A Buzzing Business; the Ancient Art of Beekeeping Is Making a Comeback with the Region's Nature-Lovers Embracing the Tradition. KATE PROCTOR Is Abuzz

Article excerpt

Byline: KATE PROCTOR

AYEAR ago the nation's bee population was under threat. A killer disease from the USA lurked ominously and a decline in beekeeping meant hives were vanishing at an alarming speed.

With 76% of worldwide food production and 84% of plant species supposedly dependent on bee pollination, the crisis extended far beyond the rising cost of the odd jar of honey. Yet through the fortune of the North East's environmental conditions, an endless supply of nature lovers, a forward-thinking council and Beamish Museum, at least the region's bee population is buzzing its way back into business.

Ian Wallace, one of the North's leading bee experts currently working for Beamish, said: "It's enjoying a massive increase in popularity - there are hundreds of new beekeepers and hives in every 10km from Berwick right across the region. Associations that have been there for a long time are seeing a great increase in their numbers. Darlington even has a new association for people to join.

"I think most people are aware of bees and the issues surrounding them, and there is an increase in people realising that it's possible to keep them in a small area," said Ian, who keeps five hives himself on the roof of Fenwick's department store in Newcastle.

"The region is also a really good place to keep bees. Diseases which affect other parts of the country are not seen in the North East very often."

By tracking his colonies of happy bees, Ian has worked out they can fly up to three miles a day, taking in Saltwell Park, Jesmond Dene and up to Gosforth and doing their bit to pollinate the city's urban plants.

Continued Staff at Fenwick have also been supportive of his attempts to repopulate the bee world from their Northumberland Street roof top. "Fenwick have been really encouraging and when the honey is made, they sell it downstairs in the shop - but it's always gone in a matter of days," said Ian, who set up his hives to prove beekeeping can be done in the most unusual of places. Newcastle City Council are the first local authority in the country to have a dedicated bee initiative, which includes an education program across the city's schools, and signage at Moorside Allotments at Fenham Hall Drive are letting gardeners know which bee-friendly flowers to plant. "By keeping bees, people are facilitating in nature and feel part of a process. For a lot of people, that is really satisfying and is perhaps why we are seeing so many new members joining the region's clubs," said Ian. From a Newcastle department store to a leafy Corbridge garden - it appears the North East is a happy place for a bees.

The ancient practice of beekeeping can be traced back 5,000 years. From primitive cave paintings to biblical references, mankind's relationship with the bee was unshakeable. Wild bee nests were raided using smoke and the honey taken for food, the wax for candles and the propolis or royal jelly for medicine. Monks and nunneries kept up the ancient tradition going for centuries by selling bee's wax candles and mead made with honey for profit from their industrious garden hives. But with industrialisation and the ever shrinking size of the nation's gardens, beekeeping took a severe hit in popularity. While the practice has changed very little, peoples attitudes to what is achievable in their back yards has. A series of high-profile diseases has also wiped out colony after colony of bees owned by eager keepers. Parasitic mite varroa, which originates in central Asia, has killed millions in the last few years but ground-breaking new research undertaken at the University of Sheffield is slowly shedding light on how it is spread. Ian, 59, said: "Varroa is the biggest killer in the world but it is treatable and manageable and infestation levels can be kept as low as possible - it's when it gets out of hand that the bees die. "Colony collapse disorder is another issue in the US. We don't know what it is but what happens is the colony leaves the hive and dies. …