After hearing about a local bee keeper, then eating a jar of her scrumptious honey, I simply had to meet the Queen Bee herself and learn more.  And so I came to meet Katharine Slater and her beautiful bees. 

I’ve never been this close to a bee hive or really understood just how incredible these insects truly are, and so this experience was almost a spiritual one for me. I also got to wear a beekeeper suit and had a go at hand spinning the honey from the honeycomb. What an utterly magical experience – thank you so much Katharine! 

Katharine, where do you live?

I live in Hastings East Sussex. To be precise (from my bee’s point of view: In and amongst the seaside urban garden multi-floral area of Saint Leonard’s On Sea. My garden apiary consisting of two hives is situated next to historic Alexandra Park & allotments. I have what is known as an ‘’out apiary’ of four hives in a private woodland on the Firehills of Fairlight.

How long have you been keeping bees and what brought you to bee keeping?

Years ago I was working on an immersive nature connection youth project with some very talented staff. One of which was Angie Bilcluff, a local Hastings artist and beekeeper.  She held up this jar of honey with comb in it to the light. That was it I was mesmorised. Seeing her love of the golden nectar collected from her bees; I too felt a magical connection. Angie died 18 months later of cancer and I think it was a sense of wanting to carry on her legacy as a beekeeper that triggered my interest.  I was bought a wonderful book called the Bee bible; which very quickly made me realize how incredible the ‘bee colony’ was. Since prehistoric times bees have existed.

I have been a beekeeper since May 2016 when I received my first swarm.  I had been building up to this for about two years, so it was a very exciting experience going to collect a box of bees that had been found outside Tichehurst Primary School. I then drove the bees to their hive (literally buzzing).  I had made my first hive, which was given to me as a kit for Christmas. I had also been attending a beekeeping course that year so was really ready to take the plunge.  When I arrived in the dark to the woodland apiary in Fairlight, I literally watched the colony march with their queen through the entrance of the hive in torchlight. I felt totally in awe of nature and my responsibility to it as a beekeeper.

I see myself almost like a landlady of the bees. I give them a hive to live in and extensions (honey boxes) when they need it & in return take a bit of honey as rent.  I am a good landlady though as I never take too much honey money from them. It is their food afterall.

Tell us a little bit more about the history of women beekeepers.

Humans have revered the honeybee and benefited from the incredible ingredients they create, that have been used medicinally and nutritionally through time.

Beekeeping through early Christian times has been managed mostly through a patriarchal lineage, particularly through the monasteries, where honeybee breweries were established and the beeswax (a wax that cleans pollutants from the air) was used in churches. In those days it was hard to get clean water so it became commonplace to drink Honey wine (mead) as Honey is antibacterial and killed off bugs in the water.

Going back to pre-Christian times, there was a female tribe, from the ancient Mycenaean (Greek) civilisation  (1600BC) that worshiped the honeybee. They were priestesses given the name “Melissa’. Using the symbol of the bee to represent ‘live, death cycle of mortality, abundance & fertility’. In Hindu & Eastern Europe cultures there are also examples of female bee goddesses.  The keeping of bees has often been a family affair with the old fashioned straw beehives (skeps) being kept along side the vegetable patch.  In more recent 20 & 21st Century history, more and more women are taking up beekeeping. I think women have a particular matriarchal connection to the bee colony. Other famous female beekeepers include the poet Sylvia Plath (who kept bees to help with her depression). Current famous female beekeepers include:  Martha Kearny (radio 4 presenter) & Scarlett Johnson the actress and Blondie the singer. Agnes Baden-Powell (1848-1945) leader of the Girl Guide movement was a keen beekeeper. More women are now turning their hands to natural forms of beekeeping that include using ‘top bar hives’, ‘Warre hives’ and ‘sun hives’.  The aim of using these hives is not to extract much honey (as it is the bees food after all) but support bee populations and pollination.

With the queen being the leader and 95% of her daughters (all the working bees) being female. The queen’s capacity to create new life is incredible.  She can lay up to 2000 egg a day in the summer!! 

How does urban honey compare to honey obtained from hives kept in the countryside?

In the UK, countryside honey may not be particularly good quality if the bees have been foraging on agricultural blossoms (from rape seed crops to apple trees) that have been heavily sprayed by pesticides (particularly neonicotinoids).  These chemicals are banned in a lot of countries but sadly not here.  Its not to say that urban gardeners do not use pesticides but more and more gardeners are becoming aware of the value of keeping bee friendly plants & not using weed killer sprays. If hives are located near lovely diverse woodlands then the honey will be rich in vitamins & nutrients and rich in flavour. Equally if hives are within a three-mile radius of wild flower meadow’s and lots of hedgerows then the quality of the honey will be a lot better. This is because their diet is based on a more diverse range of flowers right into the end of September. Country bees will be mostly forging on ivy from late September onwards which makes a bitter honey but still essential winter food for the bee.

What are the main benefits of consuming raw honey compared with supermarket bought honey?

