Skep to Hive
Driving back through the Park to the Castle from a yoga class one morning, I had my car window down just to enjoy all the scents of the summer trees, the limes, faint azaleas, even just the fresh leaves and strong young growth of shrubs.
To my surprise I found Mike Withers standing still underneath an oak tree by the road. Mike and his wife Pat are our decorating team. In fact Pat has been decorating here for over 55 years, and her father before her. However they also keep bee hives and we then sell the honey they produce on the Estate here in the gift shop.
Clad in his bee keeper’s clothing, Mike was carefully trying to collect a swarm in a skep. Straw skeps were first designed in the time of Alfred the Great, about 1000 year ago, and have not changed very much since.
I stopped and watched fascinated. Eventually Mike got all the bees into the skep which he then took back to a hive to run the bees in over a board. This is a tricky process as there is a chance of the colony absconding but Mike is hugely experienced. The Queen Bee went in over the workers and, once she was ensconced in the hive, the moment of concern passed.
Bees are vital for pollination and we really need them in this world, yet apparently their population in the UK has declined by 75% in the past century. The reasons given are fast changing environmental factors: pesticides, loss of habitat, stress and the unknown effects of GM crops.
What we do at Highclere is not in any way significant but we have tried to help. We have created a glorious wild flower meadow, instituted wide wild flower margins around the arable fields and kept expanses of open undisturbed hillsides.
(C) Jesper Mattias (RSPB)
Through this month and the next the bees build their honey stores. Above all, apparently, they like blue coloured plants, such as the generous panicles of the buddleia shrubs along the edge of the wildflower meadow, the lavender borders in the Monks Gardens, the borage, lime trees, sweet chestnut and blackberry. Such plants help them produce sugars which will remain runny in the comb over the winter months.
Our ancestors have valued honey for several thousand years. It is a miracle food: complex, nutritious and antibacterial; containing 24 different sorts of sugars as well as small amounts of plant enzymes and proteins.
I hope we can continue to do so with the honey collected from the woods and fields around Highclere for a few more hundred years.
Fascinating. The bee population in the U.S. has been declining and is now at a critical level. Perhaps we need to start using some of the 1000 year old methods that you use at Highclere.
When I was in England, I stayed in a B&B in Nottingham. They had a chicken coop and a bee hive so we had fresh eggs and honey every morning for breakfast! While I was there, a swarm formed in a nearby tree and it took them a careful few hours to get the bees back in the hive. It really made me appreciate the honey business!
I loved my tour of Highclere; it really was the highlight of my 5 week long trip to the UK. Most of all, I loved that Lady Carnarvon started the tour with an informative talk! So lovely….
I agree, very fascinating indeed. A quick search of ‘aussiebee.com’ has revealed that in Australia has over 1,500 species of native bees. However it is my understanding that the most common bee in Australia is the European Honey Bee and for New South Wales, it is the Italian bee.
Less surprising – probably because it is in keeping with our flora and fauna – only 10 of the 1,500 species are stingless.
Lady Carnarvon, I read with interest your comment on the effects of genetically modified crops on the bee populatin in the UK. Can you expand on what it is that effects the bee population in that regard and is anything even done about it?
GM crops may initially eliminate a lot of unwanted bugs but overtime that benefit declines and strong insects/ superbugs survive, which are resistant to insecticides/pesticdes etc Thus the crops require much higher use as time goes on. Bees love rape crops and travel 4 or 5 miles to reach them and thus their pollen is likely a mixture of GM and non GM crops so again we are limited our choices in what we knowingly consume. This is real issue in the US I believe. Heavy use of insecticides wipes out more beetles, butterflies and bees. I believe the bee keepers in the US are facing very serious challenges to maintain their hives. Our keepers here at Highclere tell me that when the harvest used to be brought in there were masses of insects and beetles left in the trailers. Now there are so few. We have beetle banks here again but overall it is worrying. I am not sure we know the consequences upon us of changing the enzymes for example within wheat. Does that lead to more celiac issues? I think caution is my middle name!!
I agree. With so much conflicting information, much better to err on the side of caution.
Thank you for this enlightening story of bees at Highclere. And I love learning new words like “skep.”.
It has been a little over a year since you have created your Rose arbor. Would you consider an annual photo update on the progress?
