Beekeeping – it's a real buzz
It might mean you get the odd sting, but this recession-friendly hobby is good for the mind and the planet
On a fresh summer afternoon, Roisin Shanahan gently lifts the top of the hive in the garden of her cottage overlooking Dublin Bay.
The 32-year-old makes soothing noises as she interrupts her colony of 40,000 bees. After careful examination of sliding frames of honeycomb and a search for the queen bee, she closes and lid and waits for any stray bees to return to the hive before removing her white- hooded protective suit.
Since Shanahan began a beekeeping course with her mother in 2011, she and her husband Michael have been stung many times, as has their boxer Jess, and she has just a few jars of honey to show for her new pastime. But she still gets a buzz out of it.
"I find it really calming," she said. "Gardening makes me calm down after a frustrating day but beekeeping has a much more profound effect on me – it's almost like a drug."
Beekeeping has been part of the Irish tradition since the arrival of the Celts. Since the recession, beekeeping has been enjoying a gradual revival. But what was once seen as a preserve of retirees and commercial honey producers is growing in popularity among the young.
Demand for beekeeping courses is so high that Liam McGarry, secretary of the County Dublin Beekeepers' Association, has had to turn people away once the number of students reaches 60.
"We still get a lot of more mature people on the courses but, in recent years, there are a lot of people in their late teens and early 20s," he said.
The resurgence of beekeeping, however, has come at a time when bees are in the throes of long-term decline.
Last year's long, wet summer and prolonged wintry conditions in 2013 reduced the amount of pollen and nectar for worker bees to forage and feed to their queen, who needs the pollen to lay eggs and keep the hive going. As a result, most beekeepers lost about 50pc of their colonies, McGarry said.
Bees and other wild insects pollinate at least a third of Ireland's food crops species, but have been falling in numbers as their habitat is diminished by urban sprawl and farming practice changes.
As Albert Einstein is said to have theorised, "If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live." This possibility worries Kieran Harnett, a 38-year-old photographer from Drumcondra who took up a beginner's course in beekeeping last year.
Harnett bought his own bees last year so he could harvest honey for his children after hearing it eases the symptoms of hay-fever and asthma. But he also wants to play a part in fighting the demise of the country's bee population.
"There are virtually no wild bees left – if you see a bee in a garden it's probably from a hive," he said. "They pollinate 30pc of the food we eat, so if there are no pollinators, there are no flowers and crops growing."
Harnett's new hobby, though, is no easy feat.
"I've been stung about 10 times," he said. "The element of danger makes it more fun, though."
Harnett keeps his hives on the grounds of a former religious institution but is wary of disclosing their exact location after bees were stolen from other backyard beekeepers.
Shanahan's new-found interest in beekeeping led to a job at a bee supplies company in Sandyford. But the passion for beekeeping she shares with her mother is not universally appreciated.
"My dad doesn't like them being in my mum's garden, because he gets stung when he's mowing the lawn," she said. "My sister doesn't like them at all because she doesn't like things that fly around. But they're both quite happy to eat the honey."
How to have your own hive
The Irish Federation of Irish Beekeeping Associations has a list of local associations on www.irishbeekeeping.ie that run beginners' courses and events throughout the country. It will also run its annual summer school at Gormanston College in Co Meath from July 21. Before attending any course, buy a decent protective suit.
"There's nothing like being confident you can't get stung," said Liam McGarry, who teaches courses in Dublin. "Get the best one you can afford, which can cost up to €150. The gloves are cheap enough, but beginners start off with Marigold gloves. If you're really going to get into bees, it's going to cost money and you need to have a good location unless you own a reasonably sized back garden."
Bee Supplies in the Sandyford Industrial Estate sells basic kits that include suit, gloves, a hive tool, brush and a smoker (to calm the bees) for €160 and a full start kit for €370.