Hands on Traditional skills and where to learn them



What is it?Bee-keeping is the occupation of owning and breeding bees for their honey – although a sheer fascination with the bees can come into it, too. There has been a revival of interest in bee-keeping in the past decade.

How is it done?Bee-keeping is a hobby best learned from experienced apiarists, so the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations suggests that would-be keepers attend a one-day introductory course, join a local association and learn the basics of handling bees before investing in a hive and its associated equipment. Would-be apiarists should also find out if they are allergic to bee stings and, if so, seek medical advice before starting. It is also important to check with neighbours in advance of setting up a hive. “Bees don’t confine themselves to your property, and they breed on the wing, so most suburban gardens are unsuitable for bee-keeping,” says Pat Finnegan, who teaches introductory courses.

What’s next?Once you feel comfortable with the basics and have chosen an appropriate site for your hive, then it’s time to buy your own small nucleus of bees with a young queen bee. “It’s also essential to buy bees from reputable sources, to keep disease levels as low as possible,” says Finnegan. Once put in place, a hive should not be moved more than a metre unless the new location is more than five kilometres away. Learning how to detect and treat disease, the most prevalent of which is the varroa mite, is a key aspect of bee-keeping. “You can spend your whole life learning about bees, as, regardless of your knowledge, they will always surprise you,” says Finnegan.

How long does it take?Bee-keeping can be a lifelong hobby; hands-on periods of activity come between April and the end of July each year. The bee-keeping year begins in September, when you give the bees stocks of sugary syrup as their winter feed. You then leave them to rest during the winter. You open the hives in April to check that the queen is present and laying and that the colony is free of disease. Then you check and feed them every eight or nine days as the colony grows, adding supers – extra layers – to the hive as required. Managing swarming (when the colony attempts to divide in two) is another key skill to learn if you want to have a good crop of honey in September. The yield is about 20kg per hive per year.

Where do I sign up?Pat Finnegan is holding an introductory course at the Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co Leitrim, on May 7th (theorganiccentre.ie). Beginner, intermediate and advanced keepers from Ireland and Britain will gather at Gormanston College, in Co Meath, for a week of workshops, lectures and demonstrations from July 24th to 29th (irishbeekeeping.ie). Next weekend sees the launch of the Year of the Honey Bee, with talks and demonstrations at the National Botanic Gardens, in Glasnevin, Dublin, on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free; 01-8570909, botanicgardens.ie.