How one man's passion saved the Bosnian bee

Michael Prestage on a county-show talk that led to a multinational honey deal
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The Independent Online
IT WAS to have been the usual talk on beekeeping to a county agricultural show - a tale of meadow flowers and pollination, fructose and sucrose, honeycombs and beeswax. But when Peter Rains delivered his presentation last August, he could little imagine it would lead to a 4,000-mile journey to war-ravaged Bosnia and a deal, done last week, that will revive that country's honey industry.

In the audience was an executive from Gale's, the UK's largest honey company. His enthusiasm for Mr Rains and his expertise led to an involvement between the man and the company, an appeal for help from a charity - and a journey to meet the Bosnian beekeepers.

After eight months of brokering by Mr Rains, aged 77, a deal was struck between Gale's and the Bosnians. To the delight of the apiarists, a fax arrived from Nestle, the parent company of Gale's, expressing the multinational corporation's interest in their honey. The details of the package are vital for the Bosnian honey industry: it has helped ensure that the beekeepers will be paid partly in cash and partly in much-needed equipment. That means 500 new hives, honey-making tools and bee medicine - essential to keep the deadly varroa, responsible for wiping out much of Europe's honey industry, at bay.

For the Bosnians, the deal is a godsend. More than a third of the country's estimated 1,500 hives have been destroyed by war or subsequent neglect. With each hive producing, on average, 100cwt of honey, the money from Gale's will be a vital fillip for their battered economy, and the pollination role of bees means the honey industry is also important for agriculture.

Mr Rains has been passionate about beekeeping since attending an agricultural show nearly 30 years ago. Since his retirement from estate agency in 1977, hegives regular talks and presentations as well as tending his 25 hives. "Beekeeping is my life and there is a bond between beekeepers in every country. My heart went out to the Bosnians when I heard of their plight. That such devastation could be wrought in such a beautiful country made me angry and sad."

Mr Rains became involved after he made a presentation at the Poynton Agricultural Show. An invitation followed to talk to shop-floor workers at Gale's.

His talk was well received and when a Christian Aid worker, Rod Howat, contacted the company, asking for help, they referred him to Mr Rains. Mr Howat had taken aid to Bosnia and on his travels had heard of the plight of the local beekeepers.

So, in October, Mr Rains boarded a Land-Rover laden with aid outside his home in Woodford, Cheshire, to drive to Bosnia to meet beekeepers, the country's agriculture minister and the directors of companies associated with the honey trade. "It has been a hard and in many ways a traumatic time," said Mr Rains. "The rigours of the journey were a physical strain and what I saw affected me mentally, but if some good comes from it all then it will be worthwhile."

On his return Mr Rains took a kilo of honey to Gale's which was delighted with the quality. The flavour and colour of honey depends on the kind of flower from which the bees take nectar, and in Bosnia the insects can feed on flower meadows akin to those which have all but disappeared in Britain. Mr Rains wants to return to Bosnia when the industry is back to its former glory. Meanwhile, there is the round of Women's Institutes and agricultural shows, giving a rather different talk on bees and honey than his traditional one.