(Yes, it is all about bees).

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Roald Dahl once wrote a short story called ‘Royal Jelly’. It revolved around a beekeeper called Albert, who fed his family the bee food, especially his underweight baby daughter. The twist being of course, that he and his daughter turn into bees.

So I was wondering what I would expect when I met experienced local beekeeper Mary Venning, and her three hives, which are situated in the Wollaton Road allotments, one of nine in the area. “Did you know that Oliver Cromwell’s son in law gave this land in perpetuity? That was found out when they built the medical centre.” As anyone that’s visited the site will know, it’s a very big triangle shaped area. We reach Mary’s rather large growing space.  “This hive is the most productive at the moment,” says Mary, indicating a hive prominently placed and literally buzzing with the sound of bees. Mary then shows me her other two hives, which don’t seem to be as active. “The queen may have died in this one,” indicating a hive with very little activity around it.

Mary’s bees were also very busy around the parts that they make their honey in, that she had out on display  “They are licking all the honey off. Every little bit.” We watched as many, many bees were swarming round these honeycombs. “Bees have such different personalities. I used to have a hive where they were quite aggressive. But the ones now are friendly. People shouldn’t be anxious around them. Bees don’t like loud noises, people waving their arms around, or strong perfumes, as they might think you are a flower. Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone. If you do get stung, then pull the sting out and apply something alkali, like milk of magnesia.”

They prefer to gather nectar from open or tubed flowers.  Dandelions are the best plant for bees, as its nectar is already 50% food

I asked Mary how she got into beekeeping. “I studied the life of bees as part of my psychology degree. The nature of animals. I then did a beekeeping course when I retired. It was a weekend course over five weeks.” It is an expensive hobby. Did you know that once the queen has been chosen, she is fed royal jelly, created by worker bees?  You can see how enthusiastic Mary is about the insects. ‘Buzzing’, you might say as she imparts so much different information about them, quicker than I can write it down. “Bees hum in the key of C major.” Or, “They prefer to gather nectar from open or tubed flowers.  Dandelions are the best plant for bees, as its nectar is already 50% food. If only people would let a few dandelions grow in a patch of ground or in a tub, then that would be very helpful to them. Pussy willow and Hawthorne are also good sources of pollen.”

Mary then goes on to tell me about the worker bees’ waggle dancing, a figure of eight movement and how it informs the other bees about where the best pollen can be found, how far it is from the hive and if there are any dangers about. All this in very little, or no light in the hive.  She then told me about some joint research being done between Nottingham Trent University and the Centre Apicole de Recherche et D’information in France over the vibration of bees. Martin Bencsik at their Brackenhurst site is also looking at ‘swarm preparation’ that should aid beekeepers in the future, in that it may reveal health of bees and how the hive is doing.

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There have been a lot of stories in the news over the last few years about the vast reduction in bee numbers, due to a change in farming practices and the increase in chemicals that are used on the land these days. Bees are vital to the food chain with their pollination of plants and fruit trees. So the work that Mary does, and other beekeepers like her around the world are so important to the life of these interesting and much loved insects and, in fact, for us.

CDF