Raw honey means that it has not been heat-treated and pasturised. The reason honey companies do this is to stop it crystalising, therefore maintaining that golden nectar liquid honey for longer and therefore looking good on the shop shelf. Most non-raw honey is also mixed with sugar, or the bees have been fed a lot of sugar to produce a substandard honey.  The problem with this is that it destroys the health benefits of honey, especially when you heat it. The temperature of a hive is 32 degrees. So if you are buying honey for health buy raw, it may crystalise within a month but it will be much better for you.  More & more honey companies are aware that people want to buy honey for health and are no longer heating it, and promoting it as raw honey.  This is great but if you want the best look out for honey that has not been blended with other honeys (usually from all over the EU) and then you can also taste the difference.

Honey has been used medicinally for thousands of years for its antimicrobial benefits, wound healing, coughs and colds and allergies. But it’s not just honey that a bee hive produces, can you tell us a bit more about some of the other amazing substances produced by bees and their benefits for our health?

If you are a hay-fever sufferer then definitely get honey from a local beekeeper and start taking it at the beginning of the hay-fever season as you can then build up immunity to the pollen in the area.

PROPOLIS

Propolis is a type of glue resin that the bees make. It is also antimicrobial, antibacterial & antifungal and is used by the bees to line the queens laying chambers, as it is such a hygienic environment. It is also used as a Polly-filler to fill in any gaps in the hive.  Beekeepers collect excess propolis to make tincture.  Its great to use for sore throats, to maintain strong immunity in the winter. It promotes the healing of cuts, treatment for cold sores, acne, dermatitis, and throat infection. It decongests pores and accelerates cell growth. That’s why I use propolis in a number of my skin remedies.

BEESWAX

Beeswax contains natural moisturisers.  It is produced by the bees through eight wax glands in their abdomen and is excreted in drops and then formed into the famous hexagon tessellation shape by the house bees to make comb. The combs function in the hive is multipurpose. The hexagons form laying chambers for the queen’s eggs & the comb also creates a larder for honey & pollen (which feeds the colony and unborn bees). Natural beeswax has a wonderful distinctive aroma and makes very special candles as it neutralises Pollutants:  producing negative ions when burned, and those ions help to neutralize the air. Beeswax is also very moisturising so also great to use in skin products.

BEE POLLEN

Bee Pollen is anti-inflammatory (a disease preventer), improves blood supply to the nervous system, helps relieve burn symptoms & swelling. It’s a great source of minerals and vitamins & stimulates blood supply to the skin, reducing the appearance of wrinkles. Use: Take two teaspoons a day. You can ground it. Add it to yoghurt & smoothies. Add to warm water and have as an energy drink.

Can anyone keep a beehive? Is it very expensive to set up? How much work is involved in looking after a beehive?

Anyone who wants to help nature can help nurture bees. Join a local group, help a local beekeeper, plant some bee friendly plants. The British bee keeping association and Hayes manual give a lot of practical advice on how to start keeping bees.  Its great to take the plunge and actually keep your own bees but get advice first on where to keep them, as both urban and countryside locations need to be risk assessed both for the bees and humans.  Beekeeping in Britain is more challenging than many other parts of the world as our weather is so unpredictable and so much of our land has been ripped of wild flowers and is treated with chemicals.  On the up side we have so much diversity of flower species in our gardens and if you are lucky enough to have a site in the country with species that are not over sprayed, then this is brilliant.  You will need approx £800 to start up to buy hives, tools, bee suits. There are so many types of hives so worth researching the method with which you want to keep bees.  Going to local beekeeping bee inspection once a month in the summer are useful as you can learn from experienced beekeepers too.  It is definitely a commitment (you will need to inspect every week in the summer and this can take up to 1 hour if you have one hive and many more hours if you end up with quit few hives).  If you do not inspect your hives regularly then you will have bees that swarm.  This is a natural form of increasing bee colonies for the bees.  Be ready to catch the swarm and nurture it!

Here are a couple of links, the first the British Beekeeping association (where you can also purchase a great intro to beekeeping book) & also find out about beekeepers in your area.

https://www.bbka.org.uk/shop/product/bbka-guide-to-beekeeping-2nd-edition/

Where can we find out more about your honey and other products?

I make small handcrafted balms with the finest vitamin rich oils, honey, propolis, beeswax and pollen (as they are so good for the skin and feel wonderful). I also have a small range of gorgeous products and some other special bee goods through an online shop I have just set up at bee-potion.com.  I am very proud of our bold branding that aims to appeal to anyone interested in using natural products that directly support the bees. You can also come and find me at various pop up shops and fairs as well as small (but expanding retail shops) you can find via my website.

My aim is to set up as a community interest company to incorporate bee inspired practical bee inspections with bee craft (from candles, nutrition to skincare  & well-being workshops). I am a teacher by trade and love sharing bee wisdom; so do get in touch via my website to find out more about children’s and adult workshops.

As for my honey.  I take very little from my bees and its only available for short periods late spring  & summer. I sell it firstly to the hay fever suffers, & those that are particularly interested in honey for health. I also use it in my skincare healing ointment. The Crown pub  & Zanzibar hotel in Hastings kindly, also sells it for me.  I also import some very good quality honey through a Zimbabwe bee co-operative & am currently looking into creating cinnamon honey which is said to regulate insulin levels for people with diabetes. The aim of the ‘honey money’ is that it starts to support the educational projects I am running. Again on my website you can find out more about this. 

Bee-potion.com

Thank you!