides further evidence that beekeeping vocabulary was established before the arrival of Christianity in about 430 A.D. However legend has it that St. Modomnoc first brought bees to Ireland from Wales in the early 540's A.D. just after the effects of the extreme weather events of 535–536 A.D. would have been subsiding. A "great mortality of bees" was recorded in 950 A.D., and again in 992 A.D. when it was said that "Bees were largely kept in Ireland at this time, and were a great source of wealth to the people". In 1443 A.D "the third epizooty of bees" was recorded.[2]

The first beekeeping book in Ireland was Instructions for managing bees in 1733, it included recommendations for the use of skeps and stipulated the best size to use to encourage at least one swarm per year with two afterswarms to follow. The bees would traditionally have been killed at the end of each season, often with the use of brimstone matches, to be able to extract the honey and wax. However, by the mid-1700s boxes for keeping bees had begun to be used and methods of extracting the honey and wax, without killing the bees, were being devised. In the 1870s Brother Joeseph, a Carmelite monk from Loughrea, imported a Bar and Frame Hive[3] from Mr. Abbott of London and then began to produce his own versions, he is also recorded as being one of the first to import the Ligurian Italian honey bee (A. m. ligustica) with a view to selective breeding " being more prolific.. and harder workers.. would improve our home breed (the Irish strain of A. m. mellifera)". In 1881 the Reverend George Proctor was believed to be the first in the country to own Langstroth Hives (invented in 1852) with their moveable frames, which subsequent modern hives are based upon.[4][5]

In 1912 the Isle of Wight Disease (IoWD) arrived in Ireland, wiping out the indigenous native Irish Black Bee (A. m. mellifera), Ireland was restocked with A. m. mellifera imports mainly originating from Hollund, but also from France.[6]

Formation of the Associations[edit]

In 1880 the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) decided to tour Ireland with a "bee tent" to show modern beekeeping equipment and manipulations of bees to the public. They were joined by Brother Joseph, throughout much of Ireland as he continued on his "holy crusade" for the honey bee; he later proposed the formation of an Irish beekeeping association "for promoting and instructing the improved methods of bee culture to the cottagers of Ireland". In 1881 the Irish Beekeepers Associations (IBKA) was formed, holding a honey show in Dublin; in 1908 their name was changed to Irish Beekeepers' Association (IBA), in 1939 it was wound up due to decreasing membership.[7]

In 1943 the County Dublin Beekeepers' Association was formed, from which an attempt was made to revive the old IBA to form an all Ireland body. On St. Patrick's Day in 1944 the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Associations was formed; the recently formed Ulster Bee Keepers' Association (UBKA) did not associate themselves with it.[8]

In 1926 the Banbridge and District Beekeeping Association was formed; in 1934 its name became the Northern Ireland Bee Keepers' Association. In 1942 the UBKA was formed and in 1951 the smaller NIBKA affiliated with it and was later absorbed into it. In 1949 there were 6,000 beekeepers with 16,000 hives, the most common of which was the CDB Hive. At the 14th Annual Conference in 1959 a lecture was given entitled "How to take advantage of the Buckfast strain of bees, to be shortly introduced into Northern Ireland". At the 15th Annual Conference in 1960 a member of the Ministry of Agriculture gave the lecture "The Buckfast Strain of Honeybee and its dissemination throughout Northern Ireland". In 1966 at the 21st Annual Conference of the UBKA it was decided that all subsequent Conferences should be held at Greenmount Agricultural and Horticultural College; it was also at this conference that the Ministry of Agriculture informed the UBKA "that due to the increase of Nosema, the Buckfast Queen distribution scheme was being suspended", a scheme initially begun to improve the local bee stock (the A. m. mellifera imported after the IoWD).[9]

In 1966 the FIBKA raised the subject of forming an All-Ireland Beekeepers' Alliance but the UBKA unanimously rejected the suggestion, opting instead to support continued co-operation.[10]

Honeybee diseases, pests and poisons[edit]


