The image of country beekeeping is sedate, dreamy, redolent of a bygone age. Take, for example, the Soho Farmhouse apiary which I designed, installed and currently maintain. Nested up on a south-facing Cotswold hillside, it sits on top of the Farmhouse’s gorgeous production garden – an array of 10 WBC hives, knee-deep in wildflowers. Continue reading “Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs”
Beekeeping is a hands-on job: all of the senses are engaged when working with bees: touch, smell, hearing, vision and finally, most delightfully, taste. It is a truly immersive craft.
The saddest sight a beekeeper can see is a huddle of dead bees, heads thrust deep inside empty wax cells, with the queen dead in the middle. And the wretched thing is that they had starved just an inch away from a broad, golden arc of honey. This phenomenon is called “Isolation Starvation“.
Along with Earth, Air and Fire, Water is one of the elements common to ancient Greek, Buddhist and Hindu philosophies. And even when modern scientists scan for signs of extra-terrestrial existence, water is the first thing they look for. Water is vital to life. So why don’t bees store water?
The competition for bubble-wrap becomes intense in our household at this time of year. And it’s not just Sarah’s extraordinarily gregarious Christmas present list which drives the local demand for that commodity.
I have a beekeeping confession to make. It is strange, but true. I wrap my Bermondsey rooftop hives with bubble-wrap in December and January each year. There, I’ve said it.
In deepest Oxfordshire, between two days of torrential downpours, Phil Spillane, the Seasonal Bee Inspector, came to inspect our Soho Farmhouse apiary.
At 5.31pm precisely the doorbell rang. It was the Seasonal Bee Inspector for South London, Brian McCallum, sent from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) on a routine visit to the Bermondsey Street Bees. In the 8 years in which I have been keeping bees, this was my first visit from an inspector. Or, as I like to look at it, the first time I have been offered a free beekeeping lesson from an expert, paid for by Her Majesty’s Government. Hey, Brian, great to see you! But what kept you so long? Suiting-up on the roof terrace, I noticed that Brian’s bee-suit’s breast pocket has a badge with the insignias of “Fera” and “National Bee Unit” sewn into it. Now, there used to be a government department called Fera, which was formed in 2009. But Fera is now a limited company, owned 75% by Capita plc and 25% by DEFRA (Department of Food and Agriculture). Of course, DEFRA was created to absorb the splendidly-titled Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in 2002. And the Bee Inspectorate was transferred from Fera to APHA late last year. Can anyone out there explain why government departments change their name-tags as freqently as those of the baristas at your local Costa Coffee? Dizzying, isn’t it? Anyway, smoker lit, we set straight to work. Brian was soon performing the slow ballet of beekeeping on our precarious fourth storey rooftop. Standing in a narrow gully between the pitched slate roof and the brick parapet on which the hives stand, we danced a pas-de-deux, as elegantly as possible in our veiled bee-suits, visiting Abbey Hive, Square Hive, Swarm Hive, Neckinger Hive, Leathermarket Hive, Shard Hive and Thames Hive.
Last Saturday, 4th April, BBC Radio 4 joined me on my rooftop to meet the Bermondsey Street Bees. In case you missed it, here is the BBC podcast of the show.
Open the 4th April show and advance to 44 minutes and 20 seconds into the programme. That’s the start of my slot.
It was all great fun and R4’s Pete Ross was rock-steady up on the roof with the bees – a consummate professional.
My one regret was that the impassioned words on my Forage Campaign were left on the cutting room floor. So here’s are the “stab-points”: “Bees can’t eat kind words“. “Bees won’t thrive on good intentions“. “It is the moral responsibility of every beekeeper to ensure sufficient forage for their bees“. Rant over!
So I am resigned to going down in posterity as the guy who ended up under Helena Bonham-Carter (in the show’s interviewed guest list, that is), rather than as the Martin Luther of modern beekeeping.
Next time, I’m shooting for Desert Island Discs. I bet no-one’s ever asked Kirsty for: “Ted Hooper’s “Guide To Bees and Honey”, please.“
I like radio. I’m told I have the perfect face for it.
“How long do bees live ?” It all depends. A typical beekeeperly answer. But everything really does depend on which month a bee is born in.
A summer bee will have a short life-span, sometimes just six sun-kissed weeks. A winter bee, on the other hand, can live for six whole months ! Why the big difference ?
When a Queen lays an winter bee egg in early September, for example, that bee will hatch in October and only graduate to exhausting forage activities in November. By then there is very little forage to be had: a smattering of ivy, perhaps, as the bees settle down for winter. So a winter bee will live longer as a result of having less wear and tear on her system from foraging. This sedentary life-style is reinforced by a sprinkling of “fat bodies” (which are protein fat parcels stored in the bees’ head and abdomen to help them overwinter successfully) to bolster energy reserves.
A summer bee is relatively stream-lined: a bee hatched today will be set to work on a sequence of tasks, mundane hive chores including brood comb cleaning, egg & larval feeding, receiving food from other bees by trophallaxis and storing it in the honeycomb, making Royal Jelly to feed the eggs of Queen, worker and drone bee alike, fanning the honey to make its moisture content fall below the 20% level needed to prevent fermentation, wax manufacturing and – it’s a long list – on to foraging.
