Bees are not just important for honey but are crucial for pollination and reproduction of plants, but during last year's winter period over 40% of the population was lost.John Witchell, chair of the Ulster Beekeeping Association, stressed that the threat is very real."We have bees here who are living with diseases which they are not acclimatised to, one of the big ones is Varroa, it comes from south-east Asia and has been in this country now for a few years and it brings with it viruses and viruses affect the bees and the bees then die," he said.On the island of Ireland a native species is under threat - the Irish black bee."The Irish black bee is just more tolerant to our weather, she's calmer than the other bees that we have and we just find her such a lovely bee to work with and it's good that it's native, we're not importing bees, not importing queens so we're keeping things local and we're not then importing diseases and problems for the future," beekeeper Valentine Hodges explained.As the recent bad weather has proved a major problem for the bees, a number of beekeepers are taking steps to protect them.The gales that have hit the region prompted one Ards engineer to look at how hives could be better designed and made more stable. He found his answer in a design that is more than 150 years old.William Millar told UTV: "Because of the losses that we had last year through wind and wet, we started a winter project to actually re-design an old Irish hive which was designed back in 1894, we've modified it slightly to take section crates and ordinary honey sections."Such new innovations in hives are one way of stopping the bee population declining and protecting a creature which is so important in the eco-system.It seems that a return to traditional methods and using bees that don't mind the Northern Irish weather, are useful methods in conserving the bee population.