The sun is shining on a crisp January day. We meet in the Sanctuary, Edge Hill’s allotment, Amy in full beekeeping costume and Dan, bravely – not least because it’s only just stopped snowing – in shorts.
The bees should be tucked up in bed, waiting for spring’s call to action. But they’re not. Obviously tempted out by the lure of some early warm sunshine? No, according to Amy they’re more likely having a poo. Yes, bees poo, but, ever the team players, don’t like doing it on their own doorstep.
Anyway, we’re here to talk to Genetics student Amy and Students’ Union V-P Dan about the bee colony they’ve set up in the University allotment, where they’ll be surrounded by plenty of flowering plants come spring, or “when the willow comes into flower”, as they probably described it in days of yore, and Dan informs me that they’re working with the Uni’s ground staff to increase wildflower areas on campus:
“We’ve got the one colony [a hive] at the moment. What I’ve got to do this year, is get the colony strong, which won’t be a problem with all the flowers and stuff when they come up round here,” says Amy. “Wildflowers are fantastic for bees because they absolutely love the nectar in them, and they pollinate them well too, so they’re a really good all-round food source for them. And there’s normally wildflowers from spring into summer, unlike apple blossom that only comes in in the spring and that’s it. They’re around for most of the summer.”
So why do we need bees, again, Amy?
“For our food. Three quarters of our food is pollinated, not just by bees but by pollinators in general, that unfortunately includes wasps and flies, but bees are obviously the well-known ones, not just honey bees but all bees, and they’re in decline. Nothing’s endangered as yet, but it’ll only be a few years – I reckon a decade or so – before they are.”
Without the bees we’d be on our knees, basically. Amy began the fightback, providing a campus home for bees, back in 2018, when she applied for, and received, a grant from the Student Opportunity Fund to help her build her first hive.
Her interest can be traced back to an Access to HE course, where she completed a project on natural products that produce antibiotics, which led her to honey. With that taste of honey, she got involved with the Bee Centre at Samlesbury Hall in Preston, who taught her the basics, gave her the science, gave her the enthusiasm. Most importantly, they gave her the bees:
“I was looking after them at the Bee Centre for quite a while before they [came onto campus]. They’re really gentle…we’re only a few feet away from them, and they’re flying and they’re not bothered at all.” (Remember, readers, Dan is in shorts).
She started her course at Edge Hill, and “within a few months I was saying ‘I want bees here’…The Bee Centre have been fantastic, I volunteer there, and in return they’ve trained me up as a very ethical and hopefully half-decent beekeeper.”
The ethics are, for Amy, very important. She doesn’t want to fall into any honey traps:
“We’re ethical bee keepers, I’ll only take excess honey. They make the honey for their own use, and that’s the way I intend to keep it, so it’s not for commercial use. But if we have a good spring/summer this year and they collect a lot there’ll be some honey at the end of the year.”
As the SU rep, Environmental Science graduate Dan, has supported Amy’s labour of love, not just financially but with his own time and effort, helping to set up The Sanctuary, getting his own hands dirty, and championing the project by delivering on his SU campaign promises of developing the uni’s societies and removing barriers to engagement:
“I represent the students, and if I hear a group of students have a particular interest, hobby and passion, I’m here to facilitate that, and work with students campaigning to bring about a better place and environment, a better experience to Edge Hill as a whole. I saw the allotment area and saw not many students getting involved, so we rebranded the area. Hopefully working in The Sanctuary is now a way to get students out, addressing mental health and wellbeing.”
And Amy agrees “there’s nothing nicer” than working with bees, “especially when you’re not so worried about the bees, because I also deal with people who are pretty nervous. There’s this fear about bees because they can sting, and unless you’re allergic (just 0.1% of the population, which includes her boss at the Bee Centre), you get a localised pain and a bit of soreness.
Having said that, Amy’s never actually been stung, amazingly: “This will be the year, more than likely, because I’ll be really hands on this year.”
Our half hour with Amy and Dan has provided us with a crash course in the business of bees, and great material for a parting listicle: they leave the hive to relieve themselves; they eat bee bread; the queen has smelly feet (it’s actually a pheromone with a lemongrass odour – we wish our feet smelt of lemongrass); the alarm pheromone of bees smells like bananas; the bees living on campus are from Anglesey – Welsh black native bees, or Apis mellifera mellifera for classification junkies; other than human pollution and our use of certain pesticides, their arch-enemy is the Asian hornet, which can take out up to 50 bees a day, and doesn’t do it mercifully*; and the process of creating a new queen bee is frankly incredible, a scientific wonder worthy of Mary Shelley’s fevered imagination.
Join the hive mind, and make sure there isn’t a sting in this tale – love the bees, knees and all.