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Secrets of a master bee keeper, keeping things sweet at Gressenhall Farm

PUBLISHED: 08:46 17 June 2020 | UPDATED: 08:46 17 June 2020

At Gressenhall, we are delighted to host two hives of honey bees and who better to talk about the Gressenhall bees than Venetia Rist, master beekeeper. Picture: Norfolk Museum Service

At Gressenhall, we are delighted to host two hives of honey bees and who better to talk about the Gressenhall bees than Venetia Rist, master beekeeper. Picture: Norfolk Museum Service

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Bees are a vital component of a healthy environment, they provide an invaluable service for biodiversity by pollinating flowers and crops.

Fields in Gressenhall Farm are buzzing. PictureL Sarah DarnellFields in Gressenhall Farm are buzzing. PictureL Sarah Darnell

At Gressenhall, we are delighted to host two hives of honey bees and who better to talk about the Gressenhall bees than Venetia Rist, master beekeeper.

Venetia started beekeeping at the age of 14 and has recently received her master beekeeper qualification. She has a wealth of knowledge and she tends to over 40 bee colonies.

Venetia’s story:

Phacelia with a bumble bee. Picture: Sarah DarnellPhacelia with a bumble bee. Picture: Sarah Darnell

Norfolk Beekeepers’ Association, (NBKA), became involved with Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse bees for a short time in the early 2000s.

The decision was made that old bee hives and a couple of colonies would be installed at the museum. Some equipment was donated by an old beekeeper who lived in Wells.

Paul Metcalf and another beekeeper, James Walker, a friend of Gressenhall, looked after the two hives that were kept in the Orchard, up against a wall. A very tall screen was put in front of the hives to encourage the bees to fly upwards, high over the visitors.

A few years later the hives needed to be moved. Several sites were looked at, but nothing satisfactory was found, so unfortunately beekeeping at the museum came to a halt until 2014.

In 2014 I was asked, as a beekeeper in Gressenhall, and a friend of the museum, if I would like to keep some of my bees at the museum.

Since then there have been two hives, located at the top of the wild flower meadow, next to the old fashioned homemade white beehive, a relic of the past.

The bees collect nectar and pollen from a wide variety of plants, the nectar to make honey, and the pollen to feed their brood.

They will regularly fly up to three miles to a good food source but can travel even further if necessary.

Early in the year they find aconites, snowdrops, hellebores, crocus, oil seed rape, cowslips, blackthorn, dandelions and the fruit tree blossom and blackcurrants at Gorgate.

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Later in the year the bees forage on whichever plants are in flower, such as clover, lime, blackberry, raspberry, Himalayan balsam and the wild flowers in the meadows that are sown at the farm.

In the Autumn, bees will forage on ivy for both nectar and pollen which top up their stores to feed them through the winter.

In a normal year, the bees will overwinter as a clustered ball of about 20,000 bees surrounding the queen. In Spring the queen will start laying again and the colony can build up to about 60,000 bees.

In the Summer, bees only live for six weeks, so the queen is continually laying eggs, up to 2,000 eggs per day, to keep up the numbers.

In the winter the bees live for about six months as there is no foraging to be done and no brood to rear.

Honey bees have a natural way of increasing the number of colonies through swarming, usually in May and June. When their nest becomes overcrowded, they rear a new queen.

The old queen leaves the hive with up to half the bees and they look for a new home. The swarm usually emerges from the hive at about 10.30 in the morning, and ‘hangs up’ in a nearby tree.

They will stay there, quietly, until the scout bees have found a suitable home for them to go to.

Once they decide where that will be, they will take off all together, maybe later that same day or the next day mid-morning. The sound is impressively loud, but the swarm poses no threat, they are on a mission. Beekeepers try to collect the swarm and put it in a new hive to start a new colony.


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