Presently the Varroa destructor mite is the single greatest threat to bee colonies in Ireland. If left untreated colonies will die within three to four years, although typically after the initial infestation there can be a rapid increase in the mite population which would lead to colony collapse.[11] Varroa mites arrived in Ireland in 1998 and in several years had spread throughout most of the island.[12] The mortality rate for over-wintered colonies during 2015/16 in the Republic of Ireland was 29.5% and for Northern Ireland was 28.2%; for comparison Wales was 22.4% and Scotland was 18%, the European average was 12%.[13] As a result of varroa, wild colonies do not survive for long; feral colonies, swarms that have escaped from apiaries, will die within a short time, however their homes can be re-occupied afterwards by new swarms for the cycle to repeat. These feral colonies can become a source of large varroa populations, this and the fact that varroa has shown resistance to previously effective treatments can result in regional losses as high as 40-60%.[14] On the occasions where feral colonies appear to be able to survive with varroa on a long term basis, closer study has discovered that the local strain of varroa have become non-lethal as opposed to the bees becoming resistant.[15] or in which the varroa acts as a host to a non-lethal Deformed Wing Virus (DWV),[16] both of which are exceptionally rare and non-reproducible, therefore a Parasite Management System must be maintained to continually manage the varroa mite.[17] As an alternative to treatment against the varroa mite and in the hope to re-establish a wild population, in 2013 a Varroa Tolerance Breeding Program was set up by NIHBS,[18] focusing solely on the A. m. mellifera, in conjunction with several breeding groups throughout Ireland,[19] including the Galtee Bee Breeding Group (GBBG)[20] whose apiary manager, Micheál Mac Giolla Coda (a former President of BIBBA,[21][22] FIBKA and founding member of NIHBS[23]), in 2012 stated that "the plan is to harness the bee’s natural defences against the mite" by improving the bees "grooming and hygiene habits" through selective breeding "by observing the number of damaged mites" without DNA analysis nor the use of Instrumental Insemination;[24] in 2009 research was published that showed that marks on mite's exoskeletons, previously attributed as damage caused by grooming was more likely to be mere "regular dorsal dimples (indentations)";[25] in 2018 it was announced that varroa resistant Buckfast bees would be made available for sale in 2019,[26] modern methods of breeding, such as Instrumental Insemination, had been used to impart this genetic trait into the wider Buckfast population. To date there has been no progress of such breeding projects towards imparting varroa resistance into the A. m. mellifera population in Ireland. Research, in co-ordination with NIHBS, was conducted in 2017 to determine if the A. m. mellifera in Ireland possessed varroa resistant characteristics, which had been observed in other A. mellifera such as the Buckfast bee, based on an Executive Summary the conclusion was that it possessed no such resistance against the varroa mite (the paper has yet to be fully published).[27]


Acarine or as it was known at the time, the Isle of Wight Disease (IoWD), was first reported in England on the Isle of Wight in 1906 where it wiped out 75% of colonies in the first year and later arrived in Ireland by 1912, in several years it had spread throughout most of the island. By 1923 "the country was swept clean of bees", by 1927 the IBA requested the government to adopt a restocking scheme for re-population and also for "importation of (resistant) Queen bees for re-sale at reduced prices", many of the local bee Associations had already begun to import their own stocks, having chosen not to wait on the government assistance. The majority of the bees were Dutch A. m. mellifera, with their characteristic swarminess.[28] Modern DNA analysis, in 2017, has shown that the majority of Irish bees in Ireland are Dutch A. m. mellifera with the second largest group of A. m. mellifera originating from France, and smaller amounts of DNA originating from Norway and Switzerland.[29] In 1921 the cause of the IoWD was found to be the Acarapis woodi a tracheal mite, its common name Acarine is due to it belonging to the subclass Acari. The Varroa mite is also a member of this subclass and therefore treatments against Varroa in its phoretic stage will also be effective against Acarapis woodi.[30] In 2004 research was conducted to determine how the differences in the tracheas of various subspecies of Apis mellifera related to Acarapis woodi, it was found that A. m. macedonica, in which the Acarapis woodi are absent, has significantly smaller (up to 21%) measurements for its tracheas when compared to A. m. carnica and A. m. ligustica, in which Acarapis woodi are present: The research put forward the size of the tracheas of honey bees as a possible explanation for certain subspecies, or strains within them, being more susceptible to Acarine than others; the larger the tracheas, the greater the susceptibility to Acarine.[31] The A. m. mellifera is considered a large bee within Apis mellifera, especially when compared to A. m. carnica and A. m. ligustica.[32] In 1945 Brother Adam, the breeder of the Buckfast bee, obtained "pure native" Old Irish Black Bee queens (an Irish strain of A. m. mellifera) that had survived the Acarine epidemic "from a secluded place in the far west of Ireland", from which he raised virgin queens and then crossed them with his Buckfast drones known to be resistant to Acarine, at his isolated Closed Mating Station on Dartmoor,[33] however like the British Black Bee from which it was descended, these too also all died from Acarine, in 1983 Brother Adam wrote "the old English (and by inference Irish) brown bee… lives today only in the memory.. and was completely wiped out".[34][35]

AFB and EFB[edit]

