Paul Allen - Bee Keeper
Dartmouth Bee Keeper Paul Allen
He's been stung countless times but Dartmouth Mayor, Paul Allen finds keeping bees therapeutic.
Paul has seven hives dotted around Dartmouth and Dittisham, each containing up to 100,000 bees.
In a good year his 700,000 bees produce 175lbs of honey from the nectar they collect from flowers growing in local gardens.
Paul became a beekeeper eight years ago, buying his hives from the monks at Buckfast Abbey who had decided to stop producing honey commercially from their 500 hives on Dartmoor.
His hives are what are known as National Hives, which are the most widely used hives in the UK, and some of Paul’s are hundreds of years old.
I met Paul at one of the hives he keeps in his son’s garden in Northford Road. He has another hive in a garden at Newcomen Road and five in the garden of Dittisham sculptor Bridget McCrum.
Relaxing with his bees is one of his favourite past-times. ‘Keeping bees is a bit like living the Good Life,’ he laughed.
‘It’s about giving something back. We do our little bit for keeping the planet going and it’s quite therapeutic.
‘I go to my hives and sit down with the bees, I call them my girls and ask them what they’re up to.
‘A lot of people are quite sympathetic towards beekeeping but a lot can also be intimidated and frightened. They may not want to actually do it but they can help by planting their garden accordingly.’
Although the bees do not like to be disturbed too much, there is an art to successful beekeeping and help is always at hand for Paul from fellow members of the Totnes and Kingsbridge Beekeeping Association.
‘There are no other beekeepers in Dartmouth that I am aware of but there are a couple of people doing it in Kingswear and in Blackawton too,’ Paul said. ‘There are about 30 beekeepers in the area from Totnes to Kingsbridge’.
Paul is a hive of information about the fascinating life of bees, and waxed lyrical telling me all about them as he showed me the inner workings of his Northford Road hive, which is currently empty awaiting a new swarm of bees.
The bottom box of the hive consists of a brood chamber with a set of hung frames containing preformed wax hexagons which the bees push out to create beeswax cells. The queen bee, which rules the hive, lays her eggs in these cells. Brood cells also contain some honey.
Paul tops the brood chamber with what is known as a honey super – a set of smaller frames and honeycomb cells where worker bees store processed nectar. A board is placed on top of this second chamber to protect the hive from the weather.
Paul said: ‘I take my honey from the super. I leave the honey in the brood chamber because the bees need this to feed on during the winter. If it is a really good summer I can build up to four or five supers.’
If the queen bee does not lay enough eggs the hive will swarm. When this happens about 60 per cent of the worker bees leave the hive with their queen.
When a honey bee swarm emerges from a hive they gather just a few metres from the hive in a tree or on a branch while scout bees are sent out to find a new nest location.
If Paul manages to catch a swarm of his bees he can use them to fill another beehive.
The queen is the mother of honeybee colony and as well as laying eggs she produced pheromones that keep the colony working happily together. If the queen is lost, the change in pheromones will alert the colony to this fact very quickly.
After 10 to 24 hours, the bees will be quite sure the queen is lost and will set about making emergency queen cells with any fertilised eggs present in the hive. Alternatively, Paul can buy a new queen for £40.
‘They send them in the post for you, but I’m not sure the postman would be too happy if he knew! She comes in a small metal cage with a lump of sugar in one end. There are two to three little bees with her because the queen never feeds herself.
‘I put the cage into the hive so the bees can smell the pheromones and get used to the queen – this takes just a few hours. I then take the plug of candy out and she goes into the hive’.
Bees are quite intelligent, Paul believes. ‘Bees navigate by the sun,’ he said. ‘Forager bees perform a ‘waggle dance’ to indicate to the other bees the direction and distance to flowers yielding nectar and pollen’.
Paul uses a smoker to quieten his bees. He said: ‘Their natural reaction to smoke is as if something is invading their home. They fill their tummies with honey from the combs, ready to fly off because they think the hive is on fire. When this happens their bodies elongate which means they have less ability to curve them and sting you, as their stings are at the bottom of their tails.
‘I can then remove the top of the hive to see if the queen is healthy and if the egg laying pattern is even’.
Paul tends to his beehives about once a month from October to February, checking to make sure they haven’t blown over and that the mesh he has fixed to the bottom of the hives has prevented mice and other predators from entering.
Every February he ‘hefts’ the hive, or in other words lifts it to feel the weight. ‘If it’s not heavy it means there isn’t enough honey for the bees to eat so I then make up some sugar water to feed them artificially so they don’t die’.
From February onwards Paul checks his bees once a week to see how much honey they are making.
Last summer was a poor year for honey production, he said. ‘I only collected about 18lbs of honey from the hives last year. It’s the dampness more than anything else because it rots the wax but also if there’s no sunshine the flowers don’t come out and the bees haven’t got anywhere to go to collect pollen and nectar’.
Paul sells his honey at Smith Street Deli, but of course always keeps a few jars back for his own consumption. ‘Honey is very good for you,’ he said. ‘It is full of nutrients, trace elements and vitamins. You only need a teaspoon or so a day to reap the benefits’.
Despite the “ignominy” of being stung, Paul advocates beekeeping as a hobby that benefits not only one’s wellbeing but also the environment, and recommends anyone thinking of starting up their own beehives to take a day’s beekeeping course at somewhere like Buckfast Abbey.
‘It’s a really good course and gives you some practical experience. The most intimidating thing I can recall when I started was opening the top of a hive during a course at Dartington and seeing all the bees fly out’.
First published May/June 2013 By The Dart