FEATURE: Why Suffolk beekeeper still gets a buzz out of making honey
Witnessing a natural phenomenon at a young age sparked a fascination with wildlife for Ian Hart.
As a swarm of bees descended on a tree at school, he was left captivated by the rare encounter.
“At seven years old, it was startling to see,” recalls Ian. “That moment has always stayed with me.
“It was an unbelievable experience to watch more than 1,000 bees and to see those little creatures – that weren’t doing anyone any harm – was just incredible.”
While operating his own business alongside a position in retail, Ian decided to explore the art of beekeeping by mastering the methods of the craft.
“I never intended to become a professional beekeeper – it just became a hobby,” he says. “At first I kept a few hives of bees in the garden as a starter colony.”
As he became more interested in the craft, Ian increased the quantity of hives he managed, which now amounts to around 200 located at 20 sites across Suffolk and north Essex, including on a plot of land in the grounds of Kentwell Hall in Long Melford, as well as in Halstead and the Belchamps.
Honey extracted from the hives is used to create various products, which are subsequently sold through his business, the Bee House Honey Company, at farmers’ markets across the county.
On the last Tuesday of every month, his goods are showcased at St Peter’s on Market Hill in Sudbury.
Thirty different types of honey created from flowering plants, including spring crop, oil seed rape and echium are produced alongside more than 100 varieties of beeswax candles, honeycomb and propolis – a substance which is created by honey bees and is known for its healing properties.
Brought up by parents who adopted a self-sufficient lifestyle, Ian learnt to appreciate the benefits of nature at a young age.
“My dad was from a farming background; he farmed a lot in France and had an allotment and gardens,” he says.
“He used to tend other people’s allotments, too – it was part and parcel of what he did.”
Influenced by his early upbringing in the west Midlands, Ian successfully reared his own chickens, quails and ducks in his own garden when he lived in Halstead.
While tending the hives at multiple sites, he often captures glimpses of animals in their natural habitat.
“You see such a diverse range of wildlife, whether it’s barn owls or harriers,” says Ian.
“You can lift up the beehive and see adders digesting their food, it’s phenomenal.”
The art of becoming a beekeeper is continually evolving, with different techniques designed to make the process more efficient.
“You’re constantly learning,” says Ian. “There’s always different ideas and methods coming to the market, but they have to be non-evasive.
“We have to care for the bees and nurture them, while leaving them to their own devices.”
During the summer months, Ian visits the hives once a week, when the bees are at their most active due to the abundance of flowering plants, while the winter period requires fewer inspections.
“Each hive receives about 16 inspections a year,” says the 43-year-old.
While monitoring the hives, Ian ensures the bees have sufficient space, a good nectar flow and an efficient food supply.
During cold spells, the hives require hefting – a process which involves weighing them to assess the quantities of food they require to see them through cooler periods in the year.
With a constant rise in mild temperatures, Ian said owners of the sites where his hives are maintained have become more mindful of climate change and the impact it poses on the environment.
“They are looking into drought resistant crops, which will benefit wildlife, too,” says the father-of two.
“They understand that we need to look at climate change because we have hotter summers and, last year, we had a warm spring.”
Once the raw honey has been collected, it goes off to various sites, including a farm in Halstead and The White Hart pub in Great Yeldham, for the next stage in the production process.
To craft the handmade candles, after the beeswax has been drawn out from wooden frames in the honey super, it is melted down at around 64 degrees Celsius.
The wick is subsequently dipped into the beeswax until it is fully formed, or is placed into moulds to create a range of shapes.
“Beeswax has a huge benefit to humans; they release negative ions which help to neutralise toxins in the air,” says Ian.
Of all the different varieties he produces, borage honey is a favourite of his.
“It’s a very gentle honey,” he says. “I have it in my coffee instead of sugar; it’s beautiful because it’s not very strong.”
Showcasing his products at farmers’ market enables Ian to interact with customers, an aspect of the trade he is fond of.
Customers often share their experiences of the products that have proved effective in providing health benefits.
“I’m not a doctor, I have no medical experience, but I can pass on the knowledge I receive from customers,” he says.
A woman diagnosed with a terminal illness visited Ian’s stall and requested a product to alleviate her symptoms as she approached the remaining days of her life.
“It was quite humbling,” says Ian. “Because I didn’t expect to hear that.”
Customers often buy a variety of honey products to help a wide range of conditions, including hay fever, digestive problems and Crohn’s disease.
While some businesses have expressed their apprehension as Brexit looms, Ian has adopted an open-mind about the potential impact on trade.
“We seemed to have talked ourselves into fear about what the future will bring,” he says. “But I have never felt anything other than positivity.”
While working closely with bees for more than a decade, Ian has formed a deep appreciation for their crucial role.
“As you progress through life, you see how reliant we are on honey bees,” he says. “It’s still mind boggling when you think about the amount of work that goes into producing honey.”
More by this authorPriya Kingsley-Adam