Beekeeping, not just a hobby

Science engagement volunteer, Eilish Menzies, considers beekeeping and the role that it plays in food production.

Walking through the MERL galleries you can see the crucial role bees play in past and present global food security. By simply taking a stroll through the collection, you can really get a sense of the progressive steps that honey production has made and inspired throughout agriculture. Our library, archives and Special Collections also contain multiple historical books on bee keeping, bee anatomy and honey cookbooks. However, for a process so old and ingrained in societies all over the world, it seems strange that we are now facing an international reduction in bee colonies.

Much like humans, bees are social creatures, meaning they live together in large colonies. They present one of the few examples of true eusociality, where all individuals in the hive work by cooperative division of labour. The hive is essentially controlled by one female, known as the queen, whose sole function is to reproduce. As the name would suggest, honey bees produce honey. This is their primary source of food and it is obtained from the nectar of plants.

Bees on the whole are incredibly important players in the ecosystem ballgame. When foraging for food they act as pollinators for a range of different plant and tree species, and contribute £200 million to crop production every year in the UK. It’s estimated that one in every three mouthful of food we eat is dependent on pollination by bees.

Image of bees in a hive

Illustration from Life of the Honey Bee.
© Ladybird Books Ltd

Our relationship with bees stems back millions of years, when ancient human cultures would collect honey from wild bee colonies. However, this wasn’t for the faint hearted, as it almost always involved climbing to high and hard to reach places and sticking your hand in a nest of unwelcoming bees. It wasn’t long until humans began to domesticate bees by providing artificial spaces to house the hive. As the growth of bee keeping continued to spread, many new structures were produced to improve the collection of honey. The typical hives you see today are known as Langstroth Hives, named after Lorenzo Langstroth. His design has remained relatively unchanged for over 160 years.

Photo of Langstroth Hive from the MERL 'Year on the Farm' gallery

A Langstroth Hive from our A Year on the Farm gallery.

As for the future of bee keeping, things seem a little bit uncertain. National statistics show that bee populations have not been able to keep up with the increased demand for honey. Disease and harsh winters have meant the global production of honey has become much more irregular, leading to an increase in price. As pollinators, bees are responsible for large proportions of global agriculture, meaning a decrease in their population could have severe consequences on food production and ultimately our survival. This issue becomes apparent when you consider the role of bees within the pollination of rural crops around the globe. Smallholder agriculture makes up 80% of the crops in Africa and Asia and is particularly important in developing communities. For the 2.5 billion people living off of these crops, optimising pollination could be the primary approach in food security schemes.

As the MERL galleries demonstrate, change and uncertainty has always plagued our agricultural industry. We can only hope that the bee populations and the honey industry continue to adapt to these changes and that our future collections will be filled with the results of these achievements.


Melissa Harrison: At Hawthorn Time

Written by Dr Paddy Bullard, Associate Professor in Literature and Book History at the University of Reading. @MatWitness


Melissa Harrison is a novelist, photographer and nature writer based in south London. Her first novel, Clay (2013) established her as a leading voice among the new ‘urban naturalists’. Her second, At Hawthorn Time (2015), is a powerful and ambitious attempt to find voices for several different kinds of modern country-dweller: the itinerant causal labourer, the middle-class incomer, the rooted but economically marginalized rural twenty-something. Melissa also writes non-fiction, including Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, published by Faber in 2016 in association with the National Trust, and contributes to the ‘Nature Notes’ column in The Times.

On Tuesday 17 January Melissa visited Reading to open the MERL/DEL Visiting Speaker Series, a new programme of lunchtime talks organized by the University of Reading Department of English, in collaboration with The Museum of English Rural Life. The theme of the series this year is ‘The Intangible and Tangible Countryside’. Over five talks our speakers will look at different aspects of rural life and culture. The talks focus on how the stuff of the countryside ­– the land, its flora and fauna, its products and artifacts ­– is bound up with all sorts of elusive, immaterial things – with sounds and stories, memories and inheritances, skills and crafts. The series showcases five diverse experiments in disentangling the tangible from the intangible when we describe rural life, or when we imagine what rural life might one day be.

