Stuart Baillie has been to meet local carpenter Kevin Hitchman to find out about his passion for bees and bee-keeping and about what got him started in the hobby in the first place.
I’ve never been that fond of bees, being stung by one as a child is probably what did it!
So when Kevin Hitchman invited me round to find out more about his hives and his passion for bee-keeping and then said, “I’ve got a bee suit for you,” I have to admit, I felt a cold sweat starting to form.
But I needn’t have worried, Kevin’s bees are sociable creatures and while they buzzed about me as I watched him empty one of his hives of its honey, I felt remarkably comfortable even managing to snatch some close-up photographs of the hive’s Queen Bee.
There was of course a serious reason for finding out a little more about bees. While they are an essential of the natural world one-third of the UK’s bee population has disappeared over the past decade and 24 per cent of Europe’s bees are now threatened with extinction.
We might take bees and other pollinators like butterflies and hoverflies for granted but they are vital for stable, healthy food supplies. They are key to the varied, colourful and nutritious diets we need and have come to expect.
Bees are perfectly adapted to pollinate, helping plants grow, breed and produce food. They do so by transferring pollen between flowering plants and therefore keeping the cycle of life turning.
The vast majority of plants we need for food rely on pollination, especially by bees and they also pollinate around 80 per cent of wildflowers in Europe, so our countryside would be far less interesting and beautiful without them.
But bees are in trouble! There is growing public and political concern at bee decline across the world. This decline is caused according to Friends of the Earth by a combination of stresses – from loss of their habitat and food sources to exposure to pesticides and the effects of climate change.
That’s why Kevin, from King Edward Avenue, is so passionate about his bees and so passionate about spreading the word and trying to encourage other people to take up bee-keeping.
“It all stated for me about seven years ago,” says Kevin, “I’d been chatting with a family friend and before I knew where I was I’d agreed to take a hive of bees. It was something I’d always been interested in though and after a little bit of guidance and training I was up and running on my own,” says Kevin
Some of the numbers surrounding bees are quite staggering. A healthy hive, says Kevin, will contain 60,000 bees – and Kevin has seven hives!
A good Queen Bee will lay up to 3,000 eggs in a day and in pursuit of its pollen a bee will travel up to three miles from its hive – a staggering distance for such a tiny creature.
This time of year can be a difficult time for bees which is why during June and July it’s not uncommon for ‘swarming’ to occur. It happens because a hive is becoming too large and too crowded and temperature regulation becomes an issue inside the hive. It will result in a large number of bees – a swarm – leaving that hive to seek a new home and that does not necessarily mean another hive.
“Bees don’t need a hive, a hive is a man made thing, it just makes it easier to collect the honey,” says Kevin.
In the wild bees will seek shelter and safety above ground, the hollow of an old tree being a typical new home for them. An old tree keeps the colony dry and provides space and ventilation. Kevin says some bee keepers have what is called a swarm box, effectively an empty hive that the migrating bees can use to set up their new home – that way the bee keeper does not lose any of the bees to the wild.
And of course there can only ever be one Queen Bee in a hive! If a new Queen is introduced it will fight with the existing Queen until one or other is killed – the supremacy of the Queen is absolute.
Kevin has a passion for the natural world that was instilled in him by his father who kept and bred birds and taught his son about insects and the natural world in which they existed. It was therefore perfectly natural for Kevin to gravitate towards bee-keeping.
“It’s a nice hobby and a calming hobby,” says Kevin who runs a busy carpentry business. Bees are his sanctuary, when he’s tending his bees he gets a break from the stresses of everyday life.
He a great ambassador for bees too, he’s keen to get more people involved and he’s happy to share his knowledge, and even his bees, with other people: “Even if you only have one hive, you’re doing something really positive for the environment,” he says.
But what about the honey?
On the day I visited Kevin he was emptying one of his hives. it was a fascinating process to watch; he has WBC hives, known as such because they were designed by William Broughton Carr. He designed the hive to look more attractive and therefore to be more appealing to people to keep in their gardens rather than the plainer and more functional English National Hive.
The hive Kevin was emptying had four layers to it. The further down the hive you go the more honey there is. The further down the hive you go, the more agitated and noisier the bees become because of course you are getting closer to the Queen and the job of the rest of the colony is to protect the Queen from any threat.
Each hive is emptied twice a year and can yield more than 100kgs of honey each time it is emptied.
Kevin explained that the flavour of the honey he produces can vary, so much of how the honey tastes depends on what kind of plants or flowers the bees have been collecting their pollen from.
Kevin’s passion for his bees is very evident and his knowledge about the various species and how to care from them is wide ranging and he’s happy to share that passion and that knowledge to encourage more people to consider taking up bee-keeping and having a bit of fun while they do their bit to protect the environment.
And one of the biggest lessons I learned from my visit to Kevin’s is how a colony of bees is an entirely self regulating thing. From the summer swarming that controls the hive’s population through to the ‘waggle dance’ they use to point each other in the direction of a new source of pollen the bees need little outside intervention.
Alas it might bee that too much outside intervention is what has put our bees at such risk in the first place.