So today’s summer bee will probably expire, gloriously aloft on a clear blue sky with bulging saddle-bags of pollen, in May’s splendour.
As an insight into the sheer determination of a bee at work, take a look at this valiant forager, which I found taking a bit of a breather on the grass on Easter Sunday before climbing up a dead-nettle to scramble into the sky again, hiveward bound. Attagirl !
We’re all mortal. But if you could chose, which bee-lifestyle would you prefer ? A winter bee’s cosy, clannish existence, lasting from one calendar year into the next, or the summer bee’s relentless scramble into the sky, with a life expectancy as short and glorious as a WWII Spitfire pilot ?
Fronted with an instantly-recognisable Victorian school design, Orford Primary School provides a friendly, inclusive learning environment for its pupils. It is set in the beautiful Suffolk coastal town of Orford and has a catchment area of the parishes of Gedgrave, Iken, Butley, Sudbourne and Chillesford. With its own weather station (sponsored by Orford Sailing Club), a dedicated IT annexe and a pioneering array of solar panels on its rear extension roof, the school represents a great asset for the community. And on the last day of Science Week in March 2015, I was preparing to take my bees to school.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. That time was last September, when Debbie Gayler took over the joint headship of Aldeburgh and Orford Primary Schools and I offered to bring the bees in to show to the children. Now it was mid-March, 5C and in the middle of a solar eclipse, with a clammy, dank light fading perceptibly. And I was decanting Queen Beryl and 5 frames of bees out of Snape Hive and putting them into a glass observation hive to take into the school. Suddenly, it didn’t seem such a good idea, after all.
But the time had come. I had long thought that, since the pupils can see the hives from their playground, I should satisfy their curiosity, broaden their education and pique their interest in their neighbouring bees. So to introduce them by name, the two cedar hives are called Snape and Iken, named after local villages and the experimental poly-hive in the middle is called Castle. Because it looks a little like Orford Castle.
So I introduced the children from Aldeburgh and Orford Schools to their local bees in Assembly. And also to my lovely assistant and wife, Sarah. Just as well for that preamble, since in the nick of time, the School lap-top, my memory-stick and the projector started talking to each other, so that my narration of bees going about their business in all months of the year and could fall into place with the pictures. Things were definitely starting to look up.
An observation hive has a single-frame of bees with the Queen, bees, eggs, larvae, sealed brood and some honey on it, inside a viewing section with two glass-sides. This is fixed on top of a nucleus (half-size) hive with 4 frames of bees and a frame of food in it, to keep the bees busy inside the hive. It is a secure installation for both bees and spectators, but the precaution of fixing it in place with a ratchet strap, just like all my hives in the apiary, always seems like a wise idea.
It was a pleasure to take questions about honeybees from all ages of this well-disciplined, but bright and cheerful group of children. There was one question which referred to the Queen’s mating flight and which needed delicate handling, but I think Queen Beryl’s blushes were spared.
At the lunch-break I was given my first School Dinner for 35 years – and my compliments to the chef ! Orford School has worked closely with the Jamie Oliver Foundation to disseminate The Teaching Garden Project to other local schools – and its teaching kitchen adds an invaluable dimension to the educational facilities for the area’s schools.
The school has own organic vegetable and herb garden in which all the children work. Which is great for my bees, who gather pollen and nectar from the plants. Pollination helps the plants become more fertile and productive. Thanks for your gardening work, everyone !
Bees eat lunch, too, you know.
After lunch, we set up the Observation Hive in the centre of the IT room (once again strapping it down securely)
and a bee-jacket and blue glove Dressing-Up station at one end of the room
and a touch-zone with real Propolis
and real Pollen displayed at the other.
And what bee-education day would be complete without a honey tasting ? Here’s a tip which you can try yourself. Take a spoonful of local honey, pop it in your mouth, close your eyes and just hold it on your tongue for a count of five. Just taking this little extra time will reward you with a real release of flavours…
Then we divided up each class into three groups, so that they could rotate around the room and ask questions about each exhibit in turn.
Yes. Looking through a bee-veil does slightly change your view of the world. It makes seeing things a little harder, but it gives you protection. It is important that adults and children should never consider approach bee-hives without proper protective clothing and only while accompanied by an experienced beekeeper.
The sun was shining, after the glum, clouded solar eclipse, as we took the Observation hive back to the apiary and replaced its frames in Snape Hive. The way to think of a bee-hive is as a single organism, with its own personality, habits and even its very own smell, which comes from the particular odour of each hive’s Queen. The bees reunited bees soon settled back into Snape hive.
In many ways, a happy, healthy bee-hive is just like a bustling, buzzing school. Everyone gets on well together and works hard to get the day’s tasks done.
At the end of the day, our goal had been achieved: a spoonful of education about Orford’s bees. And a little entertainment along the way. Sarah and I really enjoyed being “school-side” for a day. Thank you, Debbie Gayler – and your wonderful staff. And of course, thank you, Orford Primary School children for your hospitality to our bees in your school kitchen garden. I can only repeat the words of Orford resident and writer, Anthony Horowitz, who remarked about Orford School, its staff and its pupils: “What a great place. The sort of school everyone would wish they’d been to.” Quite.