19 May 2000

Young keeper gets a real buzz from bees

The number of people keeping bees has

plummeted in recent years. But thanks to the

dedication of youngsters taking up the practice,

this ancient craft looks set to survive and

prosper. Tim Relf meets one new recruit

CAROLINE Bache has got a busy few days coming up. The 15-year-old will be a judges steward at the Bath and West Show between May 31 and June 3.

Shell be one of the youngest people ever to perform the high-profile role at the Shepton Mallet event which is expected to attract more than 150,000 visitors over the four days.

But beekeeping is Carolines passion. Shes attended evening classes in the subject, plans to take an exam in it and the topic even forms part of her Duke of Edinburgh award at school. Together with her family – themselves enthusiasts – shes also established a colony at her Somerset home. Her friends, meanwhile, remain unconvinced. "They think Im mad," she laughs. "They prefer shopping."

Carolines introduction to the craft came at a gardening show. "In a short space of time I became very interested – almost addicted," she explains.

Its not, she admits, a typical pastime for a teenager – and she was far from enthusiastic at first. "This was mainly due to the stereotypical view surrounding beekeeping. When I attended the first evening class for beginners in the winter, I was pleasantly surprised to find most members were not white-haired men in the midst of their retirement.

"If I go to University, Ill keep them again when Im older," she vows.

Chairman of the Somerset Beekeepers Association Gerald Fisher says people like Caroline hold the key to the future. "It bodes well for the next generation," he says.

Ensuring the craft survives is a big concern of his. "It is very much in decline unfortunately," says Gerald, with SBA membership having fallen by more than half to about 350 since 1980.

&#42 Huge problem

The varroa mite has been a huge problem, decimating colonies since its arrival in 1992. "We didnt have any answers to it at that stage – it was worrying. Many beekeepers lost all their colonies – and a lot of older ones didnt re-stock."

And there still isnt an answer to varroa. "Its a case of containing it, rather than curing it," says Gerald.

Another problem is the disappearance of the subject from school studies. People dont get that introduction at an early age nowadays. "Its sad."

This sentiment is echoed countrywide. Brian Milward of the British Beekeepers Association rues the topics disappearance from educational establishments. "In most agricultural colleges, its completely extinct."

The decline in beekeeper numbers has, however, been halted, he says. The national membership figure now stands at more than 9200 and more and more youngsters are taking it up. "The grey army is slowly disappearing," says Mr Milward.

&#42 Long legacy

But the legacy of varroa will be a long one. According to Martyn Rayner, marketing manager of the Royal Bath and West of England Show Society, more than half the south of Englands bee colonies have been wiped out by the mite since its arrival.

"With bee-keeping becoming an increasingly rare hobby, the sight and sound of bees gathering pollen during the summer months could soon become a thing of the past," he adds.

Not, it seems, if Caroline and other youngsters like her have anything to do with it.

The bees knees… Caroline Bache with Gerald Fisher and a virtual hive used for demonstrations.