Five years ago, The Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations (FIBKA) approached National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) to start a conversation about developing a diploma course in apiculture (beekeeping). This has now come to fruition, providing an educational platform for those who want to pursue a career in apiculture.
President of FIBKA Paul O’Brien is passionate about the potential that graduates from the recently launched course will have open to them.
“Until now, there has been no formal certification for beekeepers’ knowledge and skills. The diploma will be recognised internationally under the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) framework, which will open the door for employment opportunities at home and abroad.
“Australia and New Zealand are always looking for beekeepers from Europe, because of the summer climate being opposite to our own. There’s a whole lot of work, if they wish to go on an adventure and do that.”
At home, for the young people who want to become professional beekeepers, Paul says that as we produce only 6% of the honey consumed and bought in shops, there’s a 94% shortage in honey.
The diploma will be recognised internationally under the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) framework, which will open the door for employment opportunities at home and abroad
“We could fill this demand if we had enough beekeepers. The average age profile of the beekeeper in Ireland is 60 and growing older. We’ve beekeepers in their 90s-plus keeping bees. It was a handed down tradition but neglected because all everybody ever saw was the pot of honey and they never saw all the rest of it.”
Although the age profile may be older, Paul says that FIBKA does have a good few children involved from the age of 10 and on, but that similar to a lot of activities - when they hit their teenage years they get distracted but they’ll come back into it later on.
Due to the fact that “the pathways to the commerce” have not been clear, apiculture has heretofore only been seen as a hobby but Paul believes that this course is a step towards more people seeing the opportunities in bee keeping.
“There are a couple of beekeepers that export honey directly to America as pure Irish honey and they’re getting a premium price for it. We have to look outside our own domestic market, Saudi Arabia pay a huge premium for good-quality honey. So there is a market it’s just something we haven’t looked at. The whole world is looking at biodiversity. Insects are under huge threat globally and the more we can do to protect our insects and make them profitable the better we are as a human race.”
The most important thing we have to protect in Ireland is our hedgerows because that’s where the diversity is
But it’s not just working with bees and producing honey that may attract students, there are also research opportunities open to those with an interest in this area. There is increasing recognition of the contribution beekeepers make towards the environment and sustaining biodiversity and opportunities to study this are plentiful.
Professor Grace McCormack from NUIG said: “In launching this course, we are fulfilling NUIG’s commitment to promote scientific study, research and development in fields critical to food security, sustainable development and climate.”
A beekeeper on the west coast himself – which his no mean feat with a wet climate – Paul explains how Ireland is unique in this regard. “Being an island, we can do lots of research. [Looking] into the hybridisation of insects from other areas, because it is difficult for bees to fly in from England or France. Our bees are native to our country and we have a unique strain of the native Irish bee. Those that want to do research on all the pests and viruses that hit bees have a unique source to do it here in Ireland and there’s so much work required for food security going forward in protecting insects and how they are effected by fertilisers, climate and the environment.”
The bee highway
The importance of the hedgerow to the bee population, Paul calls out as sacrosanct. “When you leave urban areas, the most important thing we have to protect in Ireland is our hedgerows because that’s where the diversity is. We treat it as an insect corridor all over Europe and while we have them naturally, we have to protect them. If we remove our pollinators we will be in trouble.”
There is potential for a larger honey industry for people who wish to get involved. With honey differing from area to area, Paul feels that Ireland is missing a trick not utilising our “green potential”.
Using Kerrygold butter as an example; he explains “it is globally accepted as a premium product because it comes from grass fed cows and it comes from Ireland. With our honey, when we go to international competitions, we win trophies as we have a premium product.
“Bord Bia has come on board with us, trying to promote us as much as they can but we’d have huge growth if we wanted to go down that route. We have a diversity of flora and fauna here. If bees are brought to an oilseed rape crop, the farmer gets a 7% increased yield from his crop, so there is a lovely synergy there.
“We have an opportunity now with this programme to make a living out of bees.”
The main aim of this course is to provide quality third-level education on bees and beekeeping. Students will learn about entomology (the world of insects) including the diversity of insects, their health, structure and general biology and their importance to humans with a focus on the honeybee. The complex behaviour of social insects (bees, wasps and ants) and how this is relevant to beekeeping will be studies. In addition to these topics, practical modules will take students from the basics of learning how to be a beekeeper through to some advanced elements including bee breeding, and the production of honey and other bee products.
Fees: for EU residents are €1,185 per year. The course commences in September 2021with full details available at www.nuigalway.ie/courses/adult-and-continuing-education-courses/beekeeping.html.