South Yorkshire’s food heroes: beekeeper Monica Coates
Bees have been producing honey for around 150 million years, but in the last century their numbers have dropped by more than 75%. Weather, pesticides and the Varroa mite have all been blamed for the decline in population, which has been particularly steep over the last three years, and many beekeepers across South Yorkshire have been forced to admit defeat and pack up their hives.
But one producer has managed to retain enough bees to keep producing the honey – known simply as Local Honey or Heather Honey – that’s sold in the Thrybergh Country Park Visitor Centre, the Apothecary in Wickersley and also the village’s Delicatessen.
Monica Coates has been keeping bees for 21 years, and is secretary of the South Riding Bee Keeping Association. Before investing in her own hives along with her husband Ian, she would help her father with his hives when she was a girl, so for Monica beekeeping has been a lifelong passion. Although she admits her population is declining along with the rest of the world, she has managed to retain a higher than usual percentage of her bees and continue to produce the honey she is renowned for.
“We’re not big suppliers of honey, and we have had to cut down a lot and lost a lot of bees,” she admits. “At the moment we have 12 hives, whereas we used to have 42. It’s been partly through choice that we reduced the numbers but bees have had a really bad time, particularly over the last three years, and there’s been a big decline in the number of hives everywhere.”
“There are a number of reasons for that: the weather certainly hasn’t been helpful. We’ve had a drought and long, hot summer which is no good for bees, as for plants to produce nectar you need humidity, and when it was hot and dry the flowers weren’t producing nectar. Then there were the floods – a lot of beekeepers I know actually had their hives washed away. Then last year, it started off mild then went very chilly again so a lot of the bees were lost in spring.”
The Varroa mite has also played a large part in the reduction of bee colonies. Arriving in the UK in 1992 in transported bees, it has become resistant to treatment and is now widespread amongst the bee population. Although the mite itself can’t kill bees, it weakens their immune systems and makes them more prone to other infections.
So, how has Monica managed to remain successful against such adverse conditions, and ones which many other beekeepers have found it impossible to overcome?
“Well, we’ve just had to work much harder at maintaining the health of the colonies,” she says. “The one good thing that’s come out of the decline is that people have had to become much better beekeepers. You have to watch them carefully, make sure they’re not starving, treat them with medication at the right time. We’ve invested in new equipment, kept track of new treatments – we’re spending a lot more money than we used to and it’s now become more of an expensive hobby than a way to make money.
“But in a way, it’s kind of weeded out the bad beekeepers. As secretary of the association, I’ve seen people who’ve had a go, given it a couple of years and decided it’s too much like hard work. But, by the same token, I’ve also seen a lot of well established beekeepers who’ve been doing it since they were young and have decided that it’s time to walk away.”
For Monica, though, the hard work involved is just a small price to pay for her passion. “The smell of the honey brings those childhood memories flooding back, and it still excites me,” she says. There are so many different aspects to enjoy; every year’s different and it’s always a challenge – when moving hives, it has to be done late at night or in the early hours of the morning. There’s something special about being out and about at four in the morning when moving hives to the borage fields or heather moors – the smells, the sounds and wildlife… but for me, it’s about much more than producing honey. There’s the environmental impact, and the fact that it’s outdoors. And then I can do so much with the wax; I make candles, furniture polish, and lip balm as well enjoying trying out recipes with the honey that we produce.”
Despite downsizing, Monica and Ian have managed to continue with their passion and are still able to produce the honey that their customers love so much. So, what makes a good honey?
“It all depends on the weather and the crops,” explains Monica. “If you take bees to different crops you can manage honey production. Borage (also known as starflower) was a prime source of nectar for good honey. It’s insect pollinated and farmers were desperate for us to take our hives there, but for a number of reasons, the farmers are no longer growing it. It’s a real shame, because it produced a lovely honey. Heather is another crop that produces a lovely, very distinctive honey, and we do have our own Heather Honey that’s very popular.
“The difference between a supermarket honey and that which we produce is mainly that supermarket honey will have been heat treated to give it a shelf life and stop it granulating. Natural honey will always granulate; some just granulate more than others depending on the source. In fact, it’s a good sign. I’m not saying shop-bought honey has anything wrong with it, but you don’t know where it’s come from and it will probably be a mixture of sources from other parts of the world. With our honey, every batch will be slightly different, with a different taste depending on what the bees have been working on. It’s like the difference between battery eggs and free range eggs.”
Despite the decline in bee population, the publicity surrounding it has resulted in people working much harder to address the problem.
“You can grow plants that will encourage bees, butterflies and other insects, and I’ve definitely noticed people making much more of an effort to do this,” says Monica. “Personally, I think we could do a lot more in schools; I go into schools quite often to talk to young people and try and get them interested, and there are a surprising number of children who don’t know the difference between bees and wasps, and will kill a bee if they see it. Just raising that awareness makes a huge difference.”
Monica is always keen to encourage people to take more interest in the bee population, whether it’s to ensure its future or to take up beekeeping themselves. For those who are interested in finding out more, Thrybergh Country Park has an apiary belonging to the South Riding Beekeepers Association and runs an annual course for beginners.
For more information contact Thrybergh Country Park on 01709 850353 or visit the Association website: www.srba.org.uk