That’s Farming, speaks to Matt Wheeler of South Wexford Beekeepers Association about starting beekeeping, the ecological benefits to farms and grants available.
TF: How much does it cost to begin bee-keeping?
MW: The typical cost for a hive is around €150 to €200, depending on what type you opt for.
Here in Wexford, we tend to use the ‘national’ style of hive, which is slightly smaller than some of the others.
You can get starter hive kits from the main suppliers of bee equipment – that would include:
- The floor;
- Also, the roof;
- A main brood box (i.e., where the queen resides and lays her eggs);
- A crown board (an inner board that sits between roof and brood box);
- Honey’ super’ i.e., the box where you take the honey;
You will also need some sort of stand to put the hive on. A couple of pallets and breeze blocks can suffice.
Of course, you can significantly reduce the cost if you can make some of the components parts of the hive yourself.
If you enjoy a bit of DIY, that is a good thing you can do in the quieter winter months when the hives are dormant.
How can a farmer begin bee-keeping?
A good start would be to speak to other beekeepers in your area. Beekeepers are usually very generous with their time and have no hesitation in discussing the ‘ins and outs’ of their hobby with others.
They can also point you in the right direction about sourcing bees in your area.
Try and make contact with the nearest association in your area. Most associations are affiliated to FIBKA (Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations) and have regular monthly meetings from autumn to spring.
It is a great way to meet new friends and like-minded individuals and learn from those with years of experience.
Is there any courses/ training required?
Before you buy any bees or equipment, it is always best to contact your local association. Find out if they run a taster course or a course for beginners.
This will give you a good understanding of bees and how best to manage them.
At the club I attend, South Wexford Bee-keepers Association, we run a weekly beginners’ course from February to April.
It is both theory and practical and is accredited through FIBKA. It is a good way to discover more about bees and bee-keeping and will help confirm whether it will be something that you want to pursue as a hobby before you spend any money.
Some of our attendees participate simply because they like bees and are interested in them and want to know more about them – but have no desire to keep them, and that is fine also.
There are many ways to help honeybees and the other 98 species of wild bees that reside in Ireland besides bee-keeping.
Is bee-keeping profitable?
Bee-keeping enriches the soul but not necessarily the pocket!
In Ireland, the nectar season is very short and unpredictable – you usually get some honey in spring – April and May and then the main summer flow is from the end of June to the end of July.
Here in Wexford, the warm, balmy summers of 2013 and 2014 produced bumper yields but last year, the bees never really got going despite a promising spring.
However, what we lack in quantity, we more than makeup for in quality. Irish honey is renowned throughout the world as one of the finest, premium products. It is just a shame we cannot produce enough of it to meet the demand.
Are bees challenging to keep? If so, what would you say are the main challenges?
Bees are not that challenging to keep – after all; they know what they are doing and can manage quite happily on their own in the wild without human interference.
It is their so-called ‘keeper’, which is often the weak link in the partnership!
The main challenge is to stop them swarming from May to July. Swarming is simply a natural instinct of bees and is how a colony reproduces.
The old queen comes out of the hive to find a new home with half the workforce, and a new matriarch takes over the old hive with the remaining half.
There are various techniques the beekeeper can apply to curb swarming, but most of us will inevitably experience some losses due to swarming.
Is beekeeping seasonal?
Beekeeping is a great way to map the changing of the seasons.
Quiet in the winter, busy and ever hopeful in the spring with the first flowering of daffodils, weekly inspections from April to autumn, harvest time in August with honey extraction and then preparing the bees in autumn for the tough winter months ahead.
There is always something to be done most months. As every good farmer knows, it is best to plan ahead so you are not trying to play catch up.
What area of land is required for bee-keeping, and how many acres would you say are needed at a minimum?
Bee-keeping is possible for most people in most settings, no matter what size land they have.
So, there are plenty of urban beekeepers around that manage quite successfully with small gardens or plots of land.
