24 May 2002

Busy bee farmer takes his pollinators on the road

The bees are on the move,

as Michael Wale discovers

talking to a bee farmer

GED Marshall is a bee farmer with 400 hives based just outside Aylesbury in Bucks, but at this time of the year he spends most of his time on the road driving his bees from farm to farm to pollinate everything from fruit to borage and oilseed rape crops.

The unusual early spring warm weather has made him even busier this year, as his life gets back to normal after foot-and-mouth curtailed a lot of his activities last year. But fruit farmers are holding their breath and crossing their fingers against the appearance of late frosts, in which case most of the good work done so far could be undone in one night.

Mr Marshall first got interested in bees and honey when he was at school. He had a cousin in France who was a professional bee farmer and in the school holidays he used to go to France and work with the bees.

"It was in the Jura near Dijon, mustard country. I didnt get paid, but I got free board and entertainment, as well as being taught all about bees, and the honey industry," he says.

After studying agricultural engineering at Newcastle University he worked as a sales service engineer for a dairy hygiene company, and travelled around a lot. "The great thing about the job was that farmers didnt mind what time you came as long as you got their machinery working again. So I started keeping my first hives. I got to know a lot of farmers, especially locally, whose land I could use later when I needed somewhere to put my hives.

&#42 Full time

"By the end of the 1980s my bees needed all my time and I became a full-time bee farmer."

One of his areas of expertise is to know the value of different crops. Honey varies greatly from which crop the bees are placed on. The most prized crop that he takes his bees to pollinate is borage, which is used to make star oil and is the main ingredient in a capsule to counter PMT and the menopause. It is also used as a massage oil in aromatherapy.

Colin Salter, technical sales director of Go Botanical, based at Swaffham in Norfolk, has almost 3000 acres of borage being grown from their seed under contract, which his company then distills.

"Borage can produce four seeds per flower. Without the bees it only produces three seeds per flower, so you can see their commercial value to a crop," he says.

Mr Marshall adds that borage honey is the best you can get. "It is thick and with a beautiful fragrant taste. You can get 100lbs of honey off a hive next to borage. Another popular crop farmers want pollinating is oilseed rape."

&#42 Link-ups

One of the main links between the farming community and the professional beekeepers is Margaret Thomas, who has taken over the post of secretary of the Bee Farmers Association pollination scheme. By day she is a physiotherapist at Southend Hospital, but she spends her evenings linking up farmers who need bees to pollinate their crops and bee farmers who want to move their bees about.

She says: "Itll be pretty busy for the next couple of months. I recommend that a hive an acre is used for apples, pears and cherries at this time of the year."

Lord Carringtons farms at Princes Risborough, Bucks, is growing 32 acres of borage this year. Farm manager Martin Thomas says: "The crop usually starts flowering in June. We have a local beekeeper and hell put 25 hives on our ground to pollinate the crop. You definitely need bees brought in to work the crop."

Simon Clark is a new entrant to borage growing and has just planted 45 acres in Kent.

As a new grower of the crop, he has researched how to get hold of enough hives for pollination time. "I dont want there to be any delays when I want the bees to come in, so you have to find someone who will deliver the right number of them on time.

Another honey looked upon as upmarket by Mr Marshall requires him to travel north to farms in Yorks in search of heather. But there is a drawback. "Because it comes mainly from the north of England and Scotland, people in the south often find its taste too strong for them. But I sell a lot of it to northerners and Scots, who have moved down south to live and work.

"Personally I have planted a row of borage on my allotment. Ill let the wild bees pollinate it and put it in my Pimms."

Is there honey still for tea? If the decline in beekeepers continues there may not be and not only that, pollination of commercial fruit crops will suffer.

With virtually all wild colonies of honey bees having been wiped out by the varroa mite, more beekeepers are needed and existing beekeepers could help by increasing their number of hives.

With this in mind An introduction to Beekeeping, a new video presented by Paul Metcalf, lecturer on beekeeping at Easton College is now available.

It takes the viewer through the beekeeping year from April to the onset of winter and explains with the help of wonderful close up photography the management of the hive, including swarm control, disease control and honey extraction. It is paced to allow the viewer plenty of time to study in detail the correct handling procedures at all stages of the summer cycle. If you already keep bees or are just a beginner it will be an inspiration to you to get out there and make sure that the important contribution of domestic colonies is sustained.

The running time of the video is 100 minutes and costs £21.50 including VAT and postage & packing. Further information can be obtained from Paul Metcalf (01603-731217) or Bill Smith (01508-488405).

More keepers needed now