The beekeeper’s lot: hot suits, a swarm welcome and rumours of regicide
The Trip: In the first of a series about summer sojourns, a day spent with Louth Beekeepers Association highlights what a tough business it is. Despite that, the beekeepers are a benign lot, albeit fond of a bit of slagging
Ann Marie Hourihane keeps an eye on the bees during a Louth Beekeepers Association demonstration in Castleknock; Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Gráinne Downey braves the hive. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Seán Boyle displays the fruits of their labour. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The sun beats down on the little orchard. The air is full of bees, swarming thickly around a young apple tree and dropping to the ground in large communal chunks. The noise is phenomenal, like being inside a wave. We are all in our bee suits, like underwater divers. Somebody says contentedly, “Everything has happened today.”
This is the summer outing of the Louth Beekeepers Association. They have come to Dublin from Dundalk to visit the apiary of Keith Pierce, a Dublin fireman and a master beekeeper who is held in very high regard. “I would say it is the most beautiful apiary in the country,” says Paul Boyle on the phone. Later Kevin Pierce tells me there are hives in Kilbarrack fire station.
I am travelling with my friend Sheila, who is investigating the possibility of keeping bees herself. The beekeepers tuck us into our bee suits as if we are babies, pulling our cuffs over our gloves – or is it the other way around? Paul Boyle has brought the extra bee suits for us, all carefully washed to prevent the spread of disease.
“Ciara does them at 60 degrees,” says Paul of his wife. His honey won two first prizes last year in the international section of the London Honey Show. He has “master beekeeper” emblazoned on the front of his bee suit, on the back of his bee suit, on his T-shirt and perhaps on his hat – I lose track. “A neighbour does it,” says Paul evenly. He is a theatre nurse by profession. His email about today’s expedition, sent to everyone who is coming, ends: “It’s going to be a great day!”
Paul’s son Seán, who is nine and has already passed his preliminary beekeeping exams, is wearing the smallest bee suit.
Even when you ask these people personal questions, the answers always come back to bees, and the mystery of bees.
Lily Gilligan started thinking about keeping bees as she was coming up to retirement. “My brother-in-law kept bees. They had no suits, nothing. They were very, very calm bees.”
Someone says that someone told them French women tend their hives dressed only in bikinis and a bee veil. I once saw a beekeeper, Alan Hawkins, working hives in California with no bee suit at all.
“Ah, that’s California bees,” says someone. They are notoriously laid-back, apparently. I wish they all could be California bees.
Hot topics on the bus
On the bus, the talk is of making floors for hives and being on 21-day schedules. Santa Drozdova, who is only starting in beekeeping, is talking on her phone in Latvian. Male beekeepers routinely refer to their bees as “my girls”.
Throughout the day strange phrases hit you: “Yes, you get a little bit of absconding”; “I’ve never seen laying like it”; and so on. There is also terrible teasing and slagging. Keith teases Paul because he allegedly killed a queen by accident. Martin O’Rourke has been a member of Louth Beekeepers for 37 years. Now he is chairman – “mullah”, as he puts it – and teases everybody. “Look at him enjoying the day,” says Paul of Martin. “Grinning like a Cheshire cat.”
I am trying not to say that there is a buzz about beekeepers, but it is true. Even though beekeeping is a pretty tough business, there is a benign air about beekeepers. They are generous souls. We have tea and sandwiches at our first stop, in the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin.