Off a narrow little rural road near the Wicklow/Wexford border between two cottages there’s a small laneway, the type of lane you’d pass without even noticing it. This laneway, potholed and partially flooded has seen better times but probably never better use. For this unmarked and unremarkable laneway, if noticed and traveled, leads to a fairly unique place. A very unique place. The first and only native wild bee sanctuary on the planet. The Bee Sanctuary of Ireland.
I’m Paul Handrick aka The Bee Guy. Six years ago or so I had an idea – to create a space on this planet dedicated to advocating for endangered native wild bees – and I acted upon it. I’m delighted to answer the following questions about what we do put to me by Bronwyn. Hopefully it might inspire you to help bees too.
Q: What prompted you to set up The Bee Sanctuary of Ireland?
As the politicians say ‘That’s a very good question. Thanks for asking it’ but that’s where any similarity to any politician ends because with me you’ll get a straight honest answer to the question asked. We bought a farm near Tinahely in county Wicklow about twelve years ago. To explain the how’s and why’s of this would take too long for this interview. My wife, Clare-Louise came from a farming background. I didn’t. We had this vague idea to turn the farm into a sanctuary for people to escape to in order to recharge, to wind down from the pressures of modern life. The land had been rented out by the previous owners and we continued with this arrangement for the first year. As we watched the ways in which the guys working the land operated we were appalled. So we decided to do better. To do it ourselves. We converted to organic. Did a few courses. Bought an old tractor and some basic machinery and jumped in. Learning on the ground and as we went. We never kept stock and set about rejuvenating the soil. We became the only certified vegan organic land in the country and still are to our knowledge. Back in 2017 we were in the process of setting up to supply vegan organic salad and veg to vegan restaurants. We had sown and planted about an acre or so and decided to take the first holiday with the kids we’d had in years. We went away for a week. On our return the crops we had been growing were practically gone. The deer and rabbits looked particularly full up. And guilty. So one evening in late summer I found myself sitting in what we call the Front Field pondering what to do. We couldn’t afford a deer fence. We didn’t want to start attempting to keep out the wildlife that had attracted us to the place in the first instance. As I sat there pondering what to do I gradually noticed the buzz of the bumblebees all around me foraging on the clover. I had an awareness that bees were in trouble. But yet there were so many around me busily working away. So the eureka moment happened as I sat there. An idea formed. Let’s turn the farm into a sanctuary for bees. To advocate for native wild bees. To play a role in ensuring these vital, beautiful creatures continue to exist. To fly. To hum from flower to flower. And that’s been our mission ever since.
Q: How many acres of land does the sanctuary cover?
The sanctuary is 55 acres of land in total. That’s around 31 football pitches in size. We live on-site obviously and this we feel brings greater insight and indeed greater care and I suppose connectedness with it. This isn’t a nine to five salaried job. We live this. Which has its down sides I suppose in that it can be difficult to switch off and take some time for yourself. There’s always something to do. Someone to engage. An enquiry to respond to. Some social media content to create. It’s a mixture of habitats that includes wetlands, woodland, meadows and fields and areas in which we grow crops to feed the bees, birds and indeed the soil.
Q: Are you the only sanctuary of this kind that you are aware of?
We are. We’ve searched extensively but never found another sanctuary completely dedicated to native wild bees – bumblebees and solitary bees. We don’t keep hives. We don’t sell honey or products derived from honey bees. Honey bees aren’t in trouble. Far from it. I suppose it hit home with us a couple of years back in a conversation with our then six year old daughter. One Saturday morning as I was working on a post for social media with her watching over my shoulder she asked: ‘How many people are there in the world?’ Distracted I responded ‘Billions, almost 8 billion I think.’ To which she replied: ‘And we’re the only 6 with a wild bee sanctuary.’ ‘We are.’ Out of the mouths of babes…
Q: How are farmed honey bees detrimental to wild bees?
Before I get into this I’d just like to make clear that we’re not anti beekeeping. We may not agree with it but we’re not on a mission to stop it. Indeed many bee keepers follow us on social media and support what we do. Part of our advocacy is to bring some clarity and honesty to this though. From our perspective honey bees are detrimental to native wild bees on two levels – neither of which is the fault of the actual creatures but rather humans. Surprise surprise! In the first instance we need to understand the impact of a honey bee hive on the surrounding environment. We’ve come up with some basic figures here on the sanctuary which helps people to get this. A healthy honey bee hive can have 60,000 active bees during the summer. If only 10,000 of these bees (a very low number) are actively foraging, with each bee making up to 1000 flower visits per day that adds up to 10 million flower visits per day. For just one hive. This impacts the foraging resources of bumblebees and solitary bees. It’s competition for resources in an ecosystem already suffering from depleted floral abundance. Simply – more bees after less and less food! In the second instance we have lazy and indeed actively and purposely incorrect messaging from many and indeed most environmental advocacies who use bees – honeybees – as the poster girls for fundraising from an ill-informed public. Stick a picture of a honey bee up on social media with a ‘save the bees’ headline and a fundraising ask is the order of the day. We have a blossoming industry selling ‘keeping hives on rooftops of businesses’ as part of their CSR responsibilities basically taking advantage of again misinformed people to make money. But possibly worst of all we have supposed nature reserves promoting bee keeping and indeed keeping hives on the reserves. These people know better. Know the lie they are promoting. When you pit this all together what you get is a public who are being told that the wrong bees are in trouble (there have never before in history been more honey bees on the planet). A public who mostly associate bees with honey bees (there are around 20,000 species of bee on the planet but only 8 species of honey bees). A public who when they hear bees are in trouble think putting a bee hive in their back yard is part of the solution. It is not. It’s possibly making the problem worse. So let’s be clear – honey bees are not endangered. Keeping hives is not part of the solution to declining native wild bee populations. Keep native flowers not hives. That’s where we come in.
