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Opinion: Bees and agriculture need each other - we should class bees as livestock to protect them

Fianna Fáil Senator Erin McGreehan argues that protecting bees should be a priority for the Department of Agriculture.

Erin McGreehan

AT THIS STAGE, it is widely accepted that bees hold superpowers within their tiny bodies. Not only do they produce honey, but they are the essential pollinators that this agricultural country requires them to be.

Ireland has a long history of producing quality honey and was a major exporter of comb honey up to the mid-20th century when it was an important income for many farming families. There is no reason why we can’t get to that point again.

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

Pollen and nectar are foraged from nearby flowers. That’s why it’s so important for a bee colony to be situated near a good amount of flowering plants and trees. Therefore, it is necessary to have those plants to be free of pesticides, as harmful chemicals can kill bees.

Hope for the Irish bee

This circular connection between pollinator and threats on the pollinator is often lost when an industry is creating quantity. A move towards organic farming practices should to be encouraged and the decrease in production levels should be compensated.

To cut to the chase, the time is now to protect our agricultural industry and our indigenous bees. It is getting to a crisis point and the craft of beekeeping needs to move from being perceived as a hobby by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine to becoming what beekeepers have known for generations: that the humble bee and food production is inextricably linked and should be a major priority for the Department.

I want to highlight three ways we can do this:

Firstly, not all honeybees are born equal. There is a real necessity to protect the native Irish bee – Apis Mellifera Mellifera. We must protect it from all external species and uphold the integrity of the native stock.

There is now a growing body of scientific research which is proving what beekeepers have known for generations and that is our native bees thrive in their own climate and exotic bees interfere with the native ecosystem.

Studies from the Limerick Institute of Technology prove that, while the native bee should be considered endangered, nevertheless, there are currently just about enough of the pure native honeybee 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 has died out or been hybridised.

Biodiversity

In general, there is a lot of attention on bees and pollinators, but it is also necessary to direct our concern to native biodiversity. It could be summed up as ecological nationalism or ecological protectionism. Locally adapted honeybees have long been known by experienced beekeepers to consistently perform better than exotic imports. In other words, if we were to encourage a love for just any old honeybee, we would actually be doing more harm than good.

Secondly, there is a need for coordinated action by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine to ensure that every farm is involved and participates fully in our National Pollinator Plan. There is currently a huge opportunity here; the European Union have recently signed off on the next 7-year Common Agricultural Policy Budget and it is now up to the national governments to implement and create the national specific measures within it.

Irelands Agri-food sector is our largest indigenous industry and undoubtedly is the sector at most risk if we fail to protect our pollinators.

In the pollinator plan, honeybees are included but are acknowledged as different to other pollinators since they are predominantly farmed. It is this concept of farming honeybees that we need to see expanded.

The Department needs to look across all programmes and harness the economic and environmental benefits by encouraging bee farming. This concept should be part of the measures of the new CAP.

Thirdly, it is time to change people’s attitudes and understandings when it comes to bees. They are more often associated with a peaceful hobby of local honey-producing rather than genuine and sustainable agricultural revenue.

Possibly due to their small size and the inability to fence them into an area, they are not generally viewed as the hugely distributed livestock animal that they actually are.

The Department should look at classifying an active beehive as a unit of livestock; they are classed already under Irish and EU law as livestock for importation purposes, so to take it one step further is not a huge leap.

Allowing a farmer to count active beehives as livestock units provides the incentive to diversify. It would consequently empower the farmer to take control by being aware of the threats and have the knowledge base to deal with the biodiversity crisis efficiently.

By providing the supports, education, and incentives, farmers – particularly the sustainable family farm – can create an extra income. By doing this we can create an environment that encourages the protection of biodiversity. It will have the knock-on effect of ensuring that adequate actions are taken to deal with the many invasive species that are choking the native flora of this country.

To formally link honey production with environmental measures in the new CAP will signal that this country is serious about protecting our biodiversity. The healthier the biodiversity, the larger the crop of honey.

Bees and agriculture need each other; we should be making bee farming a full and integral part of our agri-sector. The time for action is now and the path forward is clear to see.

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Erin McGreehan is a Fianna Fáil Senator for Louth. She is the Seanad spokesperson on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration.

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