Honeyed words about the wonderful bee

Barbara Pierce

The title comes from 1920s slang: “Bee’s knees – highly admired person or thing; Something excellent!” This all applies so well to James Morrissey’s tremendous book. As a long-time bee keeper in flowery south Dublin, I simply loved it and warmly recommend it to all.

James Morrissey’s feeling and opinion about honey bees, who have been generously blessing humans since before Abraham was led to a ‘land of milk and honey’.

Actually they were here 50 million years before us – pictured here the oldest bee known, preserved in amber in India from a remote geological date. From Mesolithic cave painting showing two honey collectors hanging by creepers, subduing the bees with smoke to Egyptian beekeeping records, 3,000 BC, to Aristotle’s writing and through recorded history, bees and wax and honey have been valued. They bring sweetness and light, and our orchards are dependent on bees to form fruit from flowers.


A very interesting chapter on the history of beekeeping in Ireland, where bees were always valued, describes the 7th Century Brehon Bee Judgements which were used to decide the rights and obligations of beekeepers.

After the Famine there was such poverty, particularly in the western counties from Donegal to West Cork, that the Congested Districts Board (CDB) was established to aid small farmers, who were living close to starvation. The CDB promoted beekeeping as a source of income for destitute farmers, “a well-managed hive could produce as much profit as a pig” .

A famous CDB instructor, ‘the Bee Man of Co. Clare’, Turlough O’Bryen, who used to travel the area on his bicycle bringing supplies and teaching, is well remembered in beekeeping lore.

The author extends his admiration to the many beekeepers and researchers who have mentored and taught him how to tend his bees. Interviewed by journalist Lorna Siggins specially for the book, they entertain us with anecdotes and information, and the many questions which beekeepers are asked. ‘Why do bees do “the bees dance?”’, ‘Why are bees endangered?’, and a new question, ‘What is honey laundering?’. ‘Is there a native Irish bee?’

All these are explained clearly, giving a new understanding of how we need to live in harmony with this “aspect of nature in the world we co-share”.

Visually, this is a very pleasing book. The beautiful cover is all golden yellow wood and wax and gold striped bees. These sunshine shades continue, interleaving the pages.

The threat to the bees from loss of ecology and other dangers…are not glossed over”

Many photographs show the well known Beekeepers in stunning locations and working intimately with their bees – these have a true ecological flavour of people at one with their work and their environment. A beekeeper examines a translucent frame of golden honey, surrounded by flying flecks as if of gold leaf.

Of course the threat to the bees from loss of ecology and other dangers, some from other natural sources, are not glossed over. The huge loss of bees over the last couple of seasons is reported and make grim reading. We have to all remember that bees are not just essential, but vitally essential, to the propagations of other flowers and plants, carrying pollen from plant to plant.

This lack of future pollinators threatens not just the supply of honey, but also the very system of nature itself. This can be traced, many say, back to the overabundant use of pesticide by the giant agri-businesses that supply our supermarkets with the cheap food that so many demand because those who employ them often do not pay them proper socially-relevant wages.

James Morrissey, by the way, is a leading communications consultant and the author of several books. A former award-winning journalist, he was a founder director of the Sunday Business Post. He is a native of Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo.

The book is available from Currach Books.