Bee Happy on Islay

One of the many interesting projects from the Islay Development Initiative is the Islay Pollinator Initiative. It started as a way to protect the pollinators, the biodiversity and the natural environment on Islay and they are currently employing 5 people on this fantastic initiative. The project co-ordinator is Fiona MacGillivray and I'd rather let her introduce this exciting project to you in her recent press release. Here goes:

The Islay Pollinator Initiative is an exciting project to be involved in, the first of its kind, an all-round approach to habitats, pollinators and honeybees on the island. It's a broadly focused project looking at all native pollinators, butterflies, bumblebees and other insects and improving habitats for them, the project also sets out to develop a social enterprise in honeybees and products that can be gained from wax and honey.

The basis of the project is employability to provide training and opportunity to the young people on the island to develop skills in beekeeping, the associated ecology of pollinators, habitat development and the products based around this, developing money generating pathways on the island. Read more.....

The project is funded by the Scottish Government and European Social Fund and funds from the Postcode Lottery. It provides 2 full time senior roles (Project Co-ordinator and Junior Development Officer), 2 young beekeeping apprentices and one part time Senior ecologist/beekeeping mentor. The idea for the project began a good 18 months before funding was secured and staff took up their positions in April 2018 and the two young apprentices in May of this year.

It has been a steep learning experience with bees sourced from Andrew Abrahams on Colonsay’s Black Honeybee reserve with four nucleus colonies. Our bee mentor Tony Miller, who has been keeping bees over 40 years and is also a retired craft and design teacher from Islay High School, taught the skills for building our own kit National hives as our first skills, making the hives before the arrival of the bees at the end of May. Lisa Thomson and Jason Patton our apprentices colourfully decorated the hives with designs linked to the four Primary school villages on the island, so our education element could link the schools and the children could take interest in the fortunes of their associated colonies.

The project has benefitted from good weather over the summer period with the bees able to forage continuously on a great range of summer flowers. This has enabled the bees to establish and build up their numbers. The four Colonsay nucleus colonies when established enough were artificially divided by establishing three more nucleus colonies. One of the original colonies struggled through a difficult period and has been saved from failure. At present we are working with eight colonies (one of which was a swarm recovered from an old whiskey barrel in a garden in Port Charlotte). We hope to go into the winter with eight colonies but this is dependent on two viable mated Queens before the end of the season and will more likely be six strong colonies. Along the way we have learned the complex intricacies of manipulating and nurturing the bees to give them the best conditions for development.

Within four months of beginning to learn the art of beekeeping the three trainee staff and apprentices (Fiona MacGillivray, Jason Patton and Lisa Thomson) along with our mentor undertook the Scottish Beekeeping Association (SBA), basic beekeeping assessment, all passing with distinction after only four months training. Lisa Thomson has been awarded the SBA Ian Craig award, this award is presented to the candidate with the highest mark in the SBA Basic Beekeeper Certificate exam. This year the highest mark was 97% achieved by 3 candidates, one of whom was Lisa.

The apprentices have been encouraged to develop product ideas and market branding for their products, researching all the elements under their own initiative with guidance as required.

They have continued to participate in surveys of pollinators, learn plant identification and undertake habitat management skills. They have been collecting wildflower seed, drying and preparing seed for storage, learning the flowering and planting times. So far 25 species of Islay sourced seed has been collected, much will be replanted this autumn in grassland ready to improve diversity in areas for next season. Greenhouse space has been negotiated with the IDEAS group in Bowmore to develop and propagated seed and for the apprentices to learn horticultural skills. The apprentices have commenced classes in Higher Environmental Science at Argyll College to enable them to advance their knowledge and gain additional qualifications.

Islay is believed to be Varroa free and it is important that we keep it that way as one of the few places in the world that can say this. All the local beekeepers from across the island have been asked to participate in testing for Varroa in their colonies. Seven of twelve locations have been tested so far, and three more awaiting samples and three other beekeepers to be persuaded to participate. All samples so far have confirmed no Varroa in the colonies.

We have taken a small crop of honey off the bees in two batches. The first exclusive 120 small jars were sold at the Islay Show where the project was shown off to the community, with the chance for them to taste the honey, trial the wax beauty products and give their feedback. They had the chance to learn about the hives and beekeeping and be informed about the wider conservation value of honeybees and native pollinators in a joint display with the Islay Natural History Trust which is implementing the roadside verge survey and monitoring project.

To promote the value and importance of pollinators to people, a range of jams and preserves have been developed and jarred up ready to be sold locally as an example of bees and their pivotal role as food providers.


  • The first two-day basic beekeeping course has been successfully delivered during August to nine local people interested in keeping bees.
  • We have highlighted the importance of sourcing their bees to avoid bring Varroa Destructor mites to the island and many are interested in volunteering their help with our bees in the future.
  • Andrew Abrahams came over from Colonsay to deliver a talk and undertake apiary visits with other local beekeepers to provide guidance and advice.
  • We were helped by a work party from Bruichladdich distillery to improve habitat at our apiary site where we were able to show them the activity of the bees inside the hives.
  • All the local primary schools are involved in developing a programme of education on pollinators and honeybees and their importance in natural biodiversity and planting for pollinators within the school grounds.

The joint roadside verges and pollinator project with Islay Natural History Trust (funded by Bruichladdich Distillery’s, The Botanist Foundation) to survey 112km of Islay’s verges has completed data gathering with all vegetation recorded and pollinator transects finished.

The first level of analysis will be undertaken in the next few weeks and full level report of findings will be undertaken before the end of the year. A proposal for verge habitat improvement and manipulation will be developed in conjunction with Argyll and Bute Council roads department, biodiversity officer and contractors, guided by the outcomes of the report and verge data analysis. Advice will be provided and options developed into good practice to encourage verge species biodiversity, whilst potentially changing perceptions of verges needing to be mown and hopefully save money in the long term.

Varroa-Free Beekeeping on Islay and Jura

Unlike the bees on the UK mainland (and most of the rest of the world), the bees on Islay & Jura survive and thrive without the scourge of the Varroa destructor parasitic mite. If you are a resident of the islands or planning to move here and hope to keep bees, we kindly request that you DO NOT BRING OR SOURCE BEES FROM THE MAINLAND or bring contaminated equipment with you.

The Islay Pollinator Initiative can advise on sourcing Varroa-free bees and put you in touch with local beekeepers who can help. Contact details are: Telephone: 01496 810880 - Email:

If you're interested in this and other project from the Islay Development initiative please visit their website:

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