Beekeeper Barrie's 'buzz world'

THERE is nothing Barrie Powell can't tell you about bees.For instance, they are prone to common human ailments like colds and flu in the winter and they cure themselves by chewing propolis, a 100% antiseptic resinous substance they gather from the underside of leaves in the summer and store in their hives.

THERE is nothing Barrie Powell can't tell you about bees.

For instance, they are prone to common human ailments like colds and flu in the winter and they cure themselves by chewing propolis, a 100% antiseptic resinous substance they gather from the underside of leaves in the summer and store in their hives.

Propolis works very well on sore throats in humans too, and Mr Powell, who also owns the Shotley Gate post office and stores, keeps a stock in the shop for customers' winter ailments, selling between 300 and 400 jars a year. He estimates it can cure a sore throat in just 12 hours.

Historically honey has been known for its antiseptic and healing properties and Mr Powell, 67, has also supplied honey to Ipswich Hospital, where it has been used to stop bleeding. But, he said, it must be fresh from the hive to be effective.

He got his first hive when he was just 11 years old and looking after the hives of a relative who was away at sea a lot.

He said: "One day he sent me to get a swarm and when I had got it he gave it to me and said: "There's your first hive"."

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Now he has about 200 hives scattered over a 20 mile area, from Nacton and Levington through villages across the Shotley Peninsula, together producing about four to six tonnes of honey a year, a total of 12,000 – 15,000 1Kg jars.

Some jars he fills himself in the bottling plant he has set up next to the shop, some is sent to Colchester or Woodbridge when he has bulk orders, and his honey can be found in both Sainsbury's and Holland and Barrett stores.

Until he bought the shop seven years ago beekeeping was a full time job and it is still his first love.

It takes him to Florida once a year, where he helps inspect the state's hives for diseases.

One particular disease, called Varroa, that started off in the low countries of Europe four years ago, has now spread right across the world and decimated many bee populations.

The Varroa is a parasitic mite that lays its eggs next to bee eggs. The Varroa hatch first then feed on the bees.

Mr Powell said: "The worst thing is when you go to a hive one week and it's in perfect condition and a week later there are no bees left."

The only way to get rid of the mite is to burn or scorch the hive and start afresh.

It is a devastating experience for someone for whom beekeeping is a full-time passion, he said.

It must be. It is a deeply unsettling experience to watch as he plunges his bare arms into a hive, casually extracts a suspended frame swarming with busy worker drones and picks up an insect to illustrate a point.

His year starts with his annual trip to Florida, where he checks on his own hives and helps his friend, the state bee keeping inspector check on the health of hives.

In Florida bees are big business, used for pollination in orchards and farms and up to 1,500 hives at a time can be transported around the state on huge trucks.

After nine weeks or so in Florida it is time to start getting the hives in Britain in order after the winter.

A big problem is woodpeckers, which peck holes in the hives and eat the bees, so the first job is to check on and repair the hives, then make sure all the colonies are disease free and have a healthy queen.

In her three-year life span, the queen lays all the colony's eggs – up to 2,000 a day at her peak – while the workers are kept busy collecting the pollen to provide food for the hive.

Mr Powell keeps his honey-producing hives in groups of about 10, and has one location in Shotley where he keeps hives for breeding only.

There he is breeding a particularly gentle strain of bee, which he says can be handled without stinging its handler: "I keep bees for pleasure, not because they're so nasty I can't handle them. It's a very relaxing hobby."

This year, thanks to heavy preventative measures in the autumn, Mr Powell's bees are in good condition and because of the mild start to the year busily building egg cells to create the honeycombs in the trays of wax, collecting pollen and producing honey.

One thing he would like on the peninsula is for more people to plant the flowering plants the bees need – rape, kale, lavender, fruit trees.

He will check all his hives at least every 10 days throughout the summer, and keep notes of anything that needs doing at each one.

Honey is produced from about May to July and bottling starts in early August.

The checking goes on throughout the winter.

He said: "You can put your ear to a hive, tap it and tell if they're healthy by the sounds they make."

But he won't open them because that would reduce the temperature inside which has to be at human blood heat for the queen to keep laying eggs to replenish the population during the winter.

It is an absorbing hobby and Mr Powell is keen to encourage others to get involved. He is happy to take people on a tour of his hives and can be contacted on 01473 787228.

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