Queen of the hive

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Science teacher Ethel Irvine gets a buzz out of bees. Laurence Pollock meets the first woman president of the Ulster Beekeepers' Association.

Ethel Irvine pulls a bee out of her arm; if she doesn't get it out, "the poison sack will just keep pumping away". She accepts stings with equanimity, treating them as an occupational hazard. But Ethel is not a beekeeper by profession; she's head of science at Enniskillen collegiate girls' school in County Fermanagh, and her dedication to her buzzing buddies springs from love, not money.

Ethel's bungalow near the Kesh Road, four miles outside Enniskillen, has a sumptuous garden, with a fish pond. But lurking at the bottom, half-hidden by the undergrowth, are four hives, humming in the suburban silence. Ethel keeps bees because she likes to be close to nature, but she's no romantic. "We are not into organics or the 'good life'," she says. "I was brought up on a farm and I know what the good life really means." Rather, she likes to explore the local habitat, because "it raises your consciousness".

As the first woman president of the Ulster Beekeepers' Association (and the first holder from Fermanagh), Ethel has gently overriden tradition, showing there are no glass ceilings in beekeeping. She has also just qualified as a lecturer with the Federation of Irish Beekeepers - one of only four people in Northern Ireland to have done so.

It isn't the first time she has broken the mould. It was unusual for a Fermanagh girl to read physics at university in the late 1950s; she and one other female student were surrounded by 38 men in her physics year at Queen's Belfast. On graduating, Ethel returned to Fermanagh to teach in Enniskillen, but then left the profession to raise a family. Again traditional patterns did not suit her. "During my (early) working life, I thought, rather foolishly, that a mother's place was in the home. But I only managed to stick it for a couple of years," she remembers.

So she began to juggle three children and a teaching career before deciding to venture into beekeeping as well. She got the bug when a beekeeping neighbour let her peek inside his hive.

"I asked my husband, Jimmy, 'Would you not think of keeping bees?' He turned it round and asked why I didn't do it. Our youngest child was then 10 and he could be trusted to stay in the house while I did nasty things with bees. I thought about it for half a minute." That was 19 years ago.

Confident she could handle the swarms, Ethel invested in a copy of Ted Hooper's Guide to Bees and Honey. Today she is surrounded by the paraphernalia of honey. A garage at the back of her bungalow contains the improvised tools of the bee-keeper's trade: a "dead" chest freezer fitted with two electric light bulbs and a thermostat acts as the honey warmer; another freezer has a nw life as a wax extractor; Ethel's white suit and hat and liquid smoke (to calm the bees) are to hand, ready for action.

Fully attired, she looks like a cross between a nuclear plant worker and a michelin man. "Obviously I'm not in beekeeping for the glamour," she giggles from beneath the veil.

There is a constant round of work - checking the interior of the hives, inspecting the frames, extracting honey and keeping an eye on the queens and their eggs. The busiest time is in May and June when the bees are swarming, preparing for the summer and hitting gardeners' early blooms. Ethel has to drag herself out of bed at 5am, to check the hives and ensure the frames are in good repair. The rewards for this toil vary from year to year. In 1998 poor weather meant no crop, but the year before she pulled in 300lb of high-grade honey "that you would kill for" and distributed it to her family and friends.

Life with the bees gets a bit easier in the winter. She feeds the colony sugar syrup in September to sustain them through the colder months and fits mouse guards to the hives to stop rodents.

But the work of a beekeeper is never done. Most of the association meetings and training courses take place in winter - a period for reading and reviewing the successes and failures of the summer. It was during these winter breaks that Ethel worked for and passed the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' national certificate at preliminary, intermediate and senior level.

She still enjoys the learning process. "I like to have something to research, something to expand my mind. I always love it when a new A-level course comes out - it is something new to study, to read up on and research."

This intellectual energy is unsentimental. The bees, Ethel stresses, are not her pets. "They do not get to know or tolerate me. If they think I am a danger they will sting me." Nor does Ethel believe that bees have anything to teach us socially; she is sceptical about mankind's ability to be as unselfish as bees.

Nevertheless, beekeeping is a passion which helps her relax away from the pressures of education - although she says she may combine the two disciplines at some stage. The collegiate school runs an enrichment programme for pupils in Years 13 and 14 who might benefit from exposure to the world of bees. Teaching commitments prevent Ethel from participating in the scheme at the moment, but retirement looms next year. "I hope I will be able to contribute to the programme and thus keep in touch with young people and do something for the craft of beekeeping," she says.

What you might call a busy bee.

Guide to Bees and Honey by Ted Hooper (Marston House pound;9.95 )British Beekeepers Association, National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh, Warwickshire CV8 2LZ. Website: www.bbka.demon.co.uk.

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