Northern Ireland

Bee import plan could have a sting in the tail

Brexit and the protocol has put the north at the centre of a row over the importation of bees that it's claimed threaten the health and genetic integrity of our native species. John Manley reports

Kent-based businessman Patrick Murfet
Kent-based businessman Patrick Murfet

IRELAND'S beekeepers are by nature a placid breed but in recent weeks their bonnets have been buzzing over what they see as a potential threat to thousands of hives across the island.

They say a plan by English businessman Patrick Murfet to next month use Northern Ireland as a staging post in his bid to import up to 15 million Italian bees into Britain, poses a threat to the health of the region's bee population and to its future viability.

The concerns centre on the small hive beetle, a notifiable disease that has been identified in southern Italy, and the potential for native Black Irish honeybees – Apis mellifera mellifera – to mate with their continental cousins, diluting what has been to date a robust gene pool.

"The small hive beetle is a horrendous pest," says John Hill, chairman of the Ulster Beekeepers Association (UBKA).

"It eats everything in the colony bar the bees – the honey, wax, eggs, small larvae. It got into Florida in 1998 and destroyed 20,000 hives – that's the kind of scenario we're looking to avoid here."

Mr Murfet, who runs Kent-based Bee Equipment, has been importing Italian bees to his base in England for years. But since Brexit, imports of worker bees have been banned, with queens only – accompanied by a small number of drones – permitted. However, Mr Murfet has hatched a plan that employs a more circuitous route than previously.

The self-professed Brexiteer believes the pledge to provide unfettered access for Northern Ireland firms trading into Britain has exposed a loophole that enables the businessman to bring his bees in via the Republic before moving them north. The Buckfast bees, a strain originally bred at the Devon abbey made famous by its tonic wine, will spend time at hives near Newry before being transported across the Irish Sea.

He told The Irish News that he's "setting up a branch in Newry and serving the island of Ireland".

Ulster Beekeepers Association chairman John Hill at home in Crumlin with his bee hives. Picture by Hugh Russell
Ulster Beekeepers Association chairman John Hill at home in Crumlin with his bee hives. Picture by Hugh Russell

Mr Murfet's case made the headlines at the beginning of last month when it was speculated that his bees could be burned by the authorities on entry to Britain because they breach the import ban. While there was an expectation beekeepers in Britain would be outraged by the mass killing, a number actually welcomed the move, sharing the same concerns as their Irish counterparts about pests and cross-breeding.

It remains unclear whether the threat to destroy the bees will be carried out. In a response to questions asked by Lord Swinfen at Westminster, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggests the outcome rests on whether Mr Murfet's bees are regarded as Northern Ireland goods and therefore entitled to unfettered access.

Regardless of whether he successfully gets the bees across the Irish Sea, the UBKA is still concerned.

The small hive beetle has been identified in Sicily and on the southern Italian mainland over the past decade. Mr Murfet says the hives he's sourcing his cargo from are "400 miles away" from the outbreaks.

The Kent businessman says his bees pose no threat.

"This pest will not come in on my bees," he said. "The claims about small hive beetle are a red herring and very misleading. The outbreaks in Italy have been contained."

But in addition to the threat from pests, John Hill and his fellow apiculturists are also worried that the Buckfast bees will breed with their Irish counterparts and dilute what academic studies have established is the "best gene of black bees in Europe".

"Our native bee has adapted over thousands of years to Ireland's moist, temperate climate," he said.

"The drones Mr Murfet plans to let fly in south Down aren't bred to deal with our climate and it creates a risk that our bee population becoming mongrelised in the way they have in GB."

Mr Murfet argues that his bees will not damage the native gene pool and will in fact "strengthen" it.

"These bees have bee imported for hundreds of years – it's nothing new," he said.

The UBKA has written to Stormont's agriculture and environment minister and a host of political representatives urging a ban on the importation of Italian bees.

Mr Edwin Poots' department did not respond to an Irish News request for a comment.