|Location||Throughout the island of Ireland in both urban and rural areas|
|Categories||Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe|
|Keywords||Beekeeping, apiary, nature, sustainability|
|Contact organisation||The Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations|
Beekeeping (or apiculture) is the maintenance of bee colonies, in man-made hives, by humans. A beekeeper (or apiarist) keeps bees in order to collect their honey and other products that the hive produces, to pollinate crops, or to produce bees for sale to other beekeepers. A location where bees are kept is called an apiary.
Ireland’s native honeybee is Apis mellifera mellifera (the black honeybee), and Irish beekeepers co-operate with other northern European countries to preserve and improve the species.
Beekeeping in Ireland has been practiced for at least 2,000 years and has seen a surge in popularity in modern times, evidenced by the numerous organizations promoting and assisting beekeeping. Despite the increased pressures on bees and beekeepers through new diseases and loss of habitat, there are now more than 3,500 members of beekeeping associations.
After the last Ice Age, bees moved to Ireland, probably via Britain. The earliest reference from within Ireland about bees are in the Bee Judgements of the Brehon Laws which, among other issues, dealt with the ownership and value of swarms, the compensation paid by the beekeeper to a person stung by one of his bees and the compensation paid to the beekeeper if a person’s hens began eating his bees.
The Brehon Laws began to be codified about 438-441 A.D. having been handed down orally from previous generations. They contain no Latin loan words relating to bees or beekeeping, which provides evidence that beekeeping vocabulary was established before the arrival of Christianity in about 430 A.D., although legend has it that St. Modomnoc first brought bees to Ireland from Wales in the early 540’s A.D.
The first beekeeping book in Ireland was ‘Instructions for Managing Bees’ in 1733. Bees were traditionally killed at the end of each season to extract the honey and wax but, by the mid-1700s, methods of doing this without killing the bees, were being devised. In the 1870s Brother Joseph, a Carmelite monk from Loughrea, imported a Bar and Frame Hive from Mr. Abbott of London and then began to produce his own versions. In 1881 the Reverend George Proctor was believed to be the first in the country to own Langstroth Hives (invented in 1852) with their moveable frames, upon which modern hives are based.
In 1912 the Isle of Wight Disease arrived in Ireland, and it killed a great number of colonies. To offset these losses, many colonies were restocked with A. m. mellifera imports mainly originating from the Netherlands, but also from France. Recent research has shown that although many of the A. m. mellifera here have Dutch genes, the genetics of the original Irish variant of the black bee are still widespread in Ireland.
There are several bodies representing beekeepers in Ireland, the main one being the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations (FIBKA).
Practice and practitioners
There are approximately 3,500 – 4,000 beekeepers in Ireland, most of them classified as ‘hobbyists’ meaning that beekeeping is not their profession nor their primary source of income.
Bees are kept by people of all ages, from all walks of life. People either keep them where they live or in an ‘out’ apiary elsewhere by agreement with the landowner, or when invited by farmers to pollinate their crops of rapeseed fields or fruit orchards. In upland areas, hives are brought to the heather in late summer. Ling heather honey is virtually unique to Ireland and Scotland.
In 2018 a study by Irish scientists from Dublin City University and Trinity College Dublin found that there was a similar overall presence of powerful antioxidants called phenolic compounds in Irish heather honey as in Manuka honey.
Prof. Jane Stout TCD: “Our research shows that Irish honey is a high-quality product and something that we should really value. Interest in beekeeping and honey production is growing in Ireland, and we are delighted to be able to support it.”
Today the Varroa destructor mite is the single greatest threat to bee colonies in Ireland. If left untreated colonies will die within 3 to 4 years. Varroa mites arrived in Ireland in 1998 and in several years had spread throughout most of the island. As a result of Varroa there are now few wild colonies surviving. All beekeepers are trained through their Associations to address Varroa by means of a Pest Management System and this is a major focus in Irish beekeeping today.
Development, transmission and safeguarding
Throughout Ireland, numerous local communities of beekeepers have come together to form associations. These associations aim to provide mutual support and provide education to experienced and novice beekeepers as well as the public. Most associations run beginners’ courses, and this is followed up with mentoring programmes to support and educate novices in their early years of beekeeping. They also hold community events to increase public knowledge about honey bees and their importance, both ecologically and economically. Many associations have strong ties with their local schools.
The Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations (FIBKA) represents and supports the interests of beekeepers at national level. The beekeeping community is very aware of the older age profile of many of its members and significant effort goes towards introducing younger people to the craft to ensure its future. Associations engage with children by providing classroom visits and materials to local schools, in support of the teaching curriculum, as well as ensuring their public events are child centric.
Each year, FIBKA sponsors and trains a team of Irish children to represent their country and participate in the International Meeting of Young Beekeepers (IMYB). This takes place in a different country each year, with national teams attending from all over the world. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the children, not only to showcase their talents as the next generation of Irish beekeepers, but also to benefit from the unique cultural experience this event offers.
The benefits of beekeeping in Ireland reach far beyond the apiary, helping to build and maintain communities. Beekeeping connects people of all ages and backgrounds irrespective of religion, ethnicity, level of education, social or financial status.
At national level it provides a state-wide network of 3,500-4,000 people who support and encourage each other on a regular basis. At local level, Associations are an important outlet for many people who, especially in rural areas, would otherwise be socially isolated. Typically, associations are kind, caring and inclusive in outlook and enrich their members’ lives.
Beekeeping offers a journey of life-long learning and the elders in our community command the highest respect for their greater knowledge and experience. It is the elders who pass on the folklore of Irish beekeeping, perpetuating this aspect of our national cultural heritage.