Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew has pledged to draw up a strategy to rescue Northern Ireland's vanishing bee populations.

bee rescue
Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew is to draw up a plan to rescue bees

The strategy will tackle Colony Collapse Disorder - or Marie Celeste syndrome - which has seen beekeepers across the province opening their hives only to discover that the insects have vanished.

Earlier this year, the Institute of Northern Ireland Beekeepers estimated that around 50% of Northern Ireland's honey bees had vanished over the winter.

Yesterday, the minister addressed around 200 of the world's leading bee scientists at the third European Conference of Apidology (EurBee3) at Queen's University, Belfast.

"We are beginning to realise just how great our reliance on bees really is," she told delegates at the Whitla Hall.

"Through pollination, bees support environmental biodiversity, and sustain a significant proportion of all agricultural crops here. By visiting wild flowers, bees are one of the keystones of most of the ecosystems on this island."

"Later this year I will be commissioning work to start on a local Bee Health Strategy. This strategy will be developed in conjunction with the industry here and will tackle a range of issues that are a priority for local beekeepers including research, training and Colony Collapse Disorder."

Northern Ireland's multi-million apple industry is under threat due to Colony Collapse Disorder, the conference heard.

Conference organiser Dr Rob Paxton from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen's said many food industries across the world are dependent on bee pollination. Bees are to thank for every fourth bite of food we eat.

"Pollination by bees, honey bees, bumble bees and the 20,000 odd other species of bee is vital to agriculture, to our food supply, and to almost all terrestrial habitats," he said.

"Ninety-nine per cent of tomatoes you buy from a supermarket have been pollinated by a bumble bee. The island of Ireland has 100 species of bee, roughly a third of which are in serious decline."

Huge bee colony losses in Germany and Slovenia this spring were also reported, along with the latest research on new viruses.