On Wednesday 2 August 2017, Belfast Zoo welcomed the arrival of a colony of 2000 Irish black honeybees.
The new arrivals will be residents in the zoo’s newly renovated ‘Buzz Stop’ which will open on Friday 25 August 2017.
Zoo manager, Alyn Cairns, said “I couldn’t ‘bee’ happier with the arrival of our new Irish honeybees. Belfast Zoo is well known for the vital conservation work that we carry out to protect endangered species from around the world but we are also committed to protecting wildlife on our own doorstep. In 2004 we formed a native species group in the zoo to focus on local conservation projects. We have therefore worked with a number of native species facing increasing threats and which are disappearing at an alarming rate including the barn owl, the white-tailed sea eagle and the red squirrel. Our team work with more than 130 species which require diverse animal care, husbandry and enrichment skills. Bee keeping requires very specialised knowledge and skills. Over recent months, zoo keepers Aisling McMahon and Tracey McWilliams, therefore began their preliminary certificate class in beekeeping, run by the Belfast and District Beekeepers Association. This included attendance at a total of eight indoor sessions and four outdoor practical classes! Aisling and Tracey have now completed their training and are qualified bee keepers. The team are excited to work with the bees in order to educate visitors about the issues that these insects are facing but we are also delighted to be playing an important conservation role at a local level.”
The Irish black honeybee is native to Ireland. The latin name of this insect is Apis Mellifera Mellifera, ‘Apis’ meaning ‘bee’ and ‘mellifera’ meaning ‘honeybearer’. Black bees are much darker and have evolved thicker, longer hair and a large body than their golden-coloured, southern European cousins. This allows them to keep warm in the cooler climates of Britain and Ireland, which is thought to be one of the reasons for a reduction in honeybee colonies, by up to 30%, in recent years.
Damien Rice, of the Belfast and District Beekeepers Association, was fundamental in consulting with the zoo team on the project; providing vital advice on the design of the hive as well as beekeeping techniques and best practice.
Damien said: “Throughout history, animals have transformed human civilization and bees may just be the most critical to our future survival. Bees are essential in the pollination of plants, crops and native flora, making these small insects of huge economic and ecological importance. In fact, it is estimated that one of every three mouthfuls of the food that we eat depends on the work of bees. The world we live in would therefore be a very different place without bees, which is why their dramatic decline is of such concern. Populations are being adversely affected by the loss of habitats and nesting sites, the decline in wildflowers which provide food for the bees, disease, poisoning through agricultural chemical controls including insecticides, pesticidies and herbicides and the impact of climate change.
Damien continues: “Sadly three bee species have become extinct in Ireland within the last 80 years with many more species in decline. Conservation strategies must therefore be proactive so that causes of the decline are managed before it is too late. Belfast Zoo is uniquely placed to deliver the educational and conservation message about bees to a high volume of visitors in a fun and interactive setting and give a fantastic foraging area for the bees. While we have started with a hive of 2000 bees, by this time next year there could be 20,000! I am delighted to be involved in such an important project and can’t wait to see how it develops in the future.”
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