Ways to bee happy

Suf­folk bee­keep­ers help the busy in­sects to fight back

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Linda Duf­fin Š PHO­TOS: Sarah Lucy Brown

Any­one who thinks bee­keep­ing is the do­main of old dears drift­ing benev­o­lently round the herba­ceous bor­der in a veil while whis­per­ing to the hive to keep the swarm abreast of fam­ily is­sues should prob­a­bly have their heads ex­am­ined.

Each of the su­pers – the boxes which are stacked one on top of an­other above the brood box of the hive – can weigh as much as two stone when it’s full of honey. Ev­ery time the bee­keeper wants to ex­tract honey or check on the queen and her brood he or she has to heft th­ese off and heave them back on again, all while wear­ing pro­tec­tive cloth­ing. “Wear­ing a bee suit is a bit like weightlift­ing in a sauna,” says Kevin Thorn rue­fully.

Kevin and his wife Julie run Stour Val­ley Api­aries in Great Cornard, near Sud­bury. They have 83 hives, or colonies, in the area around Laven­ham and Long Melford. Theirs has been a rapid ex­pan­sion, start­ing with just six hives three years ago. When Kevin took early re­tire­ment from his job as area di­rec­tor for HSBC in

Es­sex and Suf­folk he de­cided to turn a hobby into a busi­ness. Six months later Julie, who held the same po­si­tion with HSBC in Nor­folk, de­cided to join him and rapidly de­vel­oped her own niche mak­ing beeswax can­dles and cos­met­ics.

They’re also in­volved in a project to rein­tro­duce the black bee, con­sid­ered by many to be Bri­tain’s na­tive hon­ey­bee, at Ab­ber­ton Na­ture Re­serve near Colch­ester. They brought in a num­ber of al­ready mated queens from Corn­wall, where the black bee pop­u­la­tion still sur­vives, hop­ing even­tu­ally to flood the area with na­tive drones, which will then go on to mate with other lo­cal queens. Bri­tain’s cur­rent bee pop­u­la­tion is a mix of hy­brids from all over the world and that, says Kevin, is part of the prob­lem. Piggy-back­ing im­ported bees are their na­tive viruses and pests. “The Na­tional Bee Unit DNA tests two of the worst dis­eases that we have, Amer­i­can Foul Brood and Euro­pean Foul Brood. For a bee­keeper they’re the equiv­a­lent of foot and mouth. If you have them you have to tell DEFRA and a bee in­spec­tor will come round and of­ten will kill the bees and scorch the hive and bury the bees in the ground,” he says. “Get­ting a dis­ease like that is very se­ri­ous. DNA test­ing has shown that in East Anglia we’ve im­ported a new strain of each, through im­por­ta­tion of bees. I’m very pas­sion­ate about train­ing bee­keep­ers to breed their own bees rather than buy­ing them from abroad.”

Var­roa, a mite which now in­fects al­most ev­ery hive in the UK, orig­i­nally came from south-east Asia. John Everett from Ap­ple Bee is a mas­ter beekeper, one of un­der 100 in the coun­try, who acted as con­sul­tant and res­i­dent

‘Bri­tain’s cur­rent bee pop­u­la­tion is a mix of hy­brids from all over the world’

bee wran­gler dur­ing the mak­ing of Martha Kear­ney’s BBC se­ries, The Won­der of Bees. “We orig­i­nally thought it took 100,000 mites to do any harm at all. We now know they’re trans­mit­ting sev­eral dif­fer­ent viruses and it’s the viruses that do the dam­age,” John says.

“I liken it to a drug ad­dict with a dirty nee­dle. If you swap nee­dles you can trans­mit HIV and hepati­tis. There’s one virus that stops the wings form­ing and an­other that paral­y­ses the bees, both of which will kill the colony even­tu­ally. We think it was var­roa that led to Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der.”

This led to heavy losses in the hon­ey­bee pop­u­la­tion, but John says var­roa is largely treat­able, even though it can never be com­pletely erad­i­cated. “Peo­ple say if the honey bees died out we would all die of star­va­tion. Not true, be­cause there’s all the other bees, the bum­ble­bees and soli­tary bees,

250 dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties and they all pol­li­nate. And all the ce­re­als, which ac­count for 60% of our diet, are wind pol­li­nated. Hon­ey­bees won’t die out any­way. The bees that we treat are do­ing per­fectly well.”

They are lit­tle mir­a­cle work­ers. That stuff we like to scoop onto our toast and stir into our por­ridge is con­cen­trated nec­tar gleaned by the bees, which (fas­ci­nat­ing fact) they evap­o­rate by pick­ing it up on their tongues and flap­ping their wings to blow it dry. Yes, your honey is blow-dried. The bees eat nine-tenths as they for­age but the rest is stored for win­ter – which is where the beekeper comes in. He steals the hon­ey­comb, whizzes it through a cen­trifuge to ex­tract the honey from the wax, and bot­tles it up.

Even this year’s wildly vary­ing weather ex­tremes, from the Beast From The East to the sum­mer drought, haven’t put a dent in honey pro­duc­tion. “Early on the bee losses were quite high,” John says. “It’s very dif­fi­cult to be ex­act but some­where from 20-30% of the colonies through­out the coun­try died out be­cause of the cold weather. And then we had three months of glo­ri­ous weather and we can’t imag­ine why, be­cause all the lit­tlest weeds died, but every­body has had a bumper honey crop.”


RIGHT: Julie Thorn with some of her beeswax prod­ucts.BELOW RIGHT:Honey pro­duced from bee­keep­ers, Julie and Kevin Thorn, of Stour Val­ley Api­aries in Great Cornard. ABOVE: Kevin Thorn tend­ing his bee colonies.

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