Show me the honey! Inside one British farm’s fight to save the bees
- Credit: Archant
The head beekeeper at Daylesford Farm, Tanya Hawkes, is a country girl through and through. “After graduating from uni, I had a flat share in Tufnell Park with (Doctor Who) actress Alex Kingston. We had so much fun – but I just felt that north London was an altogether different ‘wildlife’ to the kind I have an affinity for.”
Her brief experience of urban life helped Tanya to realise that she wanted her career to bridge the chasm between people and nature.
So she packed her bags and headed north from Tufnell Park to Scotland. Here she enjoyed a stint as a countryside project officer, introducing urban children, whose lives lacked “natural capital,” to wildlife and conservation through experiences such as wildflower walks.
It was at this time that Tanya started keeping bees.
She recalls: “I had no money at all, but I knew that I wanted to do this – and sometimes you just can’t refuse a calling.
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“So my friend and I made our own kit, I’m talking Marigolds on our hands and tights over our heads, and a kindly farmer let us have a little patch on his land.”
Fastforward 25 years and Tanya is a well-respected beekeeper maintaining 17 hives.
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On a glorious summer’s day, I ventured from Highgate to Daylesford Farm in the Cotswolds to experience her introductory beekeeping course.
The organic farm tallies with her own ecological approach to beekeeping, where none of the toxic herbicides that are so injurious to bees are used.
I found Tanya through my own love of bees and desire to protect the species, having protested a couple of times outside Parliament against the use of bee-killing insecticides.
I worry I’m seeing a lot more dying bees than I used to, and sadly Tanya confirms this. “Well, even the houseplants we buy are sprayed with these pesticides, so bees in urban areas are just as exposed to them.
“So yes, there probably are greater numbers dying. If you see a bee struggling, you may be able to revive them by feeding them a mixture of white sugar with water.”
The course is packed full of fascinating facts that I simply couldn’t fit in one article, suffice to say that my appreciation and respect for this incredible species has grown.
Did you know that bees are descended from wasps?
And that bees are able to separate out the different pollens they collect, and store them accordingly in the hive? So, there will be a dandelion area, a borage area, a hollyhock area, and so on.
This produces a rainbow effect of different hues in the hive, and is one of many illustrations of how highly organised each hive is.
Sadly, farming monoculture means that bees cannot collect a variety of nectar, which weakens and can even kill whole colonies.
Like us, bees need a variety of proteins to survive, so acre upon acre of yellow rapeseed is not as bee-friendly as it looks.
The microbial properties of her bees’ honey have been put to use by Tanya in her own skincare brand, Therapi.
I can vouch for its effectiveness: her Orange Blossom Moisturiser always peps up my skin, and my mum now swears by her Propolis+ Radiance cream.
Highly attuned to her bees, Tanya can handle the hive without wearing gloves, and perhaps it is because her bees are so happy that Tanya’s honey is so delicious (I ate a whole sample pot in one go).
We all got a turn at lifting out a comb to study it, viewing the bees at work and in different stages of development, as well as the queen strutting around. We learnt that bees aren’t necessarily angry when we approach, just curious (though we do know if they’ve had enough, as their buzzing changes to an urgent, whining pitch).
I return to Highgate full of delicious Daylesford food and fascinating facts about bees that I enthusiastically impart to anyone who’ll listen.
I can’t recommend the beekeeping course enough, it was both great fun and enlightening.
Tanya’s passion for her bees is as addictive as her produce, so one day you might very well be enjoying some Highgate Honey.
For more details, visit daylesford.com/about-daylesford/organic-farm-school. For Therapi Skincare, visit therapi.com.