The Dublin Honey Project: Generating a buzz about the sweetness of urban beekeeping
As well as producing distinctive and highly prized urban honey, the Dublin Honey Project is spreading the word about the lost art of beekeeping
The Dublin Honey Project, the joint brainchild of architect Gearóid Carvill and photographer Kieran Harnett, is both a passion project and small business revolution all rolled into one. But when your workforce is governed by nature, the only approach one can take is to adapt and work with it.
Gearóid and Kieran met at a shared workspace in Dublin's South Studios and soon discovered that they shared a love of nature - and more specifically, beekeeping.
"We were both independently interested in urban ecology and what you could do in small spaces," Gearóid explains. "We had started out growing our own vegetables, from a head of lettuce through to tomatoes. Then [we went] on to chickens; the only thing left was bees.
"Kieran had become interested in bees in his own right a few years before, and I was always interested in bees; my grandfather was a beekeeper and had bees in the bottom of his garden in Sandyford for years. However, my dad was allergic, so it was passed on instead from my grand-dad to my uncle and then on to me."
Before meeting Gearóid, Kieran had already set up a number of beehives in North Dublin and was packaging the honey as Kieran Harnett Honey. However, once Gearóid became involved, the two men set about creating a brand that would reflect the unique and indigenous origins of the products they were harvesting.
"We thought we were missing a trick in terms of telling people what we did, so we created The Dublin Honey Project brand because it is really interesting, the story of what we do and where the honey comes from; we wanted to give people a direct sense of where it was coming from - and the fact that when I am standing at one of the apiaries in Dublin 9, I can see Croke Park.
"We are so local, and Dublin as a society really is so local, that we knew we should be telling people that and naming our product based on its point of origin."
The choice of this rather inclusive title was entirely intentional too, as eventually Gearóid and Kieran hope to extend the project and inspire others to join in their mission to harvest raw honey from all of Dublin's postcodes, working with native Irish black bees to show the range of flavours available from the city and its suburbs.
According to Gearóid, urban honey is highly prized for its flavour as the nectar is sourced from a significantly broader range of plants than its rural equivalent. And with Dublin's temperate climate and its citizens' love of gardening, the city provides a uniquely diverse range of nectars for bees to forage.
In 2014, Kieran and Gearóid harvested honey in Dublin 9 and as well as County Dublin heather honey. In 2015, they established apiaries in Dublin 1, 4, 14 and in Dublin 6.
They are what is known as 'tail to snout' beekeepers, harvesting - in addition to honey - wax, propolis and pollen from the hives, which can be used to create products such as lip balms and candles.
"We have begun to broaden our offering to include pollen, propolis and wax-based products, everything from soap to seed, beginning in November 2015 with our Dublin Honey Project lip balm and Dublin Honey Project beeswax candles," Gearóid explains.
"Propolis is amazing material with over a thousand chemicals in it, and if you were anywhere outside Ireland basically you could expect to have propolis in your throat lozenges and your toothpaste - it's miracle stuff," Gearóid adds.
"And wax - we all know it goes into candles, but it actually goes into balms and scrubs and all sorts of other things. So these are amazing products that you can make so many different things out of - as well as making honey and showing people how fruitful the city could be in terms of people self-producing and agriculture."
The Dublin Honey Project, at its heart, is much more than a small business; it also works to raise awareness of beekeeping in Ireland and the importance of supporting biodiversity and local food production. This educational element has led to collaborations with Belvedere College, where the Dublin Honey Project has set up an apiary on the roof top as part of the school's Urban Farm Initiative; with University College Dublin, where they have established an apiary in Belfield's apple orchard, managed by the Department of Environmental Science; and at the Web Summit offices in Dublin 6, where they have introduced an apiary with web camera technology.
One of the Dublin Honey Project's primary goals is to promote the beekeeping trade.
"It is a lost art to a large extent, so what we are trying to do is add a level of communication and tell the story," Gearóid says.
"As well as making money, we are trying to be PR for the bees I suppose, and to educate others about the craft. There are so many postcodes in Dublin that there is absolutely no way that myself and Kieran could manage that many apiaries; so the goal of this project is not world domination, not at all, we want to see others getting involved.
"There are maybe 2,000 beekeepers in the country and I don't even know if there are five who might do it on a full-time [basis]," Gearóid says. "For me, I love the story and it is a family thing. I like that narrative. Is there money in it? Yes and no. All of the equipment costs a lot of money; the hives and the materials and so forth, so it is fairly cottage industry-style stuff - but the business is growing and it's helping to just about pay for itself. The great benefit of it is having honey at the end of the day," Gearóid says, smiling. "I have honey and then I have some other honey that helps pay for some of the other stuff."
And the honey-making process is not something that can be rushed or indeed predicted very accurately. There is no such thing as a production deadline in nature.
"Bees hibernate," Gearóid explains. "The queen can live for a few years, but the worker bees only generally live for six weeks. In winter, because the bees aren't flying, they can form a ball around the queen to keep her warm and actually live for three to four months in the cold weather - but once spring comes they all die off and the queen starts laying eggs again. Not a lot of people are familiar with that process - we are all so disengaged how things are made."
However, with Irish society becoming increasingly interested in exactly where its food is coming from, the Dublin Honey Project's products have received a very warm welcome indeed.
"If you go into any major supermarket here at the moment, you would be hard pressed to find an Irish honey or even an English honey," Gearóid says. "What you will find a lot of is honey that says it comes from a mix of 'EU and non-EU sources,' which means the only place the honey didn't come from is outer space. There is so much subterfuge about the origins of the honey out there."
So what's next for the Dublin Honey Project?
"We both have families and jobs and mortgages, so it has to work at a very garden market level for us," Gearóid explains. "We are both working in the community so we know enough people around town to have some simple connections with small retailers and we like it at that level. There is no plan to look for a three-foot facing in Dunnes and all around town.
"The first year we had three retailers on board and we did two markets, and last year we had three retailers and did three or four markets. And there are a number of people who have made enquiries at the same sort of retail scale - independent retailers - and that is where we are happiest; selling as directly as possible," Gearóid says.
"For us it is all about diversity and there is not necessarily a lot of diversity in big supermarkets because they are trying to provide quite a standard service. We are not at that scale and unlikely to be, and that is probably a good thing; we prefer when you have a situation where the person in the shop knows the products they are selling; those are the people we want to have conversations with.
"We were hoping if we had a good season that we could expand into more retailers - but last year was really tough," Gearóid adds. "June was a washout and cold, so nothing really happened, but if we had a bumper year this year then we would hopefully be able to add a couple of more retail partners; that's up to nature."
The Dublin Honey Project is currently taking part in 'Field Test: Radical Adventures in Future Farming' - an exhibition at the Science Gallery, Dublin. For more information, see www.dublin.sciencegallery.com. Also, check out the Facebook page for the Dublin Honey Project, www.facebook.com/DublinHoneyProject
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