When Aoife Nic Giolla Coda outlines the weather impact of 2023-24 on her sector, she could be discussing any mainstream farming enterprise.

The talk is of feeding through the late summer and autumn last year, of dealing with a massive drop in output, and increased losses of productive animals.

However, Nic Giolla Coda is not describing the difficulties encountered on a hard-pressed livestock farm; but, rather, the situation faced by many Irish beekeepers.

The Tipperary native – with strong south Kerry roots – runs one of the few commercial honey operations in the country.

Galtee Honey Farm is based near the village of Burncourt and manages 170 hives that are located across 20 sites stretching from Kilworth in north Cork to Cahir in south Tipperary.

“It’s been a tough year since last July,” Nic Giolla Coda admits.

“It’s been a really tough spring – everything is running three weeks behind – but last July to September was even tougher,” she says.

“There were big losses of bees in wintertime last year,” she explains.

“Some beekeepers had to feed their bees last summer and autumn because they were starving. An awful lot of colonies were lost,” she explains.

Galtee Honey Farm sells its produce through local supermarket outlets in south Munster and its own online shop.

The weather-related difficulties were reflected in honey output, with what could be called the maincrop dropping by 30% to 40% compared to a normal year.

In addition, there was a marked reduction in honey for niche markets, such as heather honey and ivy honey, which have medicinal properties. Yields of this valuable product were back 20% to 30%, Nic Giolla Coda estimates.

“The ivy flower is an important feed source for the bees to fatten up on for the winter. It’s in flower during September to October. We got a good warm week in September when the bees were out, but we’d have liked to see them get another one,” she admits.

And the outlook for the year ahead is not looking too bright.

Honey yields are already playing catch-up because flowering has generally been two to three weeks later this spring.

The first feed source for the bees is usually based on the flowers of the willow, gorse and sally. But the feed from these has been hit by a combination of late flowering and the wet weather – the bees don’t fly in the rain.

Native Irish black honey bee.

The dandelion is another important feed source for the bees around this time of the year – along with the blossoms of the whitethorn, the sycamore, horse chestnut and oil seed rape.

These are the first crops of honey for harvest.

“The dandelion is essential for the bees to build themselves up after the winter. But they got comparably little of it this year because the weather was so bad,” Nic Giolla Coda explains.

“It really has been a bad spring on top of a bad summer and autumn,” she says.

For the months ahead, beekeepers will be praying for a sustained blast of warm, dry weather.

White clover and the blackberry blossom are the two primary summer crops for honey, but the temperatures need to be above 20°C and 16°C, respectively, for the bees to get the best from these plants.

“When the temperatures are down, the flowers don’t yield the nectar as efficiently,” Nic Giolla Coda points out.

That such small variations in weather conditions can make a big difference in output, neatly illustrates the inherent vagaries of beekeeping, she says.

“That’s why there are so few full-time commercial beekeepers in Ireland. It is so unreliable as a primary income source,” Nic Giolla Coda maintains.

Diversification is the name of the game

Although Galtee Honey Farm has been in operation since 1970 – having been founded by Aoife’s father Micheál – the business has diversified over the last few years.

A frame being handled on Galtee Honey Farm.

The farm has a visitor room, and Nic Giolla Coda runs two-hour tours, which explain the whole beekeeping process.

“I love the tours. They’re great. You get to meet people and explain the whole beekeeping process to them,” she explains.

“We do the whole history of beekeeping, and beekeeping in Ireland. We emphasise the importance of our native Irish Black Honey Bee, which is a threatened sub-species,” she says.

The location of the farm, beside Glengarra Woods, is also beneficial.

“Because we’re beside Glengarra Woods, it means people can come and have a picnic or a walk and then visit the farm,” Nic Giolla Coda explains.

The tours also help the profile of the farm’s honey, which invariably helps sales.

Aoife Nic Giolla Coda of Galtee Honey Farm with her father, Mícheál, who established the farm in 1970.

While much of the farm’s honey is sold through shops in south Tipperary and north Cork, product can also be purchased directly through the business’s website.

  • Numbers: in the summertime, there are roughly 50,000 bees in each hive, so Galtee Honey Farm has 8.5m bees across its 170 hives.
  • Honey output: the honey harvest varies a lot, depending on the part of the country you are in. The annual surplus yield could average between 20kg and 28kg per hive. However, performance within the sector is also subject to climate. In a given year the yields could be up or down 30% to 40%.
  • Food Network: the tours of Galtee Honey Farm are supported by the Tipperary Food Producers Network. The network brings artisan food producers together to help promote their products as a whole. The network has participated in diverse projects, ranging from creating a children’s book on food to welcoming King Charles and Camilla when they visited Tipperary in 2022.