Good year for bees in the North East

PUBLISHED: 17:32 02 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:49 20 February 2013

Beekeeper Ralph Pattisson at his hives in Newcastle

Beekeeper Ralph Pattisson at his hives in Newcastle

The global bee population is in decline. But it's not all bad news. Here in the North East an exciting new company has just come up with something that's creating quite a buzz

The tension is palpable. Not surprising really given the fact were hoping to get a glimpse of the queen. Wearing our special outfits and hats for the occasion were here with thousands of other excited workers.


The wait is a long one. Its a muggy summers day here in Newcastle and were feeling more than a little overdressed. But you cant rush these things. Suddenly our companion manages to pick out the queen in the thronging mass and we huddle closer, craning to get a peep. Not an easy feat in this headgear. Sure enough its her clearly standing out from the crowd of workers trying to press against her - our very first sighting of the queen honey bee.


Its not easy to take photographs in a beekeepers veil and gauntlets, but we wouldnt have missed the experience. Here in leafy Jesmond, a stones throw from the traffic and city bustle in an idyllic, near rural setting, local architect Ralph Pattisson quietly pursues his passion for beekeeping and shares with us the secret world of honey bees.


Its fascinating to see the workers and drones pouring over and covering the frames in his hives like a lava flow. Until we had them buzzing and swarming around our heads Id never have believed there could be fifty to a hundred thousand bees in one hive alone.


Ralph has been mad about bees since the mid 1970s. Its hard work and not as relaxing as you might think, he says. Theres a lot of fiddle, a lot of collecting to do and a lot of in and out of the hives. But its a joy because bees are so amazing.


Ralphs bees are special, not simply for the comb honey he sells under the Bees Knees label, but because his bees were guinea pigs in a recent experiment that could see locally developed technology used to solve the problems caused by globally declining bee populations. No mean feat when you consider we depend on bees to pollinate as much as one third of the food we eat.


Its not just honey bees that are having a tough time of it. Bumblebees, too, some of our most endearing insects, are now in serious decline in the UK.


The number of species found in most of lowland Britain has halved since 1950. And according to recent reports two of the 24 species normally found here have become extinct in the last 70 years, with another handful designated priority species under the governments biodiversity action plan. We still have six species that are fairly common, but thats little comfort when the rest have seen such a serious decline.


Fortunately when it comes to the plight of the honey bee theres some welcome news here in the North East. Local couple, Dr Huw Evans and his wife Sandra, graduates of Northumbria University and the University of Durham respectively, are the co-founders of a new start-up company based in Newcastle called Arnia.


Together they have developed a special device that enables the sounds and vibrations in bee hives to be monitored remotely. This enables farmers and food producers to monitor the health of bee populations and help them predict when bees are going to swarm weeks in advance.

Predicting swarming allows beekeepers to attempt to manage the swarm effectively and help prevent the loss of their bees and honey production.
Theres currently a global decline in honey bee populations and we believe our technology is a valuable tool for scientists studying this problem, says electronics engineer Huw.

He explains how crops like almonds and apples depend on bee pollination and upon the bees doing their bit during the very small period of time pollination occurs. At the moment if a beekeeper wants to judge when swarming might occur they have to put on protective clothing at least once a week and assess the bee colony themselves. This is disruptive for the bee colony and pretty time-consuming for the beekeepers

The couple are keen beekeepers themselves. In fact it was Ralph Pattisson who first introduced Huw to the joys of beekeeping and it was Ralphs bee hives that were wired up by Huw as part of an early experiment to test out the new technology theyve developed.

Theyre now in the process of making their technology commercially available to all beekeepers. Were conducting large scale field trials as part of the Insect Pollinators Initiative (IPI) research study with Dr Chris Connolly from the University of Dundee and the Scottish Beekeepers Association.

Were in the process of deploying 100 hive monitors and are collecting data from hives across Scotland, says Huw. We hope we can provide black box information to researchers of colony collapse disorder, explains Huw. At the moment they have little to no information on what happened in a hive before it failed, he adds.

With a last lingering look at the long tapering body of our queen, Ralph puts the last of the bee covered frames back into the hives and we finally feel its safe to remove our veils and gloves.

We have to agree with him that bees are amazing and its also pretty amazing to think an idea that was born right here in this secluded part of the North East might yet offer the solution to a global problem. And by the way, we didnt get stung once.



If youd like to buy some of the Ralph Pattissons Bees Knees honey telephone 0191 2812131.

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