“Bees are fascinating creatures and they deserve our respect and care,”
says Alan Greenman as he gives us a tour of the apiary within the grounds of Shugborough Hall.
Maintained by South Staffordshire & District Beekeepers Association, it’s home to 14 hives, each containing around 50,000 bees.
“It’s a teaching apiary and every year we run a six-week beginner’s course in beekeeping as well as half-day taster sessions throughout the summer.
“The bees are used as a teaching aid, so they are a bit like guinea pigs, but we always make sure they are well looked after.
“We’ve had 21 people on the course this time and it shows there is a great demand out there from people who want to know how to look after bees,” explains beekeeper Alan.
Before we can enter the apiary we need to put on some protective clothing in the form of a heavy suit which has a veil to cover the face built in to avoid any stings.
“The bees are predominately female and they will let you know if you’ve done the wrong thing,” says Alan. He took up the hobby in 2012 after retiring as a manager in the NHS and has his own bees at home.
“I was asked by my colleagues what I was going to do with myself after I retired and I said ‘be a beekeeper’. My grandad used to have bees, although I was never allowed to go near them, and I thought they were fascinating.
“They bought me a bee suit and a hive as my retirement present,” the 70-year-old tells us.
Now he is chairman of the association which has around 170 members, who come from Stafford, Cannock and Wolverhampton as well as further afield and range in age from the oldest at 92 right down to the youngest who is just eight-years-old.
Beekeeper duties include ensuring their charges are healthy and well-maintained and inspecting hives for signs of disease.
Before opening the hive, Alan lights a smoker which is used to calm the bees by masking the pheromones they use to communicate with one another.
If one bee starts to panic, it will send an alarm to the others and so they will be on high alert ready to attack anything that appears to be an intruder.
“You know you’re a beekeeper when you can smell the smoke,” says Alan. “The smoke pushes the bees gently away.
“It also makes them think there is a forest fire and they fill themselves with food so they are prepared in case they need to flee the hive.
“While they are filling themselves with food, they are distracted and they will leave you to do what you need to do,” he explains.
Each hive will contain a queen bee, male drone bees and tens of thousands of female worker bees who collect pollen and nectar as food for the entire colony, pollinating plants as they go.
Pollen provides vital protein and fats while nectar is an important energy source.
Nectar is deposited into honeycomb cells and after a process of fanning and evaporation, it turns into honey.
It will be capped over with wax by the bees to provide a winter food source for the bees to dip into when they are unable to forage outside for food.
Full records are kept to monitor food levels, the weather, honey production and signs of the varroa mite, a parasite which can be potentially dangerous to a honey bee.
“We inspect the bees to ensure they are thriving, we check them for disease and ensure there is enough space for the queen to lay. We also feed them if we need to and their stores are low.
“Generally, they are good bees and they take no notice of me but I have been stung a few times.
“But it’s a bit like someone coming into your house and rearranging all of your furniture, you’re not going to be happy, so we need to treat the bees with respect and take our time,” explains Alan.
Another important job is to prevent the colony from swarming because of congestion and overcrowding.
When the swarm leaves the hive it will consist of the queen and all the worker bees who were in the hive when the process began, which can leave the hive severely depleted.
Alan says it’s his job to anticipate his bees’ needs and provide them with more room before they need it.
He also needs to look for signs that the colony is producing new queens so that it can swarm and remove the queen cells before they are ready to hatch.
A hive can also be split to ensure there aren’t two queens.
“We have to think like a bee and then intercept. No beekeeper wants to lose half of their bees because of a swarm,” adds Alan.
During the past few weeks, members have been harvesting spring honey which has been produced from bees visiting oilseed rape flowers.
This clears the way for the summer honey which will be made by the bees from a mixture of wildflowers and collected by the keepers in August.
“They will always produce far more honey than they need to survive winter, which is about 40lbs, so we aren’t stealing their honey, we’re just taking their surplus. Their natural instinct is to replace it and keep the stores full,” explains Alan.
Last year’s long warm summer helped the UK’s honey yield hit a four-year high with an average crop of 30.8lb per hive, according to the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA).
“Some people said last year was their best year ever. The bees are busy collecting pollen and nectar and making honey when the sun is shining.
“When the weather is wet and windy, the bees stay in the hive and don’t go out,”Alan tells Weekend.
The association, which has some members with more than 40 years’ experience, is always keen to encourage beginners.
“We want to keep bees alive as long as possible so we want to encourage more people, especially young people, to keep bees.
“It’s a very enjoyable hobby that gives a lot of satisfaction. There is always something new to learn about keeping bees and the bees themselves. They are fascinating because of the way they are very organised and the way they communicate with each other and how they all know their roles within the hive.
“It’s also hugely rewarding,” says Alan.
He believes it’s important to do everything possible to help bees continue to thrive in the future.
“Bees have been around millions of year, and they pollinate a lot of the food we eat.
“I would hate them to be gone forever because man got rid of the land they forage on,” says Alan.
This article By Heather Large was first published in the Shropshire Star: Weekend edition: Jul 15, 2019