Keeping bees: "a fascinating hobby"

For the past few years we humans have been celebrating World Bee Day, an event that reminds us that we depend on bees for our very survival and perhaps this year more than most we should be grateful for these little protectors of our planet.

I must confess my knowledge of bees is not huge but I guess like most people I know that they are important because they pollinate our plants allowing us to produce food for ourselves and our farm animals. I know they sting, but only when they really have to because did you know that when they sting us they die afterwards, and I know they make delicious honey, and that's about it, so to find out more I spoke to master beekeeper Valerie Vivien-Griffiths who has been keeping bees at her home in the Welsh borders for some 20 years.

Val is completely smitten with the little creatures describing her hobby as "absolutely fascinating" and equates her epiphany to that of Lucy in the story of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Lucy climbs through the back of the wardrobe and discovers the fantastical world of Narnia. "Twenty minutes into a talk on bee-keeping and I was completely hooked," says Val, who now give talks herself about bees and how to keep them.

Being a florist, I was particularly keen to know about bees' relationship with flowers. Do they prefer to gather pollen from any particular type of flower, do they have favourites? Interestingly, Val says that they like quite simple flowers like snow drops, anenomes and fruit blossom. Clover is a particular favourite and they like herbs and brambles too. "Lime tree blossom can result in the tastiest honey," says Val, "so long as it's a good season." What makes a good season, I ask. "Good weather" is the answer.  "We're at the height of the season right now, says Val, and it's perfect. Good weather makes a good season and that means that the honey will be good."

But Val is keen to impress on me that whilst it's lovely to have some nice honey, it's not her main motivation for keeping bees. She is truly fascinated by their way of life; how they work and live and keep their colonies alive.  A virgin queen bee, for example, will mate up to 15 male bees who then pay the ultimate sacrifice and die as soon as they've mated. The Queen bee is also able to store sperm in a special organ called the spermatheca for up to two years and just uses it as and when she needs to. Amazing!

Val agrees that her hobby is certainly good for her wellness and has been particularly grateful for it during the Coronavirus pandemic. She and husband Jim have found their beekeeping duties a great distraction from the current crisis and even at the best of times it is a wonderful way to forget about everything else that's going on in the world, says Val. "You just get lost in the task in front of you and of course there is so much more to keeping bees than people might think. It takes time and effort to keep the bees happy and in good condition, but it is so rewarding," enthuses Val.  With 50 hives to look after - that's around 45,000 bees per hive - Val and Jim are indeed very dedicated beekeepers. 

Spring and summer is peak bee season but what happens in winter?  Well, they kind of hibernate, but the most fascinating thing - and you may have seen films of this on nature programmes - is the way they keep themselves warm, huddling together around the Queen bee rather like Penguins in the arctic, moving from the back of the cluster to the front to keep a constant temperature of 20 centigrade: "they are brilliant at keeping the temperature just right, they never get it wrong" says Val.

Honey bees have such a short life, about 6 months on average, but work so hard to look after their communities and in turn look after us by pollinating our plants and even rewarding us with their delicious honey, they are truly marvellous little creatures for whom I have an ever increasing respect.  World Bee Day is celebrated on the 20th of May each year. For more information about World Bee Day visit www.worldbeeday.org

A few more interesting facts about Bees:

  • The average bee will make just 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
  • One bee has to fly 90,000 miles (three times around the globe) to make 1lb of honey.
  • Bees must gather nectar from two million flowers to make 1lb of honey.
  • The lifespan of an average honey bee is 6 months, except for the Queen who will live for up to three years.
  • And Val says that the best way to deal with a bee sting is to scrape away the sting with your fingernail - don't try to pull out the sting as that makes it worse.

Val keeps her hives at her country home in Monmouth, Wales, where the Welsh Borders Honey they produce is sold at local farmers markets. She and husband Jim give talks about beekeeping all over the country. For contact details please email kay@justsoflowers.co.uk

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