Bee-keeping is creating a buzz in Cheshire
Bee-keeping is becoming an increasingly popular hobby, as Jim Keoghan reports
The familiar buzzing of honey bees is a sound that for many is synonymous with the English spring and summer. But while most of us are happy to watch them from a distance, an increasing number of people are a getting up close and personal.
‘In the last five years our membership and the number of people getting involved in keeping their own bees have soared,’ said Pete Sutcliffe of the South Cheshire Beekeeping Association.
Part of this is connected with a burgeoning interest in self-sufficiency. The trend which has seen more and more people growing their own food, owning allotments and keeping their own chickens, has found its way into the world of beekeeping. Last year alone, the British Beekeeping Association saw its membership increase from 12,500 to 17,500, a reverse in the historic decline in the number of beekeepers that has been taking place since the end of World War Two.
‘A greater interest in the environment has also helped increase numbers. But as important as these two factors are, it hasn’t been just about them,’ Pete added. ‘A lot of our newer members have been drawn to this hobby in the same way that people have always become involved with beekeeping, people just seem to have an interest with this world that inhabits our own and yet is totally different to it.
‘Honey bees, through their role in pollination, are integral to the natural world and a lot of members simply want to learn more about these fascinating and vital little creatures.’
The surge in interest has come at a very opportune time. Honey bees are no longer sustainable as a species in the wild. Just a generation ago colonies of honey bees would have been commonplace. Today, it’s much rarer to see one, and those that are evident often only survive for between two to three years.
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But if people are getting involved simply to have a hobby, why not choose one with less likelihood of being repeatedly stung?
‘It’s actually a surprisingly enjoyable hobby,’ said Pam Hatton of the Cheshire Beekeepers Association whose husband Stuart is Chairman of North Cheshire Beekeepers. ‘Yes, keepers get stung now and then but so do people who have nothing to do with bees.
‘What’s more, if you don’t want it to be it doesn’t have to be a particularly taxing pastime. During the summer you might have to check on your colony once a week. During the winter, you barely have to look at all.
Depending on the number of bees you keep you can make this hobby as high or as low maintenance as you want it to be.’
And what’s more, beekeeping comes with plenty of perks.
‘Honey is the obvious product that most people know about. But although that is a fantastic reward for all your work, beekeeping can give you so much more than just that,’ Pam added. ‘With regard to products from the hive, another useful one is beeswax, which might not be immediately apparent to some people. And beyond what the bees produce, you can also learn lots about the natural world from getting involved.
‘Over the last 20-odd years I’ve learned about so many different aspects of botany and natural science. These are things that I probably wouldn’t have encountered were it not for my involvement in keeping bees.’
A window into the natural world, low maintenance and free honey, sign me up I hear you cry. But before you rush out and buy a hive, Pete Sutcliffe thinks it is important that anyone interested is properly prepared.
‘Unlike dogs or cats, or even something like chickens, bees have not changed at all over the last few thousand years. Bees are not in the slightest bit domesticated. They remain wild and because of this you have to understand them. You need to work with their instincts not against them. If you go into this without knowing what you are doing then it’s just not going to work.
‘My advice would be to get involved with your local beekeeping association. There are people on hand there who have decades of knowledge and are more than happy to share it with you. Do that and there’s no reason why you can’t make the most of this fascinating and enjoyable hobby.’
Bees holiday before booking in to hotelBeekeeper Tomos Lewis from Sandiway is taking 30,000 bees for a spring holiday in Frodsham before settling them down in their new home in the grounds of a country hotel.Tomos, 46, has been appointed official beekeeper at Nunsmere Hall Hotel, Oakmere just a mile from his home… and that's the problem.
The bees have a highly-developed built-in "radar" and if the hives were transported directly to Nunsmere, they would simply fly back to their old home.
'My home is far too close for the bees,' he said. 'They need to be moved to a site at least two-and-a-half miles away to be sure they won't fly back.'
So before the bees can start producing the hotel's first batch of honey, they will be taking a short break several miles away in Frodsham. 'After that we will be able move to them to their permanent new home on the edge of the woodland at the back of the hotel,' said Tomos, pictured.
Initially, there will be just two hives each containing around 15, 000 bees but by the end of the summer Tomos expects that the population will have risen to around 50,000 bees in each hive. Eventually he plans to have add more hives with a total population of more than 250,000 bees.
By late spring or summer it is planned that honeymooners coming down to breakfast at the hotel will have their own individual pots of "his-and-hers" honey.
'The area around the hotel has a rich mixture of plants that are attractive to bees, including Himalayan Balsam around the lake and nearby field with rapeseed, so they will produce some excellent-tasting honeys at different times of the year,' said Tomos.
Bees collect pollen and nectar from flowers. Pollen is used as a protein and nectar is used for energy. As it travels one flower to another, the bee tranfers pollen which sticks to the hair on their bodies. This fertilizes the plant.
Bees are extremely important to the pollination of UK crops, particularly oilseed rape, beans, apples, pears, strawberries, almonds, corn, cucumbers and tomatoes.
The annual value of honey bees’ services as pollinators is over �165million to the UK and around �3billion to the European Union.
There are also over 200 species of solitary bees and wasps in the UK but only four make honey
In the UK there are estimated to be between 100,000 and 300,000 hives. A hive may contain up to 50,000 bees and individual bees may visit up to 100 flowers on each trip out from the hive.
Many local beekeeping associations have a membership category for non-beekeepers. This usually has a much smaller fee than a full member, but probably won’t include various levies or insurance.
Cheshire Beekeeping Associationwww.cheshire-bka.co.uk
South Cheshire Beekeeperswww.scbka.org.uk