Tue, Sep 29, 2009 - Page 16 News List

The booming world of amateur beekeeping

Britons are doing their bit to counter the mysterious worldwide decline of bees — they are starting to keep their own

By Matt Carroll  /  THE OBSERVER , YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND

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“I need to talk to you about the bees,” said my fiancee recently, sitting up in bed with a sense of urgency. “There aren’t many left, so we need to help them.” Any bees in particular, I asked? “All of them,” she said. “We’re running out of time.”

The night before, she had attended a lecture by journalist Alison Benjamin, who, with Brian McCallum, has published A World Without Bees (Guardian Books), which outlines how bee populations across the world are dwindling at an alarming rate. Benjamin argues that this is not only bad news for bees, it could be catastrophic for us humans, too: bees play a crucial role in pollinating plants — from food crops to trees — helping them to reproduce. Put simply, no bees means no humans.

So here we are, on a sunny Monday morning at Harewood House in Yorkshire, northern England, preparing to do our bit for our busy, buzzy friends. Like similar clubs across the UK, Harrogate and Ripon Beekeepers’ Association is running beginner courses throughout the year, responding to a surge in interest.

The course begins in the classroom, in what was once the stable block of this sprawling country estate. Our host, John Annett, the former education officer for the club, shows us the components that make up a hive, and gives us an insight into how it all works.

What to me just looks like a stack of wooden boxes contains a carefully organized community. The bottom box — or base of the hive — is the bees’ entry and exit. On top of this is the main area of the nest, where the young bees — or “brood” — are raised. Although you will find honeycomb in this part of the nest, it’s not for human consumption. “This is for the young and the rest of the hive to feed on,” says John. “If you start helping yourself to this, the colony may starve.”

ON THE NET:

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Instead, the stuff you can harvest is contained in the “super” — another layer that lies above this main section. This is surplus honey, which the bees can happily survive without. “A brand new hive costs about £90 [US$140],” says John, “but you can get them a lot cheaper than that.”

The most interesting part of the morning is finding out how bees communicate with each other. The bees buzzing around your flowerbeds are females, sent out to collect food for the hive. Once they find a good stash, they’ll head back to the nest and perform the “waggledance” — a set of movements that conveys the exact location of the pollen-packed plants. Their co-workers follow these directions and continue harvesting the crop. Over a year, a fully functioning hive can produce 50kg of honey.

Casting my eye around the room, I find that the group is fairly mixed. There’s 47-year-old Diane, from nearby Thornthwaite, who’s awaiting her first delivery of bees in a month and is here for a crash course in how to look after them. “We already grow our own vegetables,” she says. “So keeping bees is a logical extension of that.” Meanwhile, 52-year-old Mike Frazer says he finds beekeeping “incredibly peaceful.” Assuming they don’t swarm, that is.

Although at 32 I’m the youngest, Annett has noticed a surge in the number of people in their 20s and 30s enrolling on the courses. “Right now, we can’t keep up with demand,” he says. “We’re increasing our membership by around 50 people a year; bearing in mind that we only have about 300 members, this is a huge year-on-year increase.”

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