Monday, 28 April 2014

A Bee in My Bonnet!

The latest bee blog from Martha Kearney. Follow the seasons and gain a unique insight into the world of beekeeping with Martha Kearney, BBC journalist and beekeeping enthusiast. Martha has raised awareness of the honeybee's plight, notably through the BBC 4 series “The Wonder of Bees”.

I was asked to give a speech recently in my new role as President of the Classical Association and decided to pick the theme of beekeeping in antiquity with the title Mellis Caelestia Dona, the heavenly gift of honey. That comes from the most famous bee poem of all time - Virgil's Fourth Georgic. As well as being beautiful verse, this also contains remarkably good beekeeping advice including the best plants to have nearby, to use smoke to calm the bees and the need for a source of water. He does get a bit nutty about producing bees from the carcass of a dead ox which was known as Bugonia in ancient times. If you've ever looked at a golden syrup tin you'll get the idea. They used the image of a dead lion from a Biblical story. Nonsense of course as honey bees hate carrion.

Bees were popular from the most ancient of times. There are pictures of beekeepers in Egyptian temples from four and a half thousand years ago.

And take a look at this beautiful brooch from the Minoan civilisation on Crete.

Virgil was only one of several ancient authors who wrote on bees - Homer, Hesiod, Aristotle, Cato, Pliny, Columella and Varro for whom the nasty varroa mite is named. I kept my other half informed about my research and told him one day that I had found a new word - mellarius which means beekeeping slave. "I already know the meaning of that word" he said drily.

You can see us both in action in episode 3 of The Wonder of Bees on BBC4 at 8pm on Monday night. The earlier ones are on the iplayer. This time we are extracting honey in a very much Don't Try This at Home way. I also meet a natural beekeeper who lets her bees swarm and doesn't use chemicals to treat for varroa. You can find more information here.

But many beekeepers will disagree with that approach. There is extensive information on the British Beekeepers association site here.

They also run a scheme called Adopt a Beehive for people who want to support bees with keeping them themselves.

If you have any thoughts on how the government can help honeybees and other pollinating insects, then there is still time to contribute to the consultation on the National Pollinator Strategy which ends on May 2nd. For more information on how the NFWI and WI members are getting involved in the campaign, and for details on how you can help, please visit the website.

If you have any thoughts on my blog or bees, do get in touch via Twitter @MarthaKearney

To read more from Martha, please visit her bee blog on the NFWI website.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

A Bee in My Bonnet!

The latest bee blog from Martha Kearney. Follow the seasons and gain a unique insight into the world of beekeeping with Martha Kearney, BBC journalist and beekeeping enthusiast. Martha has raised awareness of the honeybee's plight, notably through the BBC 4 series “The Wonder of Bees”.

My hives have now truly become Bee List Celebrities. This weekend the society magazine Tatler came to photograph them for their feature called Pet of the Month.

I am not too sure about the lineage of my bees but Apis Mellifera does have a noble heritage. The Barberini family in Rome had a bee as their emblem. Napoleon picked one as the symbol of his grandiose coronation.

The reason Tatler was interested is because my TV series The Wonder of Bees begins on Monday April 14th, the first of four about the ups and downs of beekeeping in the course of a year. I thought we were doomed from the outset as it was so cold last year.

Under the expert eyes of John Everett, a master beekeeper from Norfolk, I was taught many new aspects of beekeeping from spotting disease to seeing a baby bee being born.

See video clip here

I also became much better at spotting the queen but I still find it very difficult to see eggs which are like tiny white threads in the hexagonal cells. John also showed me a way of controlling swarms but I'm not sure I am ready to follow suit. It involves clipping the queen's wings.

See video clip here

So did we succeed against all the problems of the weather and produce a jar of wildflower honey? Stay tuned......

You can find more information on the Facebook page The Wonder of Bees or on Twitter @wonderofbees

For related newspaper coverage see:

The Independent; To bee or not to bee

The Telegraph
; Archbishop of Canterbury - I talked to the bees

The Financial Times; Martha Kearney's bee list celebrities

Martha Kearney's full Bee Blog is available to view on the NFWI website here.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

"Only one of my five children has ever had a banana"

Abbie Traylerr-Smith/Oxfam
“Since the snows melted last month Yazmik Josephyan has made a daily two hour trek into the mountains to go foraging for Mandak.”

In 2012, the NFWI launched a programme of work on food security, the WI Great Food Debate, with the aim of opening up a public conversation on how to feed an ever increasing population with finite land and resources. Since that time, federations and WIs up and down the country have held debates exploring the issue and investigating solutions. This year, we at Norfolk Federation decided to base our annual International Women's Day celebration on the theme of ‘Shared Earth, Common Ground’ to scrutinise some of these issues further. Norfolk is the home to many experts on this topic, so we were not short of specialist input, and we had plenty to talk about. Were the answers Global or Local? Organic or GM? We needed a conversation.