HawthornMelissa read three passages from her novel At Hawthorn Time, and responded dexterously to questions from the audience, and from me as session chair. Over the course of the reading we got a strong sense of the themes and ideas that preoccupy her, and that lie behind her fiction. Cultural and social ownership of the countryside – the perennial question of how to balance the interests of different occupants of and visitors to rural spaces, of whose interests should preponderate – is an especially important subject. For Melissa, conflicts of use and conflicts of meaning will always dominate the public conversation about green spaces and natural environments. In her fiction she sees rural spaces as test spaces for social pluralism, where the incompatible interests of people from different classes and backgrounds can be held together meaningfully, and in spite of that incompatibility.

The MERL curatorial team responded especially warmly to the passages that Melissa read, and to her commentary on them. There was a real sense of sympathy and shared purpose here – after all, the recent redesign of MERL has been all about opening up the collections to tell stories of the different groups of people who have lived and worked in the English countryside. As a novelist Melissa shares with the MERL curators a desire to describe and to narrate an English rural heritage which is vivid and meaningful to the widest possible range of people today, young and old, in both town and country. We all hope that this is only the first of many visits that Melissa makes to MERL and to Reading.

Our next speaker in this free series will be Tanya Harrod, the author of the prize-winning The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century. She will be speaking at The MERL on Tuesday 31 January, 12-1pm. Click here for more information.

Melissa exploring the museum and signing copies of her book.

Melissa exploring the museum and signing copies of her book.

Students: apply for a landscape research bursary before the end of February

Why should I apply?

Our landscape collections are pretty special.

Read this overview of our landscape collections or search our combined library, archive and object catalogue.

Take a look at reasons to use our landscape collections in your research and topic and resource ideas.

Highlights from our Landscape Institute Collections

Highlights from our Landscape Institute Collections

But could I apply?

Are you:

A) A taught undergraduate or postgraduate student?

B) Studying landscape architecture, design or management?  History, geography, architecture, environmental science, ecology or design?

C) Desperate to impress your dissertation supervisors?

D) Reading this before 28 Feb 2017?

Then we look forward to receiving your application!  (Just ask us if you want to check you are eligible).

If you are a taught student in part or full-time higher education, you can apply for one of landscape student travel bursaries.

We welcome your innovative ideas on how you will use our collections in your research.

How do I apply?

The purpose of the student travel bursaries is to enable students to access collections held at Reading related to landscape, including landscape design, management and architecture.

We are offering 2 bursaries of £150 each.

Applications will be by email to (please put “Landscape Bursary” in the subject line).  Applications will be invited from any student in part or full-time higher education.

Interested applicants should submit a CV, and a short statement (max 400 words) outlining their interest in and current work on landscape, stating how the bursary would be spent and how it would be beneficial to their studies.  Applicants should identify those materials in the archive that would be of most benefit to them.


28 February 2017 – applications close

31 March 2017 – successful candidates announced

Any work will need to be carried out and monies claimed by 31 July 2017.


Please feel free to get in touch with our Reading Room if you have any questions. We look forward to welcoming you and telling you more about our landscape collections.  

Written by Project Librarian: Claire Wooldridge

Going digital: Reading Museum and the MERL team up

The digital world is not coming, it is already here.

In fact, it has been here for some time. Online shopping is king, Google knows where you live, almost everyone has a smartphone and the President-elect speaks primarily through Twitter.


But being able to use smartphones, graphic software, websites, social media, apps, tablets, Windows, Macs and everything else remains a steep learning curve for many. Morevoer, digital is not simply simply technology but how we have adapted to these technologies, touching on issues such as online privacy, piracy, open data, hacking and entirely new forms of communication.

And if you think it’s hard keeping up with today’s world on a personal level, imagine how difficult it is to keep entire institutions such as museums up to date.

The job is made easier by how museums are forward-looking, aim to reflect contemporary as well as past society and are keen to adapt new technologies to encourage conversation, learning and discovery. We want to be using digital technologies in marketing, displays and education. We want to be relevant and cutting-edge.

