Honey, I'm Home

Article excerpt

Byline: by Eanna Ni Lamhna

THIS is the international year of the honeybee and the good news is that honeybees in Ireland are doing very well, thank you. Stories of 'colony collapse' in America and other places have led people to believe that bees everywhere are on the verge of extinction but the story on Irish bees is good.

The warmest and driest April for decades has meant that flowers have bloomed earlier and the honeybees have been able to work tirelessly collecting food. They don't fly in the rain but rain did not interrupt play at all. In fact, bee colonies increased so much in size that swarms appeared during the month of April.

So unusual is this that the rhyme that tells us about the value of swarms actually hasn't got a category for ones that appear as early as April: a swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon but a swarm of bees in July is hardly worth a fly.

Honeybees are the goody-goodies of garden insects. They have always been prized by man because of the honey they produce. We only have the one species in this country, Apis mellifera mellifera, a dark bee, which is our native Irish sub species.

All summer long, they visit flowers, making a noise not unlike a cat purring - cronan na mbeach it is called in Irish - which is far more descriptive than merely calling it humming.

They live in a colony and have a queen, a fully mature female, who does nothing else all day but lay eggs. These eggs are all female and they hatch out and become worker bees.

They have the potential to become queens but they are not fed long enough with the topquality food while larvae, and so they have a stunted development, as it were. They are quite content to work for the good of the hive for the whole of their lives.

Bees have several different areas of employment and they work in each of these departments during their lives.

FEEDING the young is a very important part of the work of the hive. All larvae are fed a substance excreted from the salivary glands of the workers. This bee dribble is called royal jelly, no less.

Ordinary potential workers are switched to pollen after a few days of eating royal jelly, whereas those destined to be queens are fed royal jelly for the whole length of their lives as larvae.

The first duty of a worker bee is to collect the pollen from flowers and bring it back in special baskets on their back thighs. This is a protein-rich food and it's good enough for the babies, who, after all, are going to grow up to be drudges like their older sisters.

The older sisters, of course, can eat what they like and what they like is honey. But first it has to be made. This is the entire work of another group of the sisters, who are not on baby-feeding duties.

They visit flowers to collect nectar, a sweet liquid deep in the flower, which they lap up with their long tongues, bring back to the hive in their nectar sac, concentrate and store in special cells as honey.

As flowers of a particular species open at the same time, they can make varieties of honey depending on the time of year: heather honey, clover honey, apple blossom honey and so on.

Bees can communicate with each other where the best flowers are by means of a dance - different steps tell how far away the flowers are. Locally produced Irish honey is of a particularly high standard when compared with blended honey from several sources.

Recent studies by the Limerick Institute of Technology have shown that local unblended honey has a longer shelf life and has not been altered by heat treatment to delay crystallisation.

This means that it comes in at the top levels of EU standards for honey, so we should seek out and support out local beekeepers. …