Whilst deciding on the subject for this issue’s column, we were in the middle of the best April I had ever known. Spring was really springing, lambs were skipping around the surrounding fields, birds were returning from their winters abroad and bees were working the swathes of blossom adorning the hedgerows and trees. A general feeling of good was in the air and with all that buzzing, my thoughts turned to honey.
My research told me there were eighty-one people registered with the Isle of Wight Beekeeping Association. Some are awaiting eagerly their first swarm, others already producing from one or two hives. But in order for one to really learn about this ancient art you need to talk to the two grandmasters of the Island bee keeping fraternity.
Mary Case of Limerstone Farm and Terry Willis of Adgestone Road are the top bananas of the Island honey scene, if it’s worth knowing about bee-keeping, they know it. And spending time with them has been both pleasurable and educational on what is a truly fascinating subject.
Beekeeping’s earliest records date back to the Egyptian sun temples of 2400BC. The ancient Greeks used honey both in cooking and medicine and, during the reign of the Roman empire, beekeeping flourished.
The Case family history of beekeeping doesn’t quite stretch back to Roman times but Mary is the fourth generation of Island beekeepers. Between her and Terry they have over 41 years of experience.
Q. MARK: How long have you both been keeping bees?
Terry: Eighteen years now. It started as a hobby but lately it is taking up more and more of my time.
Mary: Twenty-three years. Beekeeping has become an integral part of mine and Jeff’s farming income.
Q. MARK: How many colonies do you have?
Terry: I have just over forty colonies divided between five apiaries, in Sandown and Ryde with one in Whitwell. Each colony has between 60,000 and 80,000 bees.
Mary: About eighty scattered across the Island in nine different apiaries, including Niton, Godshill, Idlecombe, Thorley, Compton, Brighstone, Limerstone, Atherfield and Kingston.
Q. MARK: How much honey would you expect them to produce?
Terry: In a good year I would expect to produce a tonne of honey to retail, but this does depend on rain, sunshine and temperature levels.
Mary: We expect about two tonnes of honey from our bees and we also use the beeswax in other products.
Q. MARK: I was going to ask about beeswax, how is it made?
Terry: The bees make the wax, when the hive temperature is right. They gorge on honey and then hang themselves up to produce the wax from eight wax glands situated on their stomachs. It comes in flakes that other bees remove and then use to produce the cells for storing honey, eggs and larvae. These are what we call honeycomb. The mature bees are only capable of producing wax for about four or five days of their lives.
Q. MARK: What is the honeycomb used for?
Terry: You don’t have to separate the honey from the wax honey comb we also sell cut comb which is very popular and the most natural way to eat honey, it is said to be good for reducing the symptoms of some hay fever sufferers as it contains the most pollen.
Mary: When we remove the honeycomb from the hives we separate the honey from the wax comb it is then used in the production of soap, furniture polish and candles, elsewhere in the world it is also used in cosmetics and medicine.
Q. MARK: When does the honey get produced?
Terry: The bees only produce honey in quantity between early April and the end of July. During this time the bees have a life expectancy of about six weeks. Whereas the bees hatched during the winter can live up to seven months. During the honey producing weeks each hive can produce between 50lbs to over 100lbs of honey, as the bees need only 20-30lbs to see them through their winters hibernation the extra honey can be taken without harm to the colony.
Q. MARK: What is a swarm and what causes bees to swarm?
Mary: A swarm is when bees move from a colony. Each queen can lay 2,000 eggs daily and if a colony is flourishing it can soon become overcrowded. So a percentage of the colony, usually about half, will swarm to find another place to live leaving the existing colony to carry on un-crowded. It is for this reason we closely monitor our hives, visiting them each once a fortnight during the summer months to avoid swarms.
Terry: Although a swarm represents no danger we get contacted regularly to deal with them, the fire brigade, council and police all have our numbers; I tend to deal with east and north Wight, Mary with south and west.
Q. MARK: Once a swarm is contained what happens?
Terry: I dealt with five swarms in just one day last week, one of which I took to the nuns at St Cecilia’s, where they have just set up their first hive.
Mary: Amongst the eighty-one association members there are still eight or nine waiting for their first swarms so they can start producing.
Q. MARK: So do you both help people get into competition with you?
Terry: Yes the Island has room for more colonies and a market for more honey than the Island beekeepers are currently producing.
Mary: The growing trend for farmers to replant hedgerows and set aside strips of land for wild flower cultivation is great for the bees. All the honey I produce sells through Friday’s farmers market, Chale show and the Garlic festival alone. The demand far exceeds the production.
Q. MARK: Where do you sell your bees’ products Terry?
Terry: I have a stall at Brickfields every Monday and attend various shows and fetes. I am a regular at the Old Gaffers Festival and the readers can buy direct from my home throughout the year.
Q. MARK: What is the difference between Isle of Wight honey and branded honey?
Mary: The main difference is branded honey is manufactured by bees kept in a more controlled environment. The apiaries are kept near specific crops to maintain a consistent flavour, for example lavender or clover. The attraction with our honey is the diversity of flavours and colours. Each batch has different characteristics taken from the various floras that the bees have worked. It is this that makes our honey unique.
Q. MARK: What do you do if you want to learn about beekeeping and maybe start keeping some bees yourself?
Terry: Contact Mary through the Isle of Wight Beekeeping Association and she will be able to arrange a group talk or let you know when and where the next one is taking place.
After spending time with Mary and Terry I felt a calmness that I haven’t felt with other food producers. Maybe this is due to their product relying totally on nature to dictate the pace of production, intervention is not an option. The bees are fairly self-sufficient but their welfare is obviously very important to both of these Island beekeepers.
At St Helens we use Island honey in our bread making and it features in various desserts. Personally I would wholly recommend drizzling some over Isle of Wight blue cheese or a good goats cheese.
So next time you see a pot of Island honey at your local fete, show or market, pick it up and give it a go. Maybe some of Mary and Terry’s calmness will rub off on you.