Wendy Harwood of The John Innes Centre (JIC), an independent international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology, started the debate. She questioned whether, in light of technological advances in genetic modification (GM), we should be reconsidering the way we approach the production and regulation of GM foods. Peter Melchett, Policy Director at the Soil Association and Norfolk organic farmer, made it clear to us what our choices are as individuals in a world that already has enough food to feed a growing population, but not always in the right place. He explained that we all need to change our diet, and reduce the level of empty calories and cheap, intensively reared meat that we all consume. He highlighted the benefits of organic farming that include the potential of a lower carbon footprint and a closed system in which farmers, particularly in the less developed world, are not reliant on outside forces to produce their food.

We continued the conversation in workshop sessions, which allowed us to explore a number of different perspectives. Should we eat seasonally and avoid vegetables being flown in from Kenya, freeing Kenyan women to grow food for their own families? Or do Kenyan women want jobs to earn money, send their children to school, move to the towns and shop at their convenience in the local supermarket? It was good to hear the debate between Norfolk organic gardeners and those who had travelled to East Africa and had spoken to the women in question. Another discussion was the management of overseas aid. Was it right that money for food aid given to Egypt may have been used to irrigate the desert so that we in the western world could buy new potatoes at Christmas? Once again, global food issues are inextricably linked with local consumption.

Alejandro Chaskielberg/Oxfam
Oxfam beneficiary Tioko Korima, 20, waters the vegetables she is growing in her kitchen garden

Later Martyn Davey from Easton & Otley College explained why “Horticulture Matters” and Grant Habershon, Project Manager with Norwich Food Bank, described how many families in Norwich end up going hungry when a sudden crisis such as bereavement, redundancy or illness, leaves them unable to feed themselves or their families. Benefit delay was highlighted as a particular problem, and even families who are coping well can find themselves struggling in August, when free school meals are not available. Food banks are increasingly plugging the gaps and Norwich Food Bank is no exception; it expects to feed more than 7,000 people this year and launched its first Lunch Club in August 2013. There was an opportunity to catch up on a Channel 4 documentary featuring some of the children it has helped.

For our final panel session, the speakers were joined by Christine Hill from the NFU and Young Farmers Club, and Simon Wright MP. The discussion was wide ranging, but it proved hard to come up with conclusive answers. Could GM co-exist with organic principles? Should the debate be so polarised? The rise in obesity goes hand in hand with economic development, but what causes famine? Is it the force of nature, or economic, or political? The management of soil and water is critical, but not always under the full control of the local farmers. The conversation is clearly a complicated one, and this was reflected in the ensuing discussion. As one member said, “Action? The problem is where to start. Probably reviewing the compost and looking at the politics behind issues of distribution though we'll see lots of food for thought”.

But it did become clear that many participants left with ideas that they felt they could pursue locally. The last words go to them:

“I thought the day was very good, interesting and thought provoking, I have never been moved to tears before but those two children on the food bank video started my tears and I shall now try to encourage my WI and others to collect and help in the Swaffham area.”

In fact many of those who thought they would take action wanted to “spread the word regarding excellent work of food banks and Lunch Clubs”.

In general, several members said that they “Will share with our local WI” and “Hopefully my WI will become more informed and then action to follow. Perhaps set up our own food collection point for the local food bank”.

Others said they would “find out more about the debate concerning organic and GM”… “Eat less meat” … “Grow more of my own food” … “Will waste less, compost more and consider an allotment. Will spread the word” … “Take more interest in sustainable food, seasonal food and the wonder of nature's bounty.”

Are the answers Global or Local? Organic or GM? We needed to start the conversation.

Supplied by Norwich City Council

This post has been written by Mary Dorrell from Barford, Wramplingham & District WI in Norfolk Federation. Mary sits on the NFWI Public Affairs Committee as a Federation Representative.

Step behind the door of 104: Members’ Open Days 2014

Following their success in 2013, the NFWI will be holding Members’ Open Days once again this year from 15-16 October 2014. WI members are invited to visit the NFWI Headquarters and see what really happens behind the door of 104!

Hosted by the NFWI Chair and the Chair of the NFWI Membership committee, the Open Days provide WI members with a valuable opportunity to meet with NFWI staff and find out more about the work that we do. It’s also a great chance to meet and share ideas with members from other WIs across the country. As well as taking a guided tour of our building, every attendee receives a commemorative photograph in the style of the front cover of our membership magazine, WI Life – a fantastic souvenir to take away from your visit.

The 2013 Members’ Open Days were extremely popular with WI members – a huge amount of applications were received, and those in attendance gