It’s no secret that bees are under immense threat across the globe, sparking newfound enthusiasm from the public to help out. In Ireland, we’re no different.
A few months ago, a detailed report into pollinators in Ireland made for worrying reading, with one-third of Ireland’s near-100 bee species under threat of extinction.
The report, called Gardens: actions to help pollinators, was part of an all-Ireland pollinator plan that spans 2015-2020.
The idea is simple and perhaps more local than many expected. We need bees to keep pollinating, as it helps crops in more ways than you might think.
Bees need an environment where they can survive and, given so many species are under threat around the world, national initiatives are cropping up everywhere. Your garden, it turns out, is the starting point.
But how can we save the bees? We spoke with John McMullan of the Fingal North Dublin Beekeepers’ Association, who was plain and clear: keep it simple, don’t mess around.
“They get on far better without us,” he said, pinning most of the bees’ problems on humans and our interference with the wild animals’ environment.
McMullan’s group runs annual beekeeping courses to encourage the public to get involved and, from just a brief discussion, we garnered enough tips to help even the most amateur of enthusiasts to make a difference.
Don’t cut your grass
Bees are wild animals, but it’s the same for all species: requirement No 1 is food.
“It’s no mystery. They depend on a food supply,” said McMullan. “For bees, that is pollen (for protein) and nectar (for carbohydrates).” This means keeping the right plants and flowers blooming in your garden.
“For bees to thrive, you need plants that complement the pollen and nectar cycle. In your back garden, you have some that do and some that don’t. For example, daisies don’t help, roses are not very good either. On the other hand, dandelions are fantastic for both nectar and pollen.”
The best way for many of these to grow is by letting them. Don’t cut your grass as often, let the wildlife flourish.
Wait, do cut your grass
Of course, letting everything get out of hand is not an ideal scenario either, with McMullan admitting he himself gets involved to help the process along.
Comfrey, lungwort, lavender, catmint, and heather are all great food sources for bees. “I leave my garden grow, I then cut it down once or twice around May to bring along clovers in June and July,” he said, “that is wonderful for bees.”
This way, the grass stays at a manageable level, the regulation of plant and flower growth is aided, and the local bee populations have the opportunity to thrive.
Join a club
With membership numbers nearly five-times that of a decade ago, Fingal North Beekeepers’ Association is just one of many groups that entry-level enthusiasts are encouraged to get involved with.
Though McMullan started his own honeybee colony in his back garden several years ago, without any assistance or approval from neighbours, he advises against average Joes and Josephines doing the same.
“Bees are a strange animal, not a pet. You need to learn them. Understand them. You could be a nuisance to yourself and your neighbours,” he told me when I asked where in my back garden would best suit a buzzing honey factory.
“We encourage people to get stuck in, ask stupid questions. If you do it on your own it won’t work out, you’ll give up. We’re there to help.”
Start with a box
Around 30 or so people do each course that McMullan runs, with everyone paired up with established beekeepers for up to a year to learn. In some cases, groups of 10 or more pair with one expert so they can learn from each other’s teething issues as they build a colony.
“We give free nucs of bees to all beginners, our native black honeybee,” said McMullan, nucs being an almost-organic starter pack for a colony. Consisting of a drone and a young queen, the nuc is put in a box, within which they reproduce by division.
Rather than putting it in your back garden, though, McMullan said most new members instead head out into the woods in the Fingal area, finding a safe place and setting up shop.
Beware the mites
The introduction of alien bees caused devastation in the past. The Veroa mite, brought in from the Eastern honeybee, was particularly bad.
“Our bees started dying off as they had no resistance to it,” said McMullan. The answer, often, is to treat our native bees with a soft chemical, thymol or something like that. It targets the mites, though it’s not completely pain-free.
“You put strips and gel in the colony, it kills the mites and a good few bees in the process. Though I haven’t treated my bees in the last five years. You leave them be and, without disease, they get on fine.”
Once you go black, never go back
The black honeybees are important as they are native to north Co Dublin, with the Association strictly against the introduction of rival, potentially-lethal, alien species.
“In the wild, they are in an oak tree in a forest, in the hollowed-out bark. Insulated in a constant heat of 34-35ºC. We provide a box with a space for the bees to store honey,” he said.
The frame is remarkably simple and, once the bees have started producing honey, your main role is turning up and emptying the tray.
“A frame is all that’s needed,” said McMullan. “They fill it with comb and you need to remove it and empty it when it gets full. It’s just a simple piece of wood, they do the rest.”
What’s remarkable, though, is the perfection each colony insists on, with McMullan telling me they always build precise hexagons of comb, 5.3mm across. Every time.
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Main colony image via Shutterstock