Big buzz in Co Mayo as new exhibition celebrates more than 110 bee species in Ireland

The Murmur of Bees at National Museum of Ireland - Country Life will underline crucial role of bee population in biodiversity, and features artwork by Harry Clarke

Some people don’t know the difference between honeybees and bumblebees and even those who do may be surprised to learn that there are more than 110 species of bees in Ireland, all of them celebrated in an exhibition which opened in Co Mayo on Wednesday.

Dr Aidan O’Hanlon, one of the people behind The Murmur of Bees, which runs at the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) – Country Life at Turlough Park, Castlebar, Co Mayo until next year, hopes that after a visit people will have a better idea of why “saving the bees” is a good idea.

The exhibition opened just a day after European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced, in an apparent concession to protesting farmers, that a proposal to halve pesticide use across the EU was being scrapped.

A study by researchers at Trinity College Dublin last year confirmed that pesticides significantly reduce the colony performance of bumblebees in Ireland and across Europe.


Outlining the crucial role bees play both as pollinators and contributors to biodiversity, Dr O’Hanlon, the curator of entomology at the national museum, says the best way to get people to care about the natural world “is to let them see how beautiful nature really is up close, and let it do its own talking”.

Also on show at this exhibition is a piece by the artist Harry Clarke – a drawing of St Gobnait, the patron saint of bees and beekeepers, which is on loan until May from the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. The artwork – which was the template for one of the artist’s most celebrated stained-glass windows, sited in the Honan Chapel in Cork – complements an array of bee-related exhibits such as a 200-year-old honeycomb, a wooden beehive from the 1950s and a 16th-century manual on beekeeping.

There has been a resurgence in beekeeping in recent years but the experts aren’t recommending all the advice in Instructions for Managing Bees (1733)‚ on loan to the NMI from the Royal Irish Academy. For example, the manual’s tip for dealing with tomtit birds, which are capable of eating up to 30 bees at a time, is “just to shoot the bird and you will have no more problems”, explained Tiernan Gaffney, curator in the Irish Folklife Collection at the museum.

Neither does he recommend the advice for dealing with potential bee robbers, which is to put a sharp knife up through the centre of the hive on the basis that one encounter with a sharp blade would be a deterrent.

Next Sunday (February 11th) is St Gobnait’s Day, and visitors to the exhibition will learn how she came to be the patron saint of bees and the legend of how in the sixth century she repelled armies of invaders by setting her bees on the attackers.

There’s also plenty to learn about the native species of bees, which keep expanding. “A new arrival is the ivy bee, a solitary bee which was discovered in Wexford about two years ago,” explained Dr O’Hanlon. “It was expected to arrive as the experts noted that it was tracking increases in temperatures across Europe and Britain, and sure enough, it turned up in the sunny southeast.”

He says while all bees might look the same to non-entomologists, the portraits of the different species on show in the NMI will change people’s minds.

“Those 110 species are as different from each other as a seagull is from a crow or a kestrel or a buzzard,” he said.

And why should we save the bees? According to Dr O’Hanlon, a recent study showed that as much as 75 per cent of our food crops globally are dependent upon bees and other insect pollinators.

“Bees are incredibly special insects due to their crucial role as pollinators and the astonishing social behaviour seen in some species,” he said. Honeybees in particular have had a “close relationship with humans” for thousands of years.

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Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland