A delightful flight into the world of bees


Ciara Moynihan

Beekeepers and the bee curious will be delighted by James Morrissey’s recently published book, ‘The Bee’s Knees’ – a beautifully designed honeypot of delicious facts and eye-opening insights.
The author mentioned to The Mayo News that his interest in honeybees was nurtured while he was growing up in Kiltimagh. “‘I moved from fear to fascination over many years,” he said, evoking the road from frantic swatting to enchanted protectionism that many of us have travelled over our lifetimes.  
Readers of Morrissey’s book will learn that Kiltimagh has had a strong tradition in beekeeping for well over a century. This tradition goes back to the time of the Congested Districts Board, set up by the Land Act in 1891. The board’s aim was to help ensure the counties it covered – Mayo, Donegal, Sligo, Roscommon, Galway, Clare, West Cork, Kerry – would never revisit the horrors of famine. As such, it provided aid designed to bolster livestock, cottage industries and fishing. And among the successful initiatives launched was beekeeping.
In the opening chapter of ‘The Bee’s Knees’, we are brought on an absorbing journey through bee history, from the oldest known bee species – an example of which was found preserved in amber in Myanmar and is estimated to date back to the Cretaceous period 100 million years ago – to references to bees throughout classical antiquity.   
Following chapters see Morrissey’s lens focus on Ireland, zooming in on such nuggets as the Brehon Laws’ Bechbretha, or ‘Bee judgements’. These set out legally binding rules pertaining to bee farming, governing such scenarios as ownership rights over new hives established by swarms on a neighbour’s land, and culpability for bee stings.  
A cornucopia of all things apian, the book also contains fascinating insights on honey and health, how bees communicate with each other through ‘dancing’, why we should be wary of pollen removal from honey, crime in the honey-producing world, the troubling international phenomenon of ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ (which has seen above-average losses in Mayo, Galway and Cork), the impact of tiny varroa mites, why bees swarm, how to treat bee stings, and what we can do to help our native honeybee survive and thrive.
There are also fascinating interviews, conducted by well-known journalist and author Lorna Siggins. We meet Galway beekeeper David Geoghegan, who sleeps with his bees (yes, you read that correctly); NUI Galway scientist Professor Grace McCormack, who researches Ireland’s honeybee subspecies, Apis mellifera mellifera; north Connemara beekeeper Gerard Coyne, who maintains hives at Ballynew, Moynard, as well as at Ballynahinch Castle Hotel.
The reader is also introduced to mountain guide Lesley Emin, who has been keeping bees in Cashel, Co Galway, since learning the art from Gerard Coyne; beekeeping members of St Mary’s Men’s Shed in Limerick City, who have created a ‘Bee Sanctuary’ in an enclosed yard next to the 17th-century Forty Shilling Almhouses; and Kiltmagh-born Peter Morrissey, who keeps hives in Claddaghduff, the gateway to Omey Island – despite having been stung on the tongue as a child in a pram.
We also learn about Michael and Anne Wildes, who run Tara Hill Honey in Gorey, Co Wexford, and who manage hives on rooftops in Dublin. In the capital, thriving hives can be found in such unexpected places as the GPO, The Merrion Hotel, Agriculture House in Kildare Street, the Web Summit HQ in Milltown, and even Dublin Airport.      
Fr Simon Sleeman, who has looked after the apiary at Glenstal Abbey for four decades, writes a beautiful chapter on his relationship with the bees and how they have kept him company ‘through the many ups and down of life’, and the trials and triumphs he has experienced along the way.
Fr Sleeman’s gentle honesty about his late mindful awakening to the beauty and wonder of these extraordinary creatures is both humbling and salutary to us all, a timely reminder that the natural world is not there to be engineered and exploited to our ends, but is an end in itself.

‘The Bee’s Knees’ is published by Currach Books. James Morrissey, a former award-winning journalist, is a communications consultant and a founding director of The Sunday Business Post.

Sprinkled throughout ‘The Bee’s Knees’ are little side boxes containing some wonderful ‘bee facts’.
Gems include: ‘An average jar of honey requires bees to fly the equivalent of over two times around the world’ and ‘The buzz of a bee is made by its wings flapping 200 times per second.’