Vicky Andrews gets the sweetest feeling as a Bootle beekeeper
If you’re one of those people who reacts to the gentle buzz of a bee by packing up their picnic and running for the hills, you’re not alone. (*Raises hand*). The good news is that bees only usually sting to defend their nest and most of the time they won’t bother you unless you bother them. Honey bees are even less likely to sting than bumblebees.
I have a new respect for this incredible insect. You might say, I’m a “Beelieber”
“Bear in mind that 90% of these bees here are males and they can't sting you,” says beekeeper Kenny, as one lands on the mesh in front of my face. I feel another ping against my hand and a loud buzz next to my ear. It’s a hot, sunny Saturday morning and I’m at Bootle allotments, covered head to toe in a white boiler suit and hood, gloves and wellies.
Me and 50,000 bees. Erm, hello, have you seen the film Candyman?
Beeshack is a collective of commercial beekeepers in the Liverpool area with over one hundred hives in gardens, allotments and roof tops, including both cathedrals, Knowsley Safari Park and Speke Airport.
Owner Martin Swift started beekeeping as a hobby 11 years ago with just one hive. Since then, he’s taught at local colleges, trained up many new beekeepers and has an online shop selling candles, wax melts, beeswax food wraps and honey.
Beeshack’s latest initiative is a “Beekeeping Experience” which gives members of the public the chance to learn about honey bees, see inside the busy hives and try some of the honey. In the three-hour session, I get to know the basics of how a colony works and then open the hive to identify eggs, lava, the capped brood, queen, workers and drones.
The honey bee colony is an incredibly intelligent and well organised community. The hive unit communicates through pheromones produced by female workers, male drones and queens, to coordinate activities like foraging, regulating the temperature in the hive, guarding the colony or tending to the brood, as well as feeding each other, cleaning, creating wax, comb and honey.
The queen honey bee has her own special pheromone and plays a very important role, mating with male drones, producing 2,000 to 3,000 eggs each day, and helping to form new colonies through swarming. That’s one buzzy - sorry, BUSY lady.
When bees swarm, it’s basically because the hive has become too crowded, so the existing queen will flee with her workers so that a new queen can be created. Swarms can look quite scary but they’re focused on finding a new nest, not on attacking humans. That said, it is important to keep your distance so that the bees don’t feel threatened.
Seeing inside the hive and getting so close to the bees (safely) is really fascinating and I have a new respect for this incredible insect. You might say, I’m a “Beelieber”.
The honey bee is vital to our environment and food production but, like many species of bee, their numbers are declining due to pesticide use and habitat loss.
“Bees pollinate lots of our plants so without the bees we wouldn’t have our food," says Martin.
"City bees visit a greater variety of flora from one area to another and so the honey will taste different depending on where the hive is. When we do big markets, we line the honey up for different postcodes and people are really surprised when they taste it.
"Liverpool 17 honey tastes totally different from Liverpool 30 honey and even the colour and the viscosity is different. And that is the beauty of it."
As part of the beekeeping experience, we get to stick a finger into a tray of honeycomb fresh from the hive. It is sweet and warm and the most beautiful honey I have ever tasted.
“Our honey is pure and unpasteurised, straight from the hive to the jar,” says Martin.
“In supermarkets, if you look at your labels, they're allowed to add corn syrup. They pasteurise it as well, so they're cooking out the goodness within the honey.
“We don't throw anything away within the process - the wax is a byproduct, but we can use it to make beeswax wraps and candles.”
With so many Beeshack bees buzzing around Liverpool, it’s highly likely that the ones you spot have come from Martin’s hives. So, what can we do to help the bees in our garden?
“They love herbs; thyme, rosemary, chives. Lavender attracts a lot of bumblebees but honey bees will go to it too and it’s good for any pollinator. Simple unhybridised flowers are good and most garden centres will say on the label if it’s 'bee-friendly'.
“Bees are very clever in the hive but when it comes to drinking water they can just go in and drown easily. A little water tray with pebbles gives them something to land on so they don't drown. It's lovely to have them in the garden and watch them.”
As well as the beginner’s experience, Beeshack offers an intensive two-day course and a certified six-week course for those serious about beekeeping. If you do discover a swarm of honey bees then Martin will come out and remove it at no cost - you’ll even get a few free jars of honey in return. Good for the bees and good for the environment too - ain’t that the sweetest feeling?
Beeshack's Beekeeper Experience costs £30pp and the next events are on Saturdays throughout August. To book on and find out more information on the full range of courses, or purchase local honey from Martin's shop, visit the Beeshack website.
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