“The purists don’t wear gloves,” my friend noted as we suited up, making every effort to seal the gaps in our clothes like an astronaut emerging from their capsule. Even before we approached the hive, the irate brooding hum of the colony was uniquely exciting. He lifted the cover tentatively; the hum of wings rose to a feverous pitch. But after a puff of smoke they became docile. In this tranquillity, he swiftly lifted a frame and, after brushing the bees away, the reward was revealed: the thick, sticky honeycomb. From that one encounter, my curiosity was piqued. Now, the St Andrews Beekeeping Society is aiming to spread their passion for our 15 millimeter black and yellow friends.
“It’s St Andrews’ most wholesome society,” jokes Amy Suddards, the Chair of BeeSoc, the more succinct title for the St Andrews Amateur Beekeeping Society. Founded last year out of curiosity, it garnered over 100 likes on their Facebook page; this year the society has big ambitions for the future. They have recently secured permission to place hives at the Botanic Garden, a sheltered 7.5 hectare haven featuring rare plants, open to the public and students alike. “It’s the perfect spot, with the right plants and shelter from the wind; wind is a bee’s worst enemy.” Ms Suddards remarks that, “the problem with this new trend of urban beekeeping, hives on rooftops in London, is that it’s the wrong environment for bees; too much wind and little access to plants.” This view informs the short- term aim of the Society — to train in the skills of beekeeping to keep bees safe since “the biggest danger for bees is bad beekeeping.” The hives will not be ready until the spring of next year, but over the winter, preparations will be made by attending programmes by Fife Beekeeping, and passing skills on to the members of the society. “We will check on the hives weekly, but we hope that when people are fully trained that they can visit the hives whenever the gardens are open.”
BeeSoc is the brainchild of the enthusiastic fourth-year Amy Suddards. This means she will never see the return of her effort before she graduates. Despite this she remains optimistic about the society’s legacy — “I’m unlikely to see the honey, but I’m still proud to be involved with creating something that can continue year after year.” Creating a society from the ground up has required extensive effort from the committee of nine members, such as risk assessments considering the dangers of being stung, allergic reactions, “and, of course, the wellbeing and safety of the bees.” Their approach to beekeeping is wide-ranging and holistic; she notes how some people are more interested in different aspects like “conservation, craft, drawing,” while others “like the aesthetic of bees, though they’re not just limited to handbags and socks.” For Ms Suddards, the possibilities are numerous, allowing people to engage in the society, “even if they just walk round the garden and watch.” “I’m very proud of it,” she declares, “even though it isn’t fully going yet.”
BeeSoc, being one of the newest and most niche society at St Andrews, sits out of the limelight and attracts a myriad of members. Understanding the appeal of beekeeping is difficult as an outside observer. There is the perpetual fear of being stung and the time investment required just to collect something that can be bought in a shop.
Ms Suddard stresses the positive effects on wellbeing that beekeeping provides, offering the opportunity to experience the outdoors. “So many societies that allow you to get outside are sports-based — BeeSoc provides another way to get out.” For stressed students it’s also “therapeutic,” as bees are not inherently aggressive, and the consistent drone of beating wings becomes a persistent distraction. At the same time, they require attention, thus brooding thoughts give way to a focus on caring for the brood. Honey is also not the only return. Ms Suddards notes, “you can do so much with beeswax,” such as make candles, lip balm, and lotions. “Bees are also such intricate creatures; some people love to draw them,” she comments, considering a more artistic element. While beekeeping is such a unique and varied art, BeeSoc can connect like-minded people, despite the possible variety.
Amy’s fascination with bees is very specific. “I like the science of bees, the sociology of hives.” She briefly explained how each hive has a strict social caste structure; labour is divided with bees often cooperating to care for offspring that are not even their own. The queen, the largest bee in the colony, mates outside the hive, lays eggs, and organises the group, controlling it with pheromones. Several thousand worker bees guard the hive, build combe, clean the hive, feed the brood, and collect nectar. Many drones die of exhaustion in the high season. The worker bees also have the mesmerising ability to communicate through movement, as first understood by Karl von Frisch. This allows them to inform other workers as to the location of plants by indicating distance and direction through a dance. Finally, there are the drones which lack stingers, whose role is to mate with queen — they die immediately after. For Amy, the complexity of bee societies evokes fascination and makes successfully caring for a hive especially rewarding. For BeeSoc, understanding these behaviours and caring for the bees is part of an active learning process. AsMs Suddards admits, “I’ve done very little beekeeping but have watched people do it. It sounds selfish, but part of this is me wanting to learn.”
The first step to getting into beekeeping is usually to have the fortune of observing someone else’s passion. For Ms Suddards, this occurred through joining friends and observing dedicated hobbyists. One story that sits centre for her was witnessing a 95-year-old astrophysicist look after a swarm.
While working at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, in Cheshire near Manchester, home to a number of radio telescopes, she watched on while the astronomer Sir Francis Graham-Smith climbed up a tree in order to reach a swarm. On his way up, he fell. However, despite his age, he youthfully rose and persevered up the tree to collect the swarm. “It keeps you young,” remarks Ms Suddards.
“Despite beekeeping for all those years, he never lost interest — for that reason it must be special.” As well as being an inspiration, he also encouraged her to create BeeSoc despite her doubts. “It started off as me and some friends seeing a gap in the societies available at St Andrews, so we excitedly jumped at the idea. It was only later on when my doubts set in. Would other people want to join in with our passion project? Would it just be limited to a few devotees?” However, “after seeing him I knew there would be interest, after all honey is the nectar of the world.”
Beekeeping is a therapeutic pursuit that is curious at first, but becomes captivating when you get involved. But, if that doesn’t make you feel like you’ve found your calling, the environmental significance of it should. The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) state that one third of our food is pollination dependent, which includes 70 types of crop.
The honey production alone also contributes £400 million to the UK economy. Worldwide, the UN estimates that of the 100 crop species responsible for 90 per cent of food, 71 are dependent on bee pollination.
The foraging honey bee is one of the most adept in collecting pollen, with the hairs on the body catching pollen with ease .
Unfortunately, the bee population is in staggering decline — the BBKA noted a 17 per cent loss in their colonies in the year of 2015. The cause of these colony collapses remains the subject of debate, with climate change and parasites often being blamed.
As Ms Suddards says, “saving the bees is really important, as there could be food shortages if we don’t help maintain the population. So, in BeeSoc, we really want to learn about what flowers to plant and what to do to preserve the bee population.”To understand beekeeping, you have to do it. People’s reasons for engaging vary, though the experience is unifying, with challenges and successes shared. BeeSoc remains a very new society, despite this it is growing fast and causing quite a buzz. If you are interested in getting involved find them @UStABeeSoc on Facebook.