A hive of activity

Greg Rhodesin Conservation & Ecology

Beekeeping is buzzing. Hives are springing up across Britain as apiarists eye business opportunities from these busy pollinators.

Bees do make honey - but they can make money too, for sports clubs, parks and amenity sites. This mellifluous foodstuff commands premium prices today and is increasingly on operators' marketing menu.

Golf clubs particularly often have the space to accommodate bee hives - usually in less well-walked areas. Within the sustainable golf strategy, they make sound sense - a match made in Heaven when greens teams sow swathes of wildflowers along the course to create a ready source of nectar and pollen.

Most courses I've spoken to work with a local resident, who tends the hive(s) as beekeeping is a highly specialised skill. Now, though, market opportunities are starting to play out as professional providers supply and manage hives, while also offering clubs an income stream from the honey they generate each season.

The Trafford Centre giant retail destination, just off the M60, chose beehives to populate an area of waste land on its estate, while central Manchester's Printworks houses four on its roof garden.

Both apiaries were supplied and are managed by Hive5 - at 29, founder Damson Tregaskis is one of Britain's youngest beekeepers, and only the second in the city to gain a Master status, she states.

Her dad is a beekeeper so you could say that she got bitten, or rather stung, by the bug at an early age.

Although focusing on the North-west, Damson is part of a national network delivering apiary services, another pointer to Britain's burgeoning beekeeping sector.

"The footprint for a hive is only 50cm square, while the height varies with the seasons - taller in summer as the population is larger, around 40,000, and making more honey," Damson explains. "The queen lays up to 2,000 eggs a day." Truly a busy bee.

The insects regulate their own numbers and the hive temperature (usually 35 C). "By the end of November into December, there may be no brood at all, as there's no forage for them. They then eat the honey in the hive," Damson adds.

With just forty flight hours in their six-week average lifespan, workers must make the most of available nectar and pollen, which raises the critical issue of suitable locations for apiaries, bearing in mind that bees can fly up to three miles at any one flight.

"Catchment can vary a lot," Damson continues. "Rural areas often provide less access to forage. Fields may be bright yellow with oilseed rape for only two weeks a year, for example."

"Urban environments tend to provide a monoculture, although gardens can flower all year round. Ivy is particularly useful for pollinators as the plant flowers in late autumn, delivering invaluable pollen at a time when there's little else available. On a sunny day, it can be swarming with bees."

Damson offers several apiary business packages depending on how much her clients wish to invest. Whatever the rental option, the first step is to assess the potential site. "We're looking for a solution that will work for both bees and customers," she says. "A harmonious relationship."

Regular visits to her hives are vital to ensure hives stay structurally sound and the bees are healthy. "I visit weekly in summer, then monthly in winter. Clients don't need to worry about anything - I take care of things for them."

That said, every colony shares space with parasites. "Varroa mites invaded the UK in 1992 and gained a foothold because they are so small. They feed on larvae - bees are still learning to live with them in the UK but in Asia, where the mites are native to, studies show that they have acclimatised to them."

So, just how productive are bees? "Lots of sub species of bee are available - designer breeds such as Buckfast Italian for example - but Apis mellifera, the European honey bee, is preferred as it is so efficient at its job," Damson says.

"A colony averages 30 to 60lbs of honey a year, depending on the weather. It is the only bee to overwinter as a colony so needs to collect as much pollen and nectar as it can."

Damson has the specialist kit needed to extract honey, and her clients are only too happy to leave that side of things to her.

When honey is retailing typically at up to £10 a pound weight, sites can market their own home-produced honey, with Damson's help. "Once we've extracted the honey, we fill the jars, uniquely labelled with the customer's own brand, for them to sell on. To comply with legal requirements, we have to state that the honey is produced in partnership with Hive5 Manchester."

Considering the broader environmental perspective, Damson says: "Just placing a couple of hives on a site is not doing much for pollinator diversity. Bees offer a gateway, an easy entry and a drive to other wildlife, so should be viewed in the wider context of encouraging more insects to visit."

Damson sees a bright future for managed beekeeping, given the blossoming of awareness among operators and grounds care teams of the importance of wildlife diversity on their sites.

Among her projects, most exciting of all perhaps is the 160-acre Northern Roots under development in Oldham, billed as the UK's largest urban farm and eco-park, which is due to take custody of several hives under Damson's management.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering - yes, Damson is stung regularly, but "I've become used to it by now", and no, "I've never known a client to be stung," so rest easy.

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Conservation & ecology