Warborough Honey are a local producer of honey, and other bee-related products, with around 30 hives, all within 5 miles of the picturesque village of Warborough. Their aim is to not over-manage the bees, as a result they are very docile. We sat down with Steve Ash, their main beekeeper, to talk about what goes into maintaining a happy hive.
Steve, tell us about yourself and your history a bit.
I’ve lived in Warborough for about 30 years, with my wife Heather. We have two grown up daughters (one of which is Cultivate’s own Rosie Jacobs) and a grandson. Most of my working life was spent in the IT business, I made the change to bee-keeping about 5 years ago, initially as a hobby, but increasingly full time!
What drew you to become a beekeeper?
A friend of mine wanted to retire from bee-keeping, and offered me a couple of hives and some of his kit. I’ve had a lifelong interest in nature, and it seemed like an interesting challenge. After doing a couple of courses and working with a few other local bee-keepers, I found almost all of it was very enjoyable, especially working in the countryside, continually (lifelong) learning about bees, and everything connected to them, which includes plants, other insects, the environment and the weather.
What’s the biggest challenge in being a beekeeper?
Honeybees are partly ‘domesticated’, and partly wild, with an incredibly complex social system. They haven’t read that latest book on bee-keeping that you have, and the biggest challenge is always to be aware of what they need, it may not be what you were expecting!
Where are your apiaries (bee hives) based?
I have four apiaries, all within a few miles of Warborough. Our honey is all made within 15 miles of Oxford.
What is the difference between your local honey and mass produced honey?
All good local honey, (ours included), is 100% from our own beehives. The only treatment is to heat it to around 30C to enable us to jar it, and to coarse filter it (to remove small pieces of wax or hive), but all the pollen that is naturally present are left. Unless it states a specific source, mass produced honey could be from anywhere in Europe, or in the world. It is then usually heated to a very high temperature and fine filtered to remove most pollen.
Can you explain the process of honeymaking and extraction a little?
We will only take honey when we are certain that the bees have enough to sustain them over the coming winter. It is in the beekeepers interest to keep those bees as healthy as possible, and honey is a much better health food for the bees than sugar syrup. Once we are sure that they have sufficient, we take a frame of honeycomb, and remove the ‘capping’, which is a thin layer of wax the bees place over the honey when they think it is ready for storage. The frame is then placed in an extractor and spun for a few minutes, the honey is spun out of the frame by centrifugal force, and runs down the side wall of the extractor and placed in a storage container.
What is the most important thing about taking care of bees?
Honeybees are an excellent connection point between humans and nature. We need to understand not just the Honeybee, but all bees and all pollinators, the plants that they depend on, and the countryside that they need in order to flourish. If we want that natural world to thrive, or even exist, in the future, we need to understand it now, and take action to protect it.
How can the community support their local bee population?
Everybody can make some contribution. Gardeners can plant bee-friendly plants, with a range of flowering times, and leave areas of the garden wild to help a wide range of bees and insects. Join a local nature group, volunteer at a local nature reserve, or support a nature friendly charity such as the Earth Trust.
How can the local community support your business?
The people of Warborough and Shillingford, and South Oxfordshire in general have been very supportive! We have products, including honey and beeswax and wraps in all sorts of shops around Oxford, but most notably the Indie Oxford Market Place in the Covered Market, and of course on the Cultivate Oxford online shop. You can also contact us for information about our Bee Awareness days.