The Secret Life of Urban Bees
As our countryside is no longer the wildlife haven it once was, now the busy bee is moving to the city.
It is late August and the golden swathes of rapeseed have been cleared from the fields. Tractors putter down lanes and backroads, cutting back hedges and briars. It is a scene playing out across Ireland and it may be why our bees are finding solace in the city.
“Cities are becoming better places for bees than the countryside,” says Kaethe Burt-O’Dea of Bí Urban, and one of the key reasons is monoculture farming in our rural areas: “Acres and acres of a single variety of plant being grown, which blooms abundantly for a couple of weeks and then is a desert for bees after that.”
City and suburban gardens, with no commercial pressures, can provide an organic oasis, confirms Gearóid Carvill of the Dublin Honey Project. “Cities are rich in the diversity of plant life, from early season daffodils, to plants that flower later in the season. That’s good for bees.”
The systemic use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to maximise crop output are also proving a deterrent, whereas in family gardens, chemicals are less relied upon. “We tend to spray less because we are more concerned about our children and animals,” says Kaethe. She points out that due to the heat island effect in cities, they tend to be warmer and more sheltered, vital to temperature-dependent bees.
These favourable conditions mean that city garden beekeeping is becoming more important, and with little outlay and space required, more accessible too. A ready-made kit, or hive made out of polystyrene with six frames, known as a nuc box, can be bought through the Irish Beekeepers’ Association. Once the hive is established, those frames are transferred to a larger hive that can produce a year’s supply of honey, anywhere from 10 to 30 pounds per hive.
So far, so simple, right? Not so, says Gearóid. “Don’t try and learn this off the internet, do a course. Become part of a beekeeping community – there are local beekeeping groups all over the country – and the Irish Beekeepers Association. There are courses in the spring that give hands-on experience and practical demonstrations. It connects you with a network of people involved in beekeeping, who have come through the same process as you. It allows you to get a mentorship going.”
This knowledge sharing was vital to Ailbhe Gerrard when she created her bee sanctuary on Brookfield Farm in County Tipperary. “Bees are very different from the other animals we keep and without knowledge and input from other beekeepers, your bees are unlikely to thrive or even survive. Bees need different care throughout the year and, to learn the range of treatments and activities, it’s really helpful to work with a mentor beekeeper. And you will probably enjoy beekeeping far more with some knowledge and practical experience gained on a course.”
“Bees like mess,” says Kaethe, “They like a lot of rotting organic material. A tidy garden, where everything is trimmed down tight is not a great place for bees. Think about leaving wild places in your garden and not cutting your garden as often. June, which many call the Chelsea Chop, is a very good time to trim your garden because they then flower again.”
Choose plants that flower at the beginning and the end of the season and if space is an issue, start with a herb planter. Bees love virtually all herbs, as do people, and they generally don’t need a lot of tending.