Mowing and reading
I have been a little weary of going to see the bees as I certainly did not want a repeat performance of that ordeal. Actually, I didn’t mind the fat face so much, it was the itching that was driving me NUTS. Last Sunday I gave the bees some syrup and thought it best to wear my suit for that. My husband had also just bought a lawnmower and I volunteered to mow and decided to keep my suit on as I remember a South African beekeeper once telling me that the bees go crazy if you mow near the hive. So, I thought that if the bees did come streaming out en masse to attack, I’d be saved by my bee suit. But, in fact, the bees couldn’t care less that I was mowing near them. Good news, as I don’t want to have to start wearing my bee suit for mowing too.
I also finally got round to reading John Home’s book - Home and Away: Adventures in Beekeeping in the UK and Africa, which has been on my ‘to read’ shelf for ages. John Home is a local beekeeper living in Deppers Bridge, a 20 minute drive away. I know the exact distance because I bought my first ever colony of bees from John two years ago and driving with a box of buzzing bees in the footwell of your car certainly makes you very aware of the minutes ticking by.
When I first met John in 2012 I had no idea of his illustrious beekeeping career relayed in this book. He came across as a retired hobby beekeeper who enjoyed pottering around in his shed, which was actually more like a barn and rather impressive now that I think about it with all the beekeeping equipment it contained. But still I had no inkling that he had been a commercial beekeeper having owned Fosse Way Honey for 25 years, had twice served as chairman of the UK Bee Farmers Association, was also a former chairman of the Warwickshire Beekeepers Association as well as chairman of my local branch - Warwick and Leamington Spa Beekeepers.
All of this before he became involved in Bees Abroad in 2005 - a small specialist charity formed 15 years ago to promote beekeeping in developing countries around the world, mostly in Africa. John rather amusingly says in the first chapter when he was first approached to be involved in the charity: “It was the start of a new, exciting and completely unexpected chapter in my life at a time when, at the age of sixty-five, I had been getting ready to settle for something a little less adventurous.”
Being South African, I have travelled to countries in Africa and can appreciate what adventures he means. Most of Africa is poor and many areas remote. As John soon found out, accommodation can be less than basic with a shower entailing little more than a jug of cold water. But the rewards that John and his wife Mary gained from their experience makes up for any creature comforts they missed.
The first few chapters of the book deals with the various projects that Bees Abroad have supported and funded. It was brilliant to read how John, through his beekeeping demonstrations, and Mary, through her demonstrations to the womenfolk of how to make wax products and even bee suits out of discarded maize sacks and mosquito nets, has made an impact to these impoverished communities giving them a means of income for a relatively cheap outlay. As John says himself in the book: “For Mary and me these out-of-the-way places in Kenya have become like a second home, our involvement with Bees Abroad giving us a new lease of life along with the added satisfaction of knowing that we are doing our bit, however small, to help some of the world’s poorest, most underprivileged and yet most delightful and appreciative people.”
The middle chapters deal with how his beekeeping career started - from a very early age in fact when a swarm of bees landed in a tree in their family garden in Bristol. Then from a hobby beekeeper to setting himself up as a commercial beekeeper and owner of the successful Fosse Way Honey company. In the early days, in order to build up his hives, he imported queens from Australia, which would arrive by first class post as bees are the only livestock that the UK postal system is allowed to deliver. He built up his company to the point where he was looking after 350 hives spread over two or three counties with regular annual trips to the Derbyshire heather moors, the Kentish fruit orchards and the Worcestershire bean fields.
There is also a chapter in the book that deals with the bee crisis including agricultural sprays and their impact on bees, the rapid spread of the varroa mite, and the hype around the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has seen bees simply vanish from hives. In fact losses reported of between 30% to 90%. However, as John explains, a lot of these losses are in America and he thinks it could be down to how the bees are treated over there. He relays one story in particular about a bee farmer in California where the bees are strapped to the back of a truck and trundled for days to pollinate the almond fields. The bees are put under enormous stress in terms of their confinement, conditions, heat etc. (I found this bit of the book really interesting and definitely worth a read).
Being a one-man-band John has had to do all the graft himself including exhibiting at trade shows - not all bad as he has met a few royals along the way including Prince Andrew who took away some of his jars of honey and then wrote a letter to thank him for them. He has also dressed up as a giant bee for demonstrations, one in particular was in Brussels outside the European Economic Community headquarters in 1993 to help secure financial support for commercial beekeeping.
In the latter chapters he gets quite political and I can’t help thinking that in some ways, this book has given him an opportunity to get on his soapbox and deride government for not being more supportive of commercial beekeepers. As he says in the closing chapter of the book: “The rather sad truth, I fear, is that because there are only about 300 full-time commercial bee farmers in this country we do not pack much of a punch when it comes to lobbying the powers that be. Even sadder is the fact that most people still don’t seem fully to appreciate just how important bees are to the environment as a whole. It is estimated that one third of what we eat relies on pollination. You don’t therefore have to be Einstein to work out that without bees we’re all going to be in big trouble.”
Overall, I found this to be a very informative and enjoyable read. Although one irk is that I would have liked the photos inside to be bigger.
The main takeaway, however, is that I’d like to get involved in Bees Abroad. I guess the first step in doing that is to actually buy a copy of the book as this one belongs to my branch library (it’s about time I returned it!) because all profits from the sale are donated to Bees Abroad. I urge you to buy a copy too - it’s well worth it!
The book is available from John Home himself:
Northcote, Deppers Bridge, Southam, Warwickshire CV47 2SU
T: 01926 612322.
T: 01926 612322.
Price £10 + p&p ISBN 978-0-9553124-6-5