Report by Heike O’Sullivan
Proof for the domestication of what are now known as ‘farm animals’ goes back quite some time. It is thought that around 15,000 years ago (13,000 BC) some clever Mesolithic person considered it too much trouble to go hunting for meat, and presumably kidnapped a litter of piglets to start raising and farming pigs. Some 2,000 years later it was the sheep’s turn, then the goat, and by 8,500 BC, mankind had gathered enough courage to try their hands at cattle. At around the same time, our ancestors had watched the likes of bears or badgers robbing wild bees’ honey for long enough to think, huh, whatever they’re after, it must be worth the pain.
They started competing for the ‘liquid gold’ with these animal gourmets but perhaps drew the short straw once too often because by around 7,000 BC, humans had started to keep their own bees in pottery vessels, woven straw baskets, wooden boxes or hollow logs, aiming to harvest all the honey for themselves. These containers all had one crucial disadvantage: The colony had to be destroyed when the time came to harvest their honey. Pottery was smashed, baskets pulled apart, boxes split open, thereby destroying eggs and larvae and probably killing bees, too. Not surprisingly it was in prehistoric Greece where evidence of much more sophisticated cultivation of bees for the production of honey was found, such as de-constructable hives, smoking pots etc. The 18th and particularly the 19th century saw great advances in beekeeping, with the development of structures we associate with modern-day hives with their hanging frames.
In Ireland, beekeeping is said to have become part of our tradition since the arrival of the Celts. It used to be seen as a nice hobby for retirees or to be carried out at large commercial scale, but during the last ten years or so beekeeping has gained in popularity, similar to the keeping of free-range hens in one’s back garden. The health benefits of honey and related products such as pollen, propolis and royal jelly have been well documented in the Irish media for several years now, and such products can be found in all good health food shops. Not just for enjoyment or internal use, good quality raw honey can also help with skin infections, open wounds, dandruff and more. If you suffer from allergic rhinitis (‘hayfever’), raw honey produced in your locality containing pollen from local plants can activate your immune system and – over time – build up your natural immunity against it.
Providing us humans with honey is, of course, not the only thing bees excel at. We have all learned in school that, along with bumblebees, the honeybee is extremely important for pollinating our plants and trees. This benefits our ecosystem as well as our economy (think apple trees for cider or berries for jam). The decline of bees worldwide has been the subject of many news stories; disappearance of habitats, poisoning from pesticides, effects of climate change and pests such as the Varroa mite being blamed for this decline. So, bee conservation has become a major topic and the Native Irish Honey Bee Society (NIHBS) was formed to promote the conservation of this hardy native bee. Apis mellifera mellifera is also known as the Dark European Honey Bee and is perfectly suited to our Irish weather conditions, keen to leave the hive and do their job even at lower temperatures and on drizzly days, when their imported Italian cousins would think twice before leaving their bed. Therefore Irish Honey Bees often thrive better and produce more honey here at home compared to their foreign counterparts.
It might come as a surprise to many that nowadays, breeding policies for bees are similarly refined as for sheep or cattle. For instance, more aggressive colonies can be quietened by introducing a more docile queen to the hive; pest tolerance can be increased by selective breeding with particularly pest-resistant queens; etc. Similar to the IFA or ICMSA representing the interests of sheep and cattle farmers on a national and international stage, beekeepers have umbrella bodies such as FIBKA, the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations which was formed in 1881. There are currently 48 affiliated Irish Associations which between them have over 2,800 members. To find out more, look at www.irishbeekeeping.ie or www.irishbeekeepersassociation.com .
Report by Heike O’Sullivan