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Save our bees - why one Scottish estate is supporting bee keeping and why we should do the same

Half of South Queensferry's Hopetoun House (the left half, to be precise) is home to the Earl of Hopetoun and his family. The House's grounds, which extend to some 6500 acres, are home to aristocracy of a different kind, complete with a queen, palatial digs and a nuanced social hierarchy.  

Murray McGregor - farmer, father, professional bee keeper - is talking animatedly about bees in terms that would imply they are more similar to humans than insects. "The thing about bees," he explains, "is that individually, they're remarkably lazy. But as a group, they are of course extremely productive. The drones, for example, hang around all day just waiting on the queen - she has a whole entourage of guards. Others will be hive cleaners and nectar storers and the like. Each bee's duties change with their age - for the first 10 days of their lives, for example, they will be on house duties."

McGregor looks after the bees that live on Hopetoun estate. There are 14 'groups' on the estate itself - each group is made up of 16 hives and in each hive live thousands of bees. One hive consists of a number of small boxes - about the size of a home printer - and within each box there are small wooden boards on to which the bees make their network of perfectly hexagonal wax cells containing larvae and allowing them to deposit pollen and honey.

Mike Eagers, head of agriculture at the estate, explains why he in particular is keen to encourage bees to share the land: "The reasons for bees are threefold. Firstly, it's about pollination. With 14 groups on the estate the strike rate of pollination is greatly improved - about 8% - which is obviously good for our crops.

"Secondly, for ecological reasons. The bees improve the local area - the wild flowers, the brambles, and the hedges - are all helped by the presence of the bees.

"And thirdly - I like the story and I want to promote that. Bees are the most incredible creatures. Every time I go out with Murray I learn something new about bees and I'm reminded of how important they are."

We are crouching next to one of the groups - me in a top-to-toe bee suit (in lilac, naturally) to observe the bees. Murray uses a basic smoking device to keep the bees calm - it looks a little like the Tin Man's oil can, and inside, Murray has lit a folded length of jute which emits a cold smoke through a spout. Why such an archaic piece of equipment?

"It's thought that bees react so well to smoke because they believe it's a forest fire when they smell it," Murray explains. "Instead of being forced into a frenzy as we might think would happen, the bees become very focused on the task in hand, and instead of swarming and attacking humans, they ignore us to carry obsessively with their work to get it done before the hive burns down."

It is just one in a thousand examples of the intricate and secret lives of bees, and how in many ways their behavioural patterns exhibit what seems like rational thought. Not only do they work instinctively as a team, but they build architecturally flawless homes and keep them neat and tidy. Their social hierarchy is surprisingly cut-throat, for all their team-playing. At the end of the summer, the newer bees in the hive will stand at the hive's exits and evict older drones - literally picking them up and throwing them out of the 'door'. For all their proven evolutionary sophistication, they live a Darwinian life. "Bees are not honourable creatures," Murray says.

I am wearing thick rubber gloves with my overalls looped over the middle finger to ensure no gaps for bees to climb inside, though Murray goes gloveless. "The bees tend to panic when they're stuck inside something like clothing, hence the stings", he explains. "When they're unhappy, they tend to look for things up high to attack. If you get down low when there's a swarm around, that'll give you the best chance."

I am instructed to take off my glove when Murray spots the queen - she is fat and ripe, but she also has a large daub of red paint on her thorax to easily identify her from the rest (the female worker bees are all much smaller but male drones are almost as large as she is). The queen has no sting, and wanders happily over my bare flesh, running between my fingers. She is as light as if she wasn't really there at all, and we wonder whether in weight she is more or less valuable than gold, or saffron, or diamonds. She is surely as precious as any other kind of farmer's livestock: in just one year each of Murray's groups will yield around 700kg of honey. And she has standards: rigorous ones. If a worker hasn't cleaned the hive's cells to her liking, they must redo it until the queen is satisfied. 

The red paint seems superfluous because when the queen walks down the centre of the hive, you know about it. As she walks, every worker and drone senses her approaching presence and turns to face her as she passes, before returning to their duties once she is gone. A queen bee never feeds herself - she is fed by her workers and drones. Every day the queen lays between 1500 and 2000 eggs, mating with six to 20 male bees. Her sheer productivity alone is disorientating.

There is something magical about being so close to bees in their natural habitat, close enough to intently observe their strange behavioural patterns without being stung. Maybe that is part of the joy of apiculture: that you're able to be exposed to the secret world of bees that the lay person, without the protective gear, would never have the chance to see. Sitting on the ground next to the hive it is possible to see how the bees that cluster on the outside of the boxes open, expose and vibrate their lower abdomen - they are sending out a silent signal to call back any lost bees in the area to the hive and enable the community to carry on working. It is also possible to see the brightly coloured 'leg warmers' many of the bees are wearing - pollen collected from a variety of differing flowers including hawthorn, elderflower, rape seed and field bean and put into baskets on the legs. It is a lesson in the ecosystem of the local area. We see a two-second snippet of the famous bee dance, where one worker wiggles its behind in a seemingly random movement. But of course it isn't random because these are bees, and everything, even if it doesn't come from sentient thought, has a meaning. The bee dance is instructing co-workers the location of the food source.

Murray pulls one of the hive's boards out, dripping with still-warm honey, to take to Hopetoun farm shop where it is sliced and given out to visitors and us. It is unlike any other honey we have ever tasted before - less intense than the shop-bought stuff, but aromatic and dizzyingly addictive. It is a cliché but if nectar has a taste, this is it. It is easy to see why Murray dedicates his time to the bees, and Mike too - not only are they important to Scottish agriculture, but they are charming and rewarding. It is like observing a secret world with strange parallels to ours. As humans, maybe there is a certain arrogant appeal in identifying a natural community with inherent rules similar to our own, as if some sort of odd affirmation that we've been doing things right all along.  

"The thing about bees", Murray repeats with a smile, "is that their communities are ruled by women, but the queen wasn't born so. Any viable female egg can develop into a queen if fed correctly at the larval stage.

"People think that because animals and insects can't think, they're stupid. I'm not so sure."

Murray McGregor's honey is available to buy at Hopetoun Farm shop, Newton, Broxburn, EH52 2QZ. Hopetoun Farm shop also offers regular tastings and masterclasses. Visit www.hopetoun.co.uk for more information.

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