Honey, I found a new career
As mid-life crises go, taking up apiculture is not the most dangerous divergence that I have heard of, but for Simon Croson his wife Caroline’s birthday gift of a beekeeping course was the start of a whole new direction in life.
For an RAF engineer turned beekeeper, I suppose the theory and practice of keeping aeroplanes and bees in flight has many similarities. A healthy crew, well-maintained equipment and favourable weather conditions. I visited Simon at his family home in Caythorpe and their base for The Artisan Honey Company to find out if this is true.
“I have been in the RAF since 1988,” explained Simon, “but I suppose you could say that I got into beekeeping as the result of a mid-life crisis. My wife bought me a basic course for a fortieth birthday present – and from that point on I have been hooked.”
It was a drizzly and quite cold day when I visited but the nine hives in the garden already had steady flights of bees going backwards and forwards.
“It has been a great hobby which over the last seven years has opened so many doors for me,” Simon continued, “especially through my photography.”
Photographing bees is not an easy process but Simon began to show me a few of the magnificent images he has captured, including internationally award-winning shots of bees in flight, microscopic images of parasitic mites, pollination taking place and developing grubs in the comb.
In 2011 he entered four pictures at Apimondia, the world event for beekeepers which was held in Buenos Aires. Simon’s image of bees cleaning up comb won the Gold Medal.
“Fred Parker taught that first course and I have been mentored by Ann and John Holderness from Sleaford over the past few years. Ann actively encouraged me to enter my first competition with a jar of honey at the Lincolnshire Show. I can still remember the judges’ comments: ‘Not enough honey in the jar’.” Although an award was made and awards have followed since that show.
Simon progressed to not only win local competitions but also national and international ones, winning higher recognition for his photography sometimes than for his honey.
“I went to Vermont last month, at the invitation of the Eastern Apicultural Society to lecture on Beekeeping Photography. Photography is not only a fascinating way to improve your understanding of the complexity of the life cycle of bees but it can be a diagnostic and teaching tool too.”
Simon is a member and past chairman of the Lincolnshire branch of the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA). He has steadily completed further courses on apiculture and is now qualified as a BBKA basic assessment assessor.
“I am working with the National Trust running successful courses at Belton House on both beekeeping and photography in addition to working with E H Thorne at Rand who market my virtual hive photographs as teaching aids and allow me to deliver equally successful beekeeping courses – but there is still more that I can learn; the subject is so wide.”
The virtual hive frames hold examples of Simon’s photography which show particular stages of development or problems new beekeepers need to become familiar with and they are ideal classroom aids.
On the kitchen worktop was Simon’s newest delivery of queens which had been imported from Denmark. Each was in a ventilated, plastic box, a little larger than a match box, accompanied by up to seven workers. Identifiable by the coloured spot on their back, periodically they exercised their wings which produced a loud buzzing vibration across the room. These queens are from the Buckfast strain bred by Brother Adam, famous for their docile nature, productivity and resistance to disease.
As we looked through more of Simon’s images he showed me pictures of the Varroa mite which can seriously weaken or kill off a colony.
“This is one of the reasons why I got into and use photography as part of my beekeeping. Mites can be difficult to spot with the naked eye but using a macro lens you can capture how these parasites feed off the bees’ blood and cause deformities in wings and the grubs.”
Simon continued to explain: “These mites can be treated with synthetic or organic chemicals but clean and sanitised equipment with regular comb changes is a basic necessity.”
Simon has built his number of hives up to more than 100 over the last three or four years and I asked how difficult it had been to keep the bees content in the wet and cold weather of this spring and summer?
“It is a fine balance to make sure that each hive has plenty of food to maintain their health. Last year was very dry and I would normally have harvested between two and three tonnes of honey. As it was we yielded 2,200 jars which is just over one tonne.
“This year we had a glimmer of false hope in March and three good weeks in April/May but since then prime pollen sources such as lime tree flowers have been stripped very quickly by the rain.”
“Flowers do not produce the nectar in the low light, cold conditions we have experienced this summer, so nectar and pollen that was collected has been eaten on the days when it has been too cold for the bees to fly.”
During the winter additional sugar syrup is required to be fed to be sure that hives do not starve.
Despite these challenges, The Artisan Honey Company and lecturing is Simon’s planned full-time career when he leaves the RAF next summer and I was right in thinking that there are a lot of parallels in keeping planes and bees in flight.
“I have already surpassed the forty hive level for qualification as a bee farmer and our products have been very well received in farm shops and at our stand at the BBC Good Food show.”
“My ambition is to go to the very highest level that I can and be the first Master Beekeeper from Lincolnshire. Meanwhile, I shall be going to the next Apimondia in Kiev in 2013 to defend my gold medal – I just don’t know if I have taken the winning shot yet.”