Bee Part of It

An insight about why bees matter to you

It was a gloomy and windy afternoon after a few days of sunshine as if the winter was coming back again. But the grey weather could not restrain the blossom of daffodils and crocus, nor the mood of the bees.

In the garden of Phil Khorassandjian, a few large bee hives were aligned behind the trees, and numerous buzzing worker bees were busy squeezing out of and into the hives, some buzzed back with leg pockets full of yellow pollen.

These bee hives all belonged to Phil, the Chair of Sheffield Beekeepers' Association (SBKA). He started keeping bees in the late 90s and has been educating and training many beginners how to keep bees properly.

Bee Importance

If you think what bees can do is only producing honey, think again.

At least one third of staple food that human rely on would be no longer available without these little pollinators. These include broccoli, asparagus, cucumbers, berries, melons and apples. Less pollination thus also results in fewer plants, and more expensive food.

Researchers at the University of Reading estimated that honey bees can contribute up to £651 million to the UK economy a year. UK's apple and strawberry crop alone brought in £200 million to Britain in 2012.

To Phil, beekeeping means more. 

"There's a lot more different aspects of beekeeping that’s fascinating to people"-- Phil Khorassandjian

"As a pastime, when you’re looking at bees, you are doing animal husbandry which is fascinating itself; as scientists you’re looking at pollen in honey and biology of the bees.

"As food retailers you have to know how you handle the honey and make sure it’s clean and fit for human consumption; you can go to cosmetics, so you can use bees wax to make hand creams or lip balms and candles."

If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.
                                                              --Albert Einstein

Bee Crisis

There was a time when the bee population experienced substantial declines. For years, honey bees have struggled with varroa mites attacking hives, and the overuse of chemicals like pesticides in the environment is another reason why a lot of bees end up being disoriented and die.

Actions were called to rescue the colony collapse, and Sheffield so far has done a good job. In 2011, two million honeybees were introduced to Sheffield as part of a bee project run by local charity. There were also educational sessions for children and adults to take part in, aiming to raise the awareness of protecting honeybees. The number of registered members in SBKA has also reached up to 200 from only 55 in 2011, and is still increasing each year. 

"If you think 200 beekeepers, each one of them on average maybe has four colonies, that's 800 bees colonies in Sheffield that weren’t there before, we’re increasing numbers and it’s very good for the environment."said Phil

Bright as the prospect of honeybees may seem, they are actually still under threat. A fatal disease for bees called nosema is still common and is very contagious and can spread to all colonies once one is infected. The discovery of Asian Hornet, the honeybee predator, in Gloucestershire last year also sparked constant fear for honey beekeepers.

Sheffield Beekeeping

To make sure the health condition of the bees in Sheffield, the SBKA organises tests regularly for its members to examine if the bees are clear from nosema. The test usually charges a small sum of fee, but the one on March 12th was free for registered members.

Ron Jian, a Chinese man who started his own beekeeping in late 90s after he settled down in Sheffield, joined the SBKA a few years ago. He owns 2 colonies now and was deeply concerned about his bees so he certainly would not miss such a good opportunity to give his bees a body check.

Early in the morning on the 12th, Ron carefully picked up 30 dead bee samples as required, put them in a little can and arrived at the Ecclesall Wood very early. On a few tables inside the wooden cabin set a few microscopes. One of the examiners was busy labelling the bees from different hives, another one has already started clipping the wings off and asked Ron to do the same. Soon the small cabin room was packed full of beekeepers clipping the wings.

"That's what we need to do first," explained Ron, “clipping the wings off, and scanning them to identify the sub-species of our honey bees. Then they will smash the bees to make the slides and examine with the microscope to see if any of the bees get nosema.”

Ron was very anxious when his bees were sent to the microscope. Fortunately his bees were all clear, but some beekeeper might not be so lucky. “What we’re looking for is a small white unicellular parasite which looks like rice,” explained Roger, another beekeeper who takes care of all 13 hives belonging to SBKA, “as antibiotics are no longer allowed, it’s very hard to treat nosema so we have to examine the colonies regularly.”

Ron admitted that starting beekeeping was not easy. It was only when he took a lot of courses at the SBKA did he realise that there were so much to learn about keeping bees in a proper way. The beginner’s course offered by the SBKA go through the whole subject of bees and beekeeping, including natural history, how to deal with honey, how to manipulate a hive and the equipment. But still, he, as well as Phil, got stung a lot, even with bee suit on.

“That’s why we’ve been trying to encourage people to keep bees responsibly, because you’re looking after animals. If you don’t do that properly, they will suffer, they will die, so you have to know what you’re doing,” said Phil.

As spring time enters, more buzzing sounds can be heard around. There is still so much more to do to maintain this mysterious but marvellous small creature into human's life.