TUCKED away in a little haven of tranquillity close by the sea in Myrtleville, a quiet revolution is happening.
Bee populations in Ireland are in steady decline, but in this time of crisis, one Corkman has discovered that his actions have the power to speak louder than words.
Mark Riordan’s background in organic horticulture and community agricultural projects proved fertile ground for Hive Mind, an idea sprung from a beekeeping thesis written for his Master’s Degree.
Hive Mind is a collaborative business bringing together skilled beekeepers with ordinary people who sponsor a beehive. The best ideas are usually the simplest, and at Hive Mind the ethos is perfectly simple: “We keep the hives, you keep the honey.”
The spiritual home of Hive Mind is Mark’s graceful old family home surrounded by acres of wild flower fields, woodland, fruit and vegetable plots. Mark is chatting about bees, hives and honey as he waits for water to boil on top of the old Aga. There is a frame full of honeycomb that tastes of blackberries, and sounds of clucking chickens drift in through the open kitchen door. Mark likes to sweeten his tea with honey.
“The honey may contain bee wing!” he cautions me. It is thick and densely opaque; barely filtered and unpasteurised to preserve the best of its nutrients and flavour. The honey has a taste of fennel — “We planted a fennel meadow and the bees love it,” he said.
Mark has a growing number of hives dotted around fields surrounding the house. They are situated either in or near an abundant food source, which have a direct influence on the flavour of honey the bees will produce, depending on what is growing: at this time, fennel and blackberry flowers.
“The size of an average bee colony fluctuates throughout the year, but it can reach up to 80,000 bees in a summer! I collect the honey from the hives once a year in the autumn, harvesting on average 15kgs of honey per hive. All bee colonies are different of course, and some out-perform others.”
Hive Mind is an agrarian version of crowd funding. Mark maintains lands for bees, develops colonies, keeps them healthy, and harvests and jars honey that is then supplied to his sponsors. “Sponsors can fund a whole hive or a third of a hive. They receive regular updates about how their hive is doing and receive their honey at harvest time.”
Sponsoring a whole hive costs €300 and a third of a hive is €100 per year. Each year, as Mark is able to bring on new hives and develop productive colonies, he reopens his book for sponsors — amazingly there is already a list waiting for the 2019 harvest season.
So who typically sponsors him?
“We work with a lot of customers who have supported us from day one, from families who share the honey at Christmas to corporate clients who share it with their staff.
“This year we worked with Elbow Lane in Cork, they’re a small restaurant with a big heart for local.
“It’s always cool to see honey used in such a variety of ways and nice to be able to say each customer has respect for the bees and honey.”
Bees and their honey are vital to a thriving eco-system and to our own health — the latest buzz about the health properties of heather honey attests to that — but too often bees have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Colony collapse and subsequent reduction in honey production are resulting in what can only be described as a bee population crisis in Ireland.
“The main danger facing the honey bee in Ireland is the Varroa mite, a parasite which almost certainly leads the colony to its demise if not treated. Wild colonies of bees will never receive the required seasonal treatment for Varroa, leading to a steady decline in honeybee numbers in Ireland,” explains Mark, who swiftly underpins the need for a revival of the skills of beekeeping.
“Habitat loss is also a serious problem. Modern agricultural techniques have reduced the quantity and diversity of wildflowers. Take dairy farming as an example and how it has grown in the last decade: herds are bigger than ever, putting pressure on grazing and winter feed with more animals to feed. Pasture land that once relied on clover to assist in grass growth is scarce and replaced by liquid feed so our pastures grow as plain grass. Clover was once a cornerstone of the Irish beekeeping season as a great source of nectar.
“Some crops, such as the GM maize, common now as a winter feed for cattle, pose a threat to honeybee health. These plants are bred to exhibit a pesticide which is present on a cellular level and extends to the pollen within its flower. Beekeepers located close to such crops have shown increased cases of colony collapse.”
The honeybee is up against a formidable triumvirate of habitat loss, disease and modified crops toxic to bees. American food writer, Michael Pollan, once said ‘The desire for a certain type of food leads to a certain type of agriculture.’ Potentially, could a growth in demand for Irish dairy and beef at home and abroad be a factor in the demise of Irish honeybees? In this battle of wits, currently bees are on the losing side. So what can be done at grassroots level to help make a difference?
“Find your local Beekeepers Association and join the Federation of Irish Beekeepers in carrying out an age old craft that keeps rewarding you year on year. They run free lectures in CIT every autumn and beekeeping demonstrations in spring.
“Buying local honey always helps — supporting beekeepers supports their bees; or simply educating ourselves about the benefits of nature.
“And if you have a garden, don’t poison it with chemicals — there’s no such thing as weeds in nature, let your brambles ramble, everything has its place!”
Honey is one of nature’s most special sources of food, requiring 12,000 flower visits per bee to make 1 tsp of honey! But what makes the honey from Hive Mind so special?
“Every year is different, but this year has been excellent for our bees and the honey harvest too — there was barely a day when the bees couldn’t work!” explains Mark.
“Honey from our Myrtleville hives was predominantly from the bramble, plants flowered early and the bees did well on it. We do very little to our honey after extraction in order to deliver its true flavour.”
With growing popularity around Hive Mind, plans for expanding the capacity to take on more sponsors and deliver more honey are in full flow.
“This year, we have been fortunate enough to work in connection with a number of excellent beekeepers in Cork and further afield. With this help, and the increase in stores, we will be able to satisfy more customers this year. Our jars will be labelled with each town-land from where they are harvested. This will give us more variety, which is exciting as honey is so locally dependent.”
Hive Mind is creating a national network of local beekeepers who are committed to supporting thriving, buzzing, colonies of healthy bees who busily do what nature designed them to do: make delicious and nutritious honey which we hold the honour of delighting in. That sounds like one sweet deal!
Next week, our series ends as Kate Ryan talks to Michael Twomey of Twomey Butchers.