I got a great buzz out of visit to bee keeper’s honey paradise

In his weekly column, John Arnold recalls a few fascinating hours in the apiary, learning the basics of beekeeping and honey production.
I got a great buzz out of visit to bee keeper’s honey paradise
John Arnold

NORMALLY, the first meeting of a new curate to a parish with the incumbent priest would be a pretty mundane affair.

It would probably involve formal introductions and then the more senior cleric would outline where the curate would be residing, times of Masses, confessions and a myriad other details of parish life.

When Fr Phil Foley, a native of Rathanna, Kanturk, arrived as a curate in the parish of Carrigtwohill, his parish priest took him by surprise at their initial encounter.

“Are you Phil Foley?” was the opening greeting. When Father Phil confirmed his identity, Dean John Ahern PP, asked: “ Do you work bees?”

“I have a few hives alright” came the reply.

“Well,” said Dean Ahern “ don’t call yourself a beekeeper unless you produce a ton of honey.”

Well, there’s an introduction to parish duty of a different kind! Dean Ahern was a man that knew his bees from his wasps.

Andy Bourke, of Castlemagner, related that story to me lately as we gazed across the Duhallow countryside at Mount Hillary. Andy is a man for all seasons and an expert beekeeper and producer of honey.

I’ve been told that my father had a great interest in bees back in the 1940s and 1950s. He reared and raced and coursed and sold greyhounds in a big way and kept bees as a hobby. I think at one stage he might have had ten hives — I never heard whether he sold honey, maybe ’twas just for family consumption and for friends.

Growing up in the 1960s, I can recall a lot of the timber frames for beehives lying around his workshop at the gable end of the house. Amazingly, I never had a grá for honey until about a year ago! I always felt it was too sweet and found it hard to take.

Then I had a ‘road to Damascus’ type conversion for no known reason and now I simply love it.

Andy Bourke’s connection with bees and honey began in a strange manner. On Monday, August 7, 1961, he went to Mallow Races with his father. On that evening 56 years ago the last race on the card was the 5.10, the Firville Maiden Plate, of about two miles with a purse of 200 sovereigns.

Crazy Gang was the 2-1 favourite — top English amateur jockey Gay Kindersley was brought over specially to take the ride. Young Andy backed 100-7 (about 14-1) outsider Mutton Cutlet. Ridden by Mr Joe Mulcahy and trained by owner John Mansfield, Mutton Cutlet got up to win by a head!

Andy was over the moon and a few days later, with his sizeable winnings, he went away and bought a hive of honeybees.

Unfortunately, because of lack of knowledge and experience, that hive and its contents came to a sorry end. The seed had been sown, however, and when Fr Phil Foley came to Castlemagner parish with his beloved bees in 1980, he rekindled Andy Bourke’s interest in and love of bees.

It was in Lourdes about ten years ago that I first met Andy. He goes in June each year to the Marian Grotto in the south of France to serve as a Brancardier (helper) with the Cloyne Pilgrimage.

Andy, along with Sean Barry, John Coffey and John Healy, are now the foursome who annually carry the flag and banner at every ceremony during the Cloyne pilgrimage.

Don’t ask me how I came to find out about his interest in bees, but I did, and that’s the reason I was anxious to see for myself the whole operation in Castlemagner.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’d be fairly nervous around bees, wasps and other stinging, flying creatures. To alleviate my fear, Andy gave me the full beekeeper’s body suit complete with head covering and gloves.

I spent a few fascinating hours in the apiary, learning the basics of bee keeping and honey production. Andy is now one of the leading lights in the Duhallow Bee Keepers Association, which is affiliated to the Federation of Irish Bee keepers. He was All Ireland winning Bee Keeper of The Year in 2011.

Dressed like a spaceman, I was oblivious to the hundreds of bees crawling all over me as I observed at close quarters the thousands of bees at work. The phrase “As busy as a bee” is well coined indeed. Kneeling literally inches from the hives I saw the bees coming and going at a frenetic pace. “On their hind legs,” Andy explained, “you’ll see the little bundle of yellow pollen from dandelion and furze.”

Indeed, as the bees entered the hive the yellow deposits were easily seen — seconds later, unladen, each bee flew off for another ‘load’.

Andy explained that though each hive in the month of April might contain as many as 20,000, every bee knows his own hive and furthermore ‘guard’ bees ensure no stranger gets in. Each hive has a queen bee, drones and workers.

The queen is truly remarkable — much larger than the other bees she can live for up to three years and, unbelievably lays around fifteen hundred eggs each day! These eggs hatch out to be the new drones and worker bees. In their ‘youth’ they clean and build the honeycomb in the hive. They then move on to other tasks like guarding the hive and receiving food from the collecting bees. When they are about three weeks old they begin life as foragers — collecting pollen, nectar and water, which are the basic ingredients that go into honey. After six weeks or so the bee is dead!

It’s a truly amazing life cycle, all controlled by the fertile queen who is guarded, fed and treated like royalty should be.

The honey created by the bees is a unique product. It is possibly the only substance known to man that is remedial for the human body inside and out. Honey is a complete food and also a valuable antiseptic for cuts and wounds.

Andy explained that bees can forage and fly up to a mile and a half from the hive. This gathering journey is repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times, and then the bee dies of exhaustion.

On my visit to Castlemagner, Andy took me through the complete process from the bees gathering and making the honey to the extraction, heating and jarring of the finished product. He is very proud of the title ‘Pure Irish Honey’ but unfortunately he told me many spurious products are on the market.

“Pure honey will go hard in the jar and crystallise, but it’s still perfect,” he explained, and “once it’s heated it will regain its runny quality but fake honey or honey mixed with other products will never crystallise.”

One of the by-products of bee keeping is beeswax and from this deep yellow substance, Andy fashions the most beautiful candles. He demonstrated how to make hives and sections from timber. He explained terms like super, foul brood, queen clipping, swarm control, brood cells, crown boards and wax moth — I will have to go back for a few more ‘lessons’ before I’ll really understand the complexities of the whole operation.

The Varroa mite, Andy explained, is a huge threat to bees and beekeeping worldwide. It’s a tiny parasite, which can literally wipe out bee populations if not controlled by miticides, which kill the mite but don’t harm the bee or the honey.

Realistically, I could have stayed for a week, mesmerised by the humming and the comings and goings of hundreds of thousands of nature’s little miracles. Truly, the longer you live the more you learn.

I was delighted to hear Andy explain that many ‘new’ people have taken up beekeeping in recent years. Like Andy Bourke, most people involved with bees do it not for pure commercial gain but because they love it and they are continuing a tradition that’s thousands of years old.

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