I never thought there was so much to keeping bees and making honey. Philip McCabe from An Grianan, which means ‘the sunny place’, took me through the whole process from start to finish. This included the keeping of the queen, smoking the bees, explaining the wax and honey production, and why the workers get angry (at the convent, they did believe me). How much honey they will produce and how the taste varies not only from different times of the year but also from which pollen is best for making honey.
Oilseed rape, for instance, produces a very crystallised honey, whilst lime tree has a softer, runnier viscosity. The colour play’s a big part. Also, we tasted a port coloured honey that came from Ling heather, which had a very powerful flavour. Honey will not go off and has no preservatives or additives. Honey was discovered in the tombs in Egypt, which was probably 4,000 years old, and is said to be still edible!
Most hives have around 20,000 bees but can reach 120,000. This is when they are likely to swarm; basically, the hive separates and off they go. They are non stop workers, going quiet in the winter when they have to be fed on sugary water. The bees’ pollen collection and honey-making starts around April, probably until August, Ivy being the last flavour they produce.
Local honey is widely available throughout Ireland and is found mainly in butchers’ shops, health stores and delicatessens. Every pot carries the beekeeper’s own label with their name and address.
Philip McCabe Federation of Irish Beekeepers Association
He has 30 hives, but he is going to bring a special hive to put in the college gardens so bees can settle on the flowers.
- In Ireland, honey was used to make mead (the drink of the gods) before it was eaten. Wax has always been used for candles and weather protection, and an early example of royal use is the King’s seal.
- Honey has also been found in caves in Peru that used to belong to the Incas. The caves were sealed with beeswax, and there was crystallized honey inside.
- During the First World War, when the antiseptic cream ran out, hospitals quite often used honey on open wounds to kill bacteria, and the flesh recovered.
- A bees life span is six weeks in the summer.
- Bees make the honeycomb cells upside down so nectar doesn’t drip out. Enzymes are added to nectar to convert it into honey.
- The cells are sealed with beeswax – the bees eat honey and literally sweat wax.
His grandfather and father were both beekeepers. Since he was a child, he has had bees – he now donates his bees to the Federations Bee Garden at Am Grianan. He admitted that the beekeepers talk to the bees – why? They operate by scent and vibration so they can pick up moods, e.g. if the keeper is angry or excited, they will detect it. If the bees are high up in the tree, the keeper can encourage them down with vibrations by banging a tin and collecting them in a big white sheet spread on the ground. Keepers can also tame bees from the wild and encourage them into hives.
He has 30 hives, but he will bring a special hive to put in the college gardens so bees can settle on the flowers.
Whilst filming, Philip got stung a few times; the bee will sink his sting into the skin. However, because our skin is so tough, and the sting has a tiny hook on the bottom, the bee cannot escape, just moving around in circles until eventually, the stick rips out of the bee. Then, the insect flies away, leaving the sting to carry on pumping into the prey, very weird.
The bee will then eventually die, having done its job. Talking of death, the average lifespan of a bee is about 6 weeks.
At the Mercy convent, the bees are looked after by Sisters Catherine, Monica and ninety-year-old Sister Paul. Sister Catherine has been an authority on bees since 1985. Sister Paul, up until a year ago, made all the hives but now oversees the operation. Their 4 hives have produced half a hundredweight already this year (April-July), so it’s been a good year.
The honey is extracted by centrifugal force, by machine with Philip, but strained and jarred by hand at the convent. Combe honey is produced in perfect 1 pound packs and boxed as is.
We sampled the convent honey on cheese and tomato crackers, which was Sister Catherine’s idea, and it worked very well, I have to say. And on the tiniest of scones, the best I have ever tasted, by a long chalk. The lightness of the scone was unbelievable. I really need the recipe, Sister Catherine!!!
The Mercy convent also had a fabulous rose garden (great for hay fever sufferers as roses produce no pollen) and a huge walnut tree. And at one time was home to pigs, cattle and 70 chickens, all producing for the convent.
We sampled the An Grianan honey in about 10 ways, all cooked up by expert chef and veteran television chef Marie Mcguirk. The dishes included honey cheesecake, a wonderful oaty brown bread and muffins, scones, fruit salad, chilli chicken and Boyne salmon, all very good.
We stayed at An Grianan whilst filming, a college for all sorts of subjects, 100 harpists from all over Ireland were having a few days’ lectures while we were staying there. The well-appointed purpose-built bungalows for hire are fabulous. They are very peaceful and the perfect way to relax.
Marie runs cookery demonstrations on great Irish cooking, and they are always packed out. I can see why she is very good.
All in all, a great film to make, Philip, Marie and the Sisters were an absolute joy to work with, great sense of humour coupled with real warmth. I can’t wait to go back.