May Bee Notes

With ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ happening in the Murroe-Boher parish, I thought I should at least make reference to the dancing going on in the bee hives here in Glenstal. We humans have developed a vocal language to communicate and pass on vital information – the bees need to communicate too; but they don’t speak, they dance – and in the dark!

The best-known dance is a figure-eight dance called the Waggle Dance. Successful foragers use this to give information about the direction and distance of flowers yielding nectar and pollen, to water sources, or to new nest-site locations. They use a simpler round dance when resources are nearby (typically less than 10–20 m from the colony site). The Austrian ethologist and Nobel prize winner Karl von Frisch was the first to understand the meaning of the waggle dance.

As last year, we have had a spell of unseasonably cold weather over the last three weeks. This will have checked the development of colonies which should mean swarming will be delayed too. The cold has prevented me from carrying out any full inspections and I need to check to see that food supplies are okay. I can do this by hefting the back of hives – this gives me a good sense of the stores that are left. There is a lot of brood to be fed at this time of year and maybe not much food coming in or left in storage. There is a danger that colonies can go hungry despite all the blossom about. So keep a close eye on food supplies – it is always useful to have a few combs of honey stored away for such times.

This is the busiest time of the year for the beekeeper – I am making up frames which I could have done in the long winter evenings! It is time for routine inspections and time to decide on what form of swarm control to use, if any As usual, I feel uncertain as to the best way to proceed. Some of my colonies (polystyrene ones) could possibly be split to avoid swarming. I was hoping to split at least two but the weather may have checked their build-up sufficiently that it might be best to leave them alone. I will report next month on anything I try.

It is very important to provide enough space for the queen to lay in and also for the storage of nectar. Cramped living conditions will encourage them to move out and seek new accommodation. Speaking of swarms, it is useful to put out bait hives to lure swarms. These are empty hives with drawn frames, placed in the right spot.

Tips for the use of bait hives

Location: It is essential to put bait hives in the right place. The ideal spot is in the sun, 9 to 15 feet off the ground (safe from predators) at flying height of foraging and scout bees, entrance facing out, with no flight obstructions. Make sure you can get at it easily as you don’t want to be balancing a hive on a ladder dressed in a bee suit!  You can put bait hives in the apiary and further away.

Size: Size matters. Scouts will check the size and look for a cavity large enough for them to expand into a full colony; a cavity of about 40 litres, a little larger than a national brood box. Keep the entrance small so that it is easy to defend. You can use a national brood chamber full of frames – and you could add empty national super underneath to give feeling of space.

Bait: Put bait in old brood combs. You will need only a couple if you are monitoring regularly. Fill it if you will be checking it sporadically.

Lure: You can buy commercial lures. These are attempts to simulate queen pheromone. You can also use lemongrass oil, which can be got in most health food stores. Put drops inside the entrance and on top of frames using a cotton bud. You can also place 4 to 5 drops on a piece of absorbent paper, put in a ziplock bag with a few small holes on one side of the bag and place on the floor. Keep a close eye on it and you should soon see scouts giving it the once over!

The population of honeybees in Ireland is difficult to assess but the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations estimates that its 2,500 members in the Republic have an average of 10 colonies each. This suggests there may be about 25,000 colonies with 30,000-60,000 bees in each. In the North, the various associations are thought to encompass a further 1,000 beekeepers or a further 10,000 colonies.

Bees and Breakfast

A friend of mine sent me an article on bees and breakfast, warning us that if bees go our breakfast could also go. No need to worry if you start the day with a full Irish though! Here are seven favourite breakfast foods that are in jeopardy if bee populations continue to decline in massive numbers.


Almonds rely hugely on bees for pollination, requiring multiple hives per acre of almond trees. In California, where 80 percent of the world’s almonds are harvested, there aren’t enough bees to keep up and growers lease bees from other parts of the country to carry out pollination. This can be both disruptive and harmful to bees as they aren’t made for travelling long distances away from their home environment. Needless to say, almonds do not exist without bees.


Avocados rely on pollinators, mainly bees, to reproduce and produce fruit. A substantial drop in bee populations would make avocados more scarce and even more expensive than they already are. 


Coconuts are mainly wind-pollinated, but yields can double when bees are present. While the absence of bees might not spell doom for the coconut, it is unlikely that production could keep up with the current trend of ‘coconut makes everything better’ without a boost from bees. 


For 54% of American adults, coffee is an important part of any morning. Coffee is self-pollinating, meaning it will continue to exist even if bees do not. However, while bees aren’t essential for coffee production, their interaction increases the quality and yield of the coffee plants by as much as 50%. If bees were to disappear, coffee would likely become much more expensive and harder to get. 


Fresh berries or a berry smoothie could become scarce. Bees are hugely responsible for pollinating most berries.  


A world of few bees is a world with little citrus. It is estimated that 90% of oranges rely on bees for pollination. 


Obviously without bees, honey is the first thing to disappear from the breakfast table.

Conclusion: Bees are largely responsible for the diversity and nutritional punch of our breakfast plates. Sure, you can live on eggs, bacon and toast, but the foods that bees bring to the breakfast table are some of the most colourful and nutritious foods we have. Take a minute to thank bees for your next smoothie bowl, avocado toast or almond milk latte.