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Lucy Deedes and Matt Trembecki, two of our Petworth food shop team members, take a tour of our local honey supplier at Duncan Mill. Read on as Lucy shares her experience…
The shelves in the shop are stacked with jars of honey, both runny and set, and this honey comes from hives owned by Martin Hill at Duncton Mill on the organic Barlavington Estate. Altogether Martin and his life partner Daisy a Master Beekeeper manage between them about 60 hives in this part of Sussex; they are also both registered swarm collectors.
Matt and I come to visit him, and once we are suited, hatted and netted, Martin takes us up to the cleared space on the edge of the orchard to which he has recently moved them. How do you move a beehive? Very slowly – no more than three feet a day, so the bees can orientate themselves.
Standing there on a hillside in the afternoon sun with the soporific drone of thousands of bees and the woody scent of the smoker, I have an odd sense of timelessness. For a moment it could be almost any century and I fall into a sort of Tudor reverie, imagining a thatched house with smoke curling from the chimney, straw bee skeps and a rootling pig, hollyhocks and medicinal herbs in a cottage garden. Ah, Matt is taking selfies: nothing dispels that sixteenth-century mood like a selfie.
Martin opens up the first hive; he wears a hat and veil but his arms are bare. Beekeepers are famously calm, unruffled people: he gets one or two stings and brushes the bees away tenderly. They will be worker female bees – drones have no stingers. Drones are stouter with large eyes; their sole role is to mate with the virgin queen and then their job is done and they die shortly after the mating flight. Even if they don’t mate with a queen they will anyway be cleared out of the hive before the onset of winter; bees are nothing if not briskly practical and the loafing drones are not useful enough to be fed throughout the cold season. And from June 21st – the longest day – the queen will now progressively lay fewer eggs, to prepare for reducing the hive, if not to skeleton staff, then to massively reduced numbers to keep the population ticking over through the winter.
The smoker wafts its woody smoke through the hive (which confuses and calms its occupants) but we are being checked out by clouds of curious bees and Matt and I, swathed and comely though we are in in our Miss Haversham hats, silently send them loving non-threatening thoughts, remember that they don’t like sudden movements and hope there is not a hole in our netting.
Martin points out the queen, with a yellow dot on her thorax like a Hindu bindi; she moves about with her retinue of ladies-in-waiting nudging her along, like a cluster of nurses around an elderly patient in a wheelchair. He shows us workers and drones, larvae and eggs and how cleverly the bees organise themselves; building peanut-shaped queen cells, sealing eggs into their cells, feeding the larvae, sharing not only the food they bring back to the hive but information too, telling the other bees where to find a good store of nectar. We dip our fingers in and taste the glorious honey (not without difficulty, through the veil).
We feel privileged to be able to watch this extraordinary boiling mass at work. Everything is communal and selfless; the teamwork exemplary. ‘No egos in the bee hive,’ says Martin.
Bees arrive back at the hive, weighed down with pollen in the pouches of both back legs. Just now they are foraging largely in the blackberries. Since they are so free ranging and will travel up to one and a half miles to collect pollen and nectar, it is almost impossible for any beekeeper to declare their honey organic. Likewise, unless you have your honey forensically (and expensively) tested and it is found to contain at least 80% of – say – blossom or clover, then it must be simply described as honey. Not so in the rest of Europe, oddly enough.
The hive can be attacked by wasps, woodpeckers and mice and the dreaded parasitic varroa mite, which can live on the back of a bee for up to two years and is a major factor in declining honeybee populations.
The stoic worker bees spend all the 40 or so days of their lives collecting food for a winter they will never see. The queen, after her sole sexual foray, one windless sunny day, to mate with up to 15 drones, on the wing, in a ‘drone congregation area’, returns to the hive and spends the rest of her life, perhaps five years, reproducing. A worker bee, throughout her short, strenuous and unselfish life, may produce about a quarter of a teaspoonful of honey. I will never again take a jar of honey for granted.
We strip off our protective gear in the gateway, full of admiration and gratitude. A single bee gives Matt a salutary sting on his arm to send us on our way. Obviously he is extremely brave about it.
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