How to keep bees (and bee happy)

Honeybees will happily forage for pollen and nectar wherever they can find it. but the flowers of some plants are more valuable to them than others

It wasn’t until I met and married a man who loves honey with the same passion that others reserve for chocolate, wine or narcotic drugs that I began to fully appreciate the magic of this sweet golden syrup. Very quickly I learnt that not all honey is made equal. Instead its flavour, fragrance, colour and consistency varies greatly according to the kind of flowers that the bees have fed from, as well as the time of year that it was harvested. Even local climates and soil types can have a profound effect, greatly influencing nectar production along with the species of flowers (both wild and cultivated) that will thrive in any particular region.

Both common heather (Calluna vulgaris) and bell heather (Erica carnea), for example, typically grow in mountainous parts of Ireland with high rainfall and acidic soil. Their flowers’ nectar results in a rich, dark honey so highly regarded that in summer/early autumn some beekeepers will temporarily move hives to those areas where the plant grows en masse. Meanwhile, in the warmer, fertile meadowlands in the south and east of Ireland, white clover (Trifolium repens) is a very important source of nectar for honeybees, especially in those rare summers when we get consistently high daytime temperatures. The clover’s nectar results in a honey that is light in colour, with a delicate floral flavour.

In the garden, honeybees will happily forage for pollen and nectar wherever they can find it, but the flowers of some plants are more valuable to them than others. Single flowers are always better than doubles, for the reason that they produce higher quantities of accessible nectar. Most precious are those that appear early or late in the season, when flowers are at a premium. If you want to provide bees with plenty of food from early spring, then grow snowdrops, winter aconites, anemones, crocuses, hellebores, pulmonarias, the shrubby winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), quince, mahonia, flowering currant (Ribes), Cornelian cherry, forsythia, species of early-flowering clematis such as Clematis cirrhosa and C montana.

Many trees are also valuable sources of spring nectar. Not just the fruit and nut-bearing types, such as apples, crabs, pears, plums, cherries, peach, nectarine and hazel, but also willow, mountain ash and acer. For plants that provide autumn/winter food for the bees as well as a splash of colour, choose from Michaelmas daisies, sedums, Japanese anemones, Verbena bonariensis, shrubby salvias, dahlias, roses, the autumn cherry, Viburnum tinus and V ‘Dawn’. Bear in mind that just one large shrub or tree, simply by virtue of its size, will produce a lot more flowers and thus food, than a small clump of bulbous/herbaceous plants.


There are other obvious ways to encourage honeybees to visit your garden, such as allowing wildflowers (including daisies, dandelions and those of wild ivy) to flourish. Avoiding the use of harmful neonicotinoids or ‘neonics’, polluting chemicals often present in pre-coated/pelleted seeds, is another. Studies show that these chemicals adversely affect the bees’ ability to forage for food, as well as their overall health.

If you want to go one step further and become a beekeeper, start by contacting your local beekeeping association for advice on courses as well as reputable suppliers. Fibka, the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations (, which holds its excellent beekeeping course every summer at Gormanstown College in Co Meath, is another invaluable resource.

As the secretary of Fibka, it was the highly experienced Irish beekeeper Michael Gleeson whom OPW called upon some years ago to advise them on the job of designing an apiary for Ashtown’s walled Victorian kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park. One of the things that Gleeson stressed was the importance of sourcing stock of the native dark Irish honeybee, Apis mellifera mellifera, a breed ideally suited to the Irish climate as well as being more docile than other imported species. OPW gardeners Brian Quinn and Meeda Downey (the latter was already an experienced beekeeper) were given the job of looking after the newly installed hives, a responsibility they took on with enthusiasm. Four years later, there are now an impressive 15 OPW hives scattered throughout the park.

Each hive is capable of producing up to 40lbs of honey annually, with the yield, taste and flavour varying hugely every year. “Last year it was a lovely, light-coloured honey that tasted slightly minty; we think the flowers of the park’s lime trees played an important role,” says Meeda. “The year before that, it was much darker and more richly flavoured, probably as a result of the bees feeding on oregano flowers. This summer Brian sowed seed of a pictorial annual flower meadow in the walled garden. The bees love it, so it’ll be fascinating to taste the resulting honey.”

The walled garden’s honey will be amongst the many different Irish honeys competing in the inaugural Phoenix Park Honey Show, an event that takes place later this month