Photograph: Katharine Davies

Photograph: Katharine Davies

MINDING HIVES

Jo Denbury, Features Writer  

Since time began we have kept bees and taken a share of their hard-earned gold. But there is more to bees than honey – their colonies and their hives still hold great secrets for us to unlock. As secretary of the Sherborne Beekeeping Association Judy Easdale says, “It is the satisfaction of seeing the bees flying about my garden with bags of pollen on their legs that makes it worthwhile.”

The Sherborne Beekeeping Association began in the 1930s when John Scammell, a farmer in Trent, kept bees to pollinate his apple trees. It was revived again in the 1970s for the good of local beekeepers and to forward the education of future beekeepers.Today the club has an apiary of four hives in Trent, which collects over 100lb of honey per annum. This year, in an attempt to shake off the rather grandfatherly image of the beekeeper, it has introduced a number of courses for interested members of the public. “The great benefit,” says Judy, “is that because we have our own ‘club hives’ we are able to offer practical courses.”There are in fact three practical beekeeping sessions, plus three dedicated to the theory of the practice.

Amy Sellick recently took the course and joined the association. Her husband Neil, of Sellick & Saxton builders, had inherited his late father's bees and she wanted to make honey for her young family. She laughs about her first meeting at the association. “I turned up in shorts without really thinking, then put my kit over the top. But I left a tiny gap and a bee got in and stung me. I literally had to keep a straight face throughout, with a bee inside my protective gear.”The incident didn’t put her off and she went on to have a pair of hives that she looks after with her two daughters, Iris, eight, and Robin, seven.

"Our first colony died but we were given another by the Sherborne Beekeepers Association,” explains Amy. “Then two years ago we found one hanging on a tree. Neil whacked the branch and caught the swarm in a skep [a straw or wicker beehive]. We used our spare hive which we sprayed with sugar syrup and over they went! The queen literally ran over the top of the other bees
to get in first.” Amy smiles at the memory. “It was so wonderful to see them do that.”

“We take honey once a year.” she continues. “It’s quite a lot of work during the summer and I check on them once a week, for brood [eggs or young] and to ensure there is a laying queen. We do eat a lot of honey, but for us it is also having a healthy colony of bees that is so satisfying. I find them fascinating.”

Like Amy, Judy has had a few calamities. “I was given my first swarm in 2011, in July,” she says. “But there is an old adage that says, ‘Swarm in May is worth a load of hay; swarm in June worth a silver spoon; swarm in July is not worth a fly’. Well, my swarm came in July and it was too late for it to build enough reserves to over-winter, so they died.” She had another catastrophe in 2012, when the wet summer made it too wet for the queen to mate, as they mate on the wing. Fortunately, she now has happy, thriving colonies.

“Since I moved to Sherborne I have wanted a ‘natural’ life,” says Judy. “Beekeeping had to be part of that. Honey is also a very important product for our wellbeing.”The association recently received a note from a local buyer who remarked that, since buying and eating their honey, her allergies have disappeared. It is possible that eating a locally produced honey can help to build up a resistance to eczema and hay fever, because it allows the body to ingest a small amount of pollen through the honey and therefore build up a resistance to it.

“Bees are an endangered species,” adds Judy. “I practise permaculture in my garden, as pesticides are killing our bees.”The truth is that the health of bees is not just a popular campaigning issue – it is also crucial to the global food supply. More than three quarters of the world’s food crops, including fruit, vegetables, coffee and chocolate, rely at least in part on natural pollination. Research suggests that a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids may have cut the presence of wild bees in the British countryside by up to 30% since they became widely used on oilseed rape crops.

Keeping bees can provide a joy and satisfaction that fulfils all the family. While Amy’s daughter Iris collects the honey with her mother, I chat to her other daughter Robin, who points out the flowers that her bees visit. The children have learned about the life cycle of the bee and the plants and habitat that feed it. With that comes a satisfaction that draws on life creating life, as well as the laws of nature.

For a bee’s life is never easy. A ‘worker’ bee flies up to three miles to collect nectar, while a single flight produces a mere pinhead of honey. But that is not the extent of
its tasks. A worker bee is a female that lacks the full reproductive capacity of a queen bee and has a life cycle of only five or six weeks. Once she has worked her way up through the hive from cell cleaning, nurse bee and wax production, she moves on to honey sealing, drone feeding – the drones being male bees whose prime function is to mate with a queen – and queen’s attendant, plus other tasks including mortuary bee, honeycomb building and pollen packing, before becoming a guard. She finally gets out as a foraging bee for the last 20 weeks of her life.

There is a moment towards August when the “massacre of the males”, as Maurice Maeterlinck calls it in The Life of the Bee, takes place. This is the day when it is decided that the lazy, corpulent drones have served their purpose. The word of command goes through the hive and the peaceful workers will renounce their foraging duties and turn into judges and executioners. Going systematically through the hive, they tear off the wings and legs of the drones. Those who perish are dragged off to the mortuary, while others die of starvation.

Then it is time to bed down. Everything slows and the hive quietens for winter. A hive of around 60,000 bees will drop to 3,000. The work has been done and now they must keep the queen alive. The bees cluster around her, flapping their wings to create heat. Let’s hope the humans have left them enough honey to eat.

Future courses will take place in 2018. Please contact the association for further information. sherbornebees.org

The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck (currently out of print, but often available at Chapter House Books, Sherborne).