The problem is how to get there.

The Science Museum Lates are a perfect case study of how we can engage new audiences with digital technologies.

The Science Museum Lates are a perfect case study of how we can engage new audiences with digital technologies.

Getting there is the aim of #Reading: Town and Country, a joint project between Reading Museum and the Museum of English Rural Life funded by Arts Council England. Reading is lucky to have two museums which cover such a broad swathe of history and culture: Reading Museum for the town, and the Museum of English Rural Life for the country. Together, we will make the best of most museum’s areas of expertise to better serve Reading’s communities in new, digital ways.

The overview of the project is deceptively simple: to take stock of how we use digital technologies currently and the skills of our staff; to then train staff in the digital areas with most potential; and finally to put those skills to use in shared projects between the two museums.

But this is new ground for us. We need to open the eyes of our colleagues to the potential of digital for our work through case studies from the wider sector. We need to appreciate that everyone has different needs and expectations; some simply need to know how to use Twitter, while others may be interested in how we could use 3D-printing and Virtual Reality. We need to be prepared to thoroughly review our institutional plans and strategies, and ensure they take digital opportunities and realities into account. Above all, we need to make sure that our audiences benefit.

The project will tie the MERL and Reading Museum closer together.

The project will tie the MERL and Reading Museum closer together.

We are not starting from ground zero, however. Both museums of course have websites, are on social media and have online object databases. Both museums, however, are aware that to remain relevant to our communities we need to be incorporating new technologies into what we do, to be using social media effectively and ensure our systems are keeping pace.

What this means for our visitors is a step-change in how the museum operates to take account of how the world is changing. It means exciting new ways for you to get involved and to learn new things.

What this means for staff is an exciting opportunity to learn new skills, use new technology and transform how we operate both internally and for our audiences.

You can keep up with what we do on our blog, as well as by keeping a close eye on Reading Museum’s and the MERL’s social media accounts!

Reading Museum Twitter

Reading Museum Facebook

The MERL Twitter

The MERL Facebook


January Book Sale

The MERL shop kicks off 2017 with the traditional January Sale. This is your chance to pick up some fantastic bargains, especially among our wide range of books.

book sale jan 17

None of us know what the internet sensation of 2017 will be. But there is no doubt that the sensation of 2016 was the MERL mousetrap story! Want to know the stories behind these deadly little devices? Dip into David Drummond’s “British mouse traps and their makers” (£1.50).

For anyone who has seen our new Evacuee interactive, we recommend two books by Martin Parsons – “War child” and “I’ll take that one” – through his research work, Martin was responsible for building up the Museum’s incredible collection of evacuee memoirs. He is a leading expert on the experiences of children in wartime and his books help to dispel many of the myths about this fascinating period. We have copies of both titles signed by the author (£6.00 and £5.00 respectively).

First encounters with the countryside are also dealt with by “In at the deep end” (£1.50). Agriculture lecturer Paul Harris gathered accounts from 41 students who – despite not growing up on a farm – took the brave decision to study agriculture and found themselves getting a year’s work experience. Completed only weeks before Dr Harris’s death in 2013, these are compelling and fascinating stories, where the warmth of the welcome given by the farmers and farmworkers stands in contrast with the cold of the winter mornings!

If you enjoyed our apple-themed activities at the Grand Re-opening Festival, then Michael Clark’s “Apples, a field guide” (£5.00) may well be the book for you. It can help you to identify that unknown apple growing in your garden or in the park. Or if you are feeling ambitious, you can use it to help you choose which variety to plant! Of course, if you want to go even further and take the path to self-sufficiency, then what better than Sonia Kurta’s “No dear, that’s a pheasant, we’re peasants” (£2.50), full of the pitfalls of having a smallholding and tips for those brave enough to try living “the good life”.

Whatever your interests – from folk art to traction engines and from literature to local history – there are plenty more bargains to be picked up this month. The MERL Shop Sale runs until 5 February.