Nothing like a good smoke and a whiff of danger to give beekeepers a buzz

Liam McGarry is an advocate of the beekeeping life but it isn’t all sweetness and flight

Sat, May 4, 2013, 01:00

Liam McGarry, secretary of the County Dublin Beekeepers’ Association, dons a full body suit – white overalls with a sewn-in yellow sheriff badge – and then puts on a scuffed baseball cap before pulling a large mesh hood over his head.

Afterwards he makes sure my suit is on properly. To get into it I have to suck in my stomach and hunch my shoulders. “Sorry,” he chuckles. “I didn’t know your size.”

He makes sure the trouser legs go over my boots and my sleeves over my gloves: no openings for angry insects. Then he pulls the hood over my noggin, completing a look I can only describe as “scruffy Tellytubby”.

The whole experience is slightly disorienting. Looking through the mesh makes everything seem out of focus and it’s not helped by the smoke billowing gently from the Victorian-looking contraption in his hands.

We walk over to his apiary, the six hives he keeps in Shankhill (he keeps more in Bray). He puts the smoker to the side (the smoke subdues the bees) and opens a hive. It’s then I notice he’s not wearing any gloves.

“I can’t feel anything I’m doing with the gloves on,” he says, as he carefully removes a slate covered with dark Irish bees, which buzz and bustle around the brood and honey, centimetres from his bare skin.

“Don’t you get stung?”

“You get the odd sting alright” he says. “But the more you get, the less sore they are. I used to swell up pretty badly from stings. They’d swell and get itchy and if I got it on my face I looked like the wreck of the Hesperus. Now, I find after a few stings early in the year you build up a resistance.”

He tells me about a doctor friend. “He was one of our beginners. A surgeon. Very keen on the bees and very good at them but he discovered that he was allergic and that he would go into anaphylactic shock if he was stung. People like that have to carry an EpiPen and go straight to hospital if anything happens. It can be fatal.”

But McGarry’s friend was no quitter. “Being in the medical profession he sussed it out. All of his consultant friends advised him to give up the bees. But he didn’t. Instead he got involved with an immunologist and over a period of time he made him immune. He went through a series of injections and now, not a bother. He gets stings but he’s grand.”

Now, McGarry stresses, this was all done under controlled conditions and he himself is a retired engineer, not a doctor.

Sting in the tale
I wonder vaguely if I’m immune to bee stings. When I was nine, bigger boys threw stones into a wild bee hive and dared me to walk into the angry swarm. I did. It was grand. I got stung six times and proudly rushed home to tell my mother. She looked at me like I was mad. McGarry, on the other hand, just laughs when I tell him this story.

He stands inside a swarm of bees quite a lot. He also teaches other people how to do so and, more importantly, how to tend hives and procure honey. It’s not going to be a good year for honey production, he says, because it’s been so cold the bees have been hive-bound.

There has been, however, an increased interest in beekeeping courses. This is part of a wider vogue for recessionary self-sufficiency and partly in response to the news that bee populations are falling to dangerously low levels in the US. “People hear about that and take an interest,” says McGarry. “They know how important bees are to the environment.”

This “colony collapse” phenomenon, he says, is really an American issue, but he agrees with this week’s EU ban on the neonicotinoid pesticides some believe to be responsible. “I’m disappointed that the Irish Government just abstained on the issue, rather than voting for it. I also think they should ban the import of foreign bees. We have a native strand of Irish bee here, the dark bee, and they’re more suited to this climate and they’re a nice quiet bee.”

Irish beekeepers, he says, have more to fear from the Varroa mite, a parasitic interloper from Asia that’s been quietly undermining bee colonies here since the 1990s and could, if unchecked, lead to the end of wild bee colonies (the mites are becoming immune to existing treatments). The potentially devastating impact on bees doesn’t just mean less honey.

Pollinators
“These hives here pollinate fruit trees and bushes in all of the gardens and houses in a three-mile radius,” he says. “Some of our members used to hire out their hives to orchards. Some of the orchard growers reckoned there was a 20 per cent increase in the crop.”

McGarry loves all things nature-related. He’s also involved with the Irish Deer Society and has an interest in falconry. In the 1980s he used a hawk to help rid Jury’s hotels of a starling infestation. He was on the cover of this paper.

He encourages anyone who’s interested in bees to contact their local beekeeping association. He’s a good teacher and great company. He tells me about the life cycle of bees, how they survive the winter, how the hive is held together by the queen’s pheromones and what goes into the creation of a hive. He points out the queen bee, but my eye isn’t quick enough.

He loves the bees but they’re completely indifferent to him.

“They’re wild animals,” he says. “They hardly notice I’m there. They’d be just as happy in a hole in a tree.”