This week on The LifeStyle Show, Taragh Loughrey-Grant speaks to Irish beekeeper Eoghan Mac Giolla Coda about the healing properties of honey, the challenges Irish beekeepers face today and why we need to protect the Irish honey bee.
How long have you been a beekeeper? What got you involved, and continues to keep you interested in beekeeping?
As a fourth-generation beekeeper, I grew up with beekeeping. In college, I used to work summers and weekends with my father.
Much later, when working, I took it up again as a hobby which gradually took over until I had to try to give it a go as a full-time adventure. Although very hard work at times, working with bees is endlessly fascinating.
How many beehives do you have and what does a typical day for you look like?
I have 150 hives. On a typical day during the summer, I would get up about 5:00am.
I would spend a couple of hours on such tasks as washing jars and bottling and labelling honey. It then takes about an hour to get the equipment ready for the day and load my van. It is generally not warm enough to work with the bees until after 9:00am, but as soon as I can, I set off.
My hives are spread all over Co. Louth in groups, or apiaries, of around ten. Each hive has to be inspected on 7- and 14-day cycles. The requirements of each hive have to be assessed and potential swarming behaviour has to be managed. I wear a bee suit so if temperatures are high, it can get very hot.
Also as the honey comes in, the boxes that have to be lifted off each hive to get to the "brood nest" get heavier, so it can be very physically demanding. I usually have my lunch out in the open: in the mountains, by the sea, in woods, or in a field beside an apiary.
I usually get home between 6pm and 8pm in the evening, depending on how the day has progressed. If the weather turns bad, it can get frustrating, as my inspection cycle gets delayed and I have to try to catch up.
The Irish honeybee - is there anything about it that makes it special?
The native Irish honey bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) is specially adapted to our cool, damp summers.
It flies at low temperatures and works well in sporadic conditions. It is very conservative with regard to food and has evolved to survive our long, wet winters. Even in poor summers, it usually provides some honey.
Why should we be proactive in helping it? How can people help?
To help the Irish honey bee we need more forage, which means more flowers, especially wild flowers. It takes ~2,000,000 flowers for a honey bee colony to produce one pound of honey.
We need less mowing of grass, less spraying, less cutting of hedgerows, more planting of flowering trees.
Local honey - for many hailed as the saviour to hayfever. Why is it so popular for allergy sufferers?
The use of honey to improve health is known as apitherapy. For hay fever sufferers, it is believed that the natural pollen in pure (unpasteurised) honey may build up an immunity to pollen in the air.
Honey is also used to treat skin conditions, such as burns and bed sores. Honey is probably the oldest medicine known to humans.
However, it must be said that there is very little formal research into the benefits of honey, although as a natural product it is unlikely to have any side effects when used in conjunction with conventional therapies.
What is the biggest challenge facing Irish beekeepers?
Destruction of the Irish countryside, especially through the decimation of our unique network of hedgerows.
The Heritage Bill introduced by Minister Humphreys to shorten the period of (limited) protection provided to hedgerows is meaningless legislation that will encourage further butchery of hedgerows.
Pollination services provided free by beekeepers (and by unmanaged bees and other pollinators) lead to increased yields for many crops, including rapeseed and field beans, and help propagate wildflowers but this is rarely acknowledged. Many parts of rural Ireland have become almost deserts for bees.
Also, imports of non-native honey bees. These hybridise with our own bees, and the resulting mongrels can be quite aggressive to work with.
What advice would you have for anyone thinking of starting beekeeping?
it is imperative that you contact your local beekeeping association. Most run beginners' courses and will provide advice on obtaining equipment and bees. List of associations can be found on the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Associations (FIBKA) website.
Where can people sample the best Irish honey?
Try to find a local beekeeper (contact beekeeping association in your area). Irish honey is a premium product. When buying honey always read the label and look for country of origin.
Just because it has an Irish sounding name doesn't mean it is Irish honey!
Listen to RTÉ LifeStyle's full interview with beekeeper Eoghan Mac Giolla Coda above.