Thursday 20 June 2019

Buzzing with enthusiasm for bees

Reporter David Medcalf called to chat with Mary Montaut in her Bray home. The former poetry lecturer is an infectiously enthusiastic bee keeper and has developed an unlikely skill in dealing with bee swarms

Mary Montaut and other beekeepers examining a hive
Mary Montaut and other beekeepers examining a hive

Mary Montaut insists that she is not a good bee keeper, that colleagues such as Eamon Magee up the hills in Laragh are the real experts.

Yet surely no one can match her enthusiasm for the subject, which is backed by a wealth of knowledge as she edits a well-respected bee-keeping journal.

The blend of passion and learning, along with a sparkling clear voice, makes her an ideal speaker on the topic to groups of gardeners and anyone else who shares her interest.

Mary describes herself as an 'ex-academic', who used to teach English literature in UCD.

Born in England, she moved to Australia with her family at the age of eleven for seven years.

On their return to the UK, she attended Cambridge as an undergraduate and then qualified for a PhD in London University.

It was in 1970 that the family came for a holiday in Ireland and she fell in love with the country. The trip around the Ring of Kerry and Donegal, before finishing the vacation in Dublin, wove a spell.

She decided then as a young woman that she wanted to come and live here, but this was not immediately on the agenda.

Her marriage to Brian Montaut followed in 1972 and the couple resided in England - though not for long, as it turned out.

'Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1980, at which point we decided we could not stay in England any longer,' she recalls. 'We came here as we had friends in Bray. This is where we landed and this is where we have been ever since, nearly forty years.'

Now aged 70, she has spent more than half of her life in the town, residing close to the Dargle Road in a delightful old end-of-terrace house.

The garden there allowed Mary to indulge her love of plants from the start.

The fondness for bees followed later because she used to walk her dogs in a lovely open space near home called Dargle Glen.

It belonged to the late Basil Goulding and he had the philanthropic notion that people should be invited to share his private property.

Lady Goulding maintained the tradition and it was there that Mary chanced to uncover four bee hives, completely grown over with brambles, in or around 1990. Noel, the gardener in Dargle Glen, believed that they had been abandoned.

There were bees in all four ('bees will always survive', says Mary) but they had been paid little human attention in five years.

She got in touch with the late Billy Mellon who established the Kilternan Beekeepers organisation. He came to Bray straight away and showed her what to do. She was immediately hooked on her new hobby.

'When you see into a bee hive there are only two human reactions,' she reflects. 'One is absolute horror because you see 40,000 bees coming at you, or two is absolute delight because you see an entire city of bees all doing something special and it is just amazing.'

She was immediately gripped by the wonder of it all and adopted the necessary precautions.

The all-covering suit is an essential piece of equipment for someone who swells up badly if stung but she is also a firm believer in leaving well alone most of the time. She maintains a hands-off approach to her dealings with the colonies under her command, in contrast to some of the over fussy 'bee botherers' of her acquaintance.

'Bees are not aggressive - just keep away from them,' is her advice. 'They are not interested in you. The entrance to the hive is the risk area - if you go poking something in or go too close, then they think you are going to rob them.'

Traditionally bee-keeping is a rural pursuit but she has found suburbia to be rewarding territory.

Large fields devoted to the one crop, hedgerows trimmed to within an inch of their lives and the widespread use of agricultural chemicals have all made the countryside less congenial for insects.

'Suburban gardens are probably the safest and best places for bees to forage these days because gardeners like flowers - and so do bees,' she suggests. 'There is no real difficulty finding nectar and pollen in ordinary suburban areas. They are not really concreted over yet, thank God.

'Many garden flowers are bred to have no scent and no pollen but there are plenty which are bee friendly. Roses are alright if you choose properly and the same goes for all plants - even petunias. You can, if you try, get the original species which have a beautiful scent, fine for the bees.'

Homes where keeping the flowerbeds in the best of order is not the number one priority often provide the most pollen: 'All the weeds that gardeners don't particularly want are wonderful for bees.'

The merits of sycamore trees, maples, holly, hawthorn and bramble are almost bound to come up in conversation with any dedicated apiarist, not to mention dandelions, daisies and bittercress.

But the most constant source of food is ivy, which continues flowering all the way through to December, available to offer essential supplies if a warm winter's day stimulates activity.

These days Mary runs a colony beside her garden shed in Bray and she also has four on a Dublin industrial estate in Sandyford.

She reckons that the workers may fly from Dargle Road as far as Shankill, which is within three mile range of home.

She has developed a reputation as the person to contact whenever householders find bees massing in the garden or under the eaves of a roof.

'Catching swarms is my favourite sport,' she says with obvious relish. 'I get calls from people who are terrified because a swarm has arrived and it is hanging from a gutter or a tree.'

Swarming occurs when a mature queen departs from the hive with 10,000 or more followers seeking a new home as they leave a new female behind on the throne.

The high season is imminent with such upheavals most common in late May and throughout June.

The queen is not much bigger than the workers who attend her but she is amazingly fertile - 'an egg factory', is Mary's description - capable of laying 1,500 eggs a day in summer.

She needs somewhere secure to perform this reproductive miracle and the swarm will visit several potential sites before making their selection,

'When I get the call, I have between half an hour and three days to collect them - but I don't know which so I always dash,' Mary explains.

Her equipment comprises the trusty all-enveloping sting-proof suit, a cardboard box and a bunch of goose feathers.

She uses the feathers to sweep the buzzing mass, shaped like a rugby ball, into the box which is then folded down.

She leaves a small hole so that any stragglers may re-join their comrades as the package is left overnight at the site.

Then the swarm is collected the next day and offered to a keeper who will provide a well-built hive in a location where the swarm will not be considered a threat.

'It is important not to think of bees as individuals,' muses Mary as she attempts to put words on the enduring fascination. 'A colony is a super-organism - it is mind boggling. What you see is thousands of individuals but what is working does not belong to any one. The mind is the hive, the whole hive.'

The conversation with your reporter is more than 40 minutes under way before there is any mention of the H word. Honey.

'I do like honey and I occasionally give it as presents,' says Mary Montaut, 'but I am unlike the proper beekeepers. I am just mad on bees, just as much mad on bumble bees as I am on honey bees. I am grateful for a crop of honey but I don't really do it very well. I put it through a strainer in the kitchen and then I eat it up on my porridge or give it to people who don't mind a little bit of wax or the odd bee leg.'

She advises anyone who wishes to see and taste beautifully produced local honey to put the first Saturday in November in the diary. That is when the annual Dublin Honey Show will take place in Ranelagh.

She will not be among the prize winners: 'Mine is not remotely a commercial operation.' She puts her energies instead into her campaign to raise interest, awareness and participation - addressing audiences in libraries, women's groups and garden clubs with her mixture of a book learnt knowledge and natural enthusiasm.

'I tell them how to revive a bumble bee, for instance. I say to them, plant a flowering tree which will flower early in the year.' She also seeks to find others who will follow her footsteps: 'It is a wonderful hobby. If you are frightened of the bees, then there is no pleasure in it. But if you are interested, there could not be anything more stimulating, more rewarding. They are as clever as anything on the planet.'

Wicklow People