David Burns’ wife, Vivienne, bought him his first colony of bees for Christmas 18 years ago. He now has 80 hives in 9 separate apiaries, producing up to 5000lbs of honey every summer which he sells under the brand name ‘Cowshed Honey’, named after the converted farm buildings in Thorington that he and Vivienne call home. David is also the Appointed Bee Inspector for Suffolk, working for the National Bee Unit.
David giving one of his hives a last inspection before closing up for the winter.
The existence of the National Bee Unit is necessary because of the many threats to our honey bees. There’s the scary Asian Hornet and the gruesome Foul Brood diseases, but top of the list is a tiny mite known as Varroa which attaches itself to bees and their larvae and feeds off their fat bodies. It spreads a number of bee viruses, in the same way that mosquitoes do with humans. A severe Varroa infection will lead to the rapid collapse of a honey bee colony.
Snowdrop, February forage.
Gorse, March forage.
Blackthorn, April forage.
Oilseed rape, April forage.
The prevalence of Varroa is probably the main reason why we no longer have wild honey bees, excepting domesticated bees that have gone feral. Once an infestation of Varroa is established in the hive, bee colonies can, arguably, only survive with careful human management. The Varroa mite is yet another non-native invasive species brought to us from abroad. It originates from the Indian subcontinent where it is a parasite on migratory bees. These Asian bees reduce the impact of the mite infestations by moving their nest site each season, so the mites don’t have the same devastating effect as they do on our non-migratory bees.
Mayflower, May forage.
Apple blossom, May forage.
Borage, May forage.
You might expect bees, with their short life spans, to rapidly evolve coping strategies to deal with Varroa. The flaw in that theory is that honey bee’s genetic evolution only happens whenever a new queen is made and the old one departs with a swarm. Swarming is effectively how honey bees reproduce and at best a colony might swarm twice in a spring/summer season. And in a strange quirk of bee behaviour, the new queen stays in the old site, meaning her new brood doesn’t escape any existing Varroa infestation. Compare this to the Varroa mite’s 2 week breeding cycle and you can see the problem; the mites are always a step ahead of any adaptations the bees might make.
Cow parsley, June forage
Of course, loss of habitat and forage, and the agri-chemicals of intensive farming all impact on honey bees as well. And we can only hope, when we split from the EU, that domestic policy will continue to ban the use of Neonicotinoid pesticides which have been proven (at least, to my satisfaction, although not to those people with vested commercial interests in them) to be a disaster for bees and many other insects that are critical in our ecosystems.
Poppy, July forage.
I asked David how important honey bees were to pollination, both in wildflowers and cultivated crops, when there are so many other wild pollinators. He explained that while most wild pollinators visited flowers in a random pattern, honey bees concentrate on one flower type at a time, mob-grazing, and consequently pollinating much more efficiently. In peak season David’s 80 colonies will be releasing something like half a million bees into the Suffolk countryside and a single bee will visit up to 5000 flowers a day. I’m looking at my calculator and don’t know the name for a figure with that many zeros, but surely these vast numbers must constitute a tremendous contribution to a critically important ecosystem function?
Ragwort, August forage.
Heather, August forage.
If you’d like to support David’s work and spread some of his bee’s glorious honey on your toast, you can find Cowshed at the following outlets:
Focus Organic and The Deli, Halesworth, Allens Butchers, Halesworth, Market Fields, Holton, Clarks Butchers, Bramfield, Friday Street, Farnham, Emmerdale Farm Shop, Darsham, Westleton Post Office, Creaseys, Peasenhall, General Store, Peasenhall, Black Dog Deli, Walberswick or Boydens Store, Reydon.
Rosebay Willowherb, September forage.
Ivy, October forage