Your faithful follower from Whitefish, MT USA
I was wondering if Highclere kept bees in the 1880s.
One of my ancestors worked below stairs, and I have recently come across a 1886 Colonial Exhibition medal created by the British Bee Keepers Association, where HRH Price of Wales (later Edward VII) allowed a honey exhibit in the capacious conservatory that then adjoined the Albert Hall in Kensington.
As HRH organised this, I was wondering if Highclere household and servants were involved.
Thank you in advance.
How amazing – I can not think they would. to have kept bees. I have just made a podcast with Mike who keep bees today, it is not yet out – Lady Carnarvon’s official podcast – he has kept bees here for 60 years
Another very interesting story about the happenings at Highclere !
It is so sad that bees are in trouble and I sign every petition to promote bees .
Thank you very much and look forward to your next blog !
Ah, if only we could pay out EURO debt with Greek honey.
No bee problem here 🙂
Noting from the Federation of Bee Keepers in Greece:”… whereas other countries are struggling with high bee mortality,
that’s one global crisis that has yet to touch debt-plagued Greece.
“Colony collapse disorder is a problem in the United States and some European countries…
We don’t have this problem in Greece yet,” says Paschalis Harizanis, professor at the Agricultural University of Athens.
The reason is that Greek beekeepers are still able to keep their activities at a safe distance from commercial farming, and therefore away from pesticides.
“Greek honey owes its unique aroma and taste to the fact that the better part of Greece is home to forests and wild ecosystems with only 29.32 percent of the land allocated to farming,” says the federation of Greek beekeepers’ associations (OMSE)
Eat Greek honey with your Greek yogurt!
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-04-life-sweet-beekeepers-greece.html#jCp
That’s fascinating Catherine, thank you so much for sharing.
Interesting indeed. Yes, the bee population is critical – internationally it seems. Certainly here in the US we have the same issues, although this time of year in Oregon we have Lavender Festival and it has been heartening to talk to the farm owners as we have toured the farms and to learn that the bees have increased slightly this past 2 years. I have not noticed an increase in my own garden, however. The issues with companies like Monsanto are huge here too and when I look at all of the numbers of people now suffering from various food allergies, obesity, disorders such as fibromyalgia and so on, I have to think that it is connected to what is now in our food. I’m heartened, however, to see the increase on the number of farmers markets and community gardens – at least in my neck of the woods – so healthy choices are available.
Dear Lady Carnarvan,
Thanks for bringing to light this huge problem. Bee populations are dwindling in the US, and have been for some time. Without these beautiful, highly intelligent insects we will lose much of the foods we eat. In past years the clover in our garden would be loaded with bees, now there are literally none. Very sad and worrying. Thanks to Catherine from Greece for the info on Greek honey! Hope her country will soon be prosperous again!
As always thanks for all the good works you do at Highclere. Very important!
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
After listening overnight (in Sydney) to day 2 of the First Test in Cardiff, I have tuned into the BBC World Service which has just played a story from New Jersey about (inter alia) the diminishing number of bees. I assume that the report will be placed on the BBC’s webpage.
Just thought you and fellow bloggers might like to know.
It also proves that you are trending the bed – a week ahead of the BBC and US news services.
Can’t believe that we will be at Highclere this Thursday! This will be a dream come true. Thank you so much for acquainting us with the many aspects of your beautiful estate before we get there. It will make our short, short visit so much more meaningful.
I certainly will respect any bees that I may happen to see! Love the wildflower margins. Can’t wait to see them in person!!!
, this is my first time to read the lady carnarvon’s blog, I feel i wll keep reading in the future, you really show a cozy and peaceful Highclere castle life for me, very enjoy.
I hope I could be there to visit one day
Well, one is never too old to learn! Thank you, Lady Carnarvon. I just learned that those lovely little honey-coloured, cone-shaped constructions are called “skeps,” and not “bee hives.” I just thought our hives were shaped differently. Isn’t it interesting that the monks on Skellig Michael used that shape to construct their domociles? Perhaps I haven’t heard all the folklore about it.
I hope you don’t regret opening your lovely home to Sir Julien and all his characters we’ve come to love. Your life is never going to be the same! We’ll try to leave you SOME privacy.