What is more important is having a diversity of flora around to provide the vital ingredients for the hive and its occupants – pollen, nectar and water.
What flora is required in the area for the bees to pollinate?
Planting wildflowers to help pollinators has become a popular thing to do, and that is wonderful.
However, the most important flora for honeybees are a bit more humble and mundane than that – winter heather in the depths of winter; the likes of dandelion, willow, sycamore and laurel in the spring; clover and scruffy-looking brambles in the summer; and the nondescript ivy in the autumn.
Many fruit and veg crops also need help from honeybees and other insects for pollination – e.g. apples, plums, blueberries, courgettes, peas, runner beans, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries etc.
What hive structure is ideal – Timber or plastic? What are the advantages or disadvantages of each?
Both timber and plastic are used to construct hives, and there are pros and cons for both.
I prefer timber as it is more traditional, and I prefer the look of it, but it will need more upkeep and maintenance. I think the bees prefer it, too, as they tend to use holes in trees for their colonies in the wild.
Plastic poly hives are very durable, with good insulation capability and would not require much maintenance.
To my mind, you cannot beat the look of the old ‘CDB Hive’ – devised by the Congested District Board in the late 19th century to withstand the worst of the Irish weather on the western seaboard. You can still buy them from suppliers.
How do you extract honey from beehives?
To harvest your honey:
- Firstly, remove the frames of capped honey from the hive;
- Then, cut off the wax capping’s to expose the honey with a sharp knife or uncapping fork;
- Place the frames in an extraction machine that spins out the honey using centrifugal force
- Lastly, collect in a collecting/settling tank.
After a few days in a warm room, any impurities will have risen to the surface and can be skimmed off and then it is ready for putting into jars as pure, raw honey.
Many clubs have extractors that are shared amongst the members, so you will not necessarily have to pay out for an expensive machine.
If you sell your honey, you need to be registered with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), and you need the correct wording on your label.
On average, how much honey can the bees produce?
Teagasc has calculated an average yield over three years of 20kg per year per hive. Honey yields do vary from year-to-year as already mentioned, due to the weather, genetics of the individual colony and forage in the locality.
What other products, aside from honey, can you manufacture?
Other hive products include pollen, propolis that bees extract from the sap of trees and used in the pharmaceutical industry, and beeswax, which can be used to make candles, cosmetics, and polish.
You can also make money from selling ‘nucs’ (small hives) of bees to other beekeepers and rearing queen bees.
What common mistakes can farmers avoid when beekeeping?
A common mistake people make is taking up bee-keeping, investing in a lot of expensive equipment, and then realising they react badly to being stung.
All beekeepers will get stung from time to time. A normal reaction is for the skin to become a bit swollen, red and itchy at the point of the sting.
An abnormal reaction involves symptoms that occur away from the sting site, such as:
- Shortness of breath;
- Tightness of the throat.
Someone with these symptoms should be taken immediately to a hospital for treatment.
So, please make sure bee-keeping will not cause you harm before you get started in earnest.
The other important consideration is to keep the bees away from other livestock. Somewhere sheltered near a hedgerow in a quiet spot is ideal.
In your opinion, what benefit can bees contribute to the ecological system of a farm?
The main benefit that honeybees and the other wild bees bring to the farm is their service in pollination. It is estimated that one-third of all the food we eat comes as a result of insect pollination.
What supports are available to farmers engaging in beekeeping?
The DAFM provides supports and annual capital grant aid of 40% to appropriate developments. The Local Enterprise Office may provide support for the development of commercial bee-keeping businesses.
DAFM also operates the National Apiculture Programme, which includes providing a free disease diagnostic service for Irish beekeepers.
DAFM encourages landowners to make land and woodlands available to beekeepers as part of the ‘Host a Hive’ initiative.
So, if you are a farmer but do not have the time or inclination to take up bee-keeping, maybe consider hosting a beekeeper on your land instead. You might be rewarded with some delicious Irish honey in return!
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