Behind the veil: Steve Guest
Steve Guest has been a prominent figure in Cheshire Beekeeping for several decades now. A leading light in the South Cheshire Branch, he has also been a useful voice on the County Committee. But he has always principally been associated with honey shows, and together with Bob Parsonage formed a formidable double act on the Beekeeping Show circuit!
We usually begin with how you started beekeeping. Or why even?!
I used to work at Fison’s in Holmes Chapel, and the works there had some pipes through which sugar syrup was pumped. Occasionally you would see clumps of bees and wasps on these pipes, obviously where there was a leak, and the insects were feeding. Nobody else would dare approach then, but I learned that, if you were slow and gentle in your movements, they would tolerate you and you didn’t get stung. That awakened my interest in bees, and gave me the idea of becoming a beekeeper.
One Wednesday night, I had been on night shift and just got up from bed when Joy came in from work with the Chronicle. Flicking through it I came across a hive of bees for sale - £50 for a WBC hive plus bees. I went and bought it, and moved it in on the Saturday. Now, I had been assured that everything was right with it, but on the Tuesday, which was my day off, it swarmed! I had never seen a swarm before. It went across to the sewage works, through the extractor vent into the fume cupboard in the lab. The lad there thought “They’ve come in that way, we’ll send them out that way”, and switched on the extractor fan … and mashed up a swarm of bees. That was the end of that.
Now I had to deal with the colony left behind. I had always been told that you had to take down all your queen-cells, so I went through and dutifully did that – and had a queenless colony. That was my first mistake from reading books, and I vowed never to read another one!
There are a lot of beginners from last year who will recognise that story!
So that was that: my bees died over the winter, and I didn’t realise why at first.
The following spring, I was coming home from work, again off night shift at 6 o’clock in the morning. As I came along London Road, I passed the farm where they sell vegetables, and saw a huge figure in a bee-suit on the other side of the hedge. I wondered what he was doing, so I turned round and went back to have a look. It turned out to be Bob Parsonage who I didn’t know at the time. Being a policeman, he kept odd hours too. I called to him and went round, watching what he was doing and helping here and there. I explained to him that I had lost my bees during the winter. All of a sudden, he went “Ouch!” and said “I’ll have to just get my anti-histamine.” This was at the time when he was allergic to bee-stings. I followed him and said, “Are you all right!” and he said “No. I haven’t got my anti-histamine. Will you close up that hive for me, I’ve got to go!” And off he went! So there was nothing for it but to close up the hive, without veil or gloves, just moving slowly and carefully as I’d learned to do with the bees at work.
I had given him my phone number and he rang me half an hour later and thanked me very much for what I’d done and said that he would return the favour if he could. I told him that I wanted some more bees, and sure enough he did fix me up with some. Over the years, Bob and I helped each other a lot.
I thought that I had better do something to learn more about the practical side of beekeeping. Roy Brocklehurst, who was a friend of mine, had also got the bee in his bonnet (if you’ll pardon the expression!) and he had found this place at Parrs Wood, where a chap called Len Ross was running night-school courses. We both decided to join his class. I had to miss the odd one when I was on night shift again, although I did ring in sick a couple of times when it was something important. And eventually Roy and I passed the “Preliminary” Examination, as it was called in those days. In the second year we went on to do more advanced stuff, but then unfortunately Len became ill and had to stop doing the courses. Twelve months later, when he was better, cuts were the order of the day and they pulled the plug on the courses, but we still kept in touch with Len over the years.
South Cheshire Branch had got going at this time, so I started going to their meetings in Crewe and learned a lot more about beekeeping from attending there.
Did you start off again with WBCs?
