The continuing plight of bees

One issue that has been championed by the press these past few years is the state of the World’s bee population.  With such an important and emotive topic there are bound to be a lot of different theories, speculation and unfortunately misinformation surrounding bees’ woes; and when I say bees I mean honey bees, but that’s actually part of the problem.

As a beekeeper I’m a custodian of honeybees, someone who should be triumphed for helping to save the planet. But the truth is, beekeepers are terribly short sighted. We focus all our attention on just one single solitary specie of bee when there are over twenty five thousand identified species of bees in the world. We need them all and they are all under threat. Beekeepers fuss and fret over their honey bees all year round but often we do little to help all the other pollinators we so desperately need.

The problems facing bees, are the same for all species; loss of habitat (homelessness) loss of food supply (starvation), Poisoning from over use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides etc. and climate change. As we try to feed an ever growing and wasteful population, more land is converted to intensive agriculture at the expense of pollinators. This is an irony that when given some thought leads me to one conclusion. We must dramatically change our agricultural and food usage practices or face the hard consequences. I worry, as is often the case, that it’s the poorer and most vulnerable of society who’ll bear the brunt.   

In this tiny little Island of Ireland there are an astonishing 97 wild bee species and 1 managed honeybee species. The wild bees are made up of mostly social bumblebees (20 species) and solitary bees (77 species), including leafcutter bees and mining bees. Of these 97 species, 27 are threatened with extinction and a further 12 are near threatened. More than half of Ireland’s bee species have undergone substantial declines in their numbers since 1980 and the awful truth is that we’ve already had 2 species entirely wiped out from our shores. Now is the time to act. We must protect the rest.  

So what can you and I do to help? Well the answer lies in mending, in any small way, the problems I’ve highlighted above. Grow pollinator friendly plants year round to provide food. Leave a section of lawn to grow a little wild for food and shelter, cutting it only in late spring and at the end of summer. Don’t spray herbicides; instead use a strimmer or mulch, but if you must spray, do it late in the evening. Leave earthen and sand banks in place for ground nesting bees. Let dandelions and bramble flower; cut hedges only after flowering and not during bird nesting season. Then sit back and watch. Enjoy the life around you. Smell the flowers, weeds and all, breath the air. Listen to the buzzing, try to identify the ever growing number of wild bees that will come and visit and live in your garden, your place of work, your apartment window box.

If you want to make a difference this year and improve the world around your home, then get involved. Check out the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan which has a huge amount of resources to help you get started. All the information is available at http://www.biodiversityireland.ie/projects/irish-pollinator-initiative/all-ireland-pollinator-plan/  

Here’s for a pollinator friendly 2017 !!

New Season Begins

Its the end of April and the dandelions are making their annual appearance, which typically signals the start of the beekeepers active year. First inspections of the hives will be carried out on the warmer days to check for disease and pests, to make sure her majesty the queen is present and laying eggs, as her role dictates. 

For BeeActiv the busy period never ends, and as we look back at 2015; our first full year in business, its been a hectic but damned exciting experience. We've traveled the country, hopping from health-food-store to health-food-store handing out delicious spoonfuls of Irish Honey to interested folk; and the obvious barrage of questions about bees follows. Bees are so fascinating that you could never grow tired of talking about them. We're very fortunate to a have a small group of masterful beekeepers and honey producers in Ireland who will work with us to get BeeActiv Irish honey on the shelves and we look forward to working with them into future. The role of the beekeeper is more important than ever given the current state of all things environmental and ecological. 

So far 2016 has seen us launch our Ivy Honey & Lemon Lozenges with a touch of soothing menthol. Working hard on recipes over winter was a pure joy and we're absolutely delighted with the results. We've crammed as much honey into those lozenges as food science would allow; and then some. We're looking forward to launching new products later in the year with a sharp focus on Propolis, that wondrous bioactive resin that bees collect from plants to protect the hive. Its packed to the rafters with bioflavanoids and is nature's defender against infection. 

"harnessing the natural healing power of plants" that's we're about, but not without a "little" help from the bees along the way. Plenty of more news to follow, we'll chat again soon.

Conan

My First blog

So....... I've never written a blog before now, and yes I'm not quite sure where to start or what to write. I suppose I'm very excited about my new adventures in beekeeping as co-founder of BEEACTIV.  Our venture is brand new and things that are new are always exciting and a little scary.  Maybe I should start by explaining a little about my story and how myself and Mike (other co-founder) got here.  

For me it started about 8 years ago when my wife said "why don't we keep bees and have our own honey?" I couldn't come up with a good reason not to, so I did a short course on beekeeping and joined my local association in Limerick. There I met a very interesting bunch of people, mostly older men if I'm honest, one of whom happened to live not 5 minutes walk from my parents. He kindly offered to take me under his wing (pun intended) and set me up with my first live hive of beautiful dark Irish honey bees. I was very, very nervous. Opening the hive with shaky hands and watching the cloud of bees rise out from below the crown board; hearing, even feeling the incessant drone of buzzing increase in volume was, in the literal sense of the word, awesome.

Skipping ahead a few years, I saw that the beekeeping association in Limerick was bringing in some fresh blood and looking to improve what was at times a sleepy and non-progressive group. Although my bee management skills were of a low standard and I had some bad habits, I felt I could at least get on-board the committee and do something for the club. By now my interest in bees had become a mild obsession, so having an opportunity to improve the flow and content of club meetings was one I was grasping with both hands.

A major change happened in my life when I was, like so many Irish people, made redundant and placed on the dole queue.  After a few months of looking for work, and to no avail, I decided I would put my past college failings behind me and return to student life. So I enrolled as a mature student in 2009 at the young age of 29 to start a degree in chemistry.  I've always had a love of plants, science & nature, and had interests in other niche hobbies such as astronomy and mushroom hunting.  So I was a true nerd and now with a few years of maturity behind me, I was confident that I could knuckle down and finish my degree.

It was here, in the personable confines of the Limerick Institute of Technology I met Mike, or Dr. M Geary as he was printed on my timetable.  Mike was also a beekeeper and by default an obsessive one. He was lecturing me in pharmaceutical industry techniques and practices and I heard that he'd been giving honey bee related projects to his 4th year students.

The idea of doing some basic level of project science related to bees was very exciting to me. In my third year I approached him and exclaimed my interest in undertaking a bee related project for my FYP.  As it turned out there was a national study on whether or not populations of native Irish honeybees (Apis meliffera meliffera) still existed.  This may surprise some people, but there are a number of closely related sub-species found throughout Europe and many bees are imported in to Ireland every year. So I assisted in some small way by analysing bee wings (over 1,000 of them) and the results were fed into the national study.

In my final year, my project related to the chemistry of Irish honey; particularly to certain compounds loosely termed antioxidants, which are found in trace amounts. It was here I first started to think about ivy.......

Ivy is undoubtedly one of the most valuable food sources to many insects in the autumn and good work recently carried out at Sussex University in the UK has confirmed this. It produces a nectar with a very high sugar concentration and copious amounts of pollen (bee protein). All this, at a time in the year when flowers are relatively scarce. The honey however has the awkward property of crystallising very rapidly. So fast indeed that it makes traditional extraction (spinning of frames) impossible. This fact combined with its distinctive flavour with slightly bitter after tones made it an unwelcome honey in the commercial sense at least, to most beekeepers.

I always felt this was a waste and personally enjoyed its flavour from what is often a generic honey flavour from the main summer crop. So I began reading, as any good academic does, about the ivy plant and what I found startled me. I was ignorantly unaware of its many healing properties, its long history in both folklore and current medicine. There are numerous peer reviewed scientific papers published on ivy leaf extracts and the compounds they contain. There are even clinical trial studies with patients having taken ivy based cough syrups.

At the end of my 4th year I felt the urge to apply for a masters by research at LIT where I could study in absolute detail, the plant, the honey and all its merits. I concentrated on the two most active and abundant compounds in the plant; Saponins.  This huge class of compounds are indeed found in many plant species and are extremely varying in their nature and characteristics. In ivy they are extensively linked to the plants mucolytic and bronchodilating effects; helping to clear viscous mucus and improve breathing in the lungs. I wondered, as a scientist could I look for the presence of Saponins in honey produced from the ivy. And in October 2013 I found them......!

After that, what I saw in this magical honey and what some other beekeepers saw were very too different things. I saw healing and uniqueness and flavour, and above all, something precious. Mike too was very excited and I knew by his constant support over the years and great knowledge we would make a strong team.  So that's what we did, team up as partners in a new business which we called BeeActiv.

What happens next is anyone's guess...............?