Black docile productive bees, no varroa, no foul brood, plentiful varied forage with heather within flying distance from most apiaries, no bee imports in the past thirty years, yet no signs of in-breeding; this is the Isle of Man. Its latitude and climate are, however, similar to County Down; if they were nearer to the “sunny South East”, this would really be a beekeeper’s paradise.
I had the honour to follow a long line of beekeepers from outside who have visited the island. I presume the names they mentioned to me were those they remembered best: Micheál Mac Giolla Coda, Redmond Williams, Michael Badger, Beowulf Cooper and Bernard Diaper. Harry Owens, one of the largest beekeepers and the bee inspector on the island, recounted the BIBBA conference on the island and the fishing for drone congregations.
The Isle of Man Beekeeping Federation has three regions: North, South and West. I had the pleasure of playing with bees in all three. In the South, I visited the apiary of Judith Cain, set in the grounds of a lovely old friary. Judith wanted to have an artificial swarm, so this was created using a spare WBC hive. Judith is the secretary of the Federation, and her bees were very docile and dark. The Federation President, Stephen Christian, was most helpful in removing brace comb and cleaning frame tops, and Esther Mills was expert at finding queens. Before going off to a restaurant for lunch, we had coffee and “honey tea loaf” out of the car boot. In the West, we visited the apiary of Jerry Norton at Ballacallin. Jerry is fairly new to beekeeping and most enthusiastic. He welcomed the help and advice from the other members in rearranging his brood boxes and supers. There was some colour on his very active bees.
The members brought food along to Knockaloe and, after a delicious meal, a discussion on queen-rearing took place. It was at Knockaloe that people deemed to be security risks were interned during the First World War. The property now belongs to the agricultural department.
The following day we travelled to the North of the Island and met together for Sunday lunch before visiting the apiary of the only GBBG member on the island, Richard Leach, and boy, did he have dark bees? Practically all his bees were on new comb, and all his queens were marked. He is getting geared up for some queen rearing and instrumental insemination. We opened a few colonies, which had been stray swarms the previous year. Most beekeepers would give their eyeteeth for such bees, but they arrive free with Richard; they must recognise a good home! He showed me a novel way of feeding liquid food to a mini-nucleus. He attached the feeder, which was a honey-jar contact feeder on a wooden base, to the mini-nucleus with a short pipe. The bees visited the feeder through the pipe. This allowed him to remove the feeding chamber in the nucleus and add two more frames. It also enabled him to replenish the feed for the bees without opening the nucleus. Richard’s daughter-in-law, Belinda, plied the assembled company with sandwiches and freshly baked cakes before departure. After each demonstration, the Manx beekeepers produced a box of wet wipes to clean their hands, gloves, and steering wheels; this seems to be a sensible procedure, saving grief from other users of the car!
How are exciting visits to the IOM arranged? The writer’s experience couldn’t possibly be typical. There I was, with my wife Rosemary, in a busy pub in Warwickshire in April ‘06, looking for a table to have a meal. Two ladies offered us a share of their table and, in the subsequent conversation, it emerged that they had attended my lecture at Stoneleigh earlier in the day. They were Cilla Platt and Janet Thompson, and they asked me if I would be prepared to come to the IOM; the rest is history.
Unfortunately, Janet couldn’t be on the Island for our visit, but Cilla and her husband, George, welcomed us to their home, right on the quay in Port St. Mary. Having enjoyed a weekend with the folk in the Isle of Man, I would have no difficulty in believing the legend of its creation. The island was formed when Finn McCool lifted a handful of earth in Ulster to create Lough Neagh and threw it into the Irish Sea to create the Isle of Man. We felt at home on this transplanted earth. This morning, four days after returning, I received, through the post, a watercolour of me manipulating a colony of bees with four beekeepers and a Manx cat looking on. Cilla is a fine artist as well as being an excellent hostess.