It’s been a year of ups and downs for this Sussex beekeeper, with initial promises of a bountiful harvest turning into a beekeeping rollercoaster. A community apiary project that I started in Lewes had generated a classic beginner’s harvest last year but our yield was seriously down this year. The heavy losses incurred during the winter meant our energies were concentrated on building up colony strength. The fine June weather hinted at a generous crop of honey, with early swarms providing much cause for optimism. Alas, the lacklustre and damp high summer months subsequently hit hard, leaving the disgruntled bees all too willing to take out their frustration on unwitting passers-by and yielding a production significantly down on previous years.
Our journey into the world of beekeeping started in the mid-1980s. It was a Chelsea Flower Show, courtyard garden, inspired by an Islamic design, of sunbaked arches enclosing formal ponds and lush planting and sporting exotic (bee-free) hives that provided the motivation for our new venture.
With our miniscule London backyard eminently unsuitable as a home for 40,000 bees, we embarked on an audacious mission to move them up to the rooftop, although as novices we were woefully unprepared for the challenges involved. Unfortunately for our neighbours, their proximity to our hives resulted in the occasional sting – ice-cream, chocolates, toys and diplomacy were our tools for pacifying the aggrieved. Happily, oblivious to our challenging crawls through the attic, our bees loved their flat roof parapet and consistently produced bountiful amounts of honey.
The perils of moving a hive
Subsequently we were fortunate to move a couple of miles away to a new house with a garden of a similar size to our Chelsea Islamic dream, but catastrophe immediately struck when some of our bees, remembering their flight lines, flew straight back to their old home and sadly had to be destroyed.
On another occasion, an innocent day in the garden turned into mayhem when a posse of marauding bees inexplicably attacked us and we retreated to the house to nurse our stings. Our restorative drink was interrupted by a very angry neighbour knocking fiercely on the front door. Jim was soaking wet from head to toe with large bumps on his face. He had been peacefully watering the garden when marauding bees flying over the fence and went straight for him and his wife. Their only defence was to aim the hose at themselves and she with a new hair-do. The usual contrition was shown by us beekeepers. Amazingly we were forgiven, we became firm friends and they loved to babysit.
The beekeeping community flourishes
Our bees’ future really started to blossom with a friend’s offer of an allotment space and as our expertise grew the flourishing colonies attracted other beekeepers. We were fortunate to build a thriving community and the excellently pollinated fruit and vegetables kept the other allotmenteers happy too. We were now regularly asked to collect swarms – UK law, originating in Roman times, grants ownership of a swarm to whoever hives it off. We were also called to remove feral bees from buildings – although one such expedition resulted in my wife Ginny being so badly stung that the doctor treating her took photographs of her swollen face for his ‘chamber of horrors’!
Beekeeping in a changing world
Beekeeping has evolved over the years. Bees remain wild creatures despite living in the hives that we provide. We’ve learned to live with multiple diseases, the arrival of Varroa mite and now Sussex faces the looming threat of the Asian Hornet.
Globally, honeybee populations and other insects are dwindling. We sense our bees’ alarm as they battle pollution, global warming, the effects of agri-chemicals and domestic substances, and can only admire them as they persevere to sustain their fascinating little colonies, helping to maintain our planet and its biodiversity.
In the ever-fascinating world of Sussex beekeeping, it’s a story of sweet rewards, unexpected friendships, and the constant battle to protect our buzzing friends and the environment they call home.
Further information about Bees
If you’re interested in learning more about bees and beekeeping, here are some books to check out:
- Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees by Thor Hanson
- The Bee: A Natural History by Noah Wilson-Rich
- BBKA Guide to Beekeeping
- The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd