Preserving the native Irish bee in Carrigaline
There’s more to bees than just honey, which is why Coolmore Bees is working to preserve our native species.
In the past, much of beekeeping was a matter of waiting. “If you went back say, 25 years, when you had a lot of bees in the wild, anybody could start beekeeping,” explains Mark Newenham of Coolmore Bees in Carrigaline, Co Cork. “You would just put out a box, and a swarm of bees would fly into it, but that won't happen now because there aren’t really wild bees anymore.”
Instead, beekeepers must buy bees bred specifically by people like Mark. For over 10 years he has been selling native Irish queen bees and small colonies of bee from his family farm. It was his mother who first kept hives on the land, but Mark’s interest in breeding rather than honey steered their focus in a new direction. “We breed from our best hives, which are ones that are docile and produce the most honey. The Varroa mite is a huge problem. It's a parasite that came from imported Asian bees, which kills the European bees. So we’re trying to work on a bee that will be hygienic, meaning it will spot if a young larva has a Varroa and remove it.”
All species of bee have been in decline over the last few decades, and the native Irish honeybee was presumed to be extinct until recently. Last year the Limerick Institute of Technology used DNA analysis to prove that it is not, and in fact the Irish bee is particularly pure from a genetic point of view. “And not just pure Apis mellifera mellifera [European dark bee],” Mark adds. “We actually have our own unique sub-species that is separate to the European bee.“
This promising news is at least in part down to the meticulous work of breeders like Mark, who is passionate about the Irish bee. “It's adapted over thousands of years to our climate, which is wetter than other parts of Europe. To introduce other bees brings diseases and parasites and native pollinators have huge benefits for the landscape.” However, without beekeepers, Mark explains, the bees would more than likely die out, as they are unable to cope with the Varroa mite on their own.
Coolmore runs beekeeping courses, which Mark believes are essential if you want to keep bees. “We sometimes get enquiries from people who think they're doing good for the environment if they put bees down the bottom of their garden and leave them to nature, but they probably won’t survive.”
Orders can come in from beekeepers all year round, but summer is the busy season for queen rearing in Ireland, as the queens are sold already mated, and this is a weather-dependent process: it needs to be reasonably warm and not too windy. Once these conditions arrive there can be many queens mating at once in different hives, so it’s a race to get them all collected and boxed up. “We had a weekend last summer where we got 74 queens ready for posting on the Monday,” Mark says. Sending bees via post might seem odd, but each queen can be transported in a special cage with enough fondant to last the journey, and some young bees that feed her.
With now over 200 hives, Mark could not run everything by himself, but he has help from his three daughters, Helena, Zoe and Rebecca. All in their twenties, they have been involved almost from the beginning of the business. “They’re very good beekeepers,” Mark says. “I find that women are much more gentle with the bees than a lot of guys, who are often in a hurry to get things done. There are a lot of methodical processes involved. We use little boxes called apideas for breeding. They're very fiddly to check and young, dexterous hands are good at finding queens.” This painstaking work undertaken on a large scale in Carrigaline is what it now takes to continue the survival of our native species: it is no longer a time where we can sit still and wait.
PHOTOGRAPHY Joleen Cronin
WORDS Megan Burns