Behind the veil: Simon Nuttall
As the treasurer of the Cheshire Beekeepers’ Association, Simon Nuttall may not be known to a lot of our members. Behind the scenes, however, Simon works hard looking after our finances, and helping to steer the Association through a time of rising membership and increased activity—which, while extremely welcome, brings with it a new set of problems! As usual, however, I particularly wanted to know about Simon’s beekeeping.
How did you hit on the idea of taking up beekeeping?
When I was ten, my father decided he wanted to keep bees. We were living in Lancashire at that time, and my father found a beginners course in Manchester which he attended. The day after his weekly evening class I would quiz him about what he had learned the night before, and it was his enthusiasm and the information he passed on that initially sparked my interest.
I started to read the beekeeping books that my father bought home – my favourite and the one I learnt most from was “A guide to Bees & Honey” by Ted Hooper, a great book for beginners. As I found out more I got more and more interested. My father definitely had the bee bug, and as the end of the course approached he had ordered his nucleus. The far end of our garden (which had been overgrown and always on the list of jobs to be sorted out) suddenly became a priority and was transformed into a grassed area with bee friendly plants and an instant trellis hedge to make the bees fly upwards.
Finally the day arrived when the nucleus arrived and the bees were settled into their new position. My father, in his new pristine beesuit, and the course tutor in a rather less clean suit were setting things up and I crept as close to the trellis as I could to watch. It was fascinating watching the sky filled with content bees swirling around their new home, my mum came over to watch too and we both stared through the trellis entranced. The contented humming of the bees started to change to a more intense sound as frames were transferred to the national hive and I heard a bee buzzing near my face, I instinctively did what you should never do and started to swat the poor bee away – you can guess what happened next and both my mum and I were chased into the house with stings on our arms, faces and hair.
I disliked being stung and it put me off a lot. I stayed clear of the trellis, but I would watch from a safe distance, and I started to notice honeybees on flowers in the area as I played in the area with my friends.
My father got 30lbs of Rosebay Willowherb honey that year, and although I’ve never really loved honey, I really enjoyed the honey-filled cappings, which were like a wonderful chewing gum!
Unfortunately my father’s one hive didn’t survive that first winter, and disheartened, he never got any more bees. I had read lots about bees but had no practical experience.
How did you start?
In the late 90’s my wife and I moved to a house with good-sized garden. As renovating the house came to an end, I remember thinking what a good location it would be for bees, and I did some research about a local beekeeping group and I found Cheshire Beekeepers, and North Cheshire had a meeting later that week. I attended and remember meeting Stuart & Pam Hatton, Frank Hilder, Graham Platt, John Van Suchtelen and Bob Parsonage (Bob was speaking at North Cheshire in a brains trust that night). I was made really welcome, and bits of theory from the books years ago started to come back to me. I re-read Ted Hooper and arranged to meet up with Bob Parsonage at his out apiary near Sandbach. Whilst Bob made beeswax polish and fed his chickens we talked about bees, and I soaked up everything Bob told me.
I bought my first nucleus from Bob, and it was June when it was finally ready for me to collect. I think I went through them every couple of days for the first few weeks (poor bees!). The bees tolerated me and in my half jacket bee suit - I hadn’t even been stung ……….….. until the day I opened them up one evening on a thundery night. I fled with bees clinging to my jeans, and feeling sting after sting as I ran! I counted over 60 stings on my legs that night, but it taught me a valuable lesson and renewed respect for the correct and sensible handling of bees.
Who or what influenced the way in which you keep bees?
I’ve been most influenced by the people I’ve met in Cheshire, particularly Bob Parsonage, Frank Hilder and Graham Platt. Everyone you speak to helps advance your knowledge: whether they tell you right or wrong, you still learn from it! All beekeepers have different theories, or tricks that work for them, and I think the secret is to try them all to find what works best for you. The internet is also a useful source of free information on bees and beekeeping.
How did your beekeeping develop?
After getting my first hive it wasn’t long before I found swarm cells. I split the hive, and soon had two hives, then I had three ! The first winter was kind to me, and all three hives were strong. I moved them to the oil seed rape on one of Bob Parsonage’s sites in Knutsford. I’d learnt about the Cheshire Method of swarm control at a branch meeting earlier that year, and as the bees filled the supers they also put up swarm cells and I “Cheshired” them all. I now had 6 hives and, stung by the cost of Thornes equipment, I dusted down my woodworking tools, bought a woodworking guide to making your own hives and I got to work.
Later that year, I Cheshired the 6 hives again and went into winter with 12 hives. The following year I went to the oil seed rape again with Bob, and Cheshired 12 hives. I was very pleased with myself, until Bob told me he had filled all of his bait hives from all of the swarms & casts that my hives were throwing off! Working full time it was difficult to control the expansion of colonies, and my wife was pretty unhappy at the amount of time it was taking me to inspect 24 hives every weekend. I decided that 12 hives would be about right for the time I had available, and so I combined and consolidated my colonies down that winter.
Having between 12 and 24 hives was a fantastic experience, and I learnt a lot about bees from the way each colony behaved just by being exposed to lots of differing colonies. I can understand how commercial beekeepers working with hundreds of colonies are able to assess a colony in under a minute, but I’m a long way off that, and enjoy being with the bees too much!
Are there any high points or disasters you want to tell about?
My high was after a particularly awful day at work one day at the end of May when I got home and remembered that I needed to inspect one of the hives in the garden which I thought might be about to swarm. Going through the hive was like watching a good film – I was in another world and peering down into it frame by frame. I glanced upwards and saw bees flying and humming contentedly against the warm summer evening sky, and I realised that there was more to life than a bad day at work. Bees definitely help keep me balanced.
The biggest disaster I’ve had was 3 years ago, when I lost 11 of 12 hives that winter. They all had plenty of stores, and had all been treated with Oxyalic acid for Varroa control. It was devastating opening up hive after hive of dead bees, and something I hope never to have to encounter again.
What about the future of beekeeping?
It would be quite easy to be cynical about the current position; there are lots of threats to bees from indifferent governments, pests like varroa, small hive beetle, CCD etc. But beekeepers keep bees out of a fascination and love of these insects, and I’m sure that will win through. Understanding more about our bees so we can work with them rather than inadvertently against them is key in my book. A lot of the present day threats to bees have been caused by people thinking they are doing right, but not fully understanding the impact their actions will have.
Educating the public about bees is also going to be important – too many think bees are wasps, and don’t understand where their food comes from; the more people know, the more they will understand the importance of bees to us all, and support bees and beekeeping.
How do you see the future of the Cheshire BKA?
The future of Cheshire BKA lies in its members. Bees are addictive, and sell themselves to beekeepers within a very short space of time. CBKA is a charity set up to promote bees and beekeeping, and by doing just that, I hope we will continue to grow through educating both beginners and experienced beekeepers alike. It’s only by being with our bees and other beekeepers, that we learn more about our bees, and become better beekeepers. As an organisation , CBKA needs to keep encouraging and promoting bees and beekeeping. That way the craft will continue, and more people will get the pleasure and delight out of bees that we all have.
Simon Nuttall was talking to Pete Sutcliffe