Sheffield Women answer call to be Queen Bee

Nature project:  LEAF Bee Steward Diane Cocker.   Picture dean Atkins
Nature project: LEAF Bee Steward Diane Cocker. Picture dean Atkins
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Honey bees are in crisis; fact. If more folk don’t get the buzz for beekeeping, bees could disappear from Britain within six years.

But in Sheffield, a £6,000 campaign is currently putting the buzz back into city folk. Environmental regeneration charity Groundwork Sheffield is running BeeBuddies, a one-year project aiming to restore dwindling honey bee populations in urban areas of the city.

In Sheffield only 44 beekeepers, managing 162 hives, are currently registered with The National Bee Unit, compared to 310 in North Yorkshire.

The project is introducing 35 new honeybee colonies, kitted out with over half a million bees, at community apiaries throughout the city and is running free how-to beekeeping courses.

And what Groundwork Sheffield’s head beekeeper Charles Austin is noticing is... it’s women who are getting the bee bug.

“Traditionally it’s nearly always been men who keep bees. But we’re seeing more women than men coming to our courses, determined to learn how to look after their own hives. At the community apiaries we are setting up, women like Diane Cocker at the Norwood allotment food-growing project LEAF, have been very keen to train as bee buddies.

“They will be passing on their new skills to others so the hives can keep going. and many of the volunteers who turn up to help them are women.

“It’s brilliant. It seems to be the environmental aspect that is bringing them. They have heard bees are in crisis and they want to help. A third of honey bee colonies were lost last year and the British Beekeeping Association believe if action is not taken honeybees, will disappear from Britain by 2018.

“Bees are vital: they allow 70 per cent of flowering plants to reproduce, which accounts for 30 per cent of the food and drinks we consume and contribute a whopping £200 million to the UK economy each year.

“Without the pollination service they provide we will face higher food costs and potential food shortages.”

But Charles, a Barnsley beekeeper for 31 years having become ‘bee obsessed’ at the age of 12, reckons there’s also a big degree of self-interest too. And why not, he says: “Women also know how good honey is for the family. Many have allotments these days because they want to grow their own food; they see beekeeping as the next step towards self-sufficiency.”

Jill Bacon, aged 64 and approaching retirement from her job as a senior practitioner at a children’s centre, fits the profile perfectly. She attended a BeeBuddies introductory course at Norfolk Park Heritage Centre earlier this month - four fifths of the class were women - and now plans to set up a hive on her allotment. “I realise how important bees are in helping us produce food and I know they’re in decline,” says Jill, of Richmond. “And I’d love to have my own honey.”

Fellow classmate Nicky Hine, a geologist from Greystones, is also keen, but it’s her 13-year-old son Callum who is the driving force.

“He loves insects and has wanted to keep bees for years; he’s even been saving his pocket money,” says Nicky, 50, an allotment-holder for 12 years. “We’re going to go a longer course to learn the basics and manage the bees together. It will be a great mother-son project, and I admit the lure of the honey is strong; we buy loads of it.”

Pat’s got honey of a hobby

There’s a sting in the tail for bee enthusiast Pat Foster. She could be becoming allergic to her bees.

But she still thinks it’s a honey of a hobby and is refusing to give it up. The NHS contracts manager got her first hive three years ago after going on a nine-week evening course with Barnsley Beekeeping Association. She now has seven colonies, almost half a million bees - and her own honey production line. Last year she potted up 160lb of honey and made candles from the honeycomb wax.

Stings are clearly an occupational hazard for every beekeeper but last year, Pat reacted so badly to stings to her face she now carries an allergy treatment epi-pen.

But she’s carrying on regardless; she’s even prepared to go through de-sensitising treatment at her local hospital if necessary.

“”It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” says the 45-year-old from Redbrook, Barnsley. “I love it - and I love my bees.

I read an article about the plight of the honeybee and how important it is for crop pollination and got hooked. I bought a book and the more I found out, the more fascinated I got. So I decided to do my bit to save the world!”

She joined and found the Barnsley beekeepers’ group predominantly male, but very helpful and encouraging of female newcomers.

“My course was led by a Barnsley-based bee inspector, who is in charge of monitoring colonies for bee diseases.

“There was lots to learn and so many surprises; firstly, bees and hives look nothing like they do in Winnie The Pooh. And I was staggered at how many bees there are in one hive. I felt quite scared at first, but by the end of the course I’d bought my first colony of 30,000.”

She was grateful an association member was always on the end of a phone for advice, particularly when a panic-stricken neighbour called to say the bees had swarmed into her garden “like something from a horror movie.”

Pat now knows how and why a swarm happens - the queen and half the colony leave a crowded hive to create a new one, leaving an unhatched queen in a cell in the honeycomb, along with the remains of the colony to work for her.

“The way bees operate is quite fascinating,” she says. “They know their place in their society; the have roles and rules to live by.”

But she also loves the honey: “I took my first pots to Penistone show and was chuffed to get a first and a third,” she beams.

“It’s lovely quality. I marvel at how many bee miles have gone into each pot,” she says. “We eat it most days on toast and cereal. I make honey-roast ham too, and a honeycake. And it’s great in a hot toddy when you’ve got a cold.”

Pat, who plans to try her hand at the alcoholic honey drink mead, has noticed more women turning up at beekeeping sessions.

“It’s great to see more women taking it up. There’s a bit of lifting to do, but there’s no reason at all why women can’t do it. And lady beekeepers are so appropriate, I feel: Bee world is dominated by females, after all.”

Bee informed

By the end of May, five BeeBuddies hives will be up and running. Each will have a qualified head beekeeper, plus a team of volunteer helpers.

It’s not a cheap hobby; a new queen bee costs a keeper around £25

At the moment, queen bees will be laying around 1,500 eggs a day

It takes 21 days for a bee to hatch

In winter, a hive will have around 30,000 bees. By summer the colony will have grown to 80,000.

It takes 1,000 bees to make one teaspoon of honey

A bee born in the summer will work so hard gathering pollen and nectar, it will live just six weeks

A winter female bee has an easier and longer life, living up to six months. Male bees are thrown out into the cold to die in September.

Honeybees are multi-taskers. After hatching they become nursemaids, feeding the queen and the younger bees. Then they become housekeepers, taking pollen and nectar off the foragers and storing it neatly away.

A virgin queen mates with up to 12 male drones, who then die.

Getting the buzz

BeeBuddies are staging free three-day beginner’s courses at Norfolk Park, 10am-4pm on May 14, 15 and 16 and at Wood Lane from May 28-30. To book, call 0114 263 6425 or email anna.cooper@groundwork.org.uk