Ways to bee happy
Suffolk beekeepers help the busy insects to fight back
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.