Did you know that around a third of our supermarket shelves would be empty were it not for the humble honey bee?
From traditional runny honeys to lavender infused varieties, we Brits love our honey. Its production contributes a whopping £651 million to the UK’s economy but there is now serious concern over the dramatic decline of the 24 different varieties of UK bees that produce it.
Environmentalists such as the Soil Association have warned that the use of agricultural pesticides such as neonicotinoid, coupled with the fact we have less wild flowers in our fields for bees to feed on and milder winters have placed huge strain on the population.
Some bee and honey lovers are so concerned they have now taken it upon themselves to start keeping bees in order to combat the crisis.
Local insurance firm AXA has commissioned bee hives for its employees’ while many residents of Tunbridge Wells are setting up their own hives in their gardens.
Yet despite these enthusiastic enterprises Peter Hutton, the President of the Tunbridge Wells branch of the Kent Bee-keepers’ Association has warned there is still more to be done. He explained this year has been particularly difficult given the unseasonably mild weather which has threatened his colonies of bees.
“We have seen some changes in the environment that I’ve never experienced before. In winter bees are supposed to have a period for a couple of months from around November when they are dormant, but it’s been so mild this has not happened so some of the worker bees have died.
“I have had to do some supplementary feeding for them, but for those who are not experienced beekeepers, they may have lost bees through starvation because of the weather situation,” explained Mr Hutton.
But for all its frustrations Mr Hutton admits it has been extremely rewarding to have kept bees for more than 50 years.
“Beekeeping in my family goes right back to my great grandfather on my maternal side. I’ve really enjoyed it, including teaching beginners for about 20 years and I got to a point where I had about 220 bee colonies.”
Though he has now retired as a professional keeper, the 73 year-old still farms on a semi-commercial basis, selling a range of honeys including a Tunbridge Wells batch through the Hayesden Herb and Honey Farm near Tonbridge.
Mr Hutton uses the British Apis mellifera mellifera bee species, though he believes there is a growing use of overseas bees from countries including Slovenia and Italy as a result of the decline of the British bee.
“The honey that we have had from Tunbridge Wells over the past year has been high quality. It’s a clear honey from lime trees, which has a delicate flavour.” He also produces varieties from sweet chestnut trees and raspberry nectar.
According to Mr Hutton, the 100-strong membership of the Tunbridge Wells bee keeping group consists of people from all backgrounds. They have used their gardens, farms and also the group’s dedicated apiary bee yard facilities in town to develop their bee-keeping skills.
It costs around £200 to set up a hive and start your own colony but Mr Hutton warns that bee keeping isn’t going to secure you a personal fortune.
“If I were a bank manager, I think the last person I would lend money to would be a bee keeper! I just about break even. There are so many factors you have to take into consideration.”
Secretary of the group, John Farrow, shares Peter Hutton’s passion for the bee business but admits it has become increasingly tougher over the 15 years he has been involved.
One of the most complex challenges over the past decade he says has been dealing with the tiny varroa mite, which has decimated many bee colonies.
“Another major problem is the loss of wild flower meadows and the accumulation of many systemic pesticides within the hive.
“This is more prevalent in the countryside rather than urban bees. It has been shown that there is every class of pesticide, fungicide & herbicides in a colony and in one bee they have found 25 different agrochemicals. The comparison would be like us having a cold and then going down with another infection which would definitely reduce our enthusiasm to go out and forage for our own food.”
The publicity surrounding the decline of bees has definitely boosted the Tunbridge Wells Bee-keepers’ Association’s numbers though Mr Farrow admits that due to the difficult nature of maintaining colonies means that its members have to possess a particularly determined nature to persevere.
He also feels the spring will bring about a renewed growth in order to help maintain bee colony numbers. Yet despite his optimism, Mr Farrow admits there are a number of issues for the industry.
“The wild bee colonies have diminished dramatically and if we do not have bee keepers maintaining their own colony numbers by splitting them and producing new queen bees their numbers could be at crisis level. This has happened in the USA where they are having to import massive number of bees from Australia.”
Though beekeeping clearly has plenty of tests for those involved with it, it seems there are certainly rewards for those who decide to stick with it.
For information on upcoming courses, visit www.kentbee.com
How you can keep Britain Buzzing:
Bees rely on the nectar and pollen from flowers for their survival so make sure your garden is brimming with bee friendly flowers like alliums, bell heather, catmint, camellias, daffodils, dahlias, foxgloves and geraniums. For a full list of bee friendly flowers visit www.bumblebeeconservation.org
If you grow your own then remember chives, cherries, blackcurrants and apples are all loved by bees.
Buy wildlife-friendly organic food and farming through their everyday shopping choices. For more information and tips visit The Soil Association www.soilassociation.org