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.


Press release: Apples in abundance? Turn your surplus into juice at Uni Museum’s Apple Day, Saturday 19th October

Press release, October 14th 2013

Wondering what to do with the extra kilos of apples from your garden tree? The Museum of English Rural Life has the answer! Bring your surplus apples to MERL’s Apple Day on Saturday 19th October and watch special guest Richard Paget press them into delicious juice.

Apple schematic from the Herefordshire Pomona

Apple schematic from the Herefordshire Pomona

The Museum (MERL), which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, celebrates Apple Day as part of the popular annual celebration of English apples and orchards.

Caroline Gould, Deputy University Archivist and organiser of MERL’s event, said “Apple Day is one of the Museum’s most popular annual events. The different varieties of apples to taste are the stars of the show, along with traditional activities such as the longest peel competition and the apple and spoon races,  but each year we look for new activities to enhance the event. This year we are delighted to be welcoming Richard Paget of ‘My Apple Juice’ whose community ‘Apple Juice Project’ aims to help communities raise funds by turning surplus, often wasted, fruit from their gardens and local areas into juice. Bring your surplus apples to MERL on the day and see them turned into delicious juice!”

“This year visitors will also be able to see a cookery demonstration by Charlotte Fyfe, author of ‘The Apple Cookbook’ and taste freshly made apple fritters, take part in an apple study being run by academics from the School of Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy at the University of Reading,  and find out about The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent.

MERL Archives and Library staff will be on hand to show visitors photographs and beautifully illustrated texts from the Museum’s collections . Caroline said: “Visitors to Apple Day have the opportunity to see the rare and highly sought after first Herefordshire Pomona, as well as 1950s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food films about apple cultivation, and the strikingly illustrated Two Rivers Press book ‘Apples, Berkshire, Cider’ by Duncan Mackay.”

Apples Berkshire Cider by Duncan Mackay

Apples Berkshire Cider by Duncan Mackay

“Visitors to the event can enjoy tasting different varieties of English apples supplied by Cross Lanes Farm in Mapledurham, and the growers themselves will be on hand to discuss and sell their apples. The Conservation Volunteers will be back to help families make bee hotels and R&J Nickless beekeepers will be there to explain the importance of bees to fruit crops. Families will also be able to make badges with the Nicklesses and fluffy apple pompoms with MERL volunteers.

“The MERL shop will be stocked up with apple-based goodies including toffee apples, juices and chutneys’. Tea and delicious homemade ‘Country Markets’ apple pie and cakes will also be available in MERL’s ‘Studio Cafe’”

The Apple Day event takes place from 1 to 5pm on Saturday 19th October at the Museum of English Rural Life on Redlands Road in Reading. Admission is £1 for adults and is free for children. Everyone is welcome. Full details can be found on the MERL website

Media are welcome to attend. Contact Alison Hilton at or call 0118 378 8660

Volunteers’ Voice #5 – Gardening at MERL

In this month’s Volunteers’ Voice, Volunteer Co-ordinator Rob Davies gives some background on some gardening at MERL and enlists the help of our two of our gardening volunteers to explain how they have helped create bee-friendly habitats in the MERL gardens…

We have an outstanding volunteer gardening team who come, rain or shine, to tend to our gardens. We have a series of plots which have a different theme every year. In the past we have had a war-time garden, white borders and a myriad of tulips.

Tulips and  volunteers March 2012

Tulips and volunteers March 2012

Our volunteer garden team also have worked on the National Lottery Project ‘A Green Welcome’ which has transformed our dull uninviting front garden into a welcoming and wildlife friendly space. We worked with The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) on this project, they are an inspirational organisation who work with volunteers on sites across Reading. I certainly learnt a lot from them, in particular how to make hurdle!

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

This year we opted for plants that encourage bees. With the national decline in the bee population, we have themed our plots not only to attract and support bees but also to encourage visitors to the museum to do the same.

Below, two of gardening volunteers, Tony and Roger have described the work they have done but also talk about the Bee World project which is being coordinated by the Friends of the Earth.

The “Bee World” is an idea that is being promoted by Friends of the Earth. According to their website, Bee Worlds are havens of wildflowers in urban and rural spaces. They provide essential food and shelter for bees, and help reverse the trend of declining bee populations in the UK. To find out more about Bee Worlds, you can download a Bee World Information Pack from the Friends of the Earth website, or borrow a copy to use during your visit to MERL.

Our Bee Project at MERL has been set up to show you what you can do in your own garden to help bees – whether by leaving a part of your garden to nature’s care, or by growing a variety of flowers and vegetables that provide food for bees. Remember, bees are like people, they need somewhere to live, and regular meals.

Bee friendly plot

Bee friendly plot

Here are some of the things we have done to help bees in the MERL garden:

  1. Half-hardy annuals. After the first of three beds of roses, Bed 1 nearest to the main entrance to the gardens was used to grow flowering plants that were bought from White Tower Nursery at Aldermaston. These are mostly half-hardy annuals (raised under glass and planted out as soon as spring frosts are over) plus a few perennials. They all have one thing in common: they are attractive to bees of many species.
  2. Hardy annual mixtures. Bed 2 was divided into four sections and annual flower seed sown directly into the ground in early April. They were covered in permeable horticultural fleece to conserve moisture and maintain warmth in the early days of the spring. Four mixtures of annual flowers were grown: “Wildflower Honey Bee-friendly mixture”, “Butterfly mixture”, “Fragrant mixture” and “Fairy mixture”.Germination was excellent and by mid June many of the species in the four mixtures from Thompson and Morgan had begun to come into flower. The results were quite startling in the range of species, flower type and colour (we have still not identified many of them yet!). This wide range of species is a most important factor in supporting the population of various pollinating insects since the flowering period of so many species differs. The length of time that they were in flower was very satisfying and the later part of the summer weather was just what they needed. These beds in particular seemed to be alive with insect life for the whole summer. It is also a very inexpensive way of covering odd sunny corners of gardens with colour and interest. At the same time, they provide pollinating insects with a source of nectar and pollen during their most active period.
  3. Vegetables. We also grew runner beans, french beans and broad beans as examples of vegetables that bees pollinate. Difficult weather conditions this year meant that the early broad beans germinated badly in the wet part of the early summer and had to be sown again. The next sowing merely provided an excellent food source for black aphids as the hot weather tightened its grip. Detergent spray was used with a suitable level of outrage but ensured only cleaner-looking aphids. That’s horticulture!

You can see more pictures of the bee friendly beds at MERL on our Flickr page