The bee business: An amateur apiary revolution

Colonies are being destroyed by disease, but a new wave of hobbyists with hives in their gardens could hold the key to restocking the population. Jonathan Owen reports

Sunday 19 July 2009 00:00

Beekeeping is booming. Britain's leading association for the insects is struggling to meet demand from would-be apiarists. Despite fears that British bees are at risk of falling into a catastrophic decline from which they may not recover, a growing number of celebrity beekeepers are helping to fuel interest.

Courses in beekeeping are so oversubscribed that people are already on waiting lists for next year. Nearly 1,000 wannabe apiarists applied for 60 places on an introductory course in London this year. And the pattern is being repeated across the country, with the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) having seen its membership rocket by almost 50 per cent since 2007, from 10,000 to 14,500.

The company that made the hugely popular Eglu, which fuelled a boom in urban chicken-rearing, plans to capitalise on this later this month when it launches a futuristic plastic beehive.

The profile of beekeepers is changing fast, according to Tim Lovatt, the BBKA's president: "The average age is dropping quite noticeably. It used to be in the mid- to upper fifties but is now in the lower forties. We are also seeing more and more children becoming involved, and growing numbers of women, too."

Retailers are looking to exploit the trend. Fortnum & Mason, in central London, will start selling honey next month from its own rooftop beehives. And guests at the Royal Lancaster Hotel near London's Hyde Park are able to have honey from bees kept on the hotel roof.

The interest in all things bee-related has extended to Hollywood stars:the actor Samuel L Jackson recently bought Scarlett Johansson and husband Ryan Reynolds a beehive as a wedding gift. "Scarlett," he said, "was always talking about how the bees were dying and the planet was going to die."

Bees will be a central theme in a "Pestival" event at London's South Bank next month. Omlet, the company behind the Eglu, will be launching the Beehaus in two weeks' time. It has spent 18 months developing the brightly coloured, plastic beehive. It will come in various colours including red, green, yellow and purple.

Johannes Paul, one of the team behind the new hive, said: "It looks like a little sort of moon lander and is almost insect-like. We think it will appeal to urban beekeepers as it is much more modern and contemporary than traditional hives."

Clearly aimed at capturing the "green pound" of eco-conscious Britons, a complete kit – including a beekeeping hat and protective suit – will cost £495. Mr Paul added: "The idea is to simplify things and make it all more accessible."

Honey bees are vital for pollinating essential food crops and soft fruits. But bees are in short supply. In the past few years, hives have suffered large losses, mainly due to a disease caused by the varroa mite; the honey bee population crashed by 30 per cent during the winter of 2007-08, according to the BBKA.

The collapse in bee numbers is threatening the process of pollination which is worth hundreds of millions to the UK every year, MPs said last week. The Commons Public Accounts Committee claimed funding for research on honey bees is being "diluted" since the money is shared with research into other insects.

This has led the committee chairman, Edward Leigh, to call for funds to be ring-fenced. "Honeybees are dying and colonies are being lost at an alarming rate. This is very worrying, not just because the pollination of crops by honey bees is worth an estimated £200m a year to the British economy," he said.

Rowena Young, 37, a novice beekeeper who lives in London, is one of the new breed of apiarists. "I was as surprised as anyone to find myself keeping bees," she admits. "But reading about colony losses, I felt compelled to do something about it." Two months ago, she took the plunge and got her first beehive. "Every beginner thinks bees mean stings and that it's pretty daunting to open a hive with up to 60,000 specimens inside. But keeping bees is both easier and harder than people expect.

"You quickly learn that bees are quite happy for you to poke around inside their homes, so long as you use slow, purposeful movements. Everything seems right with the world if the bees are going about their business the way they ought to."

Famous Beekeepers

Jimmy Doherty

The TV presenter keeps bees on his farm and supports beekeeping projects in developing countries. "I visited the honey hunters in Nepal and joined them in harvesting honey from the three-metre-long nests on sheer cliff faces."

Scarlett Johansson

The Hollywood star got into beekeeping when given a hive and thousands of bees as a wedding present by Samuel L Jackson. The gift was prompted by her telling him: "The bees are dying. We need to do something."

Martha Kearney

The news presenter is also an amateur beekeeper who describes her bees as her most treasured possession. She highlighted the plight of bees this year in a BBC TV documentary Who Killed the Honey Bee?

Vince Cable

The deputy leader of the Lib Dems is a beekeeping enthusiast and has led campaigns for funding for bee research. "Bees show that some creatures are public-spirited," he says. "They make things grow for no personal gain."

Steve Vai

Keeping bees may not be rock'n'roll, but that hasn't stopped the Grammy award-winning guitarist becoming a respected apiarist who gives talks to schoolchildren about beekeeping. He has described his hobby as a "full-blown obsession".

Kate Humble

The Springwatch presenter keeps bees at her home in Wales. She says: "Honey bees and bumblebees are in serious decline and gardeners have a vital role to play providing food and habitat for them."

Paul Theroux

The American travel writer and novelist has dozens of beehives at his home on Hawaii. "I've been interested in the subject ever since I read about Sherlock Holmes, who retired to Sussex and tended bees," he says.

Bill Turnbull

The newsreader has four beehives and is a patron of the Bees for Development trust. "We need all the beekeepers we can get. It's a lovely thing to do."

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