HIVE OF ACTIVITY: Tim Pearson with one of his bee hives
HIVE OF ACTIVITY: Tim Pearson with one of his bee hives

A beekeeper’s enthusiasm for his hobby is matched only by his detailed knowledge of this fascinating insect. However Tim Pearson insists that he is “still a novice,” despite enjoying his fourth season as a beekeeper this year and producing more than 200 pounds of honey annually. Reporter Wendy Short went along to meet Tim and his bees.

TIM Pearson started off with two complete honey bee colonies, which are known as nuclei. Each contained a total of roughly 10,000 insects, including the queen, along with a large number of workers and a few drones.

During the winter, bees in their natural state will derive sustenance from their stored honey and after extracting the fruits of the insects’ labour, Mr Pearson will substitute their diet with a syrup containing two-parts granulated sugar and one-part water until the flowers bloom again in the spring.

If a bee is found in an exhausted state, it may simply have reached the end of its life, but individuals can sometimes be revived by giving them a few droplets of the syrup, he notes.

Harvested honey can be eaten in its natural form, complete with the comb, but its texture can be altered through various treatments, he explains.

“All honey will crystallise over time,” says Richmond-based Mr Pearson.

“It can be modified by placing it in a warming cabinet and then churned while it is in a relatively liquid state.

“This product used to be called creamed honey, but the name can no longer be applied as it does not contain cream, so it is usually labelled ‘soft-set’ honey,” he explains.

“The flavour of honey will depend on the flowering plants which surround the hives; bees which feed on a mixture of flowers will produce polyfloral honey.

“I also transport my beehives from the land at the bottom of my garden to the heather moors during August, thereby extending the nectar-gathering period and adding heather honey to my product list.

“ I also sell comb honey and make candles and lip balm from beeswax; the bees will use roughly eight pounds of honey to produce a pound of wax.”

Wax is made from glands on the under surface of the bee abdomen and the young workers will scrape it off with their feet and masticate it in their jaws. It is then used to form the comb structure that is used by the bees to store honey and pollen and to house the brood. The incoming workers also bring water to the hive for the inhabitants to drink and it will also be used to cool the internal walls through evaporation. Another way in which water is used is to change the texture of the honey to render it more digestible,” adds Mr Pearson.

“Pollen is also collected from flowers and brought into the hive and it sticks to the bees as they gather nectar. The worker will comb the pollen from its body and place it in a pollen basket situated on the hind legs. It is high in protein and is fed to the bee larvae.

“If you look carefully at a bee you will see pollen of various colours on its legs and the colour will indicate the type of plants on which it has been feeding.

“Another product that is harvested is tree sap, which is made into propolis. It is used to seal gaps within the hive structure, and yet another substance that is collected is honey dew, which is secreted by aphids.”

The rise in the importation of bees and their increased movement around the country means that the insects have become more vulnerable to disease pressure, he states.

“It is preferable to buy a hive of bees locally. This will reduce the risk of disease transference and the bees will be accustomed to the local conditions and the climate.

“They can be attacked by pests and can be affected by a wide range of viral, bacterial and fungal diseases, as well as parasites. Hygiene is extremely important and although the bees themselves clean the hives, they should also be disinfected by the keeper annually.

“Insecticides can also kill bees and for that reason if a farmer has to spray crops it is advisable to carry out the task at night, when the bees have returned to their hives.

Good co-operation with farmers is vital to minimise any risk, but some insecticides have been discontinued due to their toxic effects.”

All honey bees, with the exception of the drones (which do not sting) and the queen, will die after releasing their sting. Mr Pearson has been stung on occasion, but comments that the risk is minimal as long as the bees are handled calmly and treated with respect.

It may cost about £1,000 to set up as a first-time beekeeper, says Mr Pearson, whose father also kept bees.

He describes the hobby as “addictive” and eats his ‘runny honey’ paired with plain yogurt, while he likes his soft-set honey spread on hot buttered crumpets.

“It is very pleasant to tend to the hive, especially in the warmer months when the sun is out and the flowers are in bloom. The bees definitely recognise me and I think they respond to me differently from the way they appear to react to a stranger. They are deaf, but they are highly sensitive to colour, scent and vibration.

“I firmly believe that locally-made artisan honey tastes much better than the mass-produced version, which is sometimes over-heated and over-filtered. Commercial honey may also have come from abroad, with all of the accompanying food miles. Honey not only tastes good, it is also highly nutritious and contains natural enzymes and pollen, which have certain health benefits.

“There is so much to learn about bees and it will take two or three decades to become an experienced bee keeper, so I still have a long way to go.

“I would recommend anyone who is interested in the subject to join the British Beekeepers’ Association. It will supply details of the local branch, which will provide a mentor for a new keeper and will usually provide courses on the subject.”

Mr Pearson’s honey can be purchased from his home on Hurgill Road in Richmond; look out for the sign at the entrance. Other stockists include Neeps and Tatties greengrocer’s shop and Out of the Box, in Richmond, as well as in Middlemoor Farm Cafe near Hudswell.

Bee Castes

Queen bee – the only colony member to produce fertilised eggs and stores sperm within its body. Can produce up to 2,000 eggs in a single day in the summer. Lifespan of up to five years. New queens are developed in large cells within the hive and are fed on the highly nutritious royal jelly.

Queens are available to buy in different strains; Mr Pearson keeps Carniolans and there are other popular strains such as the Buckfast, which was developed at Buckfast Abbey in Devon.

Worker bees – They are all females and in the absence of a queen have the ability to produce unfertilised eggs. These turn into male drones, leading to colony failure. Average lifespan of just six weeks in the summer and up to six months in the winter.

Drones – male bees which make up about five per cent of the colony and have only one purpose; to fertilise queens. They die soon after mating and any surviving drones are ejected from the colony in autumn, when food becomes scarce.