Being a bee is hard work but there are sweet rewards for them and for us. And it’s not just about honey.
Without these industrious little insects our planet would be a very different place.
The crops and plants they pollinate would die, affecting the animals that eat those crops and, further up the food chain, there would be big gaps on our supermarket shelves.
One organisation fighting their corner is West Norfolk and King’s Lynn Beekeepers Association – and 2017 has its members buzzing with excitement.
As well as celebrating its centenary – an anniversary it very nearly missed – its membership is at an all-time high and it will soon be spreading its expertise to the other side of the globe.
The milestone came out of the blue. Members had been planning to celebrate in 2020 but a message from New Zealand made them realise the organisation was older than they thought.
Chairman Peter Davies explained the daughter of an early member contacted the group asking for information about her late father. “We delved into the archives and old minute books and discovered he was a founder of the Association in 1917 and we were already well into our centenary year.”
It started as King’s Lynn Beekeepers Association and added West Norfolk to its name in 2007 to reflect the wider area it now covers.
Membership has reached a record of around 200, reflecting a nationwide enthusiasm for keeping and protecting bees.
Peter said: “Members include commercial beekeepers but most do it as a hobby with four or five hives. They have various reasons – they like honey, they want to help the environment, and get out in the fresh air and some will make themselves some pin money.”
Peter, from Walpole Cross Keys, is a bee inspector for Defra and has around 50 hives spread across Marshland.
Carla Baker, from Downham, is a newer member and has two hives on nearby farmland. Her interest was sparked on a gardening course and she has benefited from the help and support of the Association.
“I work full-time so this is a hobby but you never stop learning. It is good to think I am helping the environment and the honey is a bonus,” she said.
Next year the association will help impoverished people in Africa. One of the most experienced members, Venetia Rist, is heading out to Uganda’s Bwindi Forest in January to help the Batwa pygmy tribe set up their own hives and bee colonies. She will teach them how to care for the bees and make use of the by-products including honey and wax.
Venetia discovered the Bees Abroad project at the National Honey Show and with more than 50 years keeping bees in Norfolk, a teaching background and a raft of qualifications, she ticked all the boxes.
Venetia will met up with a couple who have already started a project in Uganda and will then head into the forest alone.
Her three-week £3,000 trip is being funded by the local association from a raffle they ran countywide with match-funding from Santander and the money was handed over at the centenary dinner at Middleton Village Hall. The project will last up to five years and future help and funding will come from Bees Abroad.
Venetia has 30 hives in mid-Norfolk and in 2015 her soft-set honey was a winner at the National Honey Show.
She is one of the West Norfolk members who runs courses for beginners and improvers and educates fellow beekeepers about husbandry and disease.
Education is a key role for the association and that they provide mentors to help newcomers in the early years.
“We go out and about giving talks, visit schools and attend shows including the Royal Norfolk and Sandringham. We like to think we are the ‘go-to’ organisation for anything to do with honey bees,” said Peter.
“Anyone thinking of taking up beekeeping should expect to dedicate around two hours a week to their hive in the summer and two weeks a month in the winter – but it has to be consistent so it is quite a commitment.
“You can buy a new flat pack hive, equipment including your protective suit and your bees for £300 to 400. Your back garden may not be suitable if you have close neighbours but hopefully a local farmer can help – and he will reap the benefits too.”
This is not something to pick up from the internet. There are around 60,000 bees in a hive – and yes, they can sting – living in a structured community. Girl power rules with the females slogging themselves to death within weeks cleaning the hive and collecting pollen. One bee could travel 90,000 miles to make one pound of honey!
The male drones are there just to mate with the queen who can live several years and will lay several thousand eggs a day.
Bees were in crisis a few years ago and while the situation has stabilised they still struggle with modern use of insecticides, the demise of orchards and forage crops and the threat of non-native species from abroad.
What can we do for them? “We would love to see more old-fashioned cottage gardens with plants such as lavender, herbs, foxgloves, hellebores and anything that attracts bees.” said Peter. “They need all the help they can get.”