Bees are important. Very important. They are needed for the pollination of crops, trees, meadows, wild fruits and of course for producing honey.
The health benefits of honey and its by-products are well documented. From the Roman soldiers using it for dressing wounds, due to its antiseptic properties, to the Manuka Honey that people use today; honey through the ages has been seen as a healthy, nutritious food, as well as a type of Byzantium sudocream.
As a beginner Beekeeper, in the second year of keeping hives, it also slightly changes your outlook on nature and the natural world.
It introduces you to a new vocabulary of words and phrases. This week, for example, ‘I used my smoker and hive tool, to lift off the crown board, check the brood chamber and then satisfied that the queen was laying drones and workers, fitted a queen excluder and put on the shallow supers ready for the flow of nectar and pollen’.
A year ago, I would not have been able to make that statement and would only have had a vague idea, if any, as what it might mean (it basically means I completed my first inspection of the hives and fitted the boxes to collect the honey).
I got into Beekeeping by way of a chance conversation with a friend. It is something I had thought about in recent years as a possible hobby. However, when the real possibility of purchasing a couple of hives of native Irish Black Bees arose, I did not miss the opportunity and I stepped into the world of an apiarist. It has been, to date, a fascinating journey.
Beekeeping makes one keenly aware as to what is going on in the surrounding radius of your hives, both in the town and countryside – the state of the road side verges, roundabouts, hedgerows, that, coupled with random glances into meadows and gardens; all to see if the Dandelion or other bee friendly fawner is present.
Dandelion at this time of year is the main source of food for bumblebees, solitary bees and Apis Mellifera Mellifera (the native Irish Black Bee). If you do have some in your garden, do think of sparing it for our arthropod co-workers.
That sparing of the Dandelion in your garden, along with planting bee friendly plants and letting a third of the garden grow semi wild over the summer months, will help sustain our pollinating friends who have enough challenges in the modern world; with the use of pesticides and the systemic tearing up hedgerows to name but two.
Apart from the practicalities of beekeeping, you can also read as little or as much as you like on the subject, people having completed PhD’s on the topic.
There is also a philosophical side to Beekeeping – are Bees that are ‘kept’ wild or tame? Do queen Bees really ‘sing’ at night in high summer? Is there a real purpose to the honey bee ‘dance’?
The history of beekeeping is fascinating besides. For instance, it was actually part of Brehon law that a Beekeeper was obliged to share some of his honey yield with his neighbours, over which, no doubt, whose land the said Bee’s would have foraged for pollen and nectar to produce the honey, which the Beekeeper had benefitted from.
However, when you are being dive bombed by a Bee or Bees who are intent on letting you know they are there, as you inspect the hive, these questions and anecdotes of the history of beekeeping for some reason are not at the forefront of your mind. A good bee suit is essential attire.
Beekeeping is something, after an initial outlay for some basic equipment, that can bring practical enjoyment and can be done in both a rural and an urban setting. New friends are made and a different language learnt; and at the end of the summer, or if your lucky twice in a summer, you get a yield of the delicious amber nectar that is honey, whilst at the same time helping the environment, albeit in a small way.
If Beekeeping is something that interests you, you should contact you local beekeeping association. They can often organise mentors, lectures and workshops and other supports and if you join you can sign up to get a copy of the monthly magazine of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Association ‘An Beachaire’ sent to your door.
So maybe spare that Dandelion in the middle of your lawn this week and a thought for our friend ‘Apis Mellifera Mellifera’ who needs it to forage upon and thrive; helping us in turn more than we might all be aware.
Dr. Ronan Cleary lives in Waterford