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A sticky profession

“I’m probably considered one of the youngest professional beekeepers in the country,” says bee veteran David, aged 62. It’s a sobering thought, as we look out across his hives set in the idyllic Wiltshire countryside, west of Salisbury Plain.

Nestled amongst the undergrowth, small hives (collectively referred to as an apiary) are located close to water, in the quietest areas of the grassland. A variety of wildflowers dress the landscape, providing ideal foraging conditions so the bees can collect nectar and pollen. In turn, the insects pollinate flowers which can then reproduce, creating the mutually beneficial relationship which is vital to our ecosystem.

The colonies are mostly left to their own devices - after 20 years of beekeeping, David firmly prefers a ‘hands off’ approach and only intervenes with his bees as a last resort. He doesn’t, for example, cull drone bees (male bees who don’t contribute to honey production) or clip the wings of any queen bees to prevent swarming.  His hives are much bigger than the standard British model and these are not opened regularly to minimise stress to the bees.

David prefers to allow his bees to live as naturally as possible and must use his 30 years of experience to judge when he should intervene with a struggling colony or allow nature to take its course. Intervening would involve using nucleus colonies (smaller bee colonies created from larger ones) to re-queen a weaker colony by allowing the queen to lay her brood. Queens can lay up to 2000 eggs a day which strengthens the colony’s numbers and chances of survival.

If beekeepers take all of the bees’ honey from the hives, they are obliged to feed the colony over the winter when bees would normally feed on their summer reserves. David leaves his bees with enough honey to eat during the colder months and only interferes if their honey production has been affected by poor weather. This year, he is concerned with rainfall, as spring 2016 has been one of the wettest on record leaving the bees unable to leave their hives to collect nectar. He ensures the hives’ limited honey supplies are left for the colony to eat and awaits the warmer weather forecast later in the summer. If this does not arrive, David will need to intervene and feed his bees.

Knowing when to step in and when to step back is one of the trickiest parts of being a beekeeper. It’s a delicate balancing act between honey production and bee health. But David is also worried about the future of beekeeping in England which lacks government investment and is part of an artisanal food market still in its infancy. The French government, in contrast, is currently responding to high bee mortality rates by offering financial grants to large-scale beekeepers who follow regulations designed to improve beekeeping practices. Beekeepers seeking financial help must meet criteria which includes ensuring hives are at least 2.5 kilometres apart and set in biodiverse locations in a bid to increase colony health and pollination levels.

“The French government’s targeted funding campaigns and financial incentives in the sector have been cleverly laid,” David explains “because they have managed to attract a much younger generation than the UK’s into beekeeping.” The average French beekeeper is 45 years old; 21 years younger than their English counterpart, and David suggests that in England the unlikelihood of earning an income from beekeeping has meant that a lot of young people feel that it’s an activity best enjoyed as a hobby. This is a disappointing attitude for him and his beekeeping colleagues who feel the industry is in need of revitalisation.  

Looking over the picturesque plains of Salisbury, it’s easy to forget the scale of work required to be a beekeeper - however ‘hands off’ your methods are. From speaking to David, it’s also  clear that beekeeping requires both passion and dedication - two qualities David hopes to install in his own apprentice as he tries to keep the art of beekeeping alive.

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