Kieran Coughlan: My farm has truly become the land of milk and honey

Last month I was presented with a gift from the gods. On a cold, windy, and wet morning, a prime swarm of honey bees took shelter at a gate post near our farm yard.

The bees weathered the inclement conditions pretty well, taking turns at forming a defensive and almost waterproof barrier against the elements, fanning their wings and lining up in a formation that would put North Korea’s military parades to shame.

It was almost certainly a sign from the gods, given that I had always harboured an interest in bees but never made the commitment to actually take ownership of these feisty little creatures.

Many years ago, I had built a hive as part of a Certificate in Agriculture course at Clonakilty, which remained safely stored in the attic ever since. 

With the help of a local beekeeper, the swarm of bees were ushered into a dry and homely hive, and relocated to a derelict farm building to establish their new domain. 

Another hive of bees was purchased to sweeten the deal, and after a rapid baptism of fire (and smoke), I had become a bee-keeper.

Over the next few days, I scrambled together some key essentials, a bee suit, smoker, hive equipment and feeders. 

Observing these little creatures and learning their movements, behaviours, and life cycle has been fantastic, and life changing in a way. 

When I say life changing, not to a degree that is noticeable to the general public, but life changing in the way in which I look at nature and more particularly the way in which I farm, to accommodate bees. 

As a farmer, I can honestly say the value of brambles and furze bushes didn’t register with me prior to the arrival of these busy farming compatriots.

Indeed they were firmly on the black list for eradication. Speaking with my fellow beekeeper about the likely success of my new colony, I realised the threats facing bee populations are almost entirely manmade.

Removal of ditches, homogenisation of hedgerows from the use of selective herbicides and hedge-cutting, and even the introduction of the varroa mite, are all consequences of human actions and to a large degree occurred due to the actions of farmers.

For bees to survive and thrive, they need forage quantity, forage quality, a diversity of flowers and nectar producing plants that provide them with a food source throughout the year.

Snowdrops, sycamores, hawthorns, horse chestnuts, willow, hazel, blackberries, fuschia, furze bushes, and white clover provide great fodder for bees, and these plants and trees can survive and thrive in conjunction with modern farming, if we let them. 

Providing a habitat for bees is not just being friendly to the environment, the role of bees is hugely underestimated by farmers and the general public.

More than 75% of the world crops depend on insect pollination, crops such as the majority of fruits, vegetables, oil and protein plants, nuts, spices, coffee and cocoa.

Without the help of bees, we could not provide enough feed for our existing population, not to mention catering for population growth.

Studies suggest agriculture in Europe could be significantly boosted if bee populations are better supported.

Insect pollination has an estimated annual economic value of €15bn per year in the EU.

Closer to home, the arrival of my winged squadron has changed my perspective on farming. 

Any new reseeding will include white clover (red clover is useless to bees), the knapsack sprayer has been put away, and hedge cutting will be delayed until mid-September to facilitate the last of the nectar collection, before the onset of the honey bees’s winter hibernation.

From a farming perspective, new-fangled measures of the sustainability of Irish farming have been invented over the last decade or so, such as farmers measuring their carbon footprint in Bord Bia audits.

While such moves are laudable, the erosion of our national biodiversity, especially in terms of bees, perhaps more in decline than any other species, might just be the elephant in the room, when it comes to measuring how we are meeting our sustainability targets.

As farmers, a little effort can go a long way, and hopefully I can inspire others to follow suite.

My farm, which I have always considered to be a slice of heaven, has truly become the land of milk and honey.


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