Inspired by my grandfather as it was passed on through my maternal genes; arm twisted by my sister, as that is what she generally does well; but driven by curiosity, I had to become a beekeeper sooner rather than later. I’m not sure whether it’s the smell of the cedar wood brood boxes, the craftiness of the Chinese tool or the “bling” of the honey, but my senses tell me, beekeeping, now that’s the life for me. Let me tell you about my experiences as a novice beekeeper in the twenty-first century.
My first introduction to beekeeping was when one night I attended a talk given by an experienced County Louth beekeeper on the topic of spring management in the apiary. The speaker talked about cutting grass around colonies, clearing dead bees from floor boards, hefting hives to test their weight for adequate stores, planting suitable plants to attract bees and observing for bee diseases. It suddenly dawned on me, that beekeeping is more than just bees and honey, its science and art but above all it is about the behaviour of the beekeeper as well. Before the night ended, I found myself entered onto a beginner’s beekeeping course. Just what had I committed myself too? “Bees,” my neighbour said, “do you really mean to say you’re going to keep bees, in this tiny garden?” I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me at that time that if I got bees, they would not fly into my next-door neighbour’s garden. Naivety can be a great asset when taking risks!
I duly joined the beginner’s course and was charmed that forty years later I would be sitting in the same classroom with the same teacher, Sr. Catherine Duffy, who once taught me in baby infants. Oh how I had changed from the timid little girl to the enquiring curious young woman; I took to beekeeping like bees take to a good nectar flow. I bought the books and the Ulster and Irish beekeeping conferences during my first year provided me with a panacea of bee information, books, journals, and research studies. I read a lot about pests and diseases affecting the honeybee and understood that in time everyone has bad luck. As luck would have it, one of our strongest colonies was hit by American foul brood (AFB) in our first year. Surely this could not be something we created. Unfortunately, we purchased bees and some second-hand frames with bees and stores on them that tested positive for AFB, and the colony dwindled into autumn. Lesson learned, never buy bees or equipment from an apiary that does not prove to be disease free.
I knew I’d get stung eventually. I even wondered when and how many times it would happen. So one day I spotted my neighbour in his garden and invited him to come see my bees. Over-confident in the mid-day sun, we approached the colonies. My bees were not happy to see me let alone my neighbour and without bee suits, we were clearly asking for it. Scout bees flew into my crown of glory like kamikaze fighters impaling their victim in a swoon like fashion. Was I worth it! I don’t think so. Luckily for me I tried to remain calm, but my neighbour wasn’t having any of it and bravely made his way back, jumping across his own fence while thanking me for the invitation. It’s amazing what a few pots of honey can do – we’re still talking!
Nobody ever tells you it’s a “sticky” business to get into. My sister and I discovered this when we harvested 12 lbs of honey from two small colonies in our first year. Handling the Manley super frames with bare hands is not a good idea, as the propolis stains your fingers and takes time to wear off. In the beginning, I spent hours uncapping wax from each frame until eventually the frame was ready to be placed in the honey extractor. We used a manual extractor borrowed from the Co. Louth Beekeepers Association. While my sister was uncapping the rest, I was given the job of twisting the extractor. I nearly fell asleep as round and round the handle goes, but honey did I see? No! I would peep into the barrel every twenty minutes, and it looked, as if nothing was happening. “Well, is it working?” my sister said, “No,” said I. “You must be doing something wrong,” she said. “Yes, whose idea was it to get bees,” said I. You cannot describe the delight on one’s face when that job was done and the extractor tap was turned on. We sat back and watched the golden glow of fresh heather-smelling honey pour into the bucket. We were like two Winnie-the-Pooh’s, licking our paws in delight. Bottled, labelled and ready to go, we completed the full cycle of good apiary management in our first year. “So what will we do with all this honey?” Word got out that Croaghmarten Apiary (our apiary name) was producing the finest honey around, so we inflicted this product on our close family and friends. This changed our lives. It also changed the style of cooking in our house from roast turkey to glazed honey roast turkey. You could taste honey in everything you ate in our kitchen from breakfast to suppertime. Our appetites improved without waist expansion but our enthusiasm exceeded to continue beekeeping.
Beekeeping should not be a solitary event and when you join your local beekeeping association, you’re never alone. In every beekeeping association, it is possible to meet all kinds of people from the hobbyist to the geneticist. There is a subtlety about them, a desire to gracefully raise brood-laden Hoffman frames from a commercial colony, wink and say, “she’s a great queen, her fecundity is priceless”. There are those obsessed in their search for the ultimate prima donna queen, mark, clip her and measure her brood production. Others are happy to delight in the curiosity of nature and leave it all to chance. As long as it doesn’t cost me too much, this craft is attractive to me, as every beekeeper will talk endlessly about their beautiful queens all day long. It is this very caste, the queen, that interests me most and how, at swarming time, the busy preparations to produce queen cells can occur. It is then that beekeeping becomes busy and hours in the day matter most. My ambition this year is to retrieve as many sealed queen cells as possible, place them in Apidea boxes and raise new queens. It is the beekeeper’s lottery but with patience and time whether one uses sophisticated grafting techniques like the Vince Cook method or artificial swarming methods, I must give it a go and experiment. I know I will try this many times, but I will endeavour to get it right one day, as after all I am learning something new every day!