Q: Did you rewild the land or did you also plant flowers and other types of plants?
We’re not fans of the word rewilding. We see many issues with the concept and indeed the implementation of it. Some of the ‘official’ rewilding entities actively promote the use of ‘rewilding’ as carbon offsetting to allow business as usual. We prefer less fabricated language around the protection and recovery of nature. What we have done here on the sanctuary is simply to allow nature time and space to recover. To allow habitats to thrive. Going back in time it was a traditional Irish farm and so has been affected and altered by what various owners had visited upon it. From the more gentle agriculture of the early 20th century through more aggressive intensive agriculture from the 1970’s onwards. It was part of a larger farm that was then broken up and finally, before we arrived, it was altered yet again to create a hunting venue. So what we found was a smorgasbord of human intervention. Fields and soil worn out, yet trees planted all around to create cover for hunting. Ditches not quite maintained and often interrupted where ‘access’ had been created by simply bulldozing a hole in the old stone field boundaries. A wetland drained yet ponds created and extended to accommodate ducks before they would be shot. So we sat back and let a lot of it just be. To see what would happen. We learnt on the ground. We got bad advice. For sure we made mistakes. But we seem to have gotten a lot right as well. We merely followed our instincts on much of it. I suppose mostly we loved the place. As well as allowing nature time and space we took the decision to actively grow crops, not for harvesting for consumption by humans or cattle but to help nature recover. We actively and naturally fed the soil to increase organic matter. We grew fields of sunflowers, phacelia, buckwheat, mustard and flowers for bees. These fields fed bees and insects all summer and then were left untouched for the winters to feed the birds and provide cover. So bird populations thrive here too. Woodpeckers are now well established residents and this year we had the quickest ever occupation of an indoor barn owl box ever in Ireland which with the constant monitoring which we provided produced four young owls over the summer. So it’s nature recovery guided with a gentle but steady and loving helping hand.
Q: What about bee declines in Ireland?
We now have 103 identified species of bee in Ireland with a couple of new additions over the past few years. But just because we have new species it does not mean that our bees are doing okay. Of these 103 species 81 are solitary bees, 21 are bumblebees and there is 1 honey bee. The researchers tell us that one third of our bee species are in trouble and a prominent academic in the field indicated to me a number of years back that we are seeing a 5% per annum decline in bee populations. This is more or less in line with what we are seeing worldwide. 40% of pollinators in trouble across the planet. A 76% decrease in flying insects by mass in less than 30 years on nature reserves in Germany. 25% of bee species no longer showing up on records over the past 20 years despite more citizen science out looking for them. It’s fairly dire. What is driving this decline? This impending insect apocalypse? In a word – humans. The main driver of bee decline is unpalatable to most. What we eat and how we choose to produce what we eat quite simply kills nature. Kills bees. We take their habitat away – where they live, sleep, hibernate and breed. We take their food away – native wild flowers. We poison them with chemicals – which also poison ourselves. We spread disease among them. And the icing on the extinction cake – we now hit them with human caused climate breakdown. You did ask! So what can we do? First realise what we do. Inform yourself. Educate yourself. Look a little deeper. Then act. Consider your diet. Demand better and more transparent food systems. Stop using chemicals in your garden. They are designed to kill and that’s exactly what they do. Let nature back in to your garden. Messy, wild wonderful nature. Allow wildflowers such as dandelions and thistles to do their thing. They are vital. Grow native wildflowers from untreated seed. Grow sunflowers with your kids. Tell other people. Lead the way. Be a little gentler on the planet and lot tougher on your public representatives. All this would be a good start.
Q: How do you measure your success – have you seen wild bees on the sanctuary?
Truth? We won’t consider what we do a success until bees and nature are safe. Until then we’re just a work in progress. A nice idea. A dream. We’ve realised that while we can protect and help everything within our boundaries to thrive and flourish (even at that pesticides drift in on the wind) we cannot protect what is constantly being destroyed beyond, even in our own local community. We have many species of wild bee on the sanctuary and discover and identify more each year but our wins really come through our advocacy. Through educating others and inspiring them to act to the benefit of bees and nature in their own back yards and communities. Our social media feeds impact right across the planet – literally from Mongolia to Montreal, from New Zealand to Newfoundland – and our message and love of bees transcends all socioeconomic classes, borders, beliefs and genders. Everybody loves bees. Those that maybe think they don’t just don’t realise it yet. They merely haven’t been inspired by the right messaging! Again that’s where we come in.
Q: People can donate to you – how is this money used?
We’re not great at asking for money. We badly need it but it’s not in our nature to make that ask. We do this full time. We’re all in on this. Somebody has to be. It’s not something we do part-time on the side of another career. This is it. We often find when we are giving talks either online or in person that our passion for the subject means that we forget to even tell people about our website or that we need their help to keep this going. So thank you for bringing it up! People can donate or sign up as supporters of our work through one of our websites. www.thebeesanctuaryofireland.com or www.savingbees.ie. To be honest they need updating but we don’t have the funds or time to tackle that right now. The former is better for info and the latter easier for donations. All funds go into running the sanctuary and allowing us to do this vital work 24/7 365. We also love giving talks to businesses and groups which allows them to support us whilst getting a real feel for what we do.
Thanks for your interest in what we do here on The Bee Sanctuary of Ireland. Hopefully this might inspire someone to do better by bees and remember – Bees are for life, not just for honey!