On the grounds on Mount Anville secondary school in Goatstown Dublin, there is a secret world hidden behind 12ft high stone walls. It’s reminiscent of Frances Hodgson Burnet’s famous book. In time it will be knocked down in favour of new houses and apartments but for now it’s perfect and timeless.
Within the walled garden there is a Victorian glasshouse, orchards, vegetable patches, an old nuns’ grave and an apiary nestled inside a circle of small trees. This is one of the places that Eamon Magee spends time tending to his bees. He’s a beekeeper and the president of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers.
Magee has a ruddy complexion and a naturally happy demeanor that’s in-keeping with most people’s perception of someone that works outside with nature. ‘I thoroughly enjoy it! Firstly there’s a little bit of carpentry in it, I make a lot of my own equipment. Secondly there’s the looking after the animals and thirdly there’s the business of selling your honey from the marketing to the designing and labeling.’
‘When I was aged around eleven I was beekeeping on the heather in Wicklow. My uncle taught me the craft. In those days it was a long established craft, we used butter boxes and old fashioned equipment. We had no decent veils or protective clothing from the bees.’
Ireland has a long tradition with beekeeping, we used to be a big exporter of it in the 1930s to likes of Lipton’s but when other sweeteners such as sugar beet entered the market the demand for it fell off.
Scotland supplies most of England with heather honey. ‘This is because they manage the estates for the grouse. They cut and burn the heather intelligently but in Ireland, unfortunately, the sheep farmers used to burn the heather so that the grass would come up. They burnt it from the edges and then the fern colonised the area faster. When I was a child around August time the valleys were all purple from heather.’ It’s a huge operation to reverse this damage and the Department of Agriculture has argued that the export market for honey is non-existent versus the export market for beef for example.
Canon law to this day states that 10% of candles must be made up of beeswax, ‘that’s because they thought that bees were virgins! They didn’t understand that the mating happens 5km – 6km from the hive on the wing,’ laughs Magee.
A hive is a very democratic colony, if a queen is not performing to their liking she gets ousted in favour of another. ‘Any egg has the possibility to be queen. The queen can lay two types of eggs, fertilised and unfertilised. A normal egg is a bit like a peanut in shape but at any stage they can take a fertilsed egg and turn that into a queen in sixteen days. It’s all down to what they feed it – royal jelly. Royal jelly triggers the juvenile hormone in the grub and in turn functioning ovaries are made and she becomes a fully developed lady.’
He starts to smile and adds, ‘you’ll see royal jelly for sale be its kind of a joke, it’s usually man made. To collect royal jelly you have to start queen raring, the bees will lavish the queen egg with royal jelly, she only eats about three quarters of it and then emerges. You’d have to go around with a pipette and suck this out of you were to get royal jelly. But apparently it’s an aphrodisiac!’
Before he threw himself into beekeeping he used to dive off Mugglin rocks which are at the back of Dalkey Island. He also traveled to Cuba and the Red Sea to dive but when he had a family he decided to transfer the time spent on that with beekeeping. Both explore hidden worlds and both have a pace to them that is dictated by nature, something that Magee seems to thrive on.
During his time involved with the Federation of Beekeeping in Ireland, he has seen membership grow from about 1100 six years ago to about 3000 now. He attributes this to the recession motivating people to simplify their lives. ‘We have a lot of bees in suburbia now. There’s bees in Aras an Uachtarain (where the Irish president lives). There’s bees on the rooftops on the Bank of Ireland, they wanted to be green so they sponsored a few hives up there and we have a beekeeper looking after them. I put bees on the roof of a youth group centre on Bridgeford street. They wanted to keep bees, it’s practical because they will learn a lot and if they decide they like it they will have to get an apiary.’
It’s always been a hobby for Magee but now that he’s retired he has more time to dedicate to it. ‘It’s a grand little hobby. I love everything about bees, to some degree it’s like keeping hens.’ He stops to point out the lime trees from the glasshouse to explain how much the bees love them, ‘it’s quite exciting for a beekeeper to watch bees flying back and forth.’
You can find out more about beekeeping here.