That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Tom McDonnell of Killucan Honey. The beekeeper discusses his 60 hives, upgrading facilities and challenges he faces.
“I am a beekeeper from Killucan Co. Westmeath, and I do shift work. I started 15 years ago and joined a local beekeeping association.
Beekeeping covered a lot of personal interests I would have had in crafts, nature, and woodworking. I find beekeeping fascinating. It is a bit of an addiction, and you are always learning something new.
It started as a hobby, making all my own beehives and has developed into a small business.
Before leaving farming altogether, my dad had a dairy, beef, and tillage farm. I have completed many beekeeping and food hygiene courses.
Furthermore, I have a diploma in mechatronics, a diploma in IMI supervisory management, and a BSc in pharmaceutical technology & science.
I moved on from keeping a few hives as a hobby into selling honey into local shops in Westmeath and Meath and building up a reputation for good local honey over the years.
But it had just reached a point where the beekeeping I practised was labour-intensive & the honey processing equipment I had was too small.
Also, the throughput for harvesting honey was inefficient and time-consuming.
With some advice from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in 2020, I invested a lot into the business along with a horticulture beekeeping grant to modernise the honey extraction equipment and beekeeping equipment.
Also, I invested in a honey house food production area. Now, I can harvest honey more efficiently in a clean humidity-controlled environment. I can leave the honey in the comb longer before spinning it out in a centrifuge.
This allows me to do other jobs such as weekly inspections and deliveries. Moreover, I increased the number of hives and now have sixty.
You must have some training first before you start bee-keeping. Joining a local beekeeping association is important to get the necessary support, training and mentoring. Without this, you will fail after spending money on the equipment and bees.
Commercially you must plan out your year. Having good queens or livestock is critical, and preparing equipment in advance.
The beekeeping year starts in October. The bees should be already set up for winter, having enough honey stores to last them over winter.
They require very little maintenance over the winter months, but you must closely monitor the hives’ weights.
I build up the best stocks for the oilseed rape and move the hives on to the OSR in April just before it flowers.
You should carefully examine weaker stocks to determine why they have not built up as fast, such as signs of disease, varroa, enough stores, is the queen laying normally?
Depending on the outcome, these stocks are strengthened or equalised by uniting more bees and brood or requeened.
From the end of April, carry out swarm control weekly inspections on stronger stocks. Always give space to the bees by adding supers or extra boxes for room.
Weekly inspections are vital from now on, and while weather dependent, if there are signs of swarming, deal with it ASAP.
I harvest any honey as it becomes ready in May and June because OSR, dandelion, sycamore spring honey will crystalise quickly in the honeycomb, especially in cooler weather, but this is all weather dependent.
A long, cold, wet spring yields little or no honey. After the OSR flowers are gone, I move these hives to final positions in different apiaries for main summer flows.
In the summer months, I would be working flat out on inspections, swarm control, queen rearing and making nucs for the following year’s production units. You are praying for good weather to complete this.
I may have 4 or 5 apiaries to visit every 7 to 10 days during the main summer months, and you need a lot of already prepared equipment ready to go. My jeep is usually packed to the brim heading out and is empty after the day’s inspections.
Inspections can take a few minutes per hive until you find something wrong, like open queen cells present, which can delay you.
You need to get in and out of apiaries quickly to get to the next one. Any signs of bad weather has you glued to weather apps looking at the rain radar to see which apiary is next.
Time of year
The main summer flow is usually from the end of June, July and August for the Westmeath area. I harvest the summer honey before the heather flowers in mid-August. I extract and spin out this honey over a few weeks.
The heather honey must be removed before the Ivy flowers in mid-September, and there is more work involved in harvesting and extracting the heather than other types of honey.
The ivy honey I usually leave for the bees, but I will take a surplus to make an ivy softset over winter.
Advice for aspiring beekeepers
Listen and learn from other experienced beekeepers. I am married to a very understandable wife, Mona, who will insist on helping to move beehives at 5 am and encourages me at everything I do.
Also, I am involved with NIHBS Native Irish Honeybee Society and the Offaly Bee Keeping Association, OBKA, in promoting and rearing native Irish queens.
