Glendale Local History Society

'Keeping the Past Alive'

A HISTORY OF BEE-KEEPING & TALES FROM CHAIN BRIDGE HONEY A talk by William Robson

OF BEES AND MEN.
On 12th. of December members and guests of Glendale Local History Society were introduced to the world of bees by a speaker whose enthusiasm and delight in these little creatures and their world shone through.
Mr. Willie Robson of Chain Bridge Honey Farm was introduced to bee keeping by his father. Mr. Robson senior took up keeping bees after the war and eventually held a government post raising the profile of honey and associated products as part of the post war recovery effort. This job put him in an ideal position to learn from those who had the best in practical experience. Willie himself learnt from his father and building on his accrued knowledge he has for fifty years now developed the honey farm at Chain Bridge.
Bees and man have lived with each other for hundreds of years to the mutual benefit of both. There are references in the bible to the efficacious properties of honey and it was used in the ancient world as a medicine. We were reminded of the quotation on the Tate and Lyle tins “out of the strong came forth sweetness” a reference to Samson’s slaying of the lion and the bees’ subsequent use of the carcass as a home. Aside from lions domesticated bees were housed in hives, called skeps, made from woven straw of the shape that adorns many a honey pot and some hairstyles today! Getting the honey combs from this type of hives must have been a hazardous business necessitating as it did both destruction of the skep and considerable disturbance to the occupants. This changed when in the eighteen fifties the frame hive was introduced from America. Removable frames meant that the honey could be got more easily and the bees remained in their home. Life in a hive is somewhat regimented. We were told how bees work instinctively and to a pattern. Hives can suffer from “low morale”. This phenomenon is well recognised among bee keepers and could be compared to well, low morale in a factory or office. Causes are multiple but adverse weather, unsuitable food, lack of accessible food, poor siting of the hives and poor husbandry generally will result, as with any stock keeping system, in lowered production and death. Willie was at pains to point out that most bee keeping knowledge has come from man’s intelligent observation of their charges over centuries and until recently this knowledge was handed down in a great oral tradition.
That beekeeping was practised in Northumberland is evident in local place names. Bewick means place of the bees and our speaker told us that the archaeological evidence suggests that bee husbandry was practised there in the eleventh century. Similarly it is likely that the monks from Lindisfarne had hives at Beal on the mainland because it would have been too windy for the bees on the island. The prospect of Viking raiders may have caused low morale amongst the brothers but the biting north easterly that brought the raiders over had a similar effect on their bees!
So what of the future? As with all husbandry systems intensification brings problems as well as benefits and changes in one aspect of agriculture have a knock on effect on others. Bees
depend for their food supply on plants such as clover and heather. This in turn affects the taste and quality of the honey. The low acreage of clover grown now compared with former times is a serious challenge. Good moor management by selective and sequential heather burning is essential and benefits not only grouse but bees as well. On the plus side the acreage of oilseed rape grown now contributes to the bees’ diet. Hopefully this will ensure our supplies of honey, bees wax polish, medicinal balms, lip salves and of course the bees. After such a history man would surely be worse off without them.
Charlie Brown
12 December 2012