HANNA Bäckmo’s hives are humming in the early summer sun. Bees move busily in and out of the tall wooden boxes as Hanna sets about preparing to open a hive for inspection.
She lights her smoker and puffs it in to the entrance to the hive, explaining as she does so that this makes the bees drowsy and less inclined to sting. Then she lifts off the lid of the hive, peering in at the activity inside.
“Here are the bees coming in with pollen on their legs,” she says, pointing at the hive entrance. She takes out a frame where bees are busily putting little wax caps on cells with larvae inside.
“These are drone cells,” she says, pointing to a cluster of cells that are taller than the rest. This is where eggs for the male drone bees have been laid: when they hatch, they will be bigger than the worker bees, which are female.
“These are Irish bees, with black bodies, but we have a couple of impostors here too, with the paler striped bodies. They’ve come from other hives in the area.”
Hanna is a mine of information, talking enthusiastically about every aspect of the lives of her little charges. She’s very attuned to the mood of her bee colonies and says that she can tell that this colony, who happily continue going about their business with the hive open, don’t feel under threat.
How does she know? Amazingly, the little creatures release a scent that smells like bananas when they feel under attack.
“The smell is the first thing you notice,” she says. “They communicate by smell. The queen has pheromones and everything is fine in the hive as long as they can smell her. Us humans need to use our sense of smell too.”
Hanna, originally from Sweden but resident in Ireland since 2001, took up beekeeping five years ago and now she has 15 hives in several East Cork locations.
At her main apiary, she has 10 hives, while the rest are out on farms where oilseed rape is now flowering. Hanna doesn’t want to disclose the exact locations because, sadly, beekeepers sometimes have their hives and equipment vandalised.
A keen gardener, she keeps a well-maintained half acre of vegetables and flowers at her home a few kilometres away in Little Island, where she also bases her studio where she practices her day-job as a wedding dressmaker.
It was through her gardening that Hanna became interested in bees as pollinators. She did a course with Cork County Beekeepers Association and started keeping her own bees.
“You grow as a beekeeper along with your bees,” she says. “You buy a colony to begin with, and then after that you can just buy queens to get a good genetic spread so they’re not inbreeding.”
Through accident more than design, Hanna has ended up becoming a one-woman cottage industry.
Selling her excess honey, eggs and vegetables from a stall at her gate, she finds that this cash is enough to keep her, her Irish partner and their toddler, Julius, in food staples she can’t grow, an impressive level of self-sustainability.
As well as pots of runny honey, which is unpasteurised and as fragrant as the fields her bees foraged, Hanna makes “something very un-Irish”: a creamed soft-set honey of a type popular in her native Sweden, which has tiny crystals in it that makes it spreadable.
“For kids it’s brilliant because it’s much less messy,” she says.
Overall, Hanna says, Irish beekeepers haven’t been aware enough of the uses of other bee products besides honey: propolis, pollen and wax are all valuable resources too. She’s also a firm believer in the health benefits of her bee products and has great success with home-made nappy rash creams for Julius.
On top of all this, busy bee Hanna has still found time for a new business innovation: Bee Wraps, a reusable, sustainable alternative to cling-film for use in food storage in the home.
These ingenious wraps are made of cotton soaked in beeswax, pine resin and jojoba oil: they melt at body temperature and so can be moulded around just about any type of storage container or used for packed lunches. They are rinsable and wipable and can be refreshed by re-melting the wax in a slow oven. At the end of their useful life, they can be composted or even rolled up and used as firelighters.
“There are two big hypes right now: bees, the decline in bees and people taking up beekeeping, and then there’s the awareness of microplastics,” Hanna says.
“The microplastics thing can be very negative, with a lot of people giving out. I just wanted to do something positive about it. It’s a minor thing but it makes people happy to take out of their lunchbox a really happy colourful wrap that smells nice and that you can use again.”
Although she’s drawn to the idea of becoming a beekeeper full-time, for Hanna, all her different pursuits are part of a holistic lifestyle that provides for her family as well as bringing her satisfaction.
“I want to work to live, not live to work,” she says.
“I want to do the things that I like and feel good about doing them. I didn’t start off wanting to make money from the bees, but I got so into it that I just wanted more and more bees.”
Beekeeping certainly does seem to be something of a trend at the moment and a global awareness of the need to protect our pollinators is mounting; just weeks ago, the EU announced a ban on a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids that are neuro-toxic to bees. Now, the UN have backed a move to celebrate World Bee Day each year on May 20 to highlight the importance of bees, without whose pollinating activities many crops important to humans would fail.
Eleanor Attridge is Bee Health Officer with the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations (FIBKA) and a committee member with Cork County Beekeepers Association (CCBKA), which was founded in 1892 and is one of the oldest beekeepers’ organisations in the country. She comes from Leamlara, Co Cork and has kept her own bees for over a decade.
Eleanor, like other beekeepers, welcomed the EU’s ban on neonicotinoids, but is slightly cynical about the EU’s overall commitment to pollinators: banning neonicotinoids was a positive step, but in the meantime, farm CAP grants still penalise farmers for leaving hedgerows and other wild corridors on their land.
Farms aside, Eleanor says urban gardeners also play a very important role in maintaining bee habitats.
“That’s very overlooked,” she says. “Gardeners in the city and businesses can also do things to protect pollinators.”
CCBKA currently has 60 students enrolled in their beginner’s beekeeping course and Eleanor says that she does notice an increased interest in bees and beekeeping.
“It’s both men and women, and it’s still mostly retired people,” she says.
“What happens is that people may have an interest in bees but family takes over and they don’t have the time for it.
“Then, when the kids grow up, they can go back to their interests, and beekeeping is one of those things….it takes time, but it’s very rewarding.”
See www.facebook.com/Hannasbeewraps/ and www.cocorkbka.org for more
FIVE THINGS CORK GARDENERS CAN DO TO CREATE A BUZZ:
1. Plant nectar-flowering plants on balconies, terraces, and gardens. Open flowers are easier for bees to access than flowers with a long trumpet, like fuschia. Think of the bees while choosing fruit trees and vegetables, too: check online as to what varieties are pollinator-friendly.
2. Leave space for some winter-flowering perennials, shrubs and climbers in your garden: that flower from January to December. Ivy is a winter favourite for bees.
3. Don’t cut the grass until the nectar-flowering plants have finished.
4. Don’t spray insecticides.
5. They’re not weeds, they’re flowers! Setting aside a patch of wilderness is an important step to preserving our bee population.