Evelyn Reilly and Seamus Murphy, members of the Cavan Beekeepers Association, at the hives at Ballyhaise Agricultural College.

All abuzz over swarming season

CHALLENGE Weather posing problems for beekeepers

This year has posed unique problems for the county’s dedicated colony of beekeepers, with the unseasonable weather blamed for the marked rise in hives attempting to swarm.

While honey bee swarming (May through to the end of July) is natural and a sign bees are looking for a new home, beekeepers can prevent this by splitting their hives to separate the queen and the flying bees from the nurse bees and the brood. However, there are reports this year that some beekeepers have been forced to split their hives twice, and in some cases even three times to ensure control.

“There are a number of swarm control techniques out there and are well known but, for whatever reason this year, they don’t seem to be as effective,” explains Seamus Murphy, member of the Cavan Beekeepers Association. “There have been years like this before, but this is very, very noticeably different.”

Fellow association member Evelyn Reilly surmises that the “Spring build up” in hives happened so quickly following what was a mild winter that, when the weather changed in summer, those stores were depleted quickly.

“As responsible beekeepers we manage swarming so they don’t fly off and land in someone else’s garden or what have you, so we pre-empt it. The normal sequence is that bees saw the weather was good, wanted to divide and swarm, then the weather dropped down again, so they didn’t get all the incoming resources and that seems to have upset them a bit.”

The strangeness experienced with this year’s bee colonies is measured against what was a memorable year last year for entirely different reasons for local honey harvesters.

“You compare June weather this year to June weather last year,” says Evelyn. “This year the evenings have been cold so the bees are going back in and using the resources they’ve built up in the early part of the year. I’ve gone back to supers [where bees keep the honey] and they’re literally cleared out again.”

An abridged issue, Evelyn alludes, is that new queen bees leaving the hive on their virgin mating flight are returning unfulfilled. This is threatening genetic diversity and a hindrance to her providing the colony with viable eggs/brood.

“This happened a couple of years ago too. Other people will tell you it’s down to pesticides and all manner of other reasons. But that can’t happen all the time.

“I’d say weather is a bigger influence, and there is a problem with queens not being mated properly, meaning they’ll run out of steam too quickly and you’ll then end up with an unviable hive.”

Both Seamus and Evelyn keep bees at their homes in Butlersbridge. “As the bee flies not more than half a mile away,” says Seamus who began his interest in beekeeping back in 1977, starting out with two hives. He has nine hives “at the moment”, a mixture of “splits, but I’d usually operate only around six hives”.

Evelyn started beekeeping in 2013 after she finished her first course. Her apiary has “slowly built up”. She currently has 16 hives. “I will say that’s too many. I’m to the pin of my collar now trying to keep on top of them. I’d aim to have around 10 hives, that’s where I’d like to end up.”

Seamus and Evelyn are also avid keepers of knowledge, and are eager to share that with fellow Apis enthusiasts.

Despite the challenges involved, there has been a massive resurgence in interest in bee-keeping in Ireland. In Cavan, the association has more than 100 registered members, with a large percentage of those actively keeping bees.

Educating fledgling bee-keepers begins in the classroom, at Ballyhaise Agricultural College with whom Cavan Beekeepers Association has a long-standing relationship but, as Evelyn states to, there is a difference between harbouring an interest and being “comfortable to stand with 30, 40, 50,000 bees on a summer’s day and have them flying all round them”.

Cavan Beekeepers will this year continue another strong connection, with Virginia Agricultural Show. It’s starting point from which several local beekeepers, Evelyn included, progressed to show honey at a variety of national events to great success.

“Out of seven shows, Cavan honey won Supreme Honey at I think five, including the Nationals in Clonmel, which was Evelyn,” brims Seamus, who counts the association as “lucky” to be given use of the Ballyhaise College grounds, with two study hives set-up within the walled garden there.

Thankfully, Seamus says there is an “end in sight” to the swarming conundrum facing the nation’s bee-keepers.

“It’s petering out, two to three more weeks of this maximum. The weather is showing signs of change too, maybe not this week but next week, and if there comes a nectar flow, the bees will naturally change their focus away from swarming again and instead begin building up stores.”

Evelyn adds that what has happened this summer is the “challenge” of beekeeping.

“Nothing is ever the same. The day you think you know everything is the day you’ll go out and face something completely new. The book may say it must happen like this, but that’s not what the bees are doing, and that’s the fascinating thing about bee-keeping, you’re constantly learning.”