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Archive for June 6th, 2008

Robert McCutcheon, my father, with my daughter Asha

Robert McCutcheon, my father, with my daughter Asha

Every summer in my youth during our annual holidays in Dunmore East my father’s extended family would make a pilgrimage to Rocketts of the Metal Man in Tramore. Seated on long benches we would feed on bacon ribs, crubeens and the flouriest spuds on earth. An important part of the ritual was that at some point during the meal one of the party would stand up and recite The Lake Isle of Innisfree by Yeats – it was hung on the wall. It’s merit as a drinking game aside the poem itself struck a chord, an affirmation of the simple summer values of living outdoors and unadorned food. The lines that stuck with me were:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow

Whilst we occasionally had beans in our garden at home we never had bee hives. I think it was always somewhere in my father’s vision of his retirement that bee-hives and peace would be part of it. As luck would have it the bees came looking for him before he retired. The first year they took up home in his compost bin and I contacted a local beekeeper to take them away but the second year he took to them. By the time he retired 2 years later he had gathered 5 hives and was hooked. After 6 years of beekeeping he has over 30 hives, sells his honey in the Urru shops, Bolands in Kinsale and Hosfords and regularly helps novices by selling starter colonies. He’s secretary of the County Cork Beekeepers Federation which is based around the city and is one of eight local federations that are part of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers. I had just been examining a report issued in May entitled Benefits and Costs of Biodiversity in Ireland that estimated the value to the economy of bees at €220 million a year and wanted to talk to my father about the state of beekeeping on the ground.

At present there are about 2,500 beekeepers in the Republic of Ireland managing over 22,000 colonies of bees, and another 500 or so in the North. With an average of less than 10 hives each, it is very rare that local honey gets beyond the local market, generally being sold in small shops and markets. In contrast to elsewhere in Europe and the US, almost all Irish beekeepers begin as hobbyists. This results in a particular mindset that is less bent on exploiting nature and more about quality than quantity. Social contact with other beekeepers through local federation meetings and honey shows creates a tight community and so helps with the spread of best practice in honey production and disease control.

This year it’s been a slow start to the summer – cold, windy and lacking in any spell of sustained heat. The weather pattern has been particularly frustrating for beekeepers. Despite the spurt of growth in May with here and there profusions of blossom, the temperatures have remained below 18°C. Most flowers don’t produce nectar in any significant quantity without heat, blackthorn and sycamore were particularly disappointing though the dandelions were good. One notable exception to this temperature dependence is a relative newcomer whose impact is very strongly felt – oil seed rape. This is a mixed blessing, as my dad describes it. Oil seed rape comes early in the year and provides nectar in huge quantities with very high sucrose levels – 55% as compared with 15-20% in most wild flowers. This is great to help colonies build up quickly after the winter but can mean that other sources get neglected. Once bees find a good supply of nectar they return, working non-stop until it is exhausted. It also makes them a bit ratty and hard to work with, they are buzzed up like kids on Fanta and working overtime. The honey produced from oil seed rape is prone to crystallisation and lacks the depth of flavour of other honeys. My dad usually mixes it with intensely flavoured ivy honey and encourages the crystallisation so that he gets a smooth creamed honey. Another nectar producing blossom that appears less vulnerable to the cold is fuchsia, which produces good flavoursome honey and is an important source for beekeepers along the coast of West Cork, where it is most abundant. Fuchsia also has the advantage of a long season with multiple flowerings in the year.

The relationship between beekeepers and farmers can be very important. Many commercial crops depend on or are improved by bee pollination. In return beekeepers generally need access to little pockets of unused land for their apiaries. The ideal site is sheltered with a southerly aspect and has a high ditch in the flight line to lift the bees away from humans. Most importantly beekeepers need farmers to recognise the value of biodiversity – in order to thrive, bees require a multiple of wild sources through the year, not just the commercial crop that the farmer is growing. Whitethorn and bramble are particularly valuable but are also severely affected by hedge cutting. And how grassland is managed has a big impact on clover. Clover has a tremendous value to the farmer for fixing nitrogen and wild white clover (not the New Zealand variety) produces delicious light honey, but it is damaged if the grass is cut for silage just as the clover comes in to flower.

The beekeeping associations are very keen to encourage new beekeepers. If you are interested in getting started you will find a community of enthusiastic people willing to share their time and experience. Learning the practice requires time spent observing a beekeeper at work and there is also an annual training course that runs in September/October with outdoor demonstrations in April and May. Check out the websites below for more information if you are interested. Otherwise look out for local honey and keep some clover and even a few dandelions on your lawn to help keep these wonderful little workers buzzing.

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