Behind the veil: Doug Jones
Doug Jones will be known to every Wirral Branch member, and to many outside the Branch, outside the County even, who attend meetings beyond their immediate area.
Until recently, he was a very active and energetic Secretary of the Wirral Branch, and he is still the Seasonal Bee Inspector for the area. Doug is one of the great figures of Cheshire beekeeping. But instead of me listing all the things he has done, listen to him!
What got you into beekeeping?
In 1970 I came across an article about beekeeping in the Sunday Express, and it really fired my imagination. In another paper I saw an advert for Taylor’s (a famous beekeeping supplies firm, now defunct – Ed.) and it said that, if you were interested in taking up beekeeping you could find a list of contact numbers at the local library. I duly went and found Arthur Gillette’s name. He was then the secretary of Liverpool Beekeepers and I arranged to meet him at one of his apiaries. I had no veil and no protective clothing, so I got stung quite a bit on the face and elsewhere.
Anyway, this didn’t put me off, and I got myself a hive of bees and got started. Like most newcomers I had a few mishaps in the beginning. I got stung very badly on the face once again, but this time I was wearing a veil – and the bees got inside!I wish the beekeeping courses that exist now had been available then. I hadn’t much of a clue what the inside of a hive looked like, and actually ended up killing my queen, without realising I had done it. It wouldn’t bother me now if I lost ten queens, but when you are a beginner with only one colony, it is devastating.
Then I bought a milk-bottling and delivery business in Mossley Hill, Liverpool. I had some signs painted for the vans,” Local Honey for Sale,” and used to sell honey as well as milk. People used to leave notes out for an extra pint of milk and a jar of honey, the honey being £1 per 1lb.
So how much honey did you produce in those days?
I have no idea, but we seemed to get more honey in the days before Varroa, which first appeared in our area in 1995. In 1998 I sold the business and moved to Wirral. The last couple of years have not been good for honey in my experience. There has been very little apart from Oil Seed Rape, of which there is a lot on the Wirral. However, even that doesn’t seem to yield as much as it used to, and nobody, including the local farmers, seems to know why.
Rape honey is a mixed blessing, though, isn’t it?
Well, I cream a lot of honey, particularly the rape. That gets over the worst aspect of rape honey – the hardness. My customers have to take at least half their honey as creamed honey! A lot of people don’t really know what creamed honey is, and they need to be educated into realising that it is really very pleasant and easy to use. And of course it does not harden and has a very long shelf life.
I rent a field and let other Wirral Beekeepers put hives on it if they don’t have a site of their own. I have planted it the last couple of years with Borage and last year it was absolutely beautiful – and we had oil seed rape within flying distance.
I used to take bees to the borage in Lincolnshire. It was well worth my while to take ten hives – there would be three good heavy supers on each when I returned – four of us could hardly lift a hive! I had a label printed with “Starflower Honey”,but nobody knew what starflower was, so it didn’t sell very well. It’s not bad honey – very light coloured.
Cheshire Beekeepers of course know you as one of our Bee Inspectors.
In 1999 I started working as a Bee Inspector under Ian McLean who was the Regional Bee Inspector (RBI) for the Northern Region. My area was Greater Manchester, and Wirral. When Ian McLean retired, Ian Molyneux took over. My area changed to include Lancashire, Wirral and Merseyside. Later Pam Gregory invited me to provide assistance with inspection duties in Wales. They had a problem with disease in the area and they were short of inspectors.
The job has changed a lot in recent years: there is a lot of emphasis on education. Being a bee inspector, I am obviously very interested in new developments that will help the fight against bee diseases. I attended the recent IBRA discussion day held at Worcester – it seemed everybody was there! One recent idea to emerge, in America, is formic acid strips – strips like Apistan/Bayvarol, but impregnated with formic acid. Formic acid is very effective against Varroa mites because it penetrates capped cells and kills the male Varroa mite. The males never leave the cells, and they have soft shells which the formic acid can easily penetrate. This might be a useful tool in the fight against varroa if it is approved for use here. However, formic acid can play hell with the metal-work in your hive – runners, etc. As a bee inspector, I don’t seem to see the Varroa damage that I used to see. When Varroa was rampant I used to see terrible damage. Beekeepers in general now seem to be more informed about varroa control and many are starting to use Integrated Pest Management.
So you are continuing with the bee inspector’s job?
I feel the travelling gets a bit heavy, and I am not getting any younger and I have a big area to cover. So as long as I feel able to do the job I will carry on. We used to get round everybody’s hives every 3 years and I used to know all the beekeepers in my area by name, but that is no longer remotely possible with the huge increase in people keeping bees.
So, tell us about your beekeeping holidays!
I was in the army for a few years, which was useful because it got me a PSV licence. I then spent 15 years driving coaches for Harding’s tours, and I used to take a coachful of people to Stoneleigh every year. It was perhaps that which led me to organise the first group trip to Slovenia in 2004 to Ljubljana, following a visit by my wife and me to Apimondia which was held there in 2003. We stayed at a ski lodge, out in the country, called Trojane. The father of the family who owned the hotel was a beekeeper and kept 20/30 hives in bee-houses. It is a beautiful country, and I was very impressed by the gentle Carniolan bee. So I later took a beekeeping tour to Slovenia with 50 people, and this started a series of beekeeping holidays that we have organised over the years. We organised a varied programme of visits – not beekeeping every day – but we did see a lot of the beekeeping practices and a lot of different hives! In later years we visited Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovenia again, and finally Hungary.
And then more recently you’ve become a beekeeping missionary!
I have made two trips to Uganda. I was asked by our church to go with a party consisting of two doctors and a dentist. My first visit was a fact-finding trip to see what I could do, and I had to fund myself. While they were doing the medical side, my role was to try and improve beekeeping skills.
Their traditional hives are made of straw, and shaped like a log hive. They harvest honey at around 8 or 9 o ‘clock at night with an oil lamp, but no protective clothing. They have something like a bed warmer filled with dried cow manure making smoke: they open up the back of the hive, blow in the smoke and cut off some comb with a machete.
One beekeeper I visited had about 40 hives. That made quite a bit of income for him. The honey was not extracted as we would do it, but just pressed out of the comb into small oil drums - larvae included!
The babies and young children were malnourished. The children in the orphanage school have a bowl of green banana every day. I suggested that, if we could add a bit of honey, their nutrition would be improved.
In the second week I went to a place called Kisiizi, to a hospital run by the Church of Uganda, with a view to helping local beekeepers to harvest their honey without losing their future honey-bee workers - trying to make beekeeping more sustainable.
The second time I went, we took four National hives in the flat and assembled them and set them up to catch swarms, using the top bar hive method. We flew from Liverpool airport to Schipoll then onto Entebbe. There is no weight limit on KLM airline, so we could take plenty of equipment out with us. One of the best things you can take out there is protective clothing – bee suits - and smokers. BB Wear very kindly gave us several suits, slightly faulty but not so that it made any difference.
So what are the bees like in Africa?
The bees are obviously the famous African bees. One of their characteristics is that they often abandon the hive (absconding) if there is no forage. They leave everything, so the nest is then very attractive to other bees. So they tend to move around a lot, but, because the African beekeepers do not inspect their brood, they don’t know that the bees have changed.
I am going again soon for about two weeks, with Paul Humphries from Pennine Bee Farm, Lancaster who is coming along to help.The accommodation is very simple but there are flush toilets and the hut has got electric light because they have a solar panel on the roof bought with funds raised from our church in Wirral.
Over the years, I personally have mostly come across you as a very active Secretary of the Wirral Branch.
I have now stepped down from the Secretary’s job, having done a long stint. Computers and the internet make the job of Secretary a lot easier. I was the secretary of Liverpool Beekeepers for nine years when I lived there . I produced a newsletter in the days when it had to be typed and duplicated by hand and posted through letterboxes.
But I am proud of Wirral Beekeepers. It is a good, active, Branch. For the last five years we have run a beekeeping course which has boosted revenue for the club. The venue used to be Dale Farm, where there are 20 hives on site. We gave them a donation for using their facilities each year, and the tutors gave their time free. We do a very hands-on course, with an equal amount of time with the bees as in the classroom. I think that is the way to do it. Even if only one in ten stays in beekeeping, you have gained. We have over 100 members now on Wirral.
These newcomers to beekeeping are our hope for the future.
Doug Jones was talking to Pete Sutcliffe