“There’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein - ‘If we didn’t have honey bees, civilisation would die out in six years’,” said Phil Korassandjian, amid the sound of frenzied buzzing from the hives he helps to tend in Ecclesall Woods.
“He probably didn’t say it, and it’s probably not true - but it sounds good.”
However, Phil admitted that these are worrying times for bees. Their populations are in decline across the world, and while the extent of the crisis is unclear, reasons put forward for the fall in numbers range from the overuse of pesticides to diseases which can wreck colonies.
So the Sheffield Beekeepers’ Association aims to educate the city about the insect pollinators’ vital importance to the environment - teaching people how to set up hives, look after bees and produce honey, as well as regularly dealing with swarms which gather in suburban gardens.
Indeed, Phil was forced to break off his conversation when a householder telephoned him in a state of alarm.
“This happens all the time,” he said, before quizzing the caller: “Are you sure they’re honey bees? Are they furry?”
The association has been running in its current form for five years, and now has more than 180 members on its books, making it one of the largest groups in Yorkshire.
Working alongside the city council, members established a training apiary behind the Woodland Discovery Centre off Abbey Lane, where popular beginners’ courses are held, along with lessons in ‘swarm control’ and general bee husbandry.
The enthusiasts are also focused on efforts to breed queen bees, with the aim of creating a ‘Sheffield bee’ perfectly adapted to the city’s environment.
There are nine colonies at the Ecclesall Woods apiary, which equates to around half a million bees. With such large numbers, getting stung is inevitable, and something the members shrug off admirably.
“We get stung round the clock and it still hurts,” said training manager Eugene Grant, who has 35 years’ beekeeping experience. He indicated the signs on the wall giving instructions on emergency treatment in cases of anaphylactic shock.
“The people here are very supportive of what we’re doing, but there’s a limit! They don’t want to get stung. Bees vary a lot in temperament.”
Crushing a bee is not advisable, Phil chipped in. “When you crush bees it lets off an alarm pheromone which alerts others.”
Meanwhile Phil and the group’s chairman, Ian Smith, were busy inspecting the hives. The bees - fed on shop-bought syrup - start as larvae in a ‘brood box’ at the bottom of the hive, and honey is deposited in sections above known as ‘supers’.
Ian pulled out a slide from a super heavily laden with honey and weighing at least 15 kilos. He pointed out a honeycomb capped with pure beeswax - once the wax was shifted, fresh, golden honey dripped out.
The smell of smouldering cedar wood filled the air as Phil puffed away with a smoker, intended to have a calming effect on bees.
“One theory is bees are pre-programmed about forest fires, so when they smell smoke their first thought is to fill themselves up with honey, leave the nest and go somewhere where there’s no fire,” he said.
“When they fill themselves up with honey it placates them. My personal theory is that they just don’t like smoke!
“But there are a lot of opinionated people in the beekeeping world. You have to be a nerd to do it. I had a swarm land in my garden many years ago, and someone said it would be a lovely place to keep bees. The seed of the idea was sown and it went from there.”
And Ecclesall Woods is another perfect spot for the pastime, it seems.
“We’re surrounded by good forage and flowers,” Phil explained.
“One of our aims is to educate members of the public about the importance of bees and this is a great venue for us to do that.”
Ian added: “The hands-on sessions are a nice way of getting a feel for bees without having to make the outlay and finding out you’ve made an expensive mistake.”
Bees such as those at Ecclesall Woods are commonly imported from countries including Slovenia and Cyprus, so breeding queens will allow the association to have control over its bees’ attributes, as well as adding further locally-sourced lustre to its jars of Sheffield Honey.
“The idea is to breed a local bee adapted to the environment - a Sheffield bee, if you like,” said Phil.
“Thirty per cent of what we eat is pollinated by bees. They’re certainly affected by what people are doing, chemicals in the environment and so on.”
The creatures are still a mystery and a marvel though, even to experienced hands like the association’s members.
For example, bees perform a ‘wiggle dance’ in the hive, alerting others to where the best foraging spots are, based on the sun’s location.
“They’re doing that in the pitch black, and somehow other bees know what they’re doing through contact, vibration and smell,” said Phil.
“I don’t like to use the word intelligence. It’s instinct. They’re 60 million years old, these things, much older than we are. To say ‘intelligence’ anthropomorphises them too much. They’re very well adapted to survival, and communication, and how to keep their species going.
“In a hive, if a queen lays an unfertilised egg, it turns into a drone - a male bee - that doesn’t have a father. If a human did that we’d call her the Virgin Mary!
“Beekeeping is fascinating from beginning to end.”
Visit www.sheffieldbeekeepers.org.uk for more information.