Beekeeping in Warwickshire
PUBLISHED: 13:30 04 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:43 20 February 2013
Juliette Kemp discovers why more people than ever are enjoying keeping these busy little pollinators
Its long been the thing to keep a few chickens in the domestic garden, be it right in the middle of surburbia or out in the country, but now more and more people are setting up hives rather than coops.
In Warwickshire alone, the number of bee keepers has doubled in the last few years and the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) - based at Stoneleigh - proclaims a membership of more than 20,000.
So a huge amount of interest is expected at this years Warkwickshire Bee Keeping Association (WBKA) County Honey Show, which can only be a good thing for bees nationwide who have, its well known, been struggling to survive.
Its definitely a good thing for Michael Townsend, who runs bee keeping courses for the Warwick and Leamington branch of the WBKA. If it wasnt for the UKs bee keepers, who look after 99 per cent of the nations bees - very few feral colonies survive, we wouldnt have a honey bee population, he says.
In spite of the onslaught of the Varroa mite which has laid waste colonies across Europe, poor summers and concern over the effects of various pesticides and herbicides, Michael remains hugely optimistic for these vital little pollinators.
The plight of the honey bee has been well publicised and people have responded to that, he says, highlighting reasons for the upsurge in bee keepers.
Whether people have a town back garden, or nice country cottage, they just like the idea of looking after a hive, a bit like there are more people keeping chickens again and more people wanting to grow their own fruit and vegetables.
I think those whove got involved have really just enjoyed the challenge of having a hive even though its turned out to be not quite as challenging as they expected. Television, particularly, can sometimes portray quite a negative picture of bees in huge swarms and stinging people whereas most are quite benign as long as you manage them properly. Theyre quite OK to keep in a garden, they dont chase you all round the place.
With up to 50 hives in his own Kenilworth garden and apiaries welcomed by farmers in the surrounding countryside, Michael started running bee keeping courses seven years ago, combining classroom studies with practical sessions at the branchs own teaching apiary.
Eight people were on that first course, today it averages about 50 with around half going on to set up hives of their own, supported in their first year by a mentor who lives nearby.
Its really important to me to get that level of support and co-operation within the branch as it gives people confidence that theyre not on their own, says Michael.
WBKA has eight branches, all of which run training courses and have their own apiaries so even if the Warwick and Leamington course is full, or too far away, a quick check on the county website will provide details of these others.
Currently into their second year of bee keeping are Bernard and Jane Brown, who have also recently started mentoring a new bee keeper who lives in the next village to their Langley home.
Both retired, but avid gardeners who knew another keen keeper, they signed up for Michaels course and got hooked.
Its like our very own soap opera, suggests Bernard. You use powers of detection to find out what the bees are doing, what theyre collecting, how healthy they are, what stage theyre at. Its very absorbing.
The couple set up their first hive just over a year ago and have already had two swarms - the process where the colony divides to seek a new home - and a nail-biting first freezing winter.
Yet its not the cold thats the enemy, its the damp. Michael says by huddling together bees can raise the hives temperature to about 30C, protecting the queen who will start laying her eggs around Christmas.
One of the delights of bee keeping is on a warm February day when you see the bees come out and go into the crocus and snowdrops to get their first load of pollen, he says. If theyre collecting pollen you know the queen has laid a few eggs and theyve survived the winter.
While no formal data exists, he believes the number of hives lost was no higher this icy winter than the normal 10 per cent.
It was certainly a great relief for the Browns whose new colony had spent summer 2010 building up honey stores for the cold season.
We opened the hive and there were a lot more bees in there than went in, former building surveyor Bernard smiles, looking forward to this years first honey crop and a garden which is noticeably more blooming than before, especially the fruit trees.
It costs about 350 to set up with a hive and bee suit, plus a few tools but, after that, Bernard says, its just a case of keeping an eye on things.
And its that watchful eye which is proving the honey bees biggest ally.
If bee keepers are not monitoring their hives, eventually their bees will die out, warns Michael. Theyve got to be treated for varroa and theres various ways to do that but theres no doubt at all, if it wasnt for bee keepers wed lose our honey bee population.
Theres no doubt, bees have got a long way to go and research is still ongoing into whats affecting population levels but, in Warwickshire, life for the honey bee is definitely a lot - well sweeter.
Many years ago people just put bees in their hive and forgot about them until they wanted to take the honey off and you just cant do that, says Michael.
They have to be looked after like any other livestock.
People are coming in to bee keeping with a caring approach and when you talk about identifying the bees and managing varroa they are taking the appropriate steps to do that. Thats the big difference.