Meet the beekeepers at Mount Stewart

A row of bee hives in the walled garden at Mount Stewart

A wetter climate, fewer green spaces, the use of pesticides and changing farming practices means that the bee population here is in decline. An important pollinator, and a food source for other small mammals, the bee is vital to a thriving ecosystem. Find out how we are working with Valentine and Chris from VeesBees to help the bees at Mount Stewart estate thrive.

Why did you choose Irish black bees?

The Irish black bee was thought to be extinct 25 years ago until some colonies in Tipperary were tested and found to be 99% native black. She is from Northern Europe but most of Europe is now hybridised. As our only native bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) she is well adapted to our damp climate and unpredictable summers!

We have been able to breed from a few carefully selected queens and now have over 100 colonies on the Ards peninsula in County Down.

Beekeepers at Mount Stewart
Beekeepers at Mount Stewart
Beekeepers at Mount Stewart

How many bees are at Mount Stewart?

There are officially 98 species of bees in Ireland and many of these can be found in the Mount Stewart estate. These include 78 different species of solitary bees (such as Mason bees) and 20 different types of bumble bees all of which need our help, support, and protection.

There is only one honeybee species - the Irish Black - and we currently have 28 colonies within the estate. This number will change during the season when we make-up new colonies.

" In real terms we may have up to 1.5 million bees enjoying the 1000-acre site at the peak of the season."
- Chris Hodges, VeesBees

Why does Mount Stewart make a suitable base for your bees?

Mount Stewart is an ideal location for the bees due to the diversity of flora and fauna within the demesne and the mild climate that this part of the peninsula enjoys.

The estate is ideally situated on the shores of Strangford Lough and our dream is to have the Ards peninsula designated a conservation area for the native black bees.

We are encouraging all local beekeepers to support us by voluntarily keeping and breeding native bees. Bees do not like to fly over water therefore in this area it is easier to control the mating and therefore the genetics. Promoting the native indigenous species also matches exactly the National Trust’s ethos of advocating and protecting native species. 

Bees help our gardeners by pollinating flowers
Bees and honeycomb at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire
Bees help our gardeners by pollinating flowers

How far do bees travel?

Bees tend to travel up to three miles to forage but can if they are swarming, fly up to five miles. Like every other species they always look for a handy meal and will forage as close to the hive as possible to minimise transit time.

Have you noticed any change in your bee colonies due to the weather that could be attributed to climate change?

Last year (2019) was particularly challenging due to the damp summer and autumn and the mild winter. We lost 10 percent of our bees last winter but already they are on the increase and we will soon be back to strength due to the abundance of forage within Mount Stewart and an exceptionally mild spring - so far.

Colonies are struggling primarily with the introduction of foreign bees that bring disease and viruses that our native bees have no immunity against.

Many of today’s farming practices also add to the challenge. Reductions in hedgerows and wildflowers along with intensive crop spraying make the job of the humble honeybee difficult.

Our insects are important to our environment and without them, many species of birds, bats and other small manuals will struggle. We need our native insects and as pollinators and they all need our support. 

How has the National Trust supported your business?

The National Trust and in particular Mount Stewart have been exceptional by allowing us space to place hives on the estate, giving us the opportunity to tell the public what we are trying to do and allowing us to teach others.

The staff at Mount Stewart are fully supportive of our efforts and are always keen to lend a hand, offer advice and encouragement safe in the knowledge that our aspirations and goals closely mirror those of the Trust itself.

A row of bee hives in the gardens at Mount Stewart
A row of bee hives in the walled garden at Mount Stewart
A row of bee hives in the gardens at Mount Stewart

What’s happening in the colony at this time of year? 

This (May) is our most important time where colonies build up their numbers to be ready for the late spring and early summer nectar flows that are vital to produce and store honey. This is also a time when they can be most at risk of dying if the winter has been mild or the queen is failing, possibly due to an unsatisfactory mating last summer.

We are constantly checking for a healthy brood, ensuring they have enough food and that they are not planning to swarm.

What is swarming?

Swarming is a natural way for the bee colony to reproduce. However, with up to 30,000 bees leaving the hive in search of a new home it can be very scary for the non-beekeeper and sometimes they do not choose the most appropriate home – at least not in the eyes of us humans! Fortunately, with regular checking and several techniques we try and minimise the number of swarms that exit our hives.

The honey bee is under threat, but we are helping to protect them with hives at many of our places
Honey bee feeding on a dahlia flower
The honey bee is under threat, but we are helping to protect them with hives at many of our places

How has covid-19 impacted your business?

Covid -19 has really impacted our business as we have a market stall in St George’s Market Belfast, now closed selling not only honey but natural skin products which are gentle to sensitive skin.  ‘Veesbees’ gives us income to carry on the work we do with the conservation and promotion of the native black honeybee. However, we are managing with on-line orders and sales of our hand lotion are especially brisk with the increase in hand sanitization using alcohol-based cleaners.

On the positive side the lock down has given us the opportunity to spend more time with the bees, to get everything ready and to do more Queen rearing than normal

We do miss the interaction with other beekeepers and the joy of showing the bees to potential beekeepers of the future through our summer beekeeping experiences which we run at Mount Stewart.