To hear Noel Leahy of Leahy Beekeeping, producers of Sliabh Aughty Honey speak about his bees is like listening to a passionate story teller weaving a magical tale.
The mountain range of Sliabh Aughty, which stretches through Galway and Clare, provides the perfect backdrop for the production of Sliabh Aughty Honey. This honey, which reflects a wild and diverse region, is produced a few miles away from Loughrea in County Galway, by Noel Leahy.
Noel’s story is typical of the philosophical saying that every disaster can become an opportunity. As a former bricklaying and building contractor, all was going well for Noel and his family, until recession hit. Like many in Ireland, Noel’s business took a massive downturn. But rather than sit and stare gloomily into the future, wondering what he was going to do about it, he paid off his workers and decided to look for a new way of life.
As a third generation beekeeper, with a family who are into health and wellness, Noel began to look at ways to earn money from the bees. And so his story begins. Over a cup of coffee, Noel weaves his web of intrigue. He talks animatedly about his bees, the hives, the history, the cooperation with the local farming neighbours. Noel has over 150 hives, mostly up in the high plateau of Sliabh Aughty and surrounding lands. He describes the wondrous scenery he enjoys, when walking through these hills and boglands. This area is rich in natural unspoilt beauty, full of heather bogs wild flowers, each of their own season. And each playing an important role in the life cycle of his bees.
Noel’s Sliabh Aughty Honey is produced in a wonderful collaboration with neighbouring farmers, who he managed to persuade to work with him to encourage and nurture the bees. As a result, the farmers tell him if they are spraying crops, harvesting or doing any other farming practices that may endanger the bees or threaten their environment. It took a couple of years for the bee stocks to flourish. Experimentation in honey production involved placing hives in different locations and harvesting honey at different times in the season, to see where the best flavours and quantities were. One hive can produce 45-50 pounds of honey and may contain between 80 and 100 thousand bees. Like every other traditional skill, the knowledge of beekeeping is handed down through generations. There is so much to learn, including how to winter the bees, changing queens to stimulate more production, and other nuances, which only an experienced beekeeper acquires, through years of practice. Noel is the third generation of his family to continue the art of beekeeping.
To hear Noel speak about his bees is like listening to a passionate story teller weaving a magical tale. When he says the bees defy the whole dynamics of normal flight, it makes you want to actually see it happening. He has a fourth generation beekeeper cousin in New Zealand, and the pair spend hours talking bees! Harvesting the honey requires carefully removing the honeycombs from the hives. These are then placed in a stainless steel diffuser, which spins to allow the honey to flow from the honeycombs, to be decanted into buckets which are labelled and dated. From here, the honey is left to crystallise which brings out the flavours and allows the honey to darken and mellow. Before bottling, the honey must be returned to the temperature of the hive, so it regains normal consistency. The end product is like an elixir of fragrant flavours and nuances, gained from the wild heathers, wild flowers and shrubs which dominate the Sliabh Aughty range. Here is a taste of Galway in a jar. No wonder top chefs and specialist food outlets are crying out for the stuff.
Noel’s daughter is already making an impact and forging the future, not only in honey, but healthcare and beeswax products. Here comes the fourth generation to continue the beekeeping legacy of the Leahy’s. New developments include skin care and beauty products. When it comes to honey production, Noel never stops being curious. Experiments with flavouring his honey with herbs, blending different honeys and even smoking honey, may well result in some unique products being added to the range in the future. And when he’s not doing all that, he’s working closely with Galway University to research and record the bee population and how to stop the decline of bees in Ireland and worldwide. One busy man. Or should we say buzzy man…