Paul Mingard writes in to chat about his sleuthing adventures into the realm of beekeeping:
“If you had to choose the perfect area in which to keep honeybees, you wouldn’t choose Allendale. It is well above the warm and fertile valleys, the forested floors of which our native black bees, Apis mellifera mellifera, inhabited for thousands of years. And yet, here they are, not only our natives but incomers from southern and eastern Europe, brought here by the score or more of beekeepers in the Allen Valleys. These folk are preserving a relationship as old as any that humankind has with nature. Beekeepers it seems, thrive on adversity.
Not only do the local beekeepers have to cope with the shorter forage season that the North Pennines gives them, but they also have to deal with diseases and mites that can weaken and destroy a colony in the blink of an eye. Keeping bees requires a lot of careful observation and a great deal of optimism. For this reason many are keen to avoid the problems that bees have in thriving so far north. Jane Hughes is one beekeeper hoping to get Allen Valleys apiarists to breed from local stock and to bring back the characteristics of the dark breeds more suited to our northern climate and ecology.
Of course there are rewards: honey for one and a lifetime of fascinating insights into a remarkable creature for another. Some suggest that bees are life-enhancing and that keeping them can add years to your life. I’m not sure this is true, but if you want anecdotal evidence then there is always the example of Tom Davison. Tom has kept bees in Allendale for years, before that in Beltingham and other Allen Valley locations. He is 93, but wears his years lightly, except in his experience and wisdom. Tom remembers helping his father and is still amazed that despite short trousers, he was never stung. His own beekeeping started just after and he remembers the devastating winter of 1947 and another bad one for bees in ‘48. He remembers giving up bees for a few years in the 1950s but came back to it in 1956 and has remained a beekeeper ever since. Every decade between then and now he says, the bad years were the years ending in eight and the best years with a nine. His memory on this is as sharp as he is agile and surefooted around his beloved hives. Every decade except the current one, where 2018 provided a bumper crop of honey and 2019 has so far meant he has given more food to his bees than they have been able to make for themselves.
Tom is so passionate about bees that he has experimented with tools to help his colonies grow. One unique device is a super-sized hive filled with more than twice the bees found in a standard one. For this Tom makes his own boxes and frames in which the bees breed and store their food. This adds a remarkable weight to the hives, something that Tom has dealt with for decades. He jokes about his age and says that in another decade, he will need someone else to lift the boxes, full of tens of thousands of bees. For now though, he’s too busy building up his colonies and protecting them through the harsh Pennine winters to think of giving that up.”
A great detective story, Paul, and thanks for searching out and chatting with Tom! We tried to keep bees, after our adult children gave us a Top-Bar hive for Christmas one year. Allendale beekeepers Jane Hughes and Anne Howarth brought a swarm up to acclimate, and showed us the ropes of maintenance. We think we might have kept them going for longer than the first year, but because we didn’t keep after pinching out the young princesses (the Top-Bar system makes inspection tricky if two or more bars have overlapping comb), we lost our friendly workers as they swarmed after a more desirable young queen. Up here on the high fells of Sparty Lea, the wind is the main challenge to the bees. And in the end, it didn’t seem like a peripatetic lifestyle, with months away from home in our ageing motorhome, could chime with the discipline of bee husbandry. But we loved them while they were with us!