Fascinating world of bees
Published on: 24 Mar 2017
COULD bees teach us humans a thing or two about building strong communities and helping each other? Downend beekeeper Alyson Hurst certainly thinks so.
"Bees are fascinating creatures and are really intelligent," the 51-year-old says.
"It's amazing how they work together for the greater good of the hive. They don't work as individuals; they work as a collective. Rather than every man for himself, everyone could benefit from taking on that ethos."
Initially keeping bees had been the hobby of Alyson's husband Nigel but when she was made redundant from her job as an attachment therapist working with foster and adoptive families, she started taking more of an interest in the tiny creatures.
"I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and realised I couldn't go back to work. I took part in a foraging walk and realised I could mix the herbs that I grow in my garden with Nigel's beeswax and make handcreams and lip balms, which is what I started doing five years ago."
The mum-of-two now runs a small scale business, called Hives and Herbals, selling honey, candles and handcream to outlets in the Downend area.
"I make things with the herbs I grow myself or from things that I forage. Downend has a wealth of foraging places like King George V Park, Lincombe Barn Woods and Leap Valley. I try to get things as locally as possible."
A recent split from her husband has meant Alyson has had to do some deep thinking.
"Now Nigel and I have separated, I'm going to be a beekeeper in my own right. We've decided to split the hives half each and I'm going to see where I go from there."
Alyson, who has daughters aged 21 and 24, keeps her two hives in her large garden but the marriage break-up means they are selling up.
Luckily she has managed to secure a plot for her apiary at allotments in Downend and is now hoping people in the community will help her get the area ready to accommodate the bees.
Alyson recently took part in Downend Soup, a community initiative where groups and individuals can apply for funding for schemes which will make a positive difference to the community.
"Unfortunately I didn't win but I made some contacts which have been very helpful. It has really made me think that there may be people in the community who could help and support me."
One of Alyson's hives is already at the allotment but she is hoping for support to clear the space of weeds to make way for her other hive and a shed for beekeeping equipment.
"I'm probably not going to be able to afford a house with a big garden so it was brilliant news when I was kindly offered some space on the allotment. The bees will have all the flowers on the allotment to pollinate so hopefully allotment holders will see their production rise.
"At the moment though I need help to make space, clear weeds and then make a base for a shed. I'd also like help to build up a chicken coop to house the hives. At the moment it's waist high but I'd like it to be head height, which would mean fixing wire and wood to the existing frame."
Support to transport the bees would also be welcomed and it's not as daunting as it might sound.
"Bees don't fly in the evening so we can close up the hive, stuff grass or a piece of wood in the entrance and put it in the car."
Alyson's honey supply is dependent on the weather which can make her output unpredictable.
"We take honey off the hive around the end of May and then in August. The amount of honey varies hugely. For the last couple of years, the weather hasn't been too great; it's been sunny then rainy. The bees gather pollen and nectar when it's sunny but don't fly when it rains because it damages their wings. They then eat their stores so don't build up much. The last two summers we've had about 90lbs of honey but the summer prior to the that, which was really warm, we had 250lbs - it's a massive difference!"
Interestingly, Alyson's honey is sold no further afield than Downend, a fact she's really proud of.
"The honey isn't processed and has lots of pollen and other bits which are really good for allergies in it so it helps with local health and supports the immune system. Honey is also good for colds and easing stomach problems. I want to sell my honey as locally as possible."
Alyson also collects propolis, a substance also produced by bees which is beneficial to human health. Bees use it themselves as a glue to repair minute gaps in their hives. As it's so sought after, some beekeepers will scrape off all traces of propolis.
"I would never do that as it would be detrimental to the bees. I just take off little bits. My aim isn't to make money from honey or propolis; it's to make sure the bees are well-looked after. If that means I have no honey, then that's absolutely fine."
Alyson hopes local businesses might consider sponsoring a hive, enabling her to continue supplying local honey to local people but she's still working out the finer details of how this might work.
One possibility is to allow, say, a cafe owner to pay for the upkeep of a hive in return for half its honey which they could then sell in their cafe.
Once Alyson's hives are set up at the allotment, she is hoping to offer local people the chance to come along and see what it's like to be a beekeeper. It would be a natural progression from her work giving talks to schools and community groups as well as attending local events such as Heathfest with her 'observation hive' - a half-size hive with a glass top so people can see the bees working.
"It's lovely to speak to local school children. I tell them 'My bees have been in your garden getting the pollen and nectar from your flowers. Then they fly back to their hive and make honey from it'.
"When local people buy local honey from me, it's come from their flowers. I think that's really magical."
If you would like to help Alyson or to find out more about her bees talks, you can call her on 07882 294683 or visit her Facebook page Hives and Herbals.