Beekeeper Harry Owens

But for 79-year-old beekeeper Harry Owens, it’s the culmination of four decades of work as the island’s bee inspector.

Originally taking the post before the 1988 Bee Disease Act banned bee imports, he’s advised the government’s Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture in beekeeping matters for 37 years.

The Act originally aimed to prevent infections such as the virus-spreading varroa mite reaching to the island’s hives, but EU free market regulations could have overridden the local measures.

Updated Manx legislation in 2008 created a register of beekeepers and paved the way for the island to gain official protection by scientifically proving their pest-free status.

Mr Owens to begin a two-year project to inspect and test the island’s 800 hives across 300 sites for traces of the deadly mite.

He said: ‘It was quite a job, I had to find some amazingly obscure places around the island’.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, the natives weren’t always friendly towards the then 75-year-old intruder.

He said: ‘They’re not your bees, so you never know what you’ll get. There were a few surprises and various stings along the way.

‘The worst lot chased me across two fields, and even then they were still at me! That was a particularly bad type of bee. Luckily we don’t have many like that, we try to breed it out of them.’

With the survey revealing pest-free bees and EU certification now in place, the Isle of Man is now one of only three European sites to enjoy official protection, alongside the Finnish island of Aland and Hebridean islands Colonsay and Oronsay.

He explained that being proactive in legislation has let the island’s honey bees flourish and become a sought-after resource for scientific purposes.

He said: ‘We have a unique situation here in the island in that we’re free of viruses, varroa and foulbrood, which are bacterial infections.

‘That enables us to offer a basis for scientific research into their effects. We can export queens, and even small colonies.

He continued: ‘Even if you look around the world, there are very, very few places that are isolated like this. We’re in the top flight when it comes to bee breeding. It’s quite remarkable.’

The long-term import ban has had other benefits, he added, as the bees are well adjusted and less aggressive than other European varieties.

He said: ‘Bees haven’t been brought in here since 1988, so the ones we have are well adapted to our climate – they’ve ‘gone native’.

‘In England they import bees from Europe. They’re okay but they’re not that suited to our climate, and they can be more aggressive.

‘You want bees that you can safely handle, that don’t swarm too much and that produce honey. Our bees are perfect for that’, he said.


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