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Opinion: Our bee sanctuary is wild, messy and beautiful - and it's protecting biodiversity

Paul Handrick runs ‘the only true bee sanctuary on the planet’ in county Wicklow and before you ask, no, they don’t produce honey.

Paul Handrick - The Bee Guy

IN THE SCENIC rolling foothills of the Wicklow mountains a little farm is getting uppity. Getting notions about itself. Sticking its head above the slurry and pesticides and shouting “enough”.

“Time now, ladies and gentlemen”.

Time to stop with the pretence and games and one-upmanship. Time to stop rearranging the deck chairs. Time to acknowledge the mess we’ve made, the mess we’re in and do something about it. For real.

This little farm drew a line in the loamy clay soil back in 2017 and became the first and only sanctuary on the planet totally dedicated to native wild bees  – The Bee Sanctuary of Ireland. This little farm is our little farm and we’ve got big ideas.

So what’s a bee sanctuary, you might ask yourself?

Well around here it’s 55 acres – about the size of 31 football pitches – of certified stock-free organic land completely given over to advocating for, educating about and inspiring action to save our native wild bees.

It’s 12 acres of wetland habitat untouched for a decade. Unapologetic ditches 30 metres wide – a confusion of brambles, nettles and wildflowers all competing to feed and shelter bees, butterflies, birds and whatever else needs them. It’s trees.

bee sanctuary1

It’s clean water and vast ponds teeming with frogs and fish and patrolled all summer by dragonflies. It’s meadows rippling in the summer breeze and fields of crops grown specifically to feed insects and birds.

It’s wild. It’s messy. It’s beautiful. It’s bumblebees – or humblebees as we prefer – busy working from flower to flower. It’s little solitary bees, head down and arse up, foraging in dandelions before floating off in that gentlest of flight on the breeze. Not a hive in sight.
No hives? But you thought we were a bee sanctuary. How can we be a bee sanctuary without hives? Bees mean hives mean honey don’t they? Don’t they? How can you produce and sell honey without hives.

Let’s get this straight – we don’t do honey. We don’t teach beekeeping. We don’t do hives… we do wild and that’s what makes us the only true bee sanctuary on the planet.

bee sanctuary4 Source: The Bee Sanctuary of Ireland

You see there are currently 99 species of bee to be found in Ireland. 77 of these are solitary bees, 21 are bumblebees and only 1 of these species is the honeybee. Honeybees are managed. Kept. They’re not in trouble. It’s the big friendly Bumblebees and the small loners that are the solitary bees that we’re here for.

Loss of biodiversity

One in three of our species of bee in Ireland is in trouble. One in three. Recently published research found that worldwide since the 1990’s one in four species of bee are no longer being reported in global records.

A study in Germany found a 76% decrease in flying insects by mass over a 27-year period between 1991 and 2018. We ignore these facts at our peril. Even selfishly setting aside the fact that these creatures deserve to exist in their own right – we need them.

So that’s why we’re The Bee Sanctuary of Ireland. To make sure that people know that these wonderful creatures are in trouble and to inspire them to do something about it. Before it’s too late. We’re here to fight for the bees because these docile creatures are slipping away whilst we’re distracted in our own existence – an existence that is tied to theirs.

Almost four years ago now I found myself sitting in a field of clover, which was literally humming with bumblebees, contemplating what to do. We’d returned from the first family holiday we’d taken in years to find that nature – deer and rabbits – had decided to party in the veg we were growing.

I was aware that bees were in trouble and as I sat there in the midst of the humming wondering what to do – deer fencing ain’t cheap – I started to wonder why the bees were in trouble given what I was surrounded by. I wondered why we were resisting the abundant nature that was itching to reclaim the farm.

This wasn’t us. Wasn’t what we had fallen in love with when we first walked onto the land. But a crazy idea began to form. By the time I’d walked back to the house that idea was fully grown as I offered to my better half:

“Let’s become a bee sanctuary.”Jump forward to March this year and an early morning conversation with our youngest daughter, then six.

“Dad, how many people are there in the world?”

“A lot.”

“No, how many? A number.”

“Too many – about 7.8 billion”

A pensive pause, as only six-year-old girls can.

“And we’re the only six with a bee sanctuary.”

And it really hit home.“Yes we are.”

“That’s cool.”

As if it’s the most normal thing for there to be a place just for bees. For us to be the guardians.

bee sanctuary2 Source: The Bee Sanctuary of Ireland

Hopefully it will be. Normal. For her generation. Because that’s why we do it. For the kids. For a future. So join us here on The Bee Sanctuary of Ireland in this mission.
Saving the bees benefits everyone and needs everyone.

