I’M BUZZING ABOUT MY BEES
After an uncertain start, broadcaster Martha Kearney has fallen in love with beekeeping
What started off as a quirky wedding present has ended up with me in possession of 360,000 bees. I can honestly say that I never expected to end up with such an absorbing passion. It all began with a group of friends who bought us a hive, bee veil, leather gauntlets and smoker as a wedding gift. At first I treated it all as an elaborate joke and painted the hive as a feature for the garden. After a year or so, in which a bee magazine arrived on a monthly basis which often featured rather cute pictures of children all dressed in mini bee suits, I met a local beekeeper who took me under her wing. At first, lots of things went wrong. I didn’t feed my colony properly for the winter so one hive starved. Two more fell prey to wasps which pose a real threat to bees. My worst moment came when I heard buzzing that was much louder than normal because I had accidentally left the zip of my veil open. The hood was full of bees. I managed to release a few and squish a few others, but got stung twice with the result that my face swelled up in an alarming way. Just as well I was presenting on radio not television that week. The pleasures do outweigh the occasional pain however, which is something I am trying to get across in a television series, The Joy of Honey, which will be broadcast next spring. There are estimated to be around 40,000 beekeepers in Britain who maintain more than 200,000 colonies of honey bees. Most of us are in it for the honey and I have to say that spreading your own honey on home-made bread is one of life’s great pleasures. The whole process is rather a messy one, as whatever precautions you take, every surface ends up extremely sticky. This year, by taking some shortcuts, we found several bees had managed to get inside the room where we were extracting. Not to be recommended. It was our most successful year yet, though, as we managed to get more than 150lb of honey. Many of those jars we sold at a wildflower meadow open day in aid of the local wildlife trust and church, but there is plenty to hand out to friends and BBC bosses by way of sweeteners. I was rather surprised to do so well as this has been a very bad year across the country for bees. Winter was harsh. I was scraping snow off the roof of my hives in late March. The risk is that the cluster of bees will run out of food stores, so I fed them regularly with fondant, a kind of sugar candy and that seemed to do the trick. More broadly there has been a lot of publicity about all the problems facing bees which could have a big impact on the pollination of many of our crops. Seventy-five per cent of crops around the world depend to some extent on insect pollination – not all of those insects are bees, of course, but a great many are. Every year in this country, around 20 per cent of bee colonies die out. This is mainly due to the varroa mite which attacks larvae and spreads disease, but also because of loss of habitat, wild-flower meadows in particular. More controversially many campaigners blame the use of pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, which have been banned by the European Union for two years while more research is carried out. A world without bees is unthinkable. The waggle dance is one of the most sophisticated means of communication by nonhumans. Bees which go out foraging for nectar and pollen are able to communicate to others at the hive about where the best flowers can be found by using the angle of the sun. This includes the direction and the distance. Then there are the extraordinary efforts they make to produce our honey. Bees must gather nectar from two million flowers to make one pound of honey. One bee would therefore have to fly around 90,000 miles – three times around the globe – to make that pound. So let’s agree with Darwin that the honey bee is the most wonderful of all insects.
Stung into action: Martha Kearney, above right, was given the tools of the trade as a wedding present and marvels at how bees collect nectar from two million flowers to make one pound of honey