Although nnoodl is all about getting people slightly out of their comfort zones, it's never my intention to have people terrified or fearful of ever coming back to any of my adventures. With this in mind I ask people to fill out a short form to let me know of any fears, phobias or allergies they may have, and to let me know anything they absolutely would not do. There is usually a bit of a common theme amongst people I find: snakes, heights or very enclosed spaces, like caves. So although my next venture hadn't come up in any of my nnoodl members' forms, I was aware that it may border on the slightly uncomfortable. This particular experience, however, is one that truly is a bit of an exclusive, so much so that numbers were strictly limited to 8 people. Our successful group were advised to meet at Victoria station, where tickets were handed out for the train to Sutton. Hmmm, not to offend any of my friends who live in Sutton, but this did have people puzzled. What special thing could be happening in Sutton?? This coupled with their 'pre event instructions' where they were advised to wear or bring long trousers and covered over shoes or boots and I know they were envisaging some big yomp in the country. As we arrived at Sutton to meet our taxis, however, I advised them we were on our way to Mayfield Lavender, a family run Certified Organic Lavender Farm, situated just outside Banstead in Surrey. I find it hard to believe that so many Londoners have not yet discovered this gem - as the visitor numbers every weekend are testament to it's popularity with tourists.
I am lucky to be good friends with the Head Beekeeper at Mayfield Lavender, Tracey Carter, who is a real authority on all things bee related, so much so that she runs her own podcast, the Beehive Jive.
As the group would need to be split into two smaller groups, I had also taken the opportunity to enrol photographer Vanessa Lees to run a short photography skills course in this beautiful location.
There were gasps of awe and stops for photographs as we made our way to the top of the 25 acre lavender farm, where we were met by Tracey and Vanessa. This really is an assault on the senses in the best possible way, as you are overwhelmed by the never-ending carpet of purple and the amazing smell of lavender. Tracey began by giving us an overview of the lavender field, which was a real labour of love by husband and wife team Brendan and Lorna. Read their fascinating story here.
Then it was decision time, who was ready to step into the lions den, ahem, I mean bee hive area first? There was slight apprehension as the first group got suited up, but everyone was suitably put at ease by Tracey who explained how people might feel with so many bees in front of their face, and highlighted the importance of staying calm. Before they entered the area where the hives were, Tracey talked briefly about the products which come from a beehive: not only honey but also beeswax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly and venom which is used in medical treatment for arthritis. Honey is also used in medicine because of its antibacterial properties. Pollen and propolis are favourite health supplements. And royal jelly, which is what the bees feed the Queen (produced from a gland in their head/jaw) is famous for cosmetics and is also very widely used as a food supplement for racehorses! On the day that we visited the bees were busily collecting nectar from the lavender and also from blackberries.
Tracey has 10 production colonies and 11 baby colonies which she is growing on for next year (they are called a nucleus colony or a nuc for short). There are around 75000 to 80,000 bees in each of her large colonies and about 40,000 in each of the nucs. When opening the hive, first we assessed the hive from the outside, looking at the different components and explaining their function. We then observed the activity at the hive entrance, looking for pollen going in (this means there are babies to be fed), volume of bees coming and going (indicating the size and vigour of the colony) and also looking at general behaviour e.g. scuffles that happen when bees from neighbouring colonies are trying to get in and rob the honey at this time of year. We then gave the colony a few gentle puffs of cool smoke at the entrance and, after waiting for a couple of minutes for this to disperse through the colony, we quietly lifted the roof off. On top is the crown board which is a flat piece of wood that is like the ceiling of the colony. And we took that off and, lo and behold, the wonders of a beehive are revealed!
A few people asked why we use smoke on the beehives. Smoke simply masks the natural alarm pheromone that bees release when the colony is being invaded. It helps to keep them calm so that you can inspect the colony with a minimum of disruption to the bees. It does not burn them! We make sure the smoke is cool and if it isn't we put green leaves of grass in the top of the smoker to cool it down. Beekeepers consider that smoking is like knocking before you walk through the door of someone's house.
