This is an update to our recent story about English businessman Patrick Murfet who runs Bee Equipment in Kent. He has imported Italian bees to England every year for years, but worker bee imports are now banned post-Brexit. Only queens with a small number of drones can be imported.
Due to Brexit and the protocol, Northern Ireland has become the center of a dispute over the importation of these bees that Ireland’s beekeepers think pose not just a health threat to the native species but also a threat to their genetic integrity.
When it was made known last month that his imported bees might be burned by the authorities upon entry into Britain due to breeching the import ban, some beekeepers were outraged and others welcomed it due to the potential hazard the imported bees posed like cross-breeding gene dilution and new diseases.
Mr. Murfet is not easily put off, so he came up with a plan to import the 15 million Italian bees into Britain via Northern Ireland, which would act as a stepping stone to import the bees into Britain next month. He sees a loophole in the pledge that provides unfettered access for Northern Ireland firms trading into Britain. This would allow him to bring his Italian bees to Ireland, then move them through.
The Buckfast bees, a strain that was bred at the Devon Abbey that is known for its tonic wine, would reside at hives near Newry before crossing the Irish Sea to Britain. Mr. Murfet claims he is setting up a branch in Newry to service Ireland.
Irish beekeepers see this as a potential threat to thousands of hives across the island, as well as the health of the bee population and their ongoing viability. The native Black Irish honeybees (Apis mellifera mellifera) have been a robust genetic pool for a long time. If they mate with their continental Italian relatives, the gene pool will be diluted.
See beautiful Irish black bees in this 1:45-minute video by Limerick IT where it is reported that as of 2017, at least, the pure native Irish honey bee, previously thought to be extinct, is alive and well in Ireland:
A prime concern is the small hive beetle, a disease that has been identified in southern Italy. According to John Hill, chairman of the Ulster Beekeepers Association (UBKA), the small hive beetle is a horrendous pest that eats everything in the colony except the actual bees. Honey, eggs, wax, small larvae would be all devoured. Hill said they are trying to avoid what happened in Florida back in 1998 when it got into hives there and 20,000 hives were destroyed.
Lord Swinfen raised the matter of Mr. Murfet's bees at Westminster, as it is unclear whether the threat to destroy the baby bees will be carried out. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responded that it depends on whether his bees are considered Northern Ireland goods entitled to unfettered access, or not.
Regardless of whether Mr. Murfet's plan works, Irish beekeepers are concerned for their bees. He says his bees are no threat and that they are sourced from 400 miles away from the outbreaks in Sicily and the southern Italian mainland, and that the outbreak has been contained.
Pests or no pests, Irish apiculturists also worry that if their Irish bees breed with the Buckfast bees the gene pool will be diluted, and it has been found by academic studies to be the best gene of black bees in Europe.
The native bee is well adapted to Ireland’s moist, temperate climate, which took thousands of years, according to Mr. Hill. He says Mr. Murfet’s drones in south Down are not bred for this climate and this poses a risk of a different nature, that the Irish bee population could be mongrelized in the same manner that has happened in Britain.
Mr. Murfet says his bees will strengthen the native gene pool, not damage it, and these bees have been imported for hundreds of years.
The UBKA has written to Stormont’s agriculture and environment minister and other political reps urging that they ban the Italian bee importation.
Stay tuned as we see how this situation unfolds. You can check here to read more about this this story and see photos.