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Posted 16 December 04

The Bee Inspector

(Go to the above link to listen to the programme on radio)

Sundays 2 - 23 February 2003 2.45-3.00 pm

Who do you call when your bees stop buzzing or the honey goes off? Why, the Bee Inspector of course. He may be the man from the Ministry, but David Kemp is the saviour of many a bee-keeper. What's more he's full of fascinating facts about these extraordinary little creatures

Left to right: Mike Hally (producer), Brian Wilde (beekeeper, Victorian apiary) and David Kemp (bee inspector) © Mike Hally, Pennine Productions

This series follows David through the seasons, from spring, through summer, autumn and winter. And along the way we learn something of his full life from keeping bees as a boy, to finding his vocation as a bee inspector. He explains how beekeeping has reflected the changing nature of the British countryside. Before the war farming was in the doldrums, but "bad farming was good beekeeping" - overgrown hedges, abundant wild-flowers and the like assured plentiful honey crops. Intensive farming after the war was terrible for bees, but they were saved in the seventies when flowery crops like the vivid yellow rapeseed became popular. And now lush suburban gardens attract well-fed bees!

1. Spring

The first programme finds David in the spring, checking how well bee colonies have survived the winter and looking for the first signs of disease as the days get warmer. One of the highlights is a trip to Hodsock Priory, most famous for its spectacular display of snowdrops in February, but also home of rare, beautifully-preserved and working Victorian beehives. Designed like little houses, unlike the modern functional box hive, the most striking is a white tower, with a genuine gold-leafed portico for bees to come and go through. "If I was a bee, that's where I would want to live" says David.

2. Summer

The second part is summer-time, with a round of County Shows to add to the numerous individual inspections. Bad weather keeps the growing colonies inside their hives until, like mischievous children on a rainy day, they break out and swarm in places they're not wanted. We hear the sound of "roaring" bees ripening off the honey - they buzz furiously inside the hive while clinging on with their feet to create an air-conditioning system that drives the excess moisture from the stored nectar.


The draught is strong enough to blow out a candle held at the hive entrance. And we hear the rare sound of "piping" queens, calling to each other prior to a fight to the death that leaves just one survivor, the new queen. By August the female worker bees are at it again, killing all the male bees in what has been known for centuries as "the slaughter of the drones".

Victorian Beehives © Mike Hally, Pennine Productions

3. Autumn

As late summer merges into autumn in programme three, many beekeepers have moved their hives onto the moors to take advantage of the late crop of heather honey. David still keeps bees and takes the opportunity to harvest his own honey, and we eavesdrop on the process. With the pace of inspections slowing down, David also finds time to reminisce about his own start in beekeeping at the age of just 9 years old. He also reflects on how beekeeping has been affected by the changing face of farming since World War II.

4. Winter

Winter is a time of consolidation. A chance to go round the beekeeping groups, advising them how to keep their colonies alive through the winter, and how to watch out for disease next spring. Highlight of this final programme is a rare chance to go inside the Government's Central Science Unit at York, home of the specialist bee research unit. David is a regular visitor, but access for this programme is something rather special. The programme ends with the beekeeping year turning full circle as he checks his own colonies have survived the winter in Chatsworth Park and looks forward to the return of spring.


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