Written by Gwen Sinclair, in conversation with Jane Šik
Did you know that nearly 90% of the world’s wild flowering plants, more than 75% of the world’s food crops and 35% of global agricultural depend on the work of our pollinators who not only contribute directly to food security, but they are key to conserving biodiversity?
Sadly it seems that human activity is posing problems for bee populations across the world as Intensive farming practices, the use of pesticides, which are harmful to bees, changes in land-use, as well as threats they face associated with climate change, means that bees population are in trouble. The UN states that due to these human behaviours, close to 35% of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies are facing global extinction. In the UK, there are 25 species of bumblebee and about 250 species of solitary bee – all important for pollination, and sadly under greater threat from pesticides and habitat loss than honey bees.
It wouldn’t just be a question of learning to live without honey, but if we lose the work the bees do for us, it may well cause crop yields to fall off dramatically, leading to widespread economic hardship. Pollinators are vital to the production of virtually all fruit, many vegetables, coffee and chocolate, to name a few, since at least 3 out of 4 crops across the world depend on, at least in part, the work of pollinators like the busy bees!
Today is the UN World Bee Day which has been created to help raise awareness of the vital part our pollinators play in the process of the world’s ecosystems. To mark this day, we have been talking to Jane Šik, Treasurer at Friends of Dundonald Castle (SCIO31541) who began keeping bees in the village about 11 years ago, and who will tell us something about her work as an apiarist, or beekeeper. We will also be looking into the role bees played at Royal Dundonald Castle in days gone by.
“The bee is the wisest and cleverest of all animals and the closest to man in intelligence; its works is truly divine and of the greatest use to mankind. Its social life resembles that of the best regulated cities.” Geoponika, 10th century
When the apple trees in the garden in Dundonald, once alive with buzzing, became silent after an elderly neighbour who kept bees passed away, Jane became inspired to find out more about beekeeping and have a go herself. The opportunity arose when she became involved with local young people who were doing the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme beekeeping at school, together with a fellow teacher who was a beekeeper. Jane now keeps between 3 and 5 hives at the end of her garden that backs on to Castle Hill – and so we might be forgiven for calling the end product Dundonald Castle Honey! The number of hives varies from season to season, and these can bring a honey yield varying annually from over 200 lb in the best season to date, to only 40 lb in a less productive year. This is not only good for the eco-system of our part of Scotland, but sometimes we’re lucky enough to taste the end result!
However Jane cautions: “Its not just a matter of putting a hive in the garden and leaving it alone – keeping honeybees actually involves quite a lot of work.” Bees require periodic inspections during the warmer months to make sure the queen is laying eggs, and that the worker bees are managing to build up the honey stores. During winter, Jane still has work to do since the whole colony survives, apart from drones and so it’s necessary to make sure that there are honey stores for them. Just how they survive winter in itself is fascinating, as Jane explains: “If it’s cold the bees form a spherical cluster with an insulating outer layer made by their abdomens and wings with their heads point into the cluster. They then vibrate their wing muscles – wings decoupled – to produce heat. Inside the cluster they can move around and feed. The queen usually starts to lay in January, and if they have a brood, they keep the inside of the cluster at 37oC to protect the developing larvae/pupae.”
This means that during the course of the year beekeepers like Jane have to go in and regularly inspect the colony – bringing with it, as we might imagine, the risk of being stung! “Saying-‘Bees only sting if attacked’ – is a bit of a myth since a bee’s idea of being under attack, and ours, is not always the same! Each beekeeper will have a different experience – and this can vary from season to season – with some of the hives being more aggressive than others, since all colonies are unique.” Jane explains. This is why it’s essential for the beekeeper to wear protective clothing, which can greatly reduce the chance of stings, although Jane has found out “You can get stung if occasionally you make a mistake – such as not properly zipping up your suit!”
So going back to the past, would we have found bee-keepers at Dundonald Castle in the times of Robert II?
“Dundonald Castle would have certainly had hives – there would have probably been bee boles in the castle walls – these were alcoves that held the straw skeps in which they kept bees.” Jane assures.
A bee bole is a cavity or alcove built into the wall – assumed to be named for the Scots word bole that means a recess in a wall. This meant that walls were built especially to include an alcove used to provide shelter for the skeps from wind and rain. Skeps were woven baskets made of straw or willow designed to house bees, and were traditionally used until modern hives developed towards the end of the 1900s. Some fine examples of bee boles can be found at Tolquhon Castle in Tarves, north of Aberdeen, which has 12 bee boles still to be found in an enclosure wall, and at Brodick Castle on the Island of Arran – at the walled garden built in 1710, used as a productive area up until 1843 – where the bees would have played a crucial role in the pollination of crops grown to feed the laird’s table.
“Bees would have been kept for their wax as much as for honey, as beeswax candles were highly prized and would have probably been used in the castle halls at important gatherings. The alternative was smoky, smelly tallow candles made from rendered animal fats. Local crofters would have probably each had their own hive as well.” Jane explains. Indeed, crofters who kept bees could, it seems, have made extra income from the high demand for their beeswax for use in making the-less-smelly candles which burned with purer light than the animal fat ones in every-day use, and would have been used in noble households such as Royal Dundonald Castle and in churches. Beeswax was also used for wax seals to bring security to important documents, to strengthen sewing thread for making sails and other items which needed to be water-proof, and when mixed with oil, beeswax made a fine polish for armour. Also another useful hive product is disinfectant/bactericide made from propolis which would be collected by the bees from tree resin. A tincture of propolis has long been used to aid sore throats. It seems too that tithes and rents were sometimes paid in honey, beeswax, or even in bee swarms!
