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

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.

“Sit down and eat rings round you,” says Liam Parker and Martin O’Rourke.

Liam and Martin are delighted that so many people have become interested in beekeeping and are attending the nine-week preliminary course in Teagasc, on the Dublin Road in Dundalk.

Liam, a Dubliner, always wanted to live in the country, so he moved to Dundalk and then got in to bees.

“I bought them up in the North in the middle of the Troubles,” he says. “I got them from a man called Tartar Johnson. He was Anglo-Irish. The night before I went up there, they’d tried to burn him out. He had sandbags up against the door. The nicest man you ever met in your life.” On the way home Liam stopped every now and then, as Tartar Johnson had told him, to spray the bees with water. A British soldier once stopped him because he thought he was acting suspiciously. “ ‘Now Paddy,’ he said.”

Liam had no training for his new brown bees: “I didn’t get honey for two years.” However, there is a strong history of beekeeping in the Louth area, and its beekeeping association is more than 100 years old, and revives periodically. “Turlough Conor O’Brien lived in Ardee,” says Martin O’Rourke. “He was like the taoiseach of the time, for beekeeping. We’re trying to get a plaque put on his house.”

Turlough Conor O’Brien worked for the Congested Districts Board, surveying beekeeping round the country, which he travelled by bicycle.

“Was he before Isle of Wight disease?” asks Keith, who cuts straight to the chase all day.

“He was during it,” says Martin.

“That was 1906,” says Keith.

There is talk of Sr Catherine at the Convent of Mercy in Ardee, who taught generations of beekeepers until very recently. And of beekeeping being legislated for under the Brehon Laws. Beekeeping is a long, long story.

“We’re in it for the love of the bee, and the love of the black bee, the Irish bee,” says Martin. Later, at Keith’s apiary, the driver of our coach, Myles O’Reilly, spends most of the afternoon in the top half of a bee suit – these suits are hot – watching everything. It’s a complicated business: the breeding, the culling, the grafting, the clipping of the queen’s wings – although not everyone clips wings.

Not so romantic

Beekeeping isn’t very romantic when you get up close, I say, as three of us slump on the straw in the shade of the barn.

“Not romantic at all,” say Maeve Clissmann and Rose Breslin.

“The romance is when you get the honey,” says young Seán. He acquired his own bees in a remarkably romantic way. His First Communion was postponed because he had measles. On the day he finally made his Communion, a swarm of wild bees arrived at the house and buried themselves in a roll of lino – “and those were Seán’s bees”, says his father.

Curtsy to the queen

Beekeepers can identify the queen with remarkable speed. She is longer, slimmer and darker than the rest, they say: like Naomi Campbell, says one woman helpfully. Newly hatched bees, on the other hand, have a bit of a grey sheen about them and look a bit dusty. I can’t tell the difference.

Maeve Ahern, wife of the former Fianna Fáil minister Dermot, says that beekeeping is like gardening or cooking: you learn the basics and then you make your own version. No two beekeepers are alike.

Then there are the breeding boxes, called apidea boxes. “I had eight apidea boxes lined up here the other day,” says Keith. “And you want to hear them all, piping to each other.”

It was shortly after this that the big swarm started, probably prompted by two queens being mistakenly left in a hive while Keith was off having an operation on his hand earlier in the month. Keith puts a board up to the entrance of a hive and dumps the bees on it, bringing them over from the tree in what looks like an old wicker waste-paper basket. We all gather around, looking for the queen. Thousands of bees are marching up the board into the hive. The concentration is total. The second dump of the bees is more likely to contain her, say two men in bee suits. The bees in the second consignment are more lively. They are not moving up the ramp. “They’ve a purpose in life.”

“I think she’s underneath,” says Paul. He says this because the bees in the bottom-left corner of the ramp are in no hurry to ascend to the hive. Paul is pulling bees from under the ramp, where they have gathered. “There she is,” says Anthony Ruane, who is a beginner.

Later Martin O’Rourke says, “Anthony has a great eye in his head for seeing things, things even experienced people miss. It’s a talent.” Anthony has seen the queen. She is marked with turquoise paint – there is a different marking colour for each year – and thousands march her to the hive. The humans are triumphant.

At dinner afterwards in the pub, Martin starts his speech by saying, “It is my very great pleasure to speak on behalf of the Louth Beekeepers Association, who thoroughly enjoyed the day”. This is followed by applause, and a lot of talking and laughing. We are all a bit light-headed from the sunshine and the bees. Michael McGlynn from the Cooley peninsula is one of the members of the association who has been keeping bees the longest. “I started in Donegal in 1968.” At that time he was a customs and excise man. “My first bees came from Cavan in a tea chest. Imagine,” he says.

Myles, the bus driver, very kindly drops myself and Sheila off in Dublin city centre, which now seems rather grey, and the coach continues to Dundalk, full of happy people. "There's no such thing as a perfect beekeeper," says Michael McGlynn. "It's the bees that will decide that."


Ate: Sandwiches at 11am in the Botanic Gardens. A good dinner in a pub at 5.30pm. We were told to bring a packed lunch but didn't have time to eat it.

Saw: Bees, hives, sunshine.

Loved: The calm women and the excited men. The relaxed atmosphere.

Could have done without: Nothing. Loved it all. But those gloves are hot.

NEXT MONDAY IN THE TRIP: Maeve Higgins joins a mariachi band in Queens, New York