Hive minds

Plants, not hobbyists, are best for bees

Country Notes

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

For a long while we knew almost nothing about the girl who keeps 19 beehives down below our house. It’s the sort of thing everyone likes to pretend happens all the time in rural Scotland but in truth it seldom does. “She just knocked on the door one day,” my mother told me, “and she wanted to know if the field below the orchard was ours.”

In my younger years, when I was home from university, I sometimes hung out down there and smoked rollies but it never occurred to me that the seclusion it offered had any potential for bees. I didn’t ask about the arrangement but we’ve always got a steady supply of honey, “one jar per hive per annum,” my mother later explained, “the going rate from a bee tenant in Scotland.”

Katie Warwick doesn’t look like a beekeeper

I still think it was the sheep, the farmer reckons it was a badger, and my younger brother blames the dog fox he missed, four years ago now, when he was shooting ducks. Every year, in Lockie’s mind anyway, the fox becomes even bigger and its list of misdemeanours grows ever longer. Either way, one of the hives had tumbled over, rolled down the hill a few times, and the bees — to my ears at least — sounded wild with rage.

We’ve never had a phone number for Katie but my mother vaguely remembered writing her email address down somewhere. Within half an hour she’d replied: “don’t lift it, might need smoker, I’ll come tomorrow.” The following day, not long after breakfast, she arrived in her pick-up.

Katie Warwick doesn’t look like a beekeeper. I’m sure there are apiarists who would find the notion of there being a “type” deeply offensive but in truth, she explained, sitting on the tail-gate of her truck while putting on her suit, the community is an aging one. Most British beekeepers are two-hives-by-the-summerhouse retirees who do it for a hobby rather than actually wanting to make a career of it.

The bees, Katie understood from listening to them, were “pretty chilled out” about the great wrong that had been done and she soon had the hive back below the orchard wall on its wooden pallet. Originally from South West London, Katie is one of 30 apprentices on a four-year course run by the Bee Farmers Association, an initiative that was established in the hope of bringing vitality to the industry. The 19 hives she keeps at my house are part of her collection of 162, which sounds huge but she’d need almost twice that before she could earn a living from it.

With spring having been the coldest on record, the bees are behind but Katie thinks that towards the end of May, they’ll go through their annual process of the colonies becoming overpopulated, at which point a new queen is raised and two thirds of the bees will head off with the old one.

Last year she had all sorts of problems with losing swarms and this year, she’s trying a bait hive. The hive stands almost as tall as she does and she explained that “it gives the bees a sense of security from having their nest raided by something like a bear.” It’s been at least 1500 years now since any such creature made off with honey in Dumfriesshire but the bees’ instincts keep them on their guard.

Katie gestured to the hills around us and told me that while the blooming willows are great for her bees

Sitting on the old stone dyke, where I used to hide my rollie butts in the wall, Katie gestured to the hills around us and told me that while the blooming willows are great for her bees, the non-native forestry plantations and monocultural farming have very little to offer them in the way of nectar and pollen. One of the great challenges of her job is finding areas with sufficient sustenance.

A lack of wild food has been a big factor in Britain losing almost a quarter of its wild bees in the past 40 years and Katie accepts that keeping honey bees can make the situation worse. Earlier this year, in a bid for a bit of green shine, Marks and Spencers unveiled plans to place 1,000 hives on 25 farms across England. “They’re like: ‘Oh, we saving the bees,’” Katie laughed. “But the best way to save the bees is to plant more food for them. It’s just putting loads of bees out there when there’s nothing for them.”

In South West Scotland, where ageing apiarists are an oddity, things are better. But in the south of England hordes of hobby beekeepers are starting to be a bit of a problem.

It’s not that you mustn’t indulge that retirement dream of putting two hives down by the summer house, but plough up your patio first and plant a bed of poppies.

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