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.