I get a lot of satisfaction in maintaining and breeding native queens for myself and beginners.
Investment into the business has streamlined my honey harvesting, saved time, and allowed me to concentrate on other aspects of beekeeping and expand the number of hives.
You always learn something new; every year is different because you do not know what challenges the weather brings. This has a huge impact on how the bees perform, and you must adapt to it.
Insecticides and cheap imports
Importing queens and foreign bees is a challenge. Because we are an Island, our native Irish black bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, is unique and one of the purist stains of Apis mellifera mellifera bee in Europe.
Importing foreign queens and bees are threatening our native bee. Imports can bring in diseases or potential threats, such as the small hive beetle from Italy, which would destroy our bee stocks.
When non-native bees cross breed with our own native bees, it can cause many undesirable traits such as aggression and poor overwintering.
Imports can destroy decades of hard work by Irish beekeepers trying to maintain and promote our native black bee and native bee voluntary conservative areas across Ireland.
Insecticides are a problem, but I am very lucky to work with local farmers and landowners who are passionate about the environment.
The forage available and apiary space for beehives is always a challenge, but I am lucky so far with local landowners and farmers.
Irish beekeepers cannot compete with cheap imports of honey. My own honey gets tested by the department, which it should. However, with some imported honey, the regulation and hygiene practices are unknown and cannot be checked at the source.
We do not have the resources here to test all imported honey for adulteration, syrup, colouring, and antibiotics.
Some of it is labelled as organic honey, but the certification of organic honey is unknown in other countries.
Some European honey advertised is sold with no labels, which is against basic requirements here in Ireland.
Honey adulteration is a problem, and more resources are needed for sampling and testing; we just need a level playing field.
I am a small-scale commercial beekeeper. A small number of commercial beekeepers in Ireland might keep a few hundred hives each.
While this is small compared to other countries, our season is too short. The bees forage just a few short months or weeks. Unlike other countries, our seasons are unpredictable.
A very good year to cover costs
I work shift work, which pays the bills, not selling honey. Many hours are involved with beekeeping, and you need a good year to cover your costs.
In 2020, I invested in equipment, a honey house, and a storage shed, and it was the worst harvest in a decade.
2021 was a better year, but now my jeep needs replacing. It does not provide a wage, only a small extra income in a good year. A lot of beekeepers are just addicted to the craft.
Climate change is a huge challenge every year; the weather is unpredictable. As I said, 2020 was the worst honey harvest in 15 years across the country.
The weather was bad during key times like June and July 2020; some flowers never opened, and it was too cold for nectar to yield.
Products, sales and prices
I sell Killucan honey through a few shops in Westmeath, Dublin and Meath. 227g of summer blossom is €7.50. Killucan honey is available in Mullingar, Kinnegad, Killucan, Raharney, Castlepollard, Oldcastle, and Dublin.
My beehives are on natural habitats and Special Protection Areas around the Westmeath area with an abundance of wildflowers. The diversity of different nectar sources gives the honey its unique taste.
My honey is never heated or fine filtered, retaining all the natural enzymes, vitamins, local pollens good for hay fever, propolis, antioxidants, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Irish heather honey is now scientifically proven to have similar powerful antioxidants called phenolic compounds, as has been found in manuka honey.
My products are summer blossom wildflower honey, heather honey and ivy softset, beeswax candles and Polish.
Outlook for beekeeping in Ireland
Going forward, I would like to focus on queen rearing because these queens are for the following year’s production. They must have certain characteristics like docility, productivity, produce good honeycomb, and have good hygiene traits.
The vast majority of beekeepers keep the native Irish black bee, and its outlook is poor. Our native bee is under threat from imports of foreign bees.
Interbreeding our native bee with foreign drones and mixing the gene pool causes undesirable traits such as aggression. It will set back decades of hard work in maintaining our native bee, and this is happening now.
The department does not have the resources to police or check everything that comes in.
It started out knowing very little and expanded gradually with experience and training to sometimes panic during swarm control.
Now, I enjoy my beekeeping more and do not take on more hives than I can give time to manage.”
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