To bee, or not to bee - what is it like to be a beekeeper for a few hours?
PUBLISHED: 19:30 18 June 2019 | UPDATED: 21:39 18 June 2019
Sunnyfields Honey & Home in north Essex offers visitors a bee's-eye view of the world
I meet Stacy Cronly-Dillon at her home in High Garratt near Braintree on a lovely sunny morning in late May.
I'm here to have a "Bee Experience" - one thread of her business called Sunnyfields Honey & Home, which she launched last year and is based on all things to do with honeybees.
As we chat, I struggle into a bee-suit, complete with arm-length gloves and double face net, before we walk to the end of her long garden to a conurbation of a dozen hives. Before too long we are examining the contents of one, It's a fascinating hour - studying the bees and learning about their behaviour. I ask a load of questions, which Stacy is happy to answer. I learn about the roles of the drones and worker bees, and we find the queen, which is extremely exciting.
It's a sensory experience: the buzz of the bees, the constant movement as a writhing mass of insects go about their business and the smell of honey and wax in the air. But it's also incredibly relaxing: you have to stay calm and in the moment, and I didn't get stung once.
This wonderful experience is just one of a number of strands to the Sunnyfields' venture. Stacy also sells honey from her hives both online and at a growing selection of farm shops and markets. as well as makes beeswax products, such as candles, furniture polish and leather balm. In addition, she has recently launched a corporate offer where businesses can play their part in the local ecology by sponsoring a hive: an annual subscription will allow them to put their branding on the side of the hive, as well as select a team of six colleagues to come along and experience the bees.
"It's great for a company's CSR and for team-building," said Stacy, who spent years working in marketing before deciding to go self-employed, and who is currently chair of Braintree Beekeepers' Association.
She continued: "Beekeeping started as a hobby for me but it soon became an obsession and it was clear that I could make a difference to my local ecology through beekeeping. Pollinators are in decline and I am trying to do my part as a beekeeper by increasing my stocks, planting for pollinators and educating the public through my experiences and social media.
"Not only do the experiences give people a chance to get a bee's-eye view of a colony at work but it also gives me an excuse to talk and educate - if everyone that leaves a visit with me makes one change in their garden to help our native pollinators, just think of the difference we could all make."
Stacy says there have been several influences in her past that have led her to this moment: her grandfather was a nature reserve warden, so she spent a childhood outdoors learning about nature. She says she also grew up as part of the "Anita Roddick Bodyshop generation" - a successful cosmetics chain that uses natural products and promotes fair trade and doesn't test on animals.
"There was a growing awareness about the difference we could make to our environment but also some of the negative impacts we were having," she said. "But then something happened in the late 1990s and early noughties, and it became a bit of hippie thing to be interested in the environment, so I went to work in an office. Now, there's a lot more interest. People like that there are no chemicals in my polishes and that the honey is made just down the road."
While the upsides to her work are being outside and working with nature, one downside is the precariousness of bee-keeping if you are going to go into it commercially. Bad weather and viruses can wipe out a colony while the recent arrival on these shore of the Asian hornet, an invasive alien insect that eats honey bees, is the latest concern.
"You are never going to be a millionaire from being a beekeeper," said Stacy. "You have to expect a certain number of losses each year and have to work into your plan how you are going build your stocks for the following year, Diversification of the business is key."
Every Bee Experience ends with a cup of tea and some honey cake, made by Stacy, who says she wants her honey to be as close as possible to what the bees eat. "I tend not to blend my honey but if I do I only blend with honey from one apiary with the idea that they are all foraging on similar flora, she said.
"You can taste the difference - at one point last year, my kitchen smelt of elder flower, and another time one batch tasted of mint toffees, which means the bees had been feeding of lime trees. Sometimes the honey is really dense, sometimes it is light."
I get my first taste of the honey in the form of icing on an Earl Grey sponge. It tastes divine, and I depart...buzzing.