Far from being an old-fashioned pastime, beekeeping may well be essential to ensuring our future. Here's how modern beekeepers are tending to their hives, and helping to save the planet. 

The buzz of the city

bee hive
The hexagonal biomes of the “Bee & Bee Hotel” have condominiums to cater to solitary bees and boxes for the more social varieties

It seems too far-fetched to believe. Here in the middle of London, less than 100 yards from Scotland Yard, something extraordinary is going on. Listen hard and above the noise of the traffic, you can hear a loud and unmistakable sound—not just of humming, but of frantic buzzing. It’s the sound of many thousands of bees doing what they do best: making honey. 

What’s more, they’re performing their magic, not in the leafy acres of nearby St James’s Park, but up on the balcony of the palatial, £329-a-night St Ermin’s Hotel in Westminster. Whereas most urban residences would do their very best to keep sting-bearing insects as far away from paying guests as possible, this hotel opens its doors to the capital’s bees. 

Within certain limits, of course. The person who tends to the needs of the 300,000 or so patrons at this “Bee and Bee Hotel” is Camilla Goddard. Far from being a rustic beekeeper, Camilla, 43, tends to some 70 hives. Many of them are in surprisingly urban locations, including Notting Hill Gate and even, at one point in her career, a roundabout in Lewisham. At St Ermin’s Hotel, there are six hives.

“I began with a colony in a wood in Kent,” she recalls. “Later, I started to keep bees in London. In many ways, it’s a bit like farming. You’re always outdoors, often on rooftops in town, like here. And after a while, you listen to the hive and you can hear what they’re feeling. Each colony has its own personality, its own mood.”

Lest it sound too idyllic, the job isn’t without its dangers. “You get used to stings,” she says. “The best thing to do is to knock the bee off, otherwise, the toxins keep on pumping in. I find the simplest treatment is to rub the skin with icing sugar. 

“In the long run, though, bees are amazing creatures to work with. You can’t help admiring the way they operate. They really do put the good of the community first.”

Read more: 11 UnBEElievable facts about bees

 

 

Flying in the face of danger

bees
"This is a grave issue, not least because our existence rather depends on their existence"

As well as providing an enjoyable pastime (not to mention jars of delicious honey), beekeeping is becoming increasingly critical. According to the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA), 70 different UK crops depend on bees for pollination.

“Bees are in danger of disappearing from our environment,” warns Tim Lovett of the BBKA. “It’s only the care and treatment provided by beekeepers that’s keeping colonies alive. Attitudes must change, and a new generation needs to be educated about the value of bees and the threats to them.”

This is a grave issue, not least because our existence rather depends on their existence. Indeed, it’s been calculated that if the bee disappears from the world, then we’d only have four years of life left. Says Camilla, “Without bees to provide pollination, one-third of all our food wouldn’t survive. That’s their value, yet people don’t realise it.” 

 

 

"If the bee disappears from the world, then we’d only have four years of life left"

 

 

It’s estimated that the value of the pollination amounts to £200m per year. And this with a diminished winged workforce: at the end of the Second World War, there were 400,000 bee colonies in Britain and some 80,000 beekeepers. During the war, Winston Churchill was a staunch supporter of bees and made sure they got extra supplies so they could carry on with their pollination work, even as the Luftwaffe dropped their bombs.

Today, though, bee numbers are down by 50 per cent, for two main reasons. The first is that the UK agricultural industry has started using more and more land, thereby reducing the number of spots where bees can live. Crop-protecting pesticides have also caused high mortality among the bee population.

The second blow was the arrival in the UK, at the start of the 1990s, of the Varroa mite—an eight-legged Asian parasite that first arrived in Devon and then spread across the country. It settled on the bodies of bees and not only weakened their immune system but caused their wings to deform so that flying became impossible. 

As a result, beekeepers have to monitor their hives throughout the year, to ensure that Varroa mites are kept to a minimum. Failure to do so can result in the ultimate disaster: colony collapse for the bees and loss of livelihood for the beekeepers. 

Read more: How to attract bees into your garden

 

 

Getting bees into schools

beekeeping
With 350,000 bees in the hive, Camilla wears a suit to protect herself from stings

Producing honey, then, has become much harder work than it was a century ago. And it doesn’t help, of course, that beekeeping has increasingly become the province of the elderly (the average age is estimated at 60-plus).

Reasonably anxious about the decline of UK beekeeping, the BBKA has produced a schools information pack entitled “Bees in the Curriculum”.

Not every school, it should be said, is keen to get its pupils up close to thousands of stinging insects, but there have been notable exceptions: Walhampton Prep School, in Hampshire, keeps hives in the woods; Kimbolton School, a 950-pupil co-ed in Huntingdon, has positioned hives in the courtyard of the school’s science block; while at Yarm School, near Stockton-on-Tees, hives have been set up on a nearby farm away from the school—strictly for pupils trained in bee care.

Once the children have been around bees for a while, they learn not only to appreciate the insects’ work but to be able to differentiate between a bee and a wasp: something many children can no longer do. What’s more, they get to understand the service that bees provide for us, rather than seeing them as the source of stings.

“If young people don’t come into bee farming, we won’t have British honey,” warns 26-year-old Rebeckah Marshall of British Honey Producers. It’s said that a single pot of honey requires 40,000 miles’ worth of flying, which is a lot to ask of any worker. Adds Rebeckah, “We’re already importing thousands of tons of honey because we can’t satisfy the demand from supermarkets.”

 

Read the full feature in the August edition of Reader's Digest

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