Fields of dreams

If you build it they will come. That might be true for the ghosts of baseball greats. However for bees whilst the sentiment might ring true it’s more a case of if you don’t build it they will come.

How did we create a sanctuary for bees? We stepped back. Took the mower off the tractor. Stopped being concerned about ‘weeds”. Allowed nature to guide us. Being organic we were already most of the way there. Being somewhat naturally planet conscious we were most of the way there. It was just a tiny step to cross that line into all the way there. One small step for us, one giant leap for bees.

We’d been building fertility and organic matter in the soil for years. Now we needed meadows. We reseeded some to speed up the process. We started growing crops for insects not for harvest – sunflowers, phacelia, mustard, buckwheat – which fed the bees over the summer and the birds over the winter. The plan is to have practically the entire sanctuary back to species rich meadows as soon as possible. In the meantime we’ll give nature a boost.

Wildflowers long missing started to return – betony, cowslips, cuckoo flower, lady’s bedstraw – to name but a few. The bees thrived. Each year we discover more species of solitary bees.

Beyond the bees the quantity of butterflies we were observing increased dramatically. Of a summer evening walking through the wetland a carpet of moths rises before us. Flocks of birds chatter all year round. Bats swoop over the ponds and birds of prey nest throughout. Whatever we’re doing works.

We’re not experts. Don’t make any claims to be. In fact we’re experts at not being experts. When we first had this crazy idea, if we’re bluntly honest, we approached the experts. They weren’t interested. So we did it on our own. We read and watched and learned. But most importantly we did. We took action. We made mistakes. We make mistakes. We own them and move on more informed. Everything we do is in earnest and honest. That will do for us. And we think for the bees.

So how do we sustain this madness?

We raided the piggy bank, adjusted our lifestyle, put stuff on hold. Made sacrifices. We’re all in on this. It’s the only way to be. It’s not a side show. A nixer. It’s 24/7, 365. This needs to succeed. For us. For everyone.

Sure we need to fund it to expand our impact but we’re not great at asking for help, for money. Too proud? Maybe. We’ve had to gradually learn to ask for help. We’re getting better at it. The public response to what we are doing here has been heart warming. I don’t do hope but it’s been getting me close.

Since throwing our website out into the world people have started to join us becoming Friends of the Bees. We love this. It keeps us clean. We don’t do greenwashing. Offsetting is off-putting. So corporate support is a tricky one for us. We’ve been approached but ‘Are you clean enough for us?” is a tough question for most.

Nature’s playground

We plan to welcome visitors to the sanctuary from July – Covid dependent. But because nature and bees always comes first here we cannot have too many people through as this will upset the ecosystem. So in an attempt to limit numbers (yes we’re so committed we turn away business whilst living on fresh air!) to those with a genuine interest we are asking those who wish to visit to become Friends of the Bees on our website.

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We will then have specific dates over the summer and autumn when people can book a visit strictly by appointment. There will be tours and then they can picnic in the meadows. We’re hoping to do this responsibly with respect to the nature we watch over first. We’re not entertainment. The Bee Sanctuary of Ireland is first and foremost nature’s playground, and will remain so.

So what can you do?

The most important thing that you can do for nature is to realise. Realise what we’ve done. What we do. Realise where we are really at as a species on the planet. Realise what we need to do. Realise how much we need healthy, thriving nature. Because with realisation comes action and urgency.

So if you really – for real, really – want to help bees and the planet here’s six simple no-cost things to do. Now. Not whenever. Not next year. Right now:

  1. Stop using chemicals in your garden.
  2. Forget leaving a strip for nature – take a strip for yourself and leave the rest for nature.
  3. Realise what you’ve been told are unwanted weeds are actually vital for insects so leave them grow.
  4. Stop tidying things up. Forget the urban green desert that is a lawn – neat is so last year, so ecocidal – don’t mess with the mess. Make long grass the desirable option.
  5. Don’t keep hives, keep native wildflowers and native wild bees.
  6. Consider your diet and ask questions about how your food is produced.

Educate yourself. Ignorance, habit and convenience kill nature. So take on board those six simple things and live amongst the nature you’ve allowed in. You’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. It’ll be worth it.

Paul Handrick, known as The Bee Guy runs The Bee Sanctuary in County Wicklow.
Save the bees with us by becoming an Official Friend of the Bees via the website -  www.thebeesanctuaryofireland.com.

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Paul Handrick - The Bee Guy

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