Geoffrey Hopkinson’s interesting article in the June edition of Beekeeping Quarterly on “The Decline in School Beekeeping” and his mention of Shrewsbury School prompts me to review the history of the School’s Beekeeping Society and to outline some of the problems we now face.
The Shrewsbury School Beekeeping Society was founded in 1974 by myself and a colleague. It began with just two second-hand hives but over the years it increased in size and was moved around the School site, finally ending up in the orchard of a boarding house and an adjacent woodland. Numbers of boys taking part varied. Some years they exceeded twenty; at that time, the ethos of the School was very much to encourage extra-curricular activities such as beekeeping, but fitting meetings into a crowded School timetable was not easy. However, the problem was largely resolved in about 1977 when the School instituted a ‘Societies Hour’ after lunch on Mondays, with a corresponding reduction in time allocated to sport.
The programme was straightforward. During the winter terms, we offered a course of lectures based on the British Beekeepers’ Association Junior syllabus. In summer, there was practical instruction in hive management. Towards the end of the summer term, boys took the Junior exam – twenty written questions and a ten-minute interview with Geoffrey Hopkinson, for whose help and encouragement we were most grateful. Nearly all pupils passed and were awarded the Junior certificate as well as the School’s beekeeping tie.
The Junior syllabus was later extended to include a requirement that pupils should keep a diary. While this accords with good practice, it proved unpopular with students whose pleasure in beekeeping gave them the chance to get away from the exigencies of academic work; they were not prepared to do it and the Junior exam was dropped. This did not, however, diminish our activities.
I look back with nostalgia at those early years. Hives produced an average of 30 pounds of honey, which was sold in the School shop to fund the purchase of equipment. There were no varroa mites and little evidence of disease. We took off supers (separate boxes placed above the hive chamber, which have a series of shallow combs where bees store extra honey) in September at the beginning of the Michaelmas term and hives were given sugar syrup if needed to help them gain extra stores for overwintering – usually it was not. During the summer, some inspection of hives took place as part of the instruction on swarm control, but generally the hives were left undisturbed and combs lasted from one year to the next. The Shropshire Beekeeping Association were very supportive and welcomed small groups at their apiary meetings.
Running a school beekeeping society has certainly become more demanding in recent years. There are two main reasons for this. In the first place, students face increased academic pressure, while sport seems to receive greater emphasis. Changes to the academic timetable have reduced the Societies Hour to 45 minutes, which is not really enough for in-depth study of a number of colonies. Then the advent of computers and the Internet are compelling distractions; a boy needs to be really keen to leave his console for the apiary.
For staff, too, running the Society has become much more demanding. Fewer hives come through the winter than was the case previously and we have become increasingly dependent on splitting colonies that survive or on swarms to repopulate them. Much of the work has to be carried out in holiday time, for example, taking off supers in July, putting on Apiguard in August and preparing feed. Whereas in the past, we seldom had to replace brood comb, the need to make up large numbers of new combs with foundation takes up time and is costly. At least this is a good winter activity for members, who also make candles and brew mead, along with more formal instruction.
Despite the difficulties, our Beekeeping Society continues to attract a number of boys who either have previous experience or are sufficiently interested to embark on a new hobby, to which many will return in later years. We are encouraged by the complete refurbishment of our store and extracting room to comply with food processing regulations. We are conscious of the importance of beekeeping to the national economy – in fact, we are the only School activity that contributes to agriculture in both theory and practice. The challenges are great but we look to the future with some small degree of optimism.