Originally both American foulbrood (AFB) caused by the spore-forming bacterium Paenibacillus larvae and European foulbrood (EFB) caused by the non-spore forming bacterium Melissococcus plutonius,[36] were both referred to as Foul Brood and have been known in Ireland since at least 1897. In the Irish Bee Journal of 1901 "the rapid spread of foul brood, that most terrible pest" was discussed. They are both extremely infectious and persistent diseases affecting only the brood, spores of AFB can survive for up to 40 years. The adoption of modern beekeeping aided in the spreading of both these diseases, with the use of moveable frames, non-destruction of colonies each year and beekeeping equipment moving between apiaries. They are the two brood diseases which are notifiable in both jurisdictions of Ireland;[37][38] in 1903 the Bee Pest Act was enacted throughout all Ireland and in 1945 The Bee Pest Prevention Act was enacted in Northern Ireland (which repealed the previous 1908 Act), UKBA and government officials worked closely to bring this about, initially the 1945 Act also included Acarine and Nosema as notifiable diseases reflecting their devastating effects on bee populations at the time. Bee Inspectors have been appointed to regularly inspect beehives and testing facilities have been established for beekeepers to have the contents of their hives diagnosed for disease, these services are provided free of charge. In 1945 in Northern Ireland, 14% of hives inspected (including unoccupied) were found to contain AFB, however by 1949 this had been reduced to 2.8%, but in 1950 11.9% of unoccupied hives inspected contained AFB spores.[39] Although Oxytetracycline tetracycline, an antibiotic, can be used for treatment against EFB, it is dependent on the Bee Inspector, it used to be a treatment against AFB however it and all other treatments for AFB are now illegal. The only course of action that can be taken once AFB is confirmed in the hive by a Bee Inspector with the use of a field testing kit, is for the hive to be sealed at night and the entire hive and bees to be burned. In both cases a ban on moving anything from the apiary during the outbreak will be imposed.[40]

Other bee diseases and pests[edit]

The other usual diseases of the honey bee are present in Ireland, although currently it is believed that Ireland is free from the Small Hive Beetle (Aethina tumida Murray)[41] and Tropilaelaps mercedesae.[42]

Pesticide poisoning and forage destruction[edit]

Of the agricultural chemicals used, it is the fungicides and the insecticides that can affect bees the most. Fungicides may pass into pollen and then into the bee bread. Also some fungicides are synergistic with some acaricides used to combat varroa, magnifying their effect on the bees themselves.[43]

From agriculture there is widespread use of pesticides which probably cause serious harm to insects including bees, along with widespread destruction of habitat which is essential for bee foraging.[44]


The main beekeeping organizations in the Republic of Ireland are the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Associations (FIBKA) and the Irish Beekeepers Association/Cumann Beachairí na hÉireann (CLG), while in Northern Ireland the main beekeeping organizations are the Ulster Beekeepers Association (UBKA) and the Institute of Northern Ireland Beekeepers (INIB). There are also a number of other organisations within Ireland, including the Native Irish Honey Bee Society (NIHBS) and the Irish Buckfast Beekeepers Association (IBBA).

Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Associations (FIBKA)[edit]

FIBKA is the largest organisation of beekeeping associations in Ireland, claiming to be established in 1881 and re-constituted 1943.[45][46] FIBKA is a not-for-profit federation of beekeeping associations in Ireland with currently 60 affiliated associations which between them have over 3,500 members.

FIBKA's goals include promotion of the conservation of the A. m. mellifera which they call "the native dark bee" as stated in their Constitution.[47] Advertisements for the sale of other types of bees, such as the Buckfast bee, are regularly shown in their publications.[48] FIBKA runs a summer course in beekeeping[49] every year since 1961. This is held at Gormanston, Co. Meath in Gormanston College and holds examinations in the full range of beekeeping education, from the preliminary exams up to Honey Judge. FIBKA is a signatory, contributor to, and supporter of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, and is a member of the European Professional Beekeepers Association,[50] the Council of National Beekeeping Associations in the United Kingdom and Ireland,[51] the UK National Honey Show, and the Tree Council of Ireland.

Irish Beekeepers' Association CLG (IBA)[edit]

The IBA is "a democratic and egalitarian company, founded in October 2017", as an "alternative organisation (to FIBKA)"[52] their stated goals are "to be Open, Fair and Transparent in all Our Actions for Our Members and to promote Beekeeping for all Beekeepers" ... "throughout the island of Ireland", they "hope to create an environment of mutual respect and understanding, so that no beekeeper ever feels marginalised or ostracised because of the type of bee they keep".[53] They offer membership insurance for both the North and South of Ireland, also offering individual membership not just association membership. It provides facilities and benefits comparable to those available from FIBKA, although it is necessarily smaller in both membership (21 association members)[54] and the number of available lecturers due to its recent establishment. They support and endorse the All-Ireland Pollinator plan as well as the National Heritage Plan.[55]

Native Irish Honey Bee Society (NIHBS)[edit]

The NIHBS states that they promote the conservation, study, improvement and re-introduction of A. m. mellifera, which they call "the native Irish honeybee" (Article 5.i. of the Constitution). They support research into this area with a number of Irish universities, working with and obtaining financial aid from Government Departments,[56] relating to the genetics of A. m. mellifera with a focus on Varroa tolerance, the conclusion of which found "that the selected (Native Irish Black) bees not alone have the capability of controlling the number of Varroa mites in a hive", the full findings of the 2017 research has not been published.[57]

In 2018 results from DNA analysis was published, which found that the bees being kept by NIHBS members largely originated from the Netherlands, having been imported since 1923 after the indigenous Irish Black Bee (an Irish strain of A. m. mellifera) had been eradicated by the Isle Of Wight Disease; "...amongst the beekeepers in the NIHBS, these (Dutch bees) are the predominant type of A. m. mellifera, here (in Ireland) reflecting the significant imports by beekeepers from the Netherlands after the loss of managed colonies during Isle of Wight disease", other countries identified as origins of the bees sampled were from France, Norway and Switzerland. The research also concluded "97.8% of sampled bees were determined to be pure" and "genetically diverse" A. m. mellifera. The NIHBS was listed as a co-author and co-funder of the research.[58]

Membership commits a beekeeper to promoting the NIHBS "Aims and Objectives" otherwise they "may be encouraged to join".. "another beekeeping body", by keeping a different bee other than that promoted by the NIBHS would contravene clause 5.i. of their Constitution, upon which a member could be expelled.

They also aim "to establish areas of conservation throughout the island for the conservation of Apis mellifera mellifera",[59] in the same manner as has been established on the islands of Colonsay and Oronsay in Scotland,[60] where it is now a legal offence[61] to keep any other bee except A. m. mellifera.[62]

Irish Buckfast Beekeepers Association (IBBA)[edit]

The IBBA promotes the keeping and breeding of Buckfast bees in Ireland. It is affiliated with the Federation of European Buckfast Beekeepers’ Associations,[63] an international group of breeders dedicated to maintaining and improving this bee breed,[64] but supports beekeepers irrespective of the type of honeybee kept by the beekeeper.[65] A controlled open mating area has been established within the Five Glens area of north County Leitrim, to enable Buckfast beekeepers to bring their virgin Buckfast queens to be mated with Buckfast drones.[66]

Ulster Beekeepers Association (UBKA)[edit]

The UBKA was formed in 1942[67] and is an association of the 12 affiliated local beekeeping associations in Northern Ireland.[68] UBKA also works in partnership with FIBKA in the development of beekeeping education, and is a member of the Council of National Beekeeping Associations in the United Kingdom and Ireland.[69] The UBKA holds an Annual Conference at the CAFRE Greenmount Campus site in Antrim.

Institute of Northern Ireland Beekeepers (INIB)[edit]

The INIB was formed in 2001.[70] Members automatically become members of the BBKA.[71] The INIB holds an Annual Conference and Honey Show at Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, Oxford Island, with its primary focus being the promotion of beekeeping through education and to this effect works closely with the UBKA.


  • Irish Bee Journal (IBJ) was published by the Rev J.G. Digges from 1901 to 1933, and was succeeded by An Beachaire. FIBKA archives include bound volumes of the IBJ and these are available to researchers.
  • An Beachaire,[72] subtitled The Irish Beekeeper, was first published as a successor to the Irish Bee Journal in 1947, and is now published monthly by the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Associations of which it is the official organ. The Irish word for bee is "beach", with "an beachaire" meaning "the beekeeper". An Beachaire is a useful tool for communicating with beekeepers nationwide.
  • The Irish Beekeepers' Association CLG (IBA) publishes a bimonthly newsletter.[73]
  • Bee Craft Magazine[74] is offered by the IBA to members at a 10% reduced price.[75] Although this is a UK publication, much of its content is applicable to Ireland.
  • The Four Seasons (Ceithre Raithe na Bliana) magazine is published four times per year by the NIHBS, formally it was the voice of the GBBG.[76]
  • Digital versions of back issues of BBKA News,[77] subtitled The Newsletter of the British Beekeepers' Association, are provided to members of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Associations.

See also[edit]


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  71. ^ "INIB - Membership". INIB. Retrieved 17 November 2018.
  72. ^ An Beachaire
  73. ^ "Subscription page for our newsletter". Irish Beekeepers Association CLG Cumann Beachairí na hÉireann. Retrieved 15 September 2018.
  74. ^ "Bee Craft Magazine". Bee Craft Ltd. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  75. ^ "Annual Subscription to BeeCraft Magazine". Irish Beekeepers Association CLG Cumann Beachairí na hÉireann. Retrieved 15 September 2018.
  76. ^ "Four Seasons Magazine". NIHBS. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  77. ^ BBKA News

External links[edit]