At Farmleigh House a Retired Scientist Tends to His Beehives

At Farmleigh House deep inside the Phoenix Park, by a patch of grass far away from public access, seven beehives sit side by side.

They’re stacked at different heights against a silver fence across from the famous house.

“I’m always thinking about them,” says the owner of the hives, John McCabe, a retired scientist and busy grandfather, sitting on a log about 20 feet away.

The grassy area acts almost as a landing strip for the honey bees as they can be seen frequently flying to and from the hive.

“They’re amazing workers. From the moment they are born they are put to work,” says McCabe, who estimates that there are about 500,000 bees in the hive.

Despite having no previous experience in beekeeping, McCabe decided to immerse himself in this hobby eight years ago, after he retired from his career in science.

Now, McCabe’s honey, Knockmaroon, can be found on shelves in small local businesses around Dublin.

To Bee, or Not to Bee

After he retired, McCabe decided he needed a hobby.

“I would have been involved in country pursuits before this,” he said, over the phone last week.

He’d previously made wine and jams from his own garden produce, so he decided to pursue this interest, too.

The thing about beekeeping, though, it is often a skill passed down from generation to generation, says McCabe. This meant he had a lot of catching up to do.

“Mostly beekeepers would be second or third generation. I had nothing like that,” he said.

After completing a course in beekeeping, which required him to write essays and sit some exams, McCabe paved his own way into his new hobby.

Breaking Out in Hives

McCabe pulls a yellow polystyrene box from the boot of his grey car. “This is what the first one looked like,” he says.

Inside the beehive box there are seven wooden frames. This is what a hive looks like before bees inhabit it.

He pulls one of the frames out. A sheet of translucent wax covers the frame; a thin wire runs through the wax and the whole thing is illuminated as he holds it up to the sun.

It resembles a wax covered sheet of paper with a wooden frame built around it.

“The bee will pop out the wax and plant their cells in here,” says McCabe, with the sheet in his hand.

The next step was finding a place to put it; McCabe’s wife was not enthusiastic about having hives in their back garden.

“I wrote to the OPW [Office of Public Works] to see if they would let me put my hives in Farmleigh. I didn’t even know the name of the person that I was writing to,” he says.

Luckily, the head gardener said yes.

Getting a Buzz Out of It

Walking up from the car park in Farmleigh, McCabe stops every 10 feet or so to point out and discuss different variations of plants and their relationship to the honey bee.

“That’s the hawthorn plant. The flowers have almost gone on them but the bees love these,” he says pointing at a shrub.

A blackberry shrub, a lime tree and a lavender bush are among the other plants that McCabe spots in the car park where he is compelled to pause at each one and chat about the plant and its relationship with honey bees.

“Bees have adapted to flowers and flowers have adapted to bees,” McCabe says.

Every Monday, provided it isn’t raining, the hive will get a visit from McCabe.

“You never visit a bee hive in the rain,” he says.

Tending the hive is a serious affair. McCabe pulls open the boot of his car, which is parked beside the hive, and pulls out a folder and a copybook.

“These are all my checklists and this is what I have to do today,” he says flicking through the folder.

Also in the boot of his car there is his bee suit, smoker and a special marker to rub on the queen bee making her easily recognisable.

For now though, none of this equipment is necessary as McCabe stands a safe distance away.

Twice a year, McCabe will collect honey from the hives. Among his papers he pulls out a list. It details the various types of honey that an Irish hive can produce.

Runny honey, creamed honey, heather honey, sectioned honey, cut comb honey and chunk honey are written down on the list.

“Premium” is written beside heather honey.

“This is as good as manuka honey, [it’s] full of really good stuff,” McCabe says.

Bí Urban in Stoneybatter now sells McCabe’s produce: “Knockmaroon”.

Back in Farmleigh, although they are twenty feet away, the bees can be seen scurrying in and out of the slit at the bottom of each hive.

“The bottom tier [of the hive] is left for the bees, you don’t touch that,” he says.

McCabe’s grandchildren ask him if they can join him in going to the hives, he says.

The fear is that people will get stung by bees.

“But I’m used to the sting,” he says.

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Donal Corrigan: Donal Corrigan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers transport, and the southside. To get in contact with him, you can email him on [email protected]

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