By David Buckley
My beekeeping story began many years ago in 1965. I was a student at a boarding school near Nottingham. The school was in beautiful grounds set amongst many acres of farm and wood land. Much of my spare time was spent in this natural environment watching wild life ranging from, nesting birds, to stoats hunting rabbits. Swallows and swifts skimmed across the lake to take emerging flies from the surface and mallard chivvying their recently hatched ducklings into the safety of the reeds and bullrushes. A stretch of woodland known as The Horse Shoe encompassed an extensive area of land being reclaimed by nature after the removal of ex-army Nissan huts leaving the concrete pads behind. Each pad was approximately the size of a tennis court. Two of these concrete flats were now surrounded by blackberry bramble and sycamore saplings. Vetches and white clover surrounded the concrete with wide expanses of dog rose (rosa canina) making natural hedges. Unsurprisingly, a local beekeeper had established an apiary on one of these bases. I now know that the hives were WBC hives. This was not the beginning of my bee keeping enthusiasm but maybe a seed had been sown!
One afternoon each week the students were tasked with doing manual labour. Theoretically the head teacher said we were giving back to the school some of our time as a good will gesture. It wasn’t optional however, but I suspect that we were cheap labour! On this particular afternoon my group were tasked with knocking down some old’ past their sell by date’ wooden garages to make way for state of the art concrete panel replacements. The garages and contents were to be burned. What an exciting job for a bunch of young teenage boys. As the fire burned some old beehives with old combs were brought out and as the frames of old comb were hurled onto the fire they flared as the wax reached flash point. Then the hives were dragged out for the same fate! It seemed to me as though this was wasteful so I asked our supervisor (a sixth form prefect) if they could not be offered to the beekeeper in the village. The response was that if I could organise it then I had one week to remove them, and if they weren’t wanted they could be burnt. Sadly the beekeeper was in retirement mode and didn’t want them. I could not see these beautiful hives burnt so stashed them behind the hedge. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a lifetime of beekeeping.
School closed for the summer and I went to stay with my grandma for a few days. To help her pension fund she took in a lodger. Over lunch one day I related the story of my hive rescue. The lodger listened intently and made no further comment. However, after lunch he excused himself from the table only to return moments later with a copy of Wedmore’s Beekeeping Manual. He asked my Gran if he could gift it to me. I was hooked. The book remains in my library holding treasured memories. I read and re-read the book avidly learning about bees and bee keeping. I decided that I would like to have some bees after reading for nearly a year. When I told my dad he said that there was a beekeeper on the local allotment who by chance had collected a swarm from a plum tree and was happy to let me have it. The stashed hives now became a home for my very own bees.. Sadly the swarm became queenless! I didn’t know why and my benefactor didn’t have a spare queen but he knew a man who may have one. Enter Beowulf Cooper. We didn’t have a phone so on my bike I rode to White Gates, Thurlston to meet Beo at his home.
What a fascinating man! I spent an evening listening to his vision of bee breeding. At the time I really did not understand a lot of the philosophy he was talking about but soon I was spending many happy hours in his many apiaries throughout the Midlands. Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire Cambridge etc where I met the founder members of The Village Bee Breeders Association. Richard Smailes, author of some of the early VBBA (to become BIBBA) booklets, helped me make my first nucs and mate them in his apiary in Syston, Leistershire. Beo found me a queen that had been in an observation hive. He turned up one evening at my home and showed me how to transfer the two frames of bees into a brood chamber and unite them to my queenless swarm. His advice was to now leave the bees alone for two weeks before rearranging the brood nest and feeding for comb building and winter preparations. During the remainder of my summer break his yellow Bedford dormobile, packed with bee stuff, would arrive to take me bee keeping. What an education I had. Sadly school called and the new term began. Beo taught my mum how to feed the bees for winter. In those days the GPO was piloting fluorescent dots as a precursor to post codes and Beo avidly collected these spotty envelops so I saved all my envelopes for him. I had no idea what he did with them! I was back to reading Wedmore. I corresponded with Beo and he kept me interested for the winter and in the following Spring he moved my bees to a site at my school. I did not inform school about my bees as one of the concrete pads became my first apiary. Certain goods were not permitted at boarding school so the top of my beehive became a prized hiding place for cigarettes and catapults and other things! No prefect would dare to look for contraband inside the bee hive!
To be continued…