Armed with a pair of marigold gloves I headed to King George V Playing Fields in Ashton on Saturday morning. I was apprehensive when I approached Georgie Porgies Café. I had volunteered there at the beginning of my volunteering column and now I was back with a different purpose. Turns out my gloves were no good because they had actually been used for washing up. Luckily Ian Screen and the volunteers from the bee team had a fresh pair and even more fortunately a bee suit. The volunteers explained that feeling nervous when you first meet the bees was expected and it would be strange if you didn’t. The team only goes into the hives when necessary, to collect honey or check on the welfare of the bees. Todays mission is to check that the hives have queen bees and they are storing enough food for the winter. The cold summer means less honey and less honey for the bees’ means less honey for us. After all honey is food for the bees. We just borrow it for our toast. Lets hope they don’t want it back. Once in my bee suit I helped the volunteers to light the smokers in case we need the bees to go back into the hive. When the bees sense smoke they rush back to the hive to check the hive isn’t on fire. “The bees tolerate us’” said Ian, “they will soon let us know when they have had enough.” He explained that a smell of bananas is the moment to really move away. That means they are releasing a pheromone of distress.
I put on my hood and Ian made sure I was bee proof. He had got a bee in his hood last week. We walked over to the hives and undid the straps that keeps the lid on and removed the top of the first hive. I really wanted to scratch my face. The buzzing was getting louder. Ian made me feel better when he told me how peaceful the bees were. That was comforting as he removed a layer of the hive. Ian showed me that the honey hadn’t reached the upper levels of the hive. Sue removed a metal grill. It was a queen excluder that separates the queen from the top of the hive so she doesn’t lay eggs where we want to take honey.
We were looking to see if the bees had enough honey for the winter and evidence of the queen. We soon saw some honey, capped with bees wax. The queen is very elusive but we saw evidence of her presence, eggs and lava in the honeycomb. I was surprised to learn that bees only live for six weeks, 21 days are spent in the hive and the final week is spent collecting pollen. The queen lives for up to five years. Ian encouraged me to pick up part of the hive to look more closely. I kept it above the main part of the hive so the queen didn’t fall off. I had to scrape the edges, as the panel was sticky with honey and bees wax. I didn’t get to meet any royalty but it was a real honour to see inside a working hive and be so close to nature. No wonder the volunteers love it so much.
As we checked the last part of the hive the buzzing became louder and the bees flew around me more. This was a gentle request from the bees to go away. We obliged by closing up the hive and making notes about what we had observed.
We checked each other for bees and then returned to the café. On the way back the volunteer beekeepers told me they had completed a two-day training course at Heaton Park courtesy of the Manchester District & Beekeepers Association who promotes the art of beekeeping. You can find out more on their website www.mdbka.com. They offer access to the bees on a Monday night if you don’t have access to your own hives. Claire loves volunteering with the bees so much that she is going to get married at the apiary (bee garden) in Heaton Park by a trustee from the association who will be wearing a full bee suit. I think honey might appear somewhere on the menu. Michelle, another volunteer, explained that see was afraid of bees and wasps but once she learnt more about them she happily goes into the hives.
I loved my time here at the playing fields. If you want to find out more about the hives and other volunteering opportunities you can go to their website, complete with talking snail, at www.fokgvpf.co.uk. If you don’t fancy volunteering with bees you can always encourage bees into your garden with bee friendly plants such as lavender. Ian said, “Five out of every six mouthfuls of food you eat is because of bees.” That means, like the beekeepers of Tameside, you can save the world one bee at a time.