Behind the veil: Pam and Stuart Hatton
Pam Hatton is now in her fifth year as Chairman of Cheshire Beekeepers’ Association, having previously been Secretary of the North Cheshire Branch. She also acts as Librarian for North Cheshire. Her husband, Stuart, is the Chairman of the North Cheshire Branch. They both very quietly and competently organise the BBKA stand at the Tatton Park Flower Show each year. These are only a few of the more obvious contributions the couple make to beekeeping in Cheshire however….
You are an almost unique couple in that you are both beekeepers, rather than one the beekeeper and the other the assistant. So let’s begin with the usual question: How did you both get into beekeeping?
P. Well, we both got into beekeeping through a very good friend of ours - Mr Schofield. His name was Peter,but he was known universally as Mr Schofield. He had started beekeeping with his father, before the war. His dad had imported Italian bees – that must have been in the 20s or 30s. After the war, Mr Schofield’s next-door neighbour also kept bees, and they used to look after them together. However, the neighbour died, and Mr Schofield was left with all the bees. He had about 7 or 8 hives by this time.
S. He was a friend of the family, and he came to see my dad after an operation, and happened to mention that he was struggling a bit with his bees - lifting the supers and all that. I was already quite keen to get into beekeeping, so I offered to help, and Mr Schofield said “Yes, I’ll give you a ring.” Anyway, he did! He told us years later he gave us six weeks!
P. It was Stu mainly at first, but I got roped in eventually. They carefully got me kitted up. I only found out later that they wanted to know if I could stand going into a full size colony in mid-summer. Because opening up a hive with all those bees can be pretty terrifying - that’s why we always recommend that beginners should start with a nuc, But I didn’t have a problem with it.
And then at some point, you started keeping bees in your own right?
S. Yes. I started helping Mr Schofield in the June, and in August he gave me a colony of bees. He was a member of Cheshire - we used to take him to meetings after his wife died. He was a good beekeeper of the old school. Most of our beekeeping skills were learned from him, and we started with WBC hives – because that was what he had. He needed more and more help, and eventually I was looking after his bees as well as our own. He died about five years ago at the age of 88.
P. And then, after we’d been keeping bees for about a year, the secretary of the North Cheshire Branch wanted to give up, and asked Stu to take over. He didn’t want to, but suggested asking me. And that’s how I really got roped into it fully. I had to become a full member - I’d just been an associate member before.
So you were Secretary before you were really a fully-fledged beekeeper?
P. Yes. In effect I was helping Stu with the bees. I was Secretary for ten years, and really enjoyed it. Then Sydney Hollinshead asked me to take over from him as Chairman of the County, and I suddenly found myself voted in! I feel now as if I’m just getting into my stride as Chairman. We’ve had some lively meetings sometimes – when I’ve had to bang that gavel!
Tell us a bit more about how your beekeeping has developed.
P. We started in 1989. The first meeting we ever went to was at Ted Galley’s at Gorstage. I remember Ian Maclean from Ormskirk going into a hive of bees with no gloves … I was so impressed!
You had about ten years of beekeeping before varroa, then?
S - Those were the days when you could have a hive of bees at the bottom of the garden and didn’t need to worry about them until July/August when you took the honey off. People complained about OSR because of it setting in the combs if you didn’t extract it quickly enough.
P. Most of the beekeepers we’ve known were all gentlemen, real characters. I think there’s something about beekeepers – they are all environmentalists by their very nature. Through the bees you are connected to the land, the seasons, the planet. We used to buy our equipment from Bill Dutton, another venerable Cheshire beekeeper, and he was another character!
S. Nowadays most new beekeepers go on courses to learn beekeeping - we learned from Mr Schofield and the other old beekeepers, who had themselves learned from a previous generation. It was a great introduction, but has limitations. You just learn what you need to know: you learn one way of doing things. We knew what to do if they were swarming; if we lost a queen, we just put in a frame of eggs from another hive. We didn’t get into queen-rearing as such. Mr Schofield just rang Thornes and asked for a “golden queen”. He loved the placid “Golden Queens”! Doing the BBKA Modular exams has brought it home to me how much more there is to know.
P. Yes. It’s only since we’ve been doing the exams that I feel I’ve come into my own with my beekeeping.
So how does it work having two beekeepers in the family?!
P. I must admit we do disagree over the bees at times, although I always say Stu is the main beekeeper, so I have to agree with him!
S. I say to her “Right! Those are your hives – these are mine! You look after your hives – I’ll look after mine!
P. And then, when it comes to show time it’s “What are you doing with my wax?!”
S. On the plus side, of course, we can talk to each other about the bees, and share our thoughts. We’re upset at the moment because we’ve lost two colonies over the winter, having never experienced winter losses before. It has quite upset us - going in and finding they were all dead. Our two strongest colonies. Our weakest was on three frames, and I thought it might die out. But the strongest died out. So we’re now down to 2 colonies: one has come through OK and is building up nicely. We have amalgamated three smaller ones, and they are coming on great – they have a nice red queen. Terry inspected them, and said they were fine.
P. I feel as if our beekeeping is really improving. After having studied for three modular exams with Graham Royle, we’re now doing the queen-rearing course with Ian Molyneux. We’ve always reared our own queens, but, as I said, in just a simple way - a frame of eggs from one of our best hives into a colony that needed a new queen. Last year, for the first time, we had a couple of nucs on standby, with our own queens in.
S. We want to have hands on experience of different queen-rearing methods. Each participant on the course gets a newly mated queen at the end of it. If these colonies are successful, we will get new blood in our apiary - hopefully nice, placid, quiet bees! New beekeepers don’t always know that there are different breeds of bees with different temperaments, but if we get excess, then we can start helping out some beginners.
What about more queen-rearing workshops here in Cheshire?
P. That would be a great idea. Norman Carreck was talking about this at Stoneleigh. I think perhaps each assoc rearing its own queens might be a better way than a national scheme, because each area has its own climate. You need local bees because you need to know that they are suited to the conditions and forage in your area.
What would you say to people wanting to import queens or even bees?
P. I would say to them, search your conscience and if you do decide that you need to import bees, then get good advice, do your own research as to what is going to be suitable, and do it through the proper channels.
S. The main problem with importing queens is that you could be importing problems. Apparently 10,000 queens were imported last year – and that is just those the authorities know about. They are still dealing with the paperwork from those who didn’t import according to the rules. This is how diseases can spread from one country to another. I am shocked that they are talking of importing package-bees. If Small Hive Beetle comes to the UK, they’ve admitted that they haven’t got anything to deal with it.
How do you see the future of beekeeping?
P. I feel that we’ve got a good team in Cheshire: Even though we have the four branches we are still a unit. We have people who do things, who move things forward, and we have new blood coming in, with fresh ideas.
P. There are still many beekeepers who are not members of any association and don’t have access to up to date information. The ‘let-alone’ beekeepers will gradually disappear, but we who are left have a big responsibility, because we are the ones who are keeping the honey-bee going. All bees are husbanded bees now. We need more education so that beekeepers are more knowledgeable and more confident and can produce strong, healthy colonies. We need to ensure that, where possible, new beekeepers are mentored by an experienced beekeeper, so that knowledge and experience are passed on.
P. It is amazing how much we still don’t know about the bee – we’ve got to make sure we get something positive out of a negative situation.
Pam and Stuart Hatton were talking to Pete Sutcliffe