Life of Bees: The Story of Warborough Honey
Today on the blog, we delve into the life of bees, and the story behind Warborough Honey from Steve Ash, WH founder, lifelong nature enthusiast, (and my dad)! Heading towards retirement, a change in circumstance of a good friend and neighbour, led him down an unexpected path…..
Significant life changes are really supposed to involve plans, probably goals and objectives, but my very late career change was nothing like that. About five years ago a neighbour called round. He had remarried, and as a lifelong beekeeper, indeed, from a family of traditional beekeepers, had encountered the rock and hard place of feisty bees and newly acquired, inquisitive grandchildren, not always a happy combination.
I’ve always been at home with Nature, even slightly obsessed, discovering birdwatching when we lived in Scotland, especially at Aberlady Bay and the Isle of May. My childhood was spent catching slow-worms and lizards on Portsdown Hill in Portsmouth. Some years we would find eruptions of butterflies like Clouded Yellows and Painted Ladies, along with Red Admirals and Peacocks feeding on the clumps of Scabious and Michaelmas Daises. Spring would bring bird migrants like Red-Backed Shrikes and Wheatears.
Beekeeping, however, had never been on the radar, but my neighbour’s family travails seemed like a great opportunity. We live in Warborough near the Chilterns, not far from the coldest place in the UK, Benson Airfield. This area has a rich history of bees and honey, for example, as the home of Rowse Honey. My curiosity and enthusiasm were tempered, and still are, by the awareness that we need to help all 260 species of bee in the UK, not just the Honeybee, Apis Mellifera.
The neighbour was helpful. He had a perfectly good site for the hives and was full of advice on how to move them and get them settled. But moving them quickly from his garden was the main thing. They were, with the benefit of a few years’ experience, feisty bees. What makes a feisty bee colony? Partly genetics, partly how they are handled, partly the state of the hive (for example are the frames welded to the side of the hive with the bee’s favourite glue, propolis?). Whatever the mix, those first bees had feistiness by the bucketful.
Even so, the compensation of delicious honey, some of it mint flavoured from the local lime tree flowers, and the curiosity of nurturing those hives through a fairly hard winter, meant that the bee-bug had bitten and the spring of 2015 saw me registered on a couple of beginners courses. The ‘seat of the pants’ style of bee management had been replaced by knowledge, and even more importantly a network of supportive ‘beeks’, and even a mentor or two.
Early in that second year, a new challenge. A local environmental charity that I support, Sylva Foundation, had created a community orchard in the village of Long Wittenham, and had received a donation to create an apiary, six brand new hives and some new bees. I was partly project managing, and partly on a steep learning curve, and much indebted to some very helpful experienced beekeepers.
Winding on to the present day, we currently manage around 40 hives in 6 different apiaries, all in beautiful countryside with a good mix of woodland, fields with set-aside and generous hedgerows. The main aim is to intervene with the bees as little as possible, to harness the incredible energy of colony growth in the spring, to leave more than enough honey for the bees to over-winter, and to deal with swarms as quickly and efficiently as possible. Above all, the goal is to reduce the number of red-hot poker, adrenaline infused, out of control moments to perhaps one or two a year.
In the early days, these moments would include finding thousands of bees in our garage, attracted by an ill-timed effort at honey extraction, or being in the middle of a swarm as it erupts from a hive. These events will probably always happen, but with experience, you can learn to manage most things. My first ever swarm collection was from the top of a hawthorn hedge, about 3 metres or so off the ground, just high enough to be awkward. After about two sweaty, stressful hours, I succeeded in coaxing most of them into a swarm box, including the queen. My efforts had attracted an audience. Two elderly gentlemen commented helpfully, ‘we saw a chap in Primrose Hill catch a swarm last week, with not nearly as much of a struggle’.
Easily the most compelling part of this life are the connections that it provides. Connections to the weather, the plants, to other insects, to nature as a whole, and to the farming community. There are connections to all our customers, friends and neighbours who have a gratifying desire to understand the world of honeybees. All our wildlife is worth understanding, and should produce feelings of wonder, but Honeybees really are very special.
They understand, for example, when the longest day has passed. From pretty much that day, or at least within a few days, their temperament changes, from active and fizzy to laid back and gentle, the queen lays fewer eggs every day, and by the end of June they are concentrating on activities that will help them to survive the winter. Think about that the next time someone complains about shops selling Christmas presents in September! They are also very particular about the water content of their honey. They will fan honey in a comb with their wings to evaporate excess moisture, until they have reduced the water content to below 20%, when it is capped with wax. Below this level, organisms such as yeast and bacteria cannot thrive, and the honey will keep for a very long time, probably decades, or even longer. Our trading standards people have followed the bees on this, and it is illegal to sell honey with a water content above 20%.
These pieces of almost supernatural behaviour are the product of perhaps 100 million years of natural selection and evolution. Certainly, DNA from fossil bees has been extracted and indicates that a pollen and probably nectar eating bee would have been alive around 125 million years ago (coinciding with the first appearance of flowering plants).
If they have been around for so long, do they need beekeepers? This is a frequently asked (and fair) question. The simple answer is that there is not enough habitat for the bees to live in a truly wild state in most of the UK. We need to provide nesting cavities with a capacity of between 30-90 litres to replace the hollow logs and trees that they should be using, and these cavities, are, of course, hives.
It would be possible to provide a plain box and let the bees get on with it, indeed some people already do more or less this in a development known as Natural Beekeeping. The main drawback here is that Honeybees have more parasites and pests, especially the Varroa mite, than they would have done 50 years ago, and by managing the hives, we can help them overcome such challenges.
In sharing their world, we get a glimpse of something very special, very complex. The ephemeral nature of the average worker bee, with a lifespan of a mere 35 days in the summer, transitions through tasks such as cleaning newly hatched bees, feeding young bees and larvae, producing and moulding wax to make honeycomb, feeding the queen, before they graduate on to the more exciting tasks such as foraging for pollen, nectar and propolis.
In fact, most bees finish their lives in foraging or guard roles. Any jobs away from the hive are high risk (think flycatchers, swallows and hornets), and the bees have come to the grim but logical conclusion that it is better for the older members of their community to die away from the hives. The focus is always on the whole colony of honeybees, never on individuals, and that is probably why they have thrived, and will continue to thrive for many millions of years to come.
So, my new life, a very late career change, and one for which I am very grateful. Grateful too that I’ve been able to adapt to a physical way of life after decades of sitting in cars and offices, managing teams of people implementing IT, a very different world. It’s a very busy life especially in the spring and summer and there is always the opportunity to give talks to groups such as Gardening and Wildlife clubs to re-create some of the wonder!
With so many people rethinking their careers during lockdown, as well as the all important work/life balance, it’s inspiring to see that focusing on our core values and lifelong passions, really can lead to the happy and fulfilled life we all crave.