"There is a huge demand for local honey – I have had people come and buy ten jars at a time."
Kieran Harnett, photographer and beekeeper, is one of the initiators of the Dublin Honey Project. The aim of the project is to produce honey from as many parts of Dublin as possible, and on the way boost local biodiversity and knowledge about bees.
The campus of University College Dublin has a green corner that few people know. It houses an orchard, greenhouses and, since this year, an apiary with about a dozen buzzing hives. Here I meet Kieran Harnett, who takes care of these and many other bees throughout the city.
What does your ‘bee work’ in Dublin include?
Beekeeping is one of the things that is best done with another person. Together with one of my beekeeping friends, Gearóid Carvill, I set up the Dublin Honey Project about three years ago. I had noticed how in other cities, like London, beekeepers are working to produce local honey from different postcodes, that people know is produced in their own area. Nobody had started doing such a thing in Dublin yet. There is a huge demand for local honey – I have had people come and buy ten jars at a time. They are aware that there is a health benefit, especially if you have allergies: the closer the honey is produced to where you live, the more it will contain pollen from your local trees, and the better it is for you. By postcoding the honey you create a sense of ownership: we now produce Dublin 4 honey, Dublin 9 honey… That is the whole thing: trying to get as many areas included as possible.
We own all the hives that we set up: my friend Gearóid has about five, and I have around thirty hives. You could call Dublin Honey Project a company – we sell the honey at markets and a couple of trendy shops in town. Although you will not earn back the money you have invested in hives during the first few years, after 4 or 5 years of beekeeping you may start to make some money out of it. We manage all the hives by ourselves. That is quite time-consuming: it takes about half an hour per hive per week, so for me it adds up to 15 or 20 hours of beekeeping per week, that I do besides my photography work.
Do you have other goals than bringing in honey?
The project is surely a nice way of working with other people and collaborating. At the same time, it is about improving the environment and biodiversity. If there are more bees, many plants are pollinated just a bit better, which makes them set more fruit and nuts, which feed birds and other insects. You would be amazed, if you went to a beehive at night, by the amount of other insects that lives off the dead bees and the debris that falls through the hive. There are spiders, woodlice, moths – the place is crawling with life.
Another aim is telling the story about bees, beekeeping and where honey comes from. Our bees are used for education here at UCD and at Belvedere college, where an urban farm with an apiary has been set up on the roof of the school. Besides, we do talks and lectures at universities and food markets, and help people when they want to become beekeepers. We are giving a workshop in a restaurant as well, where people can buy tickets to taste honey and learn about how to become a beekeeper.
How are your relations with the city council?
I haven’t received funding from Dublin city council, or any other institution. When you are keeping bees, there is only support insofar as that the council will not put up blockades in your way. However, there is a very good attitude in the city council at the moment, and they are actively encouraging beekeeping. The council have opened up places to keep bees in some of the public parks: right now the government keeps bees in Goatstown, at the organic garden in Phoenix Park and in the President’s house as well – the president likes to give visiting dignities jars of honey.
There seems to be a growing awareness of environmental issues in the city government. This year, all of Dublin Bay has been declared a biosphere and a new Biodiversity Officer has been appointed. It seems to create a new kind of impetus for helping people in general with bees. It is great that you might now be able to get bees in a lot of the sites around town that are owned by the government. I don’t have hives on government-owned ground myself, but it would be a good solution for many people who would not have the space for bees in their back garden.
Have you had any struggles with rules from the city council?
I haven’t heard of anybody being told by the council that they cannot keep bees in a particular place. There is no law about having bees, so the only laws that could constrict you are laws about nuisance. You can have trouble if your neighbours have children in their garden next to where you keep bees. In general, you do have to be careful. The apiary on Belvedere College, for example, is located in Dublin 1, right in the city centre. If you had a big swarm of bees escaping from your hives and landing on O’Connell street (one of the busiest streets in Dublin) the whole street would be closed down. So, it is a responsibility of the beekeeper to control swarming and other nuisances.
Also from the people who live close to my hives, I haven’t had any negative reactions. In Drumcondra I have had bees in a school for the blind, where there were blind children riding horses close to the hive. Actually, the girl who ran the horse riding was allergic to bees, and there were never any problems. The only real obstacle or problem I have met could be that the project is growing too fast. If you start with bees they multiply all the time, and you may constantly have to buy more hives and equipment. That is why you have to control the swarming: you don’t want to become a victim of your own success.
Do you have any plans for setting up more hives?
Yes, at the moment I am talking to the Web Summit company, who want me to install beehives into the garden of their offices. For a big agri-tech conference they are organising in about two years they are interested in experimenting on some technology with the bees. We are going to put some sensors on the hives that allow you to keep track of what your bees are doing by simply looking at a website. Besides being a fun project to do for me, it can improve our understanding of the bees.
I like to do such partnerships with people doing research. In UCD, for example, there is a study going to find out what kinds of pollen the bees are using. The Web Summit is anyhow a great brand to be associated with – partners like that are good for prophesising what I’m doing.
Do you see the enthusiasm for bees and beekeeping is growing?
There is definitely a huge interest. There are about a thousand people in the Dublin Beekeeping Association, with sixty people doing the beginner’s course to beekeeping every year, and that is just the south part of Dublin. The number of hives in the city must be in the order of thousands. Even though their numbers seem large, the city can provide enough flowers for all those bees. Dublin is a low-density city: if you take all parks and gardens into account, it comprises almost 50 per cent green space. There are lots of trees, and that is the main food source where you get a lot of your honey from. The city is also much cleaner than the countryside, where bees are often poisoned by pesticides. Where there is pollution, the insects are one of the first creatures that will suffer. Beekeeping in cities might make at least a little contribution to preserving bees against such threats. It’s more insects up in the air, it’s more pollination, why wouldn’t that help?
Could the city council do anything to improve the city for bees?
They could start with banning the pesticides that people use in their garden. A lot of neonicotinoids and other pesticides are prohibited for use in agriculture, but you can still buy them to spray on your roses or your tomatoes. Planting for bees would help as well. Instead of cutting the grass besides all the roads, let it go wild, let some of the parks go wild, so that there will be more native flowers.
There is some effort already: the government has just announced the Pollinator Initiative, that will try to increase pollinator numbers and improve their environment. A lot of that initiative is involved in letting wild meadows grow in the parks and the sides of the roads. However, a lot of the planning for wildflowers is done by people who have no experience with beekeeping themselves. The flowers that are planted may not even produce any nectar in our climate, or the bees may not use them at all. You need knowledge from trial and error to really create the kind of environment that the bees need.