Get busy to save our bees


EXG MAY 14 BEES - Credit: Archant

The significant fall in the UK’s bee population over recent decades, and the potential consequences for food production, have been well documented. Petra Hornsby looks at a new incentive to stop this decline and meets a bee-keeper from Colchester


EXG MAY 14 BEES - Credit: Archant

Our native bee population has been on the decline since the 1950s, but now, so dramatic is the drop in numbers, that there is real concern for the long-term consequences of this falling population and the effect it will have on agriculture and food production.

So what is causing this very real threat to the planet’s most industrious insect? There seem to be a number of suggestions being put forward and last year the European Parliament suspended the use of certain insecticides (Neonicitinoids) that are believed to have a link to bee decline.

The Soil Association actively supports the concept of organic farming as a solution, with a spokesperson commenting, ‘Organic farmers don’t use damaging insecticides and have a more complex system of crop rotation, which results in a greater diversity of plants for insects to forage on. Although research is in progress to find out the definitive cause or causes of the loss of our bees, we must continue to provide them with habitats that benefit them.’

As you would expect, the British Bee-Keeping Association (BBKA) is at the forefront of plans to raise awareness of the plight of the honey bee, supporting research into their health and providing education on good bee husbandry. It has also launched the Adopt a Beehive Scheme as a fun and informative incentive and a great way for people, especially families, to share in the fun of keeping a hive. Adopters will get seasonal updates from their local adopted beekeeper as well as a pack of goodies upon joining the scheme.

Essex has an extremely active and enthusiastic community of bee-keepers and on a warm early spring afternoon, thanks to an invitation from the BBKA, I got the chance to meet with the secretary of Colchester’s group, Morag Chase, as she carried out a health check on one of her hives.

Morag has five hives in total but this one had been the best producer last year, with more than 20lbs of honey being harvested — I was keen to take my first look inside a beehive and discover just how these busy insects get to be so productive.

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I was supplied with a traditional bee-keeping smock, complete with hat and joined meshed veil, and once Morag had checked me over to make sure there were no gaps, we were ready to open the hive.

Using a special smoking device, with bellow attached and dry leaves smouldering inside, Morag puffed smoke into the hive causing the bees to exit the hive, describing it as if, ‘practicing a well organised fire drill’.

The hive is made up of stacking sections and Morag began by inspecting the ‘supers’ that contain the frames where the honey is stored and sealed in cells. One good reason for checking colonies is to check on the presence of varroa, a mite that can cause a good deal of harm to bees. Morag was looking for key signs of a reddish mark on the backs of the bees and also any deformed wings, fortunately on this occasion the hive and the bees looked clear.

I asked Morag why this particular hive had done better than her other hives for honey last year and she explained that the reason may have been that she hadn’t allowed the bees to swarm. Swarming occurs when the bee colony gets overcrowded with worker bees and they lose touch with their queen bee and the unique pheromones she emits. Bees communicate through pheromones and if no message is coming through from the queen then to the workers she ceases to exist and a new queen bee has to be found. Before this occurs, the existing queen leaves with some of her colony, effectively splitting the population and honey making potential.

Once Morag had checked the supers and seemed happy, we looked at the lower ‘nest’ section, where there was a sizable brood (young bees) and worker bees were returning with pollen to be removed and stored as food. Bees also extract nectar from plant stems and this is passed from bee to bee and chewed then regurgitated to form honey which is then dehydrated by the flapping of wings until sticky enough to be stored in the upper frames.

Although the larger queen bee couldn’t be identified that afternoon, there were plenty of signs that she had been laying eggs in quantity and producing a good healthy colony.

Morag pointed out one bee on the upper level twitching and lifting its rear end, releasing pheromones to communicate to the colony to return back to the hive. The smoke threat had passed and it was safe — it was time for us to let the bees get back to business.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Morag and the bees. Seeing them close up was fascinating and having insight into their world was a real eye-opener. Bee-keeping is a peaceful, charming hobby and not too time-consuming; a minimum of half an hour once a week can be all that’s required. I asked how much it costs to set up and although it varies, £300 can be enough to get a novice started.

Certainly joining the British Bee-Keeping Association is a good way to receive advice and support, but the chance to adopt a beehive really does allow everyone to get involved and might be a way for some to get started on a journey towards bee-keeping. Whatever the outcome, adopting a beehive will help fund the work that is needed to keep this country’s honey bees buzzing.

Win the chance to adopt a beehive

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) Adopt a Beehive Scheme is the only charitable scheme in the UK which directly raises money to help save the honey bee. Profit generated goes direct to vital research into the problems honey bees face. There are ten regions across the UK participating in the scheme and supporters can adopt a beehive from a region of their choice. The cost is £30 a year (plus p&p) and includes a welcome pack of goodies that incorporates three copies of the newsletter Hive Talk and updates on the adopted beehives. Essex Life readers have the chance to win one of three places on the Adopt a Beehive Scheme. To be in with a chance of winning this amazing prize, simply text EL BEES followed by your answer to the question below (A, B or C) and then your name and postcode to 80058. For example, your text might read EL BEES B JAMES SMITH AB1 2CD. Texts cost 50p plus your standard network rate.

What do bees collect to make honey?

A) Petals

B) Nectar

C) Vouchers

Terms and conditions:

Prize is subject to availability. The information contained in this publication is believed to be correct and complete at the time of printing. Prizes are not transferrable and the prize does not include installation or delivery costs. All photographs and measurements are as a guide only and do not necessarily represent the products available. No cash equivalent or other alternative prize is available in whole or in part except as provided for in these terms and conditions. The competition closes at 6pm on May 31, 2014. Winners will be selected at random from correct entries after the closing date. Usual promotion rules apply. For customer service requirements relating to your text entry, call 0844 3572403.

Find out more

For more information on the Adopt a Beehive Scheme, visit

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