Waggles, twirls: it's all such a buzz

August 31, 2007

Craig Roberts has a hobby that might sound an awful lot like his work: the behavioural biologist was recently bitten by the beekeeping bug. Still, he tells Olga Wojtas, they keep him sweet

Craig Roberts, lecturer in biological sciences at Liverpool University, admits that if he could he would be a "good lifer" and live off the land like Tom and Barbara do in the BBC comedy The Good Life . He and his partner Stephanie Colvan, assistant academic registrar at Edge Hill University, have two allotments and grow their own vegetables.

But Colvan decided it was a step too far last Christmas when she found Roberts eyeing up how-to books on keeping chickens and diverted him to one on beekeeping.

"I read it between Christmas and New Year and was just really taken with it. Bees are really fascinating, and it struck me that this was an extremely logical manipulation of bees' natural behaviour. You're working with them to achieve the same end, gathering a lot of honey."

Bees look after themselves in winter, living off the honey in their hives. But when the beekeeping season began in spring, Roberts signed up for a preparatory course with the Ormskirk and Croston branch of the British Beekeepers Association.

He was so intrigued that he was unable to wait until the branch had bred a new hive, and he set off across the Mersey to a bee auction in the Wirral.

"Bees have been quite scarce this year, and the demand is increasing. I won't tell you what we paid - about three times more than normal."

Hives contain frames that hang like files in a filing cabinet, and a standard "nucleus" of a queen bee and worker bees would be four or five frames. Roberts bought a hive with ten frames and about 15,000 bees, which he then had to get home.

"You wait until the bees go to bed and block up the hole in the bottom of the hive so that you can transport them. We had to drive through the Mersey Tunnel; because it was the first time, and we weren't sure what was going to happen, we put on our beekeeping suits with veils and hats. We got some funny looks."

Three or four bees managed to emerge during the journey, which meant they could not survive. While those in the hive could reorientate themselves once it had been set up, those that escaped en route were unable to find their way to the hive.

"If we had only moved up to three miles, they could have found landmarks, but although the hive was only 20 metres from the car, they wouldn't find it."

Roberts' hobby is an escape from work, but as a behavioural biologist he enjoys studying the bees' behaviour. His primary work is on mammals' sense of smell and, he says he may seek opportunities to investigate that of bees.

His beekeeping takes up about an hour a week between April and October, and he confesses that he is completely hooked. He has harvested 40 one-pound jars of honey, some of which he will give as Christmas presents.

"It tastes much like any other honey, really, but we like to think it's got a hint of strawberry."

And he has only been stung once thus far, during his preparatory course. "Ironically, it was after we'd come away from the hive and I was taking my [protective] suit off. I forgot to check there were no residual bees on it and got stung.

"We do a bee check now, do a twirl. My experience is that they're really friendly and docile if you're careful."

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