The bee and the western wind

An Irishman’s Diary about challenges to apiculture

Peter Wheeler and Sighle Lynd – she a daughter of Irish writer Robert Lynd – lived on the edge of London's Hampstead Heath and had a particular devotion to keeping bees. Peter told me that he had harvested nearly half a ton of honey from the hives in his own garden, but his skills in apiculture were well known in Britain, since he wrote a column each month in a beekeepers' magazine. About 13 years before they retired – Peter from his accountancy firm and Sighle from her assistant editorship of an architectural journal – they bought a house in Connemara. At every opportunity, they loaded their car and spent happy holidays there, making a garden designed especially to attract butterflies and birds, and erected a rotating observatory on their five acres to study the galaxies with a powerful telescope, making regular reports to Greenwich observatory.

The fact that there were no street lights, nor other bright lights, nearby made that area suitable for their own observatory, and, besides, they always had a sentimental attachment to the West of Ireland, which was often written about by Sighle's father. A Belfast Protestant, who became a fluent Irish speaker, Gaelic League member and Sinn Féin activist under the name Roibeard Ó Floinn, Robert Lynd was a long-time contributor, under the byline "Y Y", to the New Statesman . He spoke at James Connolly's funeral in 1916, knew Roger Casement and was very friendly with artist Paul Henry, James Joyce and James Stephens.

His daughter's fondness for Ireland was such that before they moved permanently to Co Galway, while still working in Britain, the Wheeler couple paid half their taxes to this State. Indeed, on my first visit to them shortly after they had settled in, they were already close observers of the Irish political scene. One of the most desirable addresses in London, their former home at Keats Grove in Hampstead, could have been on another planet by comparison, but I never heard them complain about the weather, the potholes or the shopping limitations.

Shortly after moving in, Peter found time to do something else and, at every opportunity, he watched the behaviour of the local bee population, which, he told me, was not as large as he would have expected in view of the amount of heather locally, on which bees love to forage. He discussed this with other beekeepers and the consensus was that the area needed a stronger, hardier bee, so Peter finally set about breeding such an insect, also with the help of a keeper in Portugal. Parts of the Portuguese coastline have sufficiently similar conditions to those of Ireland's west coast, yet the bees there are more numerous, and far more docile.

By this time, he had become involved in the local community, bringing groups of children in to learn about his bees and letting them peer in wonder through his telescope at night. He was surprised that Poland, with an environment less favourable for apiculture than Ireland, should be exporting honey to this country.

I was reminded of my visits to them in Co Galway in the 1970s by a report on bee behaviour published later by Ohio State University in north America. It said that feeding alcohol to the insects produced anger, aggression and an inability to manoeuvre. Well, what Peter Wheeler found from his research fitted in to some extent with this finding, except that the source of the anger was something very different, he believed.

It was, he decided, the area’s prevailing westerly winds. His west coast bees had to travel inland to collect pollen, and then fly back against often severe currents, so that when they reached their hives exhausted they were, for this reason, more likely to sting than those he had bred in a London suburb. It is known that bees can travel 15 miles in a day to gather pollen.

Even he, who was rarely stung in the past, was worried, sometimes, by the determination of returning, tired bees to sink their stings into exposed flesh.

Apiculturists know that bees are easily upset by conditions such as cold, or any jostling that disturbs their normal behaviour, he told me. However, having often tasted Peter’s honey in their dream retirement home near Ballinakill harbour, I can say that what I spread on their tasty, crusty soda bread revealed only pure sweetness.