One frequent question for your columnist: “It’s all very well telling us the city needs to change, but what can I, one person, do?”
This is a fair point. Altering the city’s skyline or influencing its traffic patterns is a tall order for an individual, but then change doesn’t have to be vast and sweeping either.
This is the reason I sought out Des Cullinane, director of Cork City Learning Support Services at Fr Matthew St a couple of weeks ago.
I wanted to find out about the bees they keep there.
“The reason we got into it is Michael Crockett, who is a resource worker here, did his beekeeping course and he asked if I’d mind putting in a hive,” Cullinane told me.
Crockett was supported by Sarah Kearney, Claire Roche-O’Brien, Pat Kelly, and Ann Marie O’Regan. They got the students who go to Fr Matthew St involved in making the hives in metalwork and woodwork classes, and decorating them in art classes.
That was just the beginning.
“We now have five hives, with about 400,000 bees, but Fr Sylvester Flynn came across from the Holy Trinity Church, and the priests were taken with the idea of having hives in their gardens down in Rochestown," said Cullinane.
It’s taken off, forgive the pun. Right next to us is an AIB office, so they’re looking out at the hives all day, and we’ve developed a relationship with them — one of the hives has AIB on it, they sponsor that one.
“We’ve had swarms in the back of Irish and European Holdings, swarms in the back of First South Credit Union — they ring us, our lads go out in the suits and collect them, so the hives and the bees are now very much part of the fabric of the Mall.”
There are other benefits, he added.
“A lot of our kids work with the bees, and we did a project with UCC focusing on how working with the bees calms children down.
If you’re working with bees you can’t be hyper or agitated, because the bees react badly to that, so it’s a great way for kids to learn how to be calm.
“In conjunction with that, another teacher, Ann-Marie O’Regan, has led the kids in creating a beautiful garden in the school grounds, because we have to feed the bees, obviously. Therefore we have bee-friendly plants there, and it’s flying.”
A more unexpected result has been the spread of bee-related knowledge in one small corner of the city.
“The reason bees swarm is that there’s only room for one queen in the hive,” Cullinane told me.
“Others appear, but if they’re not killed then 40,000 bees can follow the new queen off somewhere — in a swarm.
“If you capture that swarm, though, you can’t just put all those bees back in their old hive. You have to take them three to five miles away, which is why we have other hives in Rochestown, and we have a couple in Ovens, and some even in Baltimore.
“You can bring them back to the hold hive eventually, but you must give them the three or four weeks away first.”
Fair enough. Your columnist knows little of the bee, and has not sought them out since an unfortunate stinging incident circa 1975, but he knows one thing.
They need flowers for pollen, correct? Where are those flowers in the middle of the city, apart from the school garden?
“You can find flowers in the city," said Cullinane. "Around the river if you go down the river towards Café Velo and these spots, you’ll find flowers — or the bees will, anyway — and they’d go as far as Fitzgerald’s Park if they had to. That three to four miles would be about their radius.
It’s a very structured society: They send out advance parties to find sources of food, and then they go for it.
"Currently we have swarm boxes around the place and one of those is absolutely full to the brim — we reckon there could be bees from another hive in there — and we can’t move them yet.
“Why? Because they’re working by night as well as by day — the weather’s so good they’re out working all the time. If we move the box during the evening we could come down the next morning to 5,000 bees on the wall because they’d been working all night and missed out on the move.
“We put the box back up for them because otherwise they could get agitated, and maybe sting people. That’s why we were praying for some rain last week because when it rains, they go into the hive and they’re a lot easier to deal with.”
I put away with some effort the mental image of a bee hiking from the Mall across the Grand Parade to zoom up Washington St to the Marydke for pollen, only for Cullinane to floor me with some national stereotypes.
We get the bees from Mac Eoin Honey Farms in Baltimore — we started with German bees, but they were very angry in comparison with Irish bees. The latter tend to be more laid back.
“We’re in it to educate the kids and to show them the ecosystem, the importance of bees in the environment, and they’ve bought into it hugely.
“But there’s a lot more to it than simply looking after hives, there’s an entire experience that goes along with it.
“We’ve embraced it big-time, and it’s been a great project. It’s educational for the kids, but it’s also great fun — they collect egg cartons for the smokers, lads get the odd sting, we make our own hives in the woodwork and metalwork classes and decorate them ...”
And what about the final product?
“We don’t sell the honey. We give it away usually, though once a year at our coffee morning we sell the jars. Last year, we made over €3,000 for Marymount.”
The problem for a columnist in stumbling across a subject like this is that you end up disappearing down the rabbit hole. I learned during our chat, for instance, how to get rid of infestations in bees ...
“Last year we had an issue because some of the bees had mites — these tiny little things that latch onto the bees.
“We learned a simple trick, though. You sprinkle caster sugar all over them and the bees will fly to the wall to scratch off the sugar — but as they’re doing so they scratch off the mites as well.”
Looking at the city bees in a broader context, though, there’s a warning for the future.
“At the moment the city hives are more productive than the rural hives,” Cullinane said.
We get more honey out of the former because of intensive farming in the rural areas, that means there isn’t as much food for the bees. Which is a worry for the future, because bees are the great pollinators.”
Far be it from me to tell you, gentle reader, that a beehive in your back garden or balcony would help the environment. But it wouldn’t hurt, would it?