Can I get a pet, Mummy? Let’s get 20,000 bees
Three Wicklow-based beekeepers who almost accidentally discovered a passion for these extraordinary insects
Michelle O’Connor and son Miles at home in Newcastle. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The irish Times
The Queen bee is marked with a hellow dot in the hive. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/ The irish Times
Wicklow beekeeper Dermot Fanning among the crop of Phacelia in Ballinakill, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/ The Irish Times
The bees in the hive. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/ The Irish Times
You know the story. The old cliché: Mummy, can I get a pet? I’ll take care of it, I proooomise. A dog maybe? A couple of budgies? 20,000 bees?
Wicklow-based Michelle O’Connor’s son Miles was in sixth class when he started asking. He’d taken a shine to bees after doing a project for a school science fair. He had borrowed a demonstration hive, a glass sided structure displaying the insects’goings on. His project was the highlight of the fair. Miles and his peers discovered that bees don’t have a reputation for being busy for nothing. He wanted more. Longed for his own hive.
Michelle was reluctant. Like any mother faced with the prospect, she worried about the responsibilities that came with welcoming new members to the homestead. Was she going to end up doing all the work?
“We went to a beginners group and learned all about them. In the end, I succumbed. We’ve been keeping bees for about eight years now. We have three hives and we produce enough honey to keep family and friends going for the year.”
O’Connor, it turns out, took quite a shine to the bees herself. Such a shine, in fact, that she went on to become the chairperson of the local Ashford and District Beekeepers Association. At the moment she is at full tilt in preparation for their annual family-friendly honey festival featuring talks, an information tent, a children’s art competition, stalls, crafts, home-made cake and of course, the very best of Wicklow honey.
“I’m happy to be involved. The beekeeping people we met along the way were so generous with their time and attention, it’s nice to give something back. Beekeeping is just fantastic. It’s marvellous for children in terms of teaching them not to go rushing in, to be calm and to observe before doing anything.”
She needn’t have worried about young Miles’ interest being a passing phase. Now all-grown-up, Miles is still interested in bees and is a great help when he’s around.
“It’s an extremely mindful activity. If you’re stressed it’s really good for you. You have no choice but to slow down and be calm.
The only difference is that from the minute she’s born she is fed exclusively on royal jelly
“Miles was very young when the interest started. I can remember him in an adult sized bee suit that was swimming on him, but he was just so fascinated by the bees. I find them fascinating too.”
It was a similar fascination that drew farmer, Dermot Fanning to bees. “I’m farming in Glenealy. A neighbour, Willie O’Byrne, used to keep bees on my land. Every so often I’d meet him and ask what was going on with the hives.”
As Fanning heard about how bees live, he grew increasingly intrigued by the complex and surprising facts that surround the useful insects. His neighbour told stories of how the bees would respond to different flowers, seeming to instinctively know the moment the pollen-rich dandelions sprung into flower. How bees know the best flowers to go for. How hard they work to produce honey.
Fanning went on to befriend Michael Giles, another enthusiast. Giles shared details of how bees give directions to their hivemates to where the best flowers are, by engaging in a complicated series of movements, a sort of mapping-dance display. One of the facts that particularly fascinated him was how the Queen Bee comes to be.
“She’s the same as the other females, the workers. She’s not born bigger or anything. The only difference is that from the minute she’s born she is fed exclusively on royal jelly, a richer mix of pollen and nectar. She develops differently because of that.”
Inevitably Fanning, too, succumbed, and his passion is palpable as he describes some of the work involved in keeping the hives that have become a part of his life.
“Most of the work is carried out in May and June. Once a week I inspect the hives. You have to manage the hive to avoid overcrowding and reduce swarming tendencies. I’m just taking hives in off the heather at the moment. I put hives up into wild heather because it makes the best honey when the mountain heather is in blossom.”
A recent report indicated that wild heather honey may, in fact, hold potent medicinal qualities, along the same lines as the more widely espoused benefits of manuka honey.
Bees, says Fanning, have made him more conscious, also, of the natural ecosystem and the positive benefits to the environment of keeping them.
“I keep the bees for my own pleasure first and foremost. An average annual yield would be 40lbs of honey, though an exceptional colony could produce 100lbs. I don’t take off much of the honey, I prefer to focus on producing bees and expanding colonies. If I produce extra I sell locally. I don’t feel like I’m saving the world or anything, doing what I’m doing, but I definitely have far more awareness of the importance of more progressive approaches to farming. Not to just automatically spray weeds, for example, because you can do wider damage. I heard a very clever grain farmer saying recently he should be given a subsidy not to spray.”
While the wilds of the “garden county” of rural Wicklow, might hold many attractions for honey bees, perhaps a less obvious place to keep bees is in the back garden of a city or suburban home.
“People are even keeping bees in highly populated city centres,” says Jackie Stone, who lives in Wicklow town.
Jackie keeps a hive in her garden. She doesn’t see her urban setting as an issue. When we hear of people keeping hives on rooftops in city centres, and the successful Dublin Honey Project, where honey is produced in a number of areas around the capital, Jackie’s location presents, she says, no particular barrier.
She came to bee-keeping a little accidentally.
“I had a friend who was a beekeeper. I was always joking that he should put one of his hives in my back garden. Well, one day he called my bluff and put a hive there over the winter. After a while I thought, oh this is actually really nice. When he took the hive away again I decided to join the local group and I got my first bees from a guy in Newcastle called Terry Meakin.
“I started with a little box of bees and a mini hive with about four or five frames of bees, what’s called a ‘nucleus.’ Then I had to transfer the frames into a brand new hive. It was exciting, but terrifying. Of course I had a smoker and a full suit, and thankfully I was assigned a mentor to help me.”
Living in a setting surrounded by other houses, does the proximity of neighbours present a challenge?
“I have high hedges. When the bees fly out of the hive they go over the hedges and fly up high. In urban settings people sometimes put up nets or high fences to encourage the bees to fly up. They travel over a radius of up to 3km to feed. You wouldn’t really know they’re there. They work away, minding their own business, gathering what they need to produce honey. I don’t produce lots, just enough for my own needs on a good year. It’s not about the honey. I just love having them there. I’ve never had a problem with the bees being around and nor have my neighbours.
“Bees can vary in personality. Everyone says that. Most are fine if they’re handled well. They can get aggressive if they’re not managed properly, but my bees are lovely calm and quiet bees.”
Ashford Honey Festival takes place on Saturday September 22nd, 11am – 4pm at Ashford Community Centre. wicklowbees.com