We gently went through the frames, lifting them out to check amounts of stored honey and brood (babies) and also to search for the Queen. The queen is vital to the colony as without her, there are no new bees to sustain the colony. She looks different to the other bees, she is longer and larger with a higher thorax and can run quite quickly so she often catches your eye. Although she is the egg laying machine in the colony, and people think she's really important, she is actually completely helpless and can't feed or groom herself. The worker bees have to do this for her and they push her around, often head-butting her or jumping on her to get her to move where they want! Because she is so important we mark her on the thorax with a special coloured marking pen so that we can identify her easily and protect her while we are inspecting the colony. Sufficient honey to feed the colony is also vital especially at this time of year when they are storing honey to feed themselves through the winter. There is always enough honey left to feed each hive through the winter. The alternative is to feed them sugary syrups or pastes which lack the natural vitamins and minerals that are present in nectar.
sWe looked at the worker bees, the female bees who comprise most of the colony there are around 70,000 of them during summer. There are also male bees in the colony during the summer breeding months. They are known as drones and are there only to breed and do not contribute to the colony in anyway. There are only a few thousand rounds in a colony even at the height of summer. At the end of summer the worker bees throw them out, chewing their wings as they evict them from the hive to ensure that they can't fly back in and gorge themselves on the precious honey which the colony needs to survive the winter. It's a pretty ruthless world! Worker bees rule and run the colony and each bee carries out a series of roles and jobs during her lifetime, from cleaning up, to feeding the baby bees and the Queen, to building works, to storing honey, to guarding the hive and then to foraging for nectar water and pollen. They are completely amazing.
Bee communication is an absolute wonder. They are able to communicate in amazing and fascinating ways ranging from pheromones, to vibrations and buzzes, and to what we describe as dances in which worker bees tell each other where to go for good nectar. The most famous of these is the waggle dance which is where a worker dances in a figure eight shape on the face of the claim, shaking her abdomen. The different parts of the dance represent different pieces of information including how good the forage is, where it is and how far, even taking into consideration its angle in relation to the sun at that time of day. They do this in the darkness of the hive and when you lift out a comb while you are inspecting the hive and see the bees dancing, they are surrounded by their sisters, who face them in a ring and sense what they are doing and then follow the instructions.
Pheromones are like chemical signals, the closest word we would use is smells. The Queen gives off a very special pheromone called queen substance which is transmitted through the colony and let's all bees know that she is there, keeping them together. It also suppresses the ovaries of the worker bees and stops them from developing so that the queen is the only bee that lays eggs. There are also alarm pheromones and a pheromone from the sting which alerts are the bees to staying at the same place! There is also a "come here "pheromone which they release to let each other know where they are.
The other thing people were interested in was how bees regulate the internal environment of the hive. This is called homoeostasis. By shivering their wing muscles they are able to heat the hive and keep it at a constant 35° throughout the year, even in the depths of winter. It needs to be this temperature so that the Queen can continue to lay eggs and they can raise babies. They also collect water drops and hang them around the hive when the weather is hot. The water evaporates and cools the hive. The bees also stand at the entrance and fan hot air out of the hive with their wings to cool it down.
Whilst our beekeepers were ensconced in their activity, our second group gathered in the gazebo with Vanessa to talk through some tips and tricks for good photography. Vanessa explained composition and framing of photographs as well as lighting, by showing some examples. She also told the group about the Mayfield Lavender photography competition which served as a good incentive to go out and put their theory into practice. And so off they went into the purple haze to capture their prize winning images. I was really impressed by how they managed to capture some great shots of our friends the bees at work gathering the pollen. As the groups swapped over it was great to hear them enthusing about their experiences, and in particular from those who had been slightly apprehensive about being so close to so many bees.
As with all nnoodl activities, we round off the experience with some food and drink - always a great way to bring people together. Carrying on the theme of the day, we settled down to some lavender infused goodies including lemonade, cakes and sandwiches, all served up in the sweetest little hamper.
Our adventurers shared their experiences and bought some lavender souvenirs before our taxis picked us up to take us back to the station and onwards to London. Well, via a little Sutton establishment for a celebratory drink! Look out for the next nnoodl experience on Saturday 16th September!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.