Honey had well-known anti-septic properties as well as doubling up as a sweetener for food and drinks, before sugar had arrived on our shores. Fermented honey mixed with beer was made to produce the medieval sweet alcoholic drink, mead, which was also flavoured with fruits, spices and grains to bring variety. Within the Geoponika – a 10th-century Byzantine series of anthologies detailing methods of farming – dedicated to the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (905-959), who was a great collator of knowledge, we find a section devoted entirely to methods to get the best results from keeping bees. This shows it to have been a common activity in the past. Much of the original Geoponika manuscripts have been sadly lost, but what was left was translated into English, and then published in 2 volumes in the early 1800s by Rev Thomas Owen, allowing us to find out how people living over 1000 years ago managed to maintain a healthy larder! Here we find it no surprise that the bees are more than happy to temporarily scarper in order that the medieval apiarists could get in to harvest the honey – where it advised using smoking cow dung to be wafted inside the skeps! For further protection against stings, it assured that the apiarist should use a mixture of ground and roasted fenugreek, cooking oil and juice of wild mallow, which should be liberally smeared over the face and body. And just to be certain – if the cow dung wasn’t enough to have the grist of bees heading to higher ground – it further recommends putting a big dollop of this mixture into the mouth, and then blowing inside the skeps!
Thankfully, there are much less drastic methods required to keep bees these days!
For anyone who is thinking about joining the world of bee-keeping, Jane suggests “The best route is to join your local beekeeping association and to do a beginner’s course. In addition to finding out what equipment is needed and how you look after bees, it often allows you to get some hands-on experience with bees, so that you can decide if it’s for you, since sometimes people find that they really don’t like handling bees.”
Going back to the issues bees are facing today, we wondered if Jane had observed any changes in the bees’ behaviours, or had noticed a reduction in numbers over the past few years? “It’s difficult to tell, but one of the main problems we have is with the varroa mites that came from Asia. They spread viruses which can affect behaviour as well as kill bees. Another major problem is the change in agriculture leading to less varied and plentiful forage. For example, in the 50’s the Ayrshire fields had loads of clover as well as diverse plants in hedgerows – now it’s just grass with few hedgerows. Climate in the west of Scotland has always been a challenge too – particularly with damp.”
We can’t really do much about the damp weather, but UN World Bee Day website suggests that we can help bees by planting nectar-bearing flowers which can provide an increase in the diversity of forage material available to them, which can be planted in gardens or window boxes. Friends of the Earth (FoE) suggest flowers such as lavender, pussy willow, apple or crab apple blossom, hawthorn, honeysuckle, and abelia – whose heavily scented white flowers are heaven for bees. Ivy too can be an important late nectar source especially for fattening the queen for her hibernation, with lungwort, sedum, Winter Aconite, crocus and snowdrops providing the queen with an abundance for pollen to help the early emerging bees. Furthermore, phacelia is said to be the single most attractive plant for bees on the planet!
To help our pollinators, another suggestion is to wait before cutting the grass – until after the nectar-bearing plants have finished blooming – or consider dedicating an area of your garden or lawn for wild flowers so that bees can carry out their essential service of pollinating, whilst benefiting our native plants, which in turn will benefit the wider environment and food production. FoE also advises only to use pesticides that don’t harm bees, and only spray in windless weather – either early in the morning, or late at night when bees have stopped work for the day. All of these strategies can help to reverse the decline in our native pollinator populations.
And of course buy honey from your nearest beekeeper – we are often lucky enough to have some of Jane’s honey for sale in our gift shop when its available – please get in touch to find out more.
Good news, locally, is that the Scottish Wildlife Trust has developed a Nectar Network where they have developed connected-habitats of wildflower meadows and tree planting in order to increase the areas dedicated to our help local pollinators. There are projects running across golf courses, wildlife reserves, parks and cycle routes, essentially aiming to create an ecological corridor between towns in Ayrshire – with plans afoot to cover up to 50 sites! Good examples of work in the area include Irvine Beach Park and nearby Fullarton Woods, as well as Belleisle and Seafield golf courses. To find out more about Scottish Natural Heritage Pollinator Strategy for Scotland – here is the list some of the projects being implemented to help keep nature buzzing:
All that remains to find out from Jane now is how Dundonald (Castle) honey stands on the bees knees’ scale?
“It depends on taste! Some people prefer heather honey. My favourite honey is lime honey – not the citrus fruit but the European lime tree – a friend got a good crop some years from Sundrum Castle. Dundonald honey is a mix of sycamore, fruit like apples, wild cherry, bramble, hawthorn and dandelion.”
If anyone is lucky enough to have tasted the fruits of Jane’s labours, there will be no doubt left as to why honey might be described as food of the Gods!
Checkout the hashtags: #Bee Engaged #WorldBeeDay to find out how others are celebrating World Bee Day 2021!
Find out more about medieval bee keeping: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxU3mvS7e38&t=396s
Bee Kind Graphics by Gwen Sinclair for FoDc with image ‘Flowers in sunlight’ by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay
Brodick Castle Bee Bole by kind permission of Brodick Castle
Phacelia image : Zanchetta Fabio (faxstaff), CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons