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Eva Crane

Authority on the history of beekeeping and honey-hunting who travelled the world in pursuit of bees

Ethel Eva Widdowson, beekeeper, physicist and writer: born London 12 June 1912; Lecturer in Physics, Sheffield University 1941-43; Director, Bee Research Association (later the International Bee Research Association) 1949-84; OBE 1986; married 1942 James Crane (died 1978); died Slough, Berkshire 6 September 2007.

The name of Eva Crane is synonymous the world over with bees and beekeeping. She was at once author, editor, archivist, research scientist and historian, and possibly the most travelled person in pursuit of bees that has ever lived. She was a noted authority on the history of beekeeping and honey-hunting, including archaeology and rock art in her studies. She founded one of the leading institutions of the beekeeping world, the International Bee Research Association (IBRA), and ran it herself until her 72nd year. And yet her academic background was not in apiculture or biology, but in nuclear physics.

She possessed "an intellect that took no prisoners", said Richard Jones, her successor as director of the IBRA. Always precise, her maxim was "observe, check the facts, and always get your research right". Yet she was a modest person with a piercing curiosity. She insisted that she wasn't at all interesting; that it was the places she went to, and the people she met, that were. For that reason, though a clear, intelligent and most prolific writer, she never wrote a memoir. The nearest she came was a book of travel writings, Making a Bee-line (2003), written near the end of her long life.

Crane has been compared with Dame Freya Stark in her willingness to travel to remote places, often alone and at an advanced age. Her aim was to share her beekeeping knowledge with farmers, voluntary bodies and governments, but, typically, she claimed to have learned far more than she taught.

Between 1949 and 2000 she visited at least 60 countries by means as varied as dog-sled, dugout canoe and light aircraft. In a remote corner of Pakistan, she discovered that beekeeping was still practiced using the horizontal hives she had seen only in excavations of Ancient Greece. Another place that intrigued her was the Zagros mountains on the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, where rich local traditions and an unusual variety of hives suggest that it was here that the age-old association of man and bees first began.

She was born Eva Widdowson in 1912, the younger daughter of Thomas and Rose Widdowson. Her elder sister was Elsie Widdowson, who became a world-famous nutritionist. Eva was educated at Sydenham Secondary School in Kent, and won a scholarship to read mathematics at King's College London. A brilliant student, and one of only two women then reading mathematics at London University, she completed her degree in two years. An MSc in quantum mechanics soon followed, and she received her PhD in nuclear physics in 1938.

An academic career at the cutting edge of quantum science seemed to beckon. Eva Widdowson took up the post of Lecturer in Physics at Sheffield University in 1941. The next year she married James Crane, a stockbroker then serving in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

Among their wedding presents was a working beehive. The idea had been for the couple to use the honey to eke out their wartime sugar ration, but Eva quickly became fascinated with bees and their ways. It led to a radically different and unexpected turning in her life, from the arcane study of particles and energy to the lively, buzzing world of the hive.

She took out a subscription to Bee World and became an active member of the local beekeepers' association. Later she became secretary of the research committee of the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA). However, convinced of the vast potential of beekeeping in the tropics, her outlook was international. In 1949 she founded the Bee Research Association, dedicated to "working to increase awareness of the vital role of bees in the environment". The charity was renamed the International Bee Research Association (IBRA) in 1976.

The rest of Eva Crane's life was devoted to building the IBRA into a world centre of expertise on beekeeping. Based in her front room at Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire until 1966, the association eventually found an office in the village and since 1985 has been based in Cardiff.

Her work as an editor and archivist was prodigious. From its outset in 1962 until 1982 Crane edited the association's Journal of Apicultural Research. She also edited Bee World from 1949 until her retirement in 1984 (the two journals were united in 2006). Another major activity was compiling and publishing regular research abstracts, Apicultural Abstracts, which she also edited from 1950 to 1984. It is now one of the world's major databases on bee science.

She assiduously collected and filed scientific papers, which eventually resulted in an archive of 60,000 works on apiculture. It includes a unique collection of 130 bee journals from around the world, including perhaps the only complete runs of some of them. The archive is now so large (and in need of professional management) that it is housed at the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth.

In support of the IBRA and its work, Crane also established the Eva Crane Trust. Its aim is to advance the science of apiology, and in particular the publication of books on the subject, and the promotion of apicultural libraries and museums of historical beekeeping artefacts throughout the world.

Eva Crane was a prolific writer, with over 180 papers, articles and books to her name. Her broad-ranging and extremely learned books were mostly written in her seventies and eighties after her retirement in 1984 from the day-to-day running of the Association. A Book of Honey (1980) and The Archaeology of Beekeeping (1983) reflected her strong interests in nutrition and the ancient past of beekeeping. Her writing culminated in two mighty, encyclopaedic tomes, Bees and Beekeeping: science, practice and world resources (1990; at 614 pages) and The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting (1999; 682 pages). These distilled a lifetime's knowledge and experience and are regarded as seminal textbooks throughout the beekeeping world.

Peter Marren