Thursday 18 January 2018

How our very own bees got their buzz back

New research proves that the Irish honeybee, long thought extinct, is flourishing and our urban beekeepers are claiming credit, writes Eoin Butler

Honey trap: Beekeeper Rose Breslin with her beehives in Woodtown House in Dublin. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Honey trap: Beekeeper Rose Breslin with her beehives in Woodtown House in Dublin. Photo: Justin Farrelly

Eoin Butler

The bees are back in town. For many years, scientists believed the native Irish honeybee - or Apis mellifera mellifera, to its friends - was extinct, a victim of diseases carried here by imported foreign hives.

But new DNA research by a post graduate student at Limerick Institute of Technology announced last week suggests reports of the death of the Irish honeybee were very much exaggerated.

In fact, millions of our own native black bees are still buzzing around, alongside their foreign cousins. To learn a little more about them, I visited Rose Breslin, Secretary of the Co Dublin Beekeepers' Association, who believes the rise of urban beekeeping has helped restore the overall bee population in Ireland after a worldwide colony collapse a decade ago.

"Urban bees have saved the day for bees really," she told me, as we suited up to visit her hives. "In the city, there are fewer insecticides and sprays and a greater variety of flowers and garden plants to forage on. The forage for bees in the countryside isn't as good because of monocropping."

A retired teacher, Breslin only took up the hobby in 2011 after taking a course in the subject. She initially set up a hive in the back garden of her house. But as her swarm expanded, she now keeps her hives on the grounds of the historic Woodtown House in Rathfarnham after a chance encounter with the owner of that property, who is herself a former beekeeper.

It was at this address, on Good Friday 1916, that Eoin MacNeill, Chief-of-Staff of the Irish Volunteers, received reports of plans for an armed uprising in the city that Sunday. More than a century later, I may have been channelling MacNeill as I was experiencing an sudden overwhelming impulse to call the whole thing off. Rose was offering instructions on how to remove bee stings, should that be necessary. The correct method, apparently, would result in the bee's venom stack being removed cleanly. The incorrect method would drive the venom further into my body with the risk of going into anaphylactic shock. Both methods seemed identical to me. "There's a scent that comes off of that venom," she warned me. "The bees will smell it. They'll know immediately if another bee has stung you, so they will rush to the scene assuming the hive is under attack."

Beekeeper Rose Breslin pictured with her beehives and Eoin Butler. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Beekeeper Rose Breslin pictured with her beehives and Eoin Butler. Photo: Justin Farrelly

In other words, if I got stung once, I was likely to get stung several times? "Yes, but we're not talking about thousands of bees attacking you. We're only talking about a handful of guard bees. The most important thing, if you get stung, is not to open your suit trying to remove the sting. Just stay calm and walk away."

As we approached the hives, Rose set fire to some old egg cartons. She placed the burning cardboard in a metal device called a burner. This was used to calm the bees - somewhat counter-intuitively - by convincing them their hive is on fire. "When they think there's a fire, they gorge themselves on honey so that there's plenty of food in their gut to sustain them while they look for a new hive."

She used what's called a hive tool - a mini crow bar, basically - to open up the hive and remove one of the frames. It was an incredible sight. Thousands of tiny, hyperactive bees were swarming all over it. "These are my quietest bees," she told me, as she held the frame up for a photograph. "So it wasn't an accident that I chose them to become famous."

I asked how each hive came to have its own personality? "It all has to do with the queen," she explained. "The big thing in beekeeping now is breeding quiet bees. We have a guy in our association, Keith Pierce, who breeds queens. But he's trying to breed what he calls balcony bees - where the bee is so quiet, you could have them out on your balcony."

Rose tends to her bees. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Rose tends to her bees. Photo: Justin Farrelly

She checks that the bees have food, that the queen is there and is still laying eggs. The queen's wings have been clipped so she can't fly away. "Lots of people think it's cruel. But it's not in anybody's interest for the bees to swarm, particularly in an urban area."

The life expectancy of a drone (male bee) is only a couple of months, whereas the queen will live for about five years. But even in the beehive, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. "She lives for five years, but she doesn't stay productive for five years. So the bees will make an effort to replace her every year or two."

How do they replace her? Is there a coup d'etat? "Once her laying begins to drop off for any reason, the bees will bring out what they call a queen cell. That's just an egg laid like any other egg but they feed it royal jelly for its entire life. That makes a much bigger, healthier, better developed bee out of it."

I asked about the differences between native and imported honeybees. The two main types of imported bees, she explained, were Buckfast bees and Italian bees. "In Italy, those bees are so productive. But here, it's too cold. They do okay for a year, then they get cross and hard to handle. "The reason people are so interested in having the Irish black bee is because it suits the climate. If you have a pure strain, the bees are quiet and they're productive and they're resilient. They don't die out over the winter. It's not that people have anything against other bees, it's just that the Irish bees are suited to the wind and rain. They're suited to the cold. So that's what's good about them." Christ. This article is going to get shared on far-right websites, isn't it?

Hive star: Rose shows Eoin the honey from her bees. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Hive star: Rose shows Eoin the honey from her bees. Photo: Justin Farrelly

And if a reader thought they might be interested in keeping bees - of all races, creeds and colours, living together in harmony - what would be the best way to proceed? "Do a course. You would be foolish to do beekeeping without doing a course first. Beekeeping is a social thing. You don't do it in isolation."

There are beekeeping courses run across the country and it's estimated there are about fifty beekeepers in Dublin alone. But that number is increasing all the time, thanks to growing concern over colony collapse, an increased awareness of the importance of bees for our environment, and the fact that homemade honey is recommended for anyone suffering from hay fever or allergies.

Before I left, Rose presented me with a jar of her delicious Rathfarnham honey. And I suggested that, for one final photograph, she might pose wearing a beard of bees for us? "We won't be doing that," she laughed. "That's a thing you would do on a hot sunny day, when the bees are quiet." Had she ever done it? "Not at all. I've seen it done. Beekeeping is great, but I don't need to get into that silly stuff."

Irish Independent

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