Behind the veil: Malcolm Brierley
How was your interest in beekeeping kindled?
I think it all started at Wye College of Agriculture when I was doing my PhD. Colin Butler of Rothamsted gave a visitor’s lecture on beekeeping, and that somehow planted a seed in me. However the seed lay dormant for a good while! Much later, we went on holiday to a farm in Devon where the farmer kept bees. He took me round his set-up and this perhaps prompted the seed to germinate. It still took until 1971 for me to get started, when we moved to Hartford. I saw a small ad. in the paper: someone was giving up beekeeping and had two WBC hives and associated equipment for sale. They turned out to be Glen hives – huge things, imposing structures – but with WBC innards and internal parts for a third, plus a tinplate extractor, meat-safe type veil, sundry jars, smoker, … the whole kit for about £20. When I went to see him I can still remember the feeling of alarm when he took the lid off – I didn’t know what was going to be underneath! I made a third hive with some timber I acquired and operated with the hives in our back garden for a number of years. We had young children during the whole of that time, and they co-existed happily with the bees. The only time Euan got stung was when I brought bees in on my clothing and one stung him on the eye. His eye was closed for a week, but it did not put him off bees. We only once had any trouble with any of our neighbours. A new family moved in next door, and the new neighbour came round one day saying that the bees had to go, they could no longer stand it: they couldn’t go into their garden for fear of being attacked by our bees. I didn’t argue, but immediately moved the bees away. Only the following year did I discover that they had had a giant wasps’ nest in their garden!
What were the formative influences on your beekeeping?
In my first year I had laying workers, something I have never suffered from since. Frank and Marjorie Griffiths became my mentors and I really could not have found anyone better. Marjorie was a good beekeeper in her own right, but quite content to stand behind Frank. They were very kind, and I was always able to go to Frank with any problems or questions.
How did things develop from the two hives you started with?
The set-up grew gradually. I made all my own equipment from whatever became available. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry in an expansionist time. We had a lot of equipment coming in, and a lot of containers and packing equipment being discarded. For example, the honey tanks which I’ve just sold still bore the engraved words: “Sterile Ointment no. 1”, and “Sterile Ointment no. 2”. They were made from stainless steel drums, virtually indestructible. My extractor is made from similar raw materials – a real Rolls-Royce job. As timber became available, I made more hives, but moved over to the single-walled National model. I gradually found out-apiaries – all around the Northwich area, and eventually had 15 colonies.
So why have you finally decided to call it a day?
Age, mostly! A combination of factors, really. I have always operated out-apiaries – for 37 years now – and these are always more work, and require more discipline than a home apiary. The farmer in whose outbuildings I keep my equipment is now out of farming and wants to sell up. On top of that, with varroa, beekeeping is no longer as straightforward as it was. Having cut down on the number of colonies, I find that the work involved in inspecting the bees and extracting the honey is less efficient in terms of the use of time. Sheila and I therefore agreed that it was the right time to pack in.
What have been the high points of your beekeeping career?
My proudest moment was receiving the Canon Evans Award. I feel rather guilty because if I look back through the list of winners I don’t feel I can be compared to the rest. However I feel very honoured when I look back through the names on the cup – with which I am now associated. Many of the previous winners were still active in the Association when I joined.
One high point was by proxy, really. My son Euan won the House of Lords Goblet for a pair of meads. I had bottled the meads and taken them to the National Honey Show. I think the key to success was that the two meads were identical in colour, although one was sweet and the other dry. They were a true pair in that way. Euan made the mead as a teenager, and it spent several years in his bedroom – we had the odd cork popping occasionally and soaking the carpet!
I was never much of a showman. I myself only exhibited at the National in the Invention category - where I nonetheless won three prizes - a First and two Thirds. Only one other beekeeper has outdone me – by winning two Firsts.
I did show honey for a while, locally, and won a few prizes, but I found that the amount of effort you have to put in to stand any chance of winning is completely disproportionate.
Another high was the production of half a ton of honey one year. It took a lot of processing! People do not have any inkling of the effort involved in honey-production: every pound of honey has been through ten processes between leaving the hive and getting to the customer.
So what has been the motivation that has kept you going through 37 years?
Nothing very elevated, I reckon: I was just concerned to be a good practical beekeeper. Anybody going into beekeeping as a money-making enterprise is going to be very disappointed, although I did get to a point where it paid for itself. I was pleased to get the accolade from Terry Ashley when he inspected my bees one Spring - that they were the best lot of colonies he had seen that year. I used to like making all my own equipment, which I think would stand comparison with any other. The honey that I offered for sale was of the highest quality, as was my beeswax. Peter Rains used to give me foundation for my beeswax, but never used to take it to Thornes. “I’m going to use this for my candles.” He used to say. “Nobody else brings me this quality of wax.”
So not much motivation, few highs, but a lot of persistence!
So has anything ever gone wrong in your beekeeping?
The lowest point in my beekeeping must have been the time when I got 63 stings. I was working bare-handed with a conventional bee-veil, when I dropped a comb of noughty bees at my feet, and ended up with a huge array of stings around my ankles. I felt a bit funny. Sheila was terrified and ran me round to Frank Griffiths, who just roared with laughter: “You’ll get over it!” I went into work the next day wearing slippers, as they were the only footwear I could tolerate. I only once lost a colony to starvation, and this mortified me because I was at fault. I never let it happen again. As a result of that, in the harsh winter of 1987 when people were reporting losses of 60% to 70%, I did not lose a single colony.
Another low-point that has stuck in my mind is having to destroy a very aggressive colony. I was fearful for the farmer’s wife who had to live near them. I doused a towel with a pint of petrol, put it over the frames, closed up the hive. There is a sudden almighty roar, which immediately dies away, and that’s it. I hated doing it, however. I have never held the view, which you hear from some, that “they are only insects”. I don’t believe you can be a good beekeeper without a respect for the creatures you are dealing with.
I have a couple of regrets. One is that I never took a beekeeping exam. It would have confirmed me as a competent, knowledgeable beekeeper. My other regret is that I was not more committed to queen-rearing. I have produced my own queens, of course, but I didn’t do it in a programmed way. My colonies started as local bees and have remained local bees over the 37 years of my beekeeping. I reckon they are therefore suited to this locality.
What do you consider to be your “beekeeping legacy”?
I have been a committee member at Branch and at County level. I was chairman of the Education Sub Committee, and therefore responsible for the Convention. This was in the days when it was held at Reaseheath Agricultural College. It was however a difficult period – one of a steady decline in membership and therefore in attendance at meetings. Reaseheath Conventions are looked back upon by those who were there as a golden time. However the College decided they had to make things pay. They therefore increased their charges to us until we could no longer contemplate holding the event there. This was a great shame, as it was an ideal setting for a beekeeping event.
One thing I am quite pleased about is that, when I was chairman of the Education Committee, I was perhaps the first person to realise the need for an Examinations Officer, the post which Tim Kidman took up, and Graham Royle is now so ably looking after. This has led to an increase in the number of people taking the beekeeping exams. I think I can claim this as an important contribution to the work of the CBKA.
What about the future of beekeeping?
I believe strongly that we need to encourage younger people to continue the craft into the future. I have taken a young beekeeper here in Cheshire under my wing, and I am enjoying mentoring her. If we could all find one person, just one person, to take our place then that would be enough to maintain parity. An ideal way of starting out in beekeeping is to find an experienced beekeeper to watch and follow. Equally, an ideal way to end your career in beekeeping must be to find a beginner to whom one can impart one’s knowledge and some practical advice. It’s a bit like having grandchildren – you have all the pleasure of the little ones, but when you’ve had enough, you can wave goodbye, and return to your peace and quiet!
Malcolm Brierley was talking to Pete Sutcliffe