In May 2018 the Belfast Soroptimists approached the Sustainable Development Office with a view to installing an apiary at Parliament Buildings. The Soroptimists is an international organisation whose work is linked to sustainable development goals whether it is local, national or international. All of their projects work towards ending poverty, eradicating hunger, providing education for all and preserving the environment. This installation was seen to exhibit our organisational values of integrating exemplary social and environmental objectives into our work. The Estate is directly connected to the Belfast beeline, which is a series of ‘insect pathways’ running through our countryside and towns.
A paper was presented to senior management and in March 2019 approval was given to proceed with installing hives in the grass bank at the upper west car park. Following this along with four other members of Building Services staff undertook training and have now qualified as beekeepers. The trained beekeepers from Building Services work closely with Chris and Valentine Hodges from Vees Bees (the providers) to maintain and look after these beehives.
Although it has been a challenging year, it is hoped that this resource can again be used as a way to educate staff and visitors, including school groups, about the importance of bees in terms of biodiversity. The Commission, through the Events Office and the Education Officers, promotes the nature trails throughout the Estate and encourages visitors and school groups to make use of the grounds when they visit Parliament Buildings. This has been even more important during the current pandemic.
The fancy white hives that we are using further illustrate our commitment to bringing to life the history of beekeeping, as they are Congested District Board (CDB) Hives. These were devised in Ireland in 1890 to suit the particular wet and cold Irish weather by CN Abbott, technical advisor to the Irish Congested District Board (which was in existence until 1923 to provide support for rural populations), and a member of the Abbott Brothers Company who manufactured the hives.
The three we have were made in 2014 using the original Abbott Brothers plans and amended for today’s use. The wood is from a 100-year-old cedar tree that fell in County Wicklow and the hives were hand-made in Donaghadee. Valentine and Chris aim to develop a haven for the natural Irish black bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) who, like most other species of bees, are in decline. They remain under threat due to the lack of forage and the spread of varroa mites, Valentine says. “We used to have hayfields with flowers in them, but there are no wildflowers in today’s silage crops. We need to really think about this for the future — we need our insects whether we like it or not.”
Image: Unsplash stock image, Damien Tupinier
I feel that the Assembly has benefited greatly from opening the apiary. In doing this it has started a conversation with staff, visitors and school groups in relation to the ecosystem and the importance of bees within it. By educating staff, visitors and school groups on pollinators, people are now reviewing what they plant in their gardens.
It has also encouraged people to become more aware of our surroundings and we actually encourage staff to get outside and do the walking trails within the Stormont estate. This has been even more important during the pandemic to promote wellbeing and mental health as not everyone has these facilities near to where they live, allowing them to exercise while ensuring social distance is maintained.
Our in-house Education Officers encourage visiting school groups to visit the trails when they are here and several of them have taken this up.
The most rewarding part of my job this year has been the opportunity to visit schools and engage with the children. By harnessing their passion we will make a real difference and start to make positive changes to the culture within Northern Ireland.