Summer school for beekeepers creates a buzz
THERE was a distinctly optimistic buzz in the air at last week's Federation of Irish Beekeepers' summer school in Gormanston, Co Meath.
From a position two months ago where some experts were predicting a collapse in the Irish honeybee population, the good weather in June followed by this month's heatwave has seen hive numbers recover to their strongest levels for two years.
If the weather gods hadn't intervened in their favour, Irish beekeepers were anticipating hive numbers declining from approximately 20,000 last autumn to 10,000 working hives this summer.
Instead, the good weather has allowed beekeepers here to stabilise and replenish their hives at a time when bee populations globally are collapsing from a combination of climate change, habitat loss, disease and the impact of insecticides.
Reports of a 50-60pc decline in Britain's bee population prompted the British government to announce an urgent review last month to implement policies designed to protect bees and other insect pollinators.
This followed an EU Commission decision in May banning the use of pesticides linked to the bee population decline across the continent.
The weather, though, is by far the most important factor for Irish beekeepers, says Philip McCabe, PRO of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Associations (FIBA) which organised the Gormanston summer school.
While the Varrao mite disease and insecticides have affected bee numbers here, he said Irish honeybees have proven resilient to these threats, but are powerless against the combination of wet summers and hard winters we have experienced in recent years.
One of the paradoxes of beekeeping in Ireland, though, is that despite the harshly fluctuating weather, interest in beekeeping is at an all-time high.
The number of beekeepers here has doubled in the last 15 years to well over 3,000, with the biggest increase coming since 2010 as people look for alternative sources of income to cope with the economic downturn.
"A lot of people who have lost their jobs have taken up beekeeping with the ambition of making it a commercial enterprise," says Philip McCabe who is also the European president of the global beekeeping federation Apimondia.
"Once you know how to handle bees and educate yourself about beekeeping, you can develop a business of 50 to 100 hives over two to three years and this would have the potential to generate an income of €30,000 plus per annum."
You can get started in beekeeping for an initial outlay of €400 per colony and €300 for essential equipment, but patience and education is the key to successful beekeeping.
The Irish organisation FIBA is a world leader in beekeeping education and expertise and has been running week- long summer schools of lectures and courses since the 1950s.
Over 200 beekeepers attended last week's summer school in Gormanston, with children as young as 10 taking the beginners' classes while 90-year-old Peter O'Reilly from Naas was on hand to adjudicate as a honey judge.
The FIBA summer school features a full programme of day and evening lectures on specialist bee husbandry topics; beginner, intermediate and advanced beekeeping workshops, and over 40 competitions for honey and other bee-related products such as mead, candles and wax creams.
The Gormanston event is unique, says Philip McCabe.
"There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Other national federations have one or two day educational events and they can't believe that year after year we successfully run week long programmes of lectures and competitions."
FIBA's membership has increased from 1,200 in 1998 to 2,850 this year and the Federation's secretary, Michael Gleeson, attributes this growth to several factors, including the revival of the grow-and-produce-your-own ethos, and annual promotions at events such as the Ploughing Championships.
Philip McCabe also stresses the broader importance of bees in Irish agriculture.
Bees' role as random pollinators of crops and fruit is a fundamental part of farming and food production and while the value of bees to Irish agriculture hasn't been quantified, international figures would suggest it runs into tens of millions of euro.
British experts estimate that the bees' work as pollinators is worth £400m (€460m) to British farming, while the EU has valued the contribution of bees and other pollinators to European agriculture at €22bn.
Visit www.irishbeekeeping.ie for more information on beekeeping and your local beekeeping association.
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