I MAY have been wearing a beekeepers suit that was three sizes too small for me, but it was better to bee safe than sorry when taking on a risky assignment this week.
This weekend’s Good Life festival at Oxford Island includes a beekeeping demonstration and in advance of the event I was given the chance to get up close and personal with a colony of 20,000 bees.
Keeping me right was Noreen Foster, interpretive ranger with Craigavon Borough Council and recently trained beekeeper. In terms of beekeeping with the council it’s a strictly female affair with Sandra Currie and Laura Moore being the other council officers who know their way around a beehive.
Given that all three beekeepers are ladies I encountered a bit of difficulty squeezing into one of their suits, but after a bit of help from Noreen and our photographer Tony Hendron, I was safely zipped into the suit and ready for buzziness.
Before getting my hands sticky, Noreen explained that Oxford Island contains some large areas of species-rich grassland with a great variety of wildflower species unspoiled by artificial fertilisers or pesticides.
With wild bees and honey bees coming under threat from the increased use of chemicals on the land, Oxford Island was considered to be suitable for the establishment of beehives where domestic honey bees could take advantage of the food sources available in the meadows.
Bees will travel up to three miles to forage for food. My food foraging threshold is something similar ever since they opened the new Tesco on our road.
While Noreen and I lifted the lid on the hive, Tony stood at a safe distance and took aim with his long lens camera.
The first thing that struck me was how delicate an operation this was. To ensure no bees are harmed Noreen had to be extremely careful when removing the frames, using smoke to calm the bees and light squirts of water to encourage them to move so frames could be replaced.
The second thing that struck me was a bee, then another and another. They must have taken a liking to my aftershave because they appeared drawn to my face. Thankfully the mask kept them at a safe distance.
A few times I had to remind myself that there was fine mesh separating me from the bees as it was easy to forget yourself and panic at the sight of fifty to 100 bees buzzing noisily two inches from your nose.
The central frames in the hive were abuzz with bees and coated with wax. Sadly I wasn’t able to avail of any honey as this hive is still in its infancy.
On the frames you could see where the bees were drawing out comb which would later be filled with stores of honey or pollen or in which eggs might be laid later in the season. Some cells containing larvae were observed and some of those cells had been capped to allow the larvae to develop into adult bees.
Bee colonies play host to a topsy-turvy society: the majority of bees in the hive are female worker bees who, as the name suggests, do all the work, and male drones, whose only job is to mate with the queen, who singularly rules the hive.
The reason the hive has to be checked at least once a week is to check on the health of the bees and to make sure they haven’t begun forming new queens. If new queens are formed, by giving extra royal jelly to the larvae, this leads to swarms and the division of colonies and loss of one’s stock of bees.
Bees are of great importance to farmers, not only creating such saleable products as honey and wax, but their role in pollinating crops is vital.
Ten thosand to 20,000 bees were in the hive we inspected on Tuesday. At the height of the season around 50,000 could be present in a single hive.
I’m pleased to report that no bees were harmed during the writing of this feature.
Noreen, a member of Dromore Beekeeping Association, said: “Whenever you’re out there you’re only focused on one thing. You can’t bring any stress with you. You need to take your time and remain calm at all times.
“I’ve only been stung a couple of times. It doesn’t hurt that much and it’s meant to be good for rheumatism.”
As well as promoting sustainability the development of the bee project, which has been in place at Oxford Island since last August, ties in with education programmes that are run with schools and other interest groups.
‘An Insight Into Beekeeping’ is just one of the many activities on offer at the Good Life festival at Oxford Island this Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 6pm. For more details see page 19.