NORTHERN Ireland's beekeepers are doing their bit in the battle against the greatest challenge ever to the existence of the much-loved and hard-working honey bee.
Members of Dromore Beekeepers Association geared up for the war on the potentially lethal Varroa mite by recently attending a talk on the parasite's control.
Honey bees play a low-key but essential role in all our lives, whether we realise it or not. They pollinate many commercial food crops and are much valued by fruit growers. Their honey is used as a food and a medicine and beeswax is found in most homes in some form.
The Varroa mite, which attacks colonies, has virtually wiped out the wild honey bee population since it arrived on Ireland's shores in 1998.
First reported in the Far East during the 1960s, the mite has now spread all over the world, proving a major problem for beekeepers everywhere.
On December 29, members of Dromore Beekeepers Association combined business with pleasure by attending a talk on mite control by Ballyroney-based expert Vanessa Drew, and enjoying a barbecue afterwards at Tullyhenan Fort Apiary, on a hilltop near Banbridge.
Those attending heard that colonies not properly treated against the mite would die, making it essential that due caution, and all necessary action, be taken by every beekeeper.
Up until two years ago, Varroa could be controlled in Northern Ireland by inserting plastic strips impregnated with a powerful varroacide but the clever little mites have become resistant to that treatment, said association spokesman Norman Walsh.
Currently Varroa is controlled by using products containing thymol in August but thymol treatment is temperature dependant and is less reliable than the plastic strips had been. Accordingly, a supplementary treatment, using oxalic acid is sometimes necessary. The oxalic acid solution is dribbled over the bees but it can kill the larvae and pupae so it requires to be used when there is little or no brood in the hive; hence the mid winter treatment.
After a short briefing by Vanessa, Willie Blakely and Robert McCreery conducted the demonstrations by each taking groups of three students. Happily, all the colonies in the apiary were alive and so were treated.
"Prior to this procedure, few beekeepers would have considered opening up a beehive during winter so a live demonstration not only gives the students the methodology, it also gives them the confidence to go home and treat their own bees," said Norman afterwards.
After the talk, hungry participants enjoyed pork chops, sausages, burgers, bread rolls, sandwiches, mince pies, biscuits, soft drinks, cider, tea and coffee and a bottle of bubbly.
As the temperatures dropped, the assembled company kept warm round the BBQ, and a most informative and enjoyable afternoon came to an end.
All present expressed their thanks and congratulations to Vanessa for her initiative and hard work in doing her bit to help protect Ireland's beloved honeybees.
Meanwhile, the Ulster Beekeepers' Association will hold its 69th annual conference, Beekeeping in The Real World, on March 8-9 at Greenmount Campus in Co Antrim.
Separately, the Federation of Irish Beekeepers is recommending John McMullan's book Having Healthy Bees - An Integrated Approach because it provides concise information for experienced and beginner beekeepers alike.
■ MITE NOT BEE SWEET: Willie Blakely replaces the crownboard on a strong colony after treatment