I did start off with the WBC but Bob explained to me that I would be better with Nationals – and I would be able to transfer all my frames from WBCs into them. And he did actually give me one to start off with. Sydney Hollinshead was at that time a very active beekeeper, going down to Kent for pollination, for example. He had a workshop set up to mass-produce Nationals. You could take your timber there, drop it on the saw bench and push it through and it was all cut to size - even the little L piece for the runners! You could whizz off five or six hives on a Saturday afternoon. All you had to do then was nail them together and that was it. I must have made about 30-40 hives and I did build up gradually to about 40 active hives. Then, when I had my own problems with my ticker, I cut down. But we’re now building back up again. We have three out-apiaries and are hoping to do more.
Showing has always been your main interest, hasn’t it?
That again goes back to Len Ross’s day. I have always enjoyed showing - my first ever show exhibit – a bottle of mead - got me a third prize.
Usually, the first thing is a jar of honey, but you went straight for the mead!
Well I’ve always been a wine-maker. So when I got my first crop of honey, I’d always heard that if you washed the cappings, you could use the resulting honey-water for making mead – so I did! I made the mead as I would make a bottle of wine and I exhibited it at Stockport. Alan Barber from Stone was judge and I got the third prize. He was very encouraging when he heard that it was my first ever exhibit, and said “Well, where do you want to go from here?” I said, “I think I’d like to follow in your footsteps and become a judge!”
So he invited me to steward for him, which I did at a lot of different venues. Stewarding is by far the best way to get to know about showing. Alan continued to give me a lot of encouragement, and eventually, in 1992, I took my Associate Judge’s certificate.
So you got into showing and then judging fairly quickly didn’t you?
Yes I was really keen on showing. I then got involved with Jim Tucker and one or two of the others and had a lot of encouragement from them for showing and we moved in the show world quite quickly down to London to the National Honey Show where we picked up lots of prizes. So everything was geared at showing honey.
When John Tipping left us at Cheshire I suddenly found myself as a show manager and the rest of it is history! I’ve show-managed virtually all over Cheshire.
People think that their honey isn’t good enough. But local honey is the best. All beekeepers should be encouraged to exhibit.They may need to learn some of the finer points before they win the major prizes, but they can win a prize with their first exhibit, as I did, with a bit of care.
Well, the entries in the South Cheshire Show are increasing and I think the County Show’s entries are too. We’ve got a bigger membership but the showing fraternity is expanding too.
We in Cheshire are very lucky that the older ones do bully the younger ones in the finer points of showing.
I’ve not come across any bullying! I think it’s been genuine encouragement. And some of the newer beekeepers have already won prizes.
When I first started, the older beekeepers didn’t want to let go. If ever you asked them anything they’d tap the side of their nose and say that’s for us to know and you to find out. But they’d never tell you what you wanted to know. Now I find there’s an entirely different relationship. If anybody knows something they share it. It’s a lot better now than when I started beekeeping. As Roy Brock says, I want to win a prize against stiff competition. I don’t want to sail through because the others don’t know what they’re doing.
So only a few years ago you became a fully qualified honey judge
Well that was a real mix-up. I originally qualified as an “Associate Judge”. This was a qualification introduced to encourage more people to go in for judging. Unfortunately, the people who had introduced it passed on and new figures in the BBKA introduced an “Intermediate Judge’s certificate”. They then tried to persuade me to qualify again for that certificate. Eventually I was persuaded to go through the motions – down at the National Honey Show in London. But, lo and behold, they failed me because my heather honey supposedly wasn’t up to standard – the same heather honey which was being awarded the first prize at the Honey Show downstairs at that very moment!
But you were still able to work as a judge?
Oh, yes, because they couldn’t take away the qualification I already had. I was invited to judge once or twice at the Royal, at Shrewsbury, Harrogate etc. and then they decided that they were going to do away with the Intermediate Judge’s certificate. Eventually, they persuaded me to go through the motions once again and they awarded me a Senior Judge’s Certificate.
Despite those unfortunate experiences, during a regime which is now over, I would encourage anybody who really wants to show to go for the judge’s exam. We are really short of judges now, and I do believe that honey-shows encourage good beekeeping.
I am not keen on writing and would never want to go in for written examinations. However, when I see how something is done in practice I can repeat it. When I took my associate judge’s exam I really did enjoy it. That was a practical examination of something I enjoyed doing. A certain amount was spread over 4-5 years - the stewarding I did for other judges.
What about the high points of your beekeeping career?
Well, I have all my cups up there on the sideboard. There is only one there that isn’t for honey showing. That is the Canon Evans Cup for services to Cheshire Beekeeping, and the highlight of my beekeeping career was to be awarded that one. You see your name there on the cup, and then you see all the other names going back all the way to Blakeman, WBC! I was absolutely over the moon. I really had no idea I was getting it. It was only when I saw Joy there at the Convention that it suddenly clicked. I thought am I in line for it? I must be if she’s here. She hadn’t let on that she was going!
That brings us to your wife, Joy, who I gather has just discovered an interest in beekeeping of her own!
Just this last year. I’ve always supported Joy with her music and orchestra and she’s always made the jams and confectionery for various shows and she’s always come and helped, because we help each other in our hobbies. At the beginning of this year, however, she decided she wanted to get a little bit more “hands-on” with the bees.I said, “If you want to have a look, you will need to do it properly - you will need a whole suit, gloves, the full kit, so we went and got her all the gear and she had a go with our bees and at the Bradwall meetings. Now she’s decided that she’s been missing out on a lot, because she really enjoys it, and finds it very therapeutic. So I’ve now got a secretary who’ll do my records for me and also prompt me when I should be doing this, that and the other. We are actually working the bees together now and it’s introduced even more interest for me - its not just a case now of getting the honey.
So you were telling me earlier that you have resigned as South Cheshire show manager because you want younger people to take over.
Yes, and we’ve got younger people coming up, and I think John Goodwin will be a good show manager.
I know this might sound daft, but I want to do more beekeeping and less admin. I would like to take a back seat and let some of the younger people go onto the committees and let them shape beekeeping as they want it to be in the next 25/30 years. I think I have played my part in the last 25/30 years.I have gone to lots of different places and given talks on my way of beekeeping, and I hope I have persuaded one or two people to take up beekeeping as well as preaching to the folks who are already doing it.
So you’re not giving up beekeeping!
Quite the opposite. I still find beekeeping exciting. For example, I learned about something I’d never known before when Mike Vesty did his demonstration of the Taranov Board. I was impressed with that. Even though I’ve been beekeeping for thirty odd years, there s always something to learn. Because you have to follow the bees – don’t try to steer them too much otherwise they’ll hit back at you!
To me, beekeeping is a pleasure, and when it stops being a pleasure, I’ll give it up. I can still remember my first crop of honey - that was like magic. But just recently I took some bees to a new apiary-site. It was a meadow that was re-sown with wild-flower seed two years ago, and I was asked to put a hive on it. The honey that came off there was really wonderful! I only got one box, but I was excited again as I had been with my first crop. It is a mixture of everything, which is what makes Cheshire honey so good. There is a lot of vetch round the outside, and that gives you this good clear honey with quite a bite to it.
So I usually ask about the future of beekeeping. Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
I am positive - neither optimistic or pessimistic. I think that Beekeeping, as I knew it, has changed and is changing, and the young generation are the ones to guide it on. I’ve still got some ideas but there are new ways coming in whether we like it or not. Those of us who go back before varroa are still reeling from it to a certain extent. The new people who are coming in are dealing with it in a matter of fact way. Like we dealt with acarine or things like that. This is why I think they need the encouragement and the room to move on. I think the younger people coming into it have got a lot of drive perhaps that’s what us older folk are losing out a bit on.
I hope beekeeping goes on improving. In my time, beekeeping has been in steady decline but now it’s going up again. When I joined there were about 380 members in the CBKA. we went down to about 200 at one point but now we have reached over nearly 500. I hope these younger ones will be encouraged to take committee jobs and put in what they think they have to offer.
Steve Guest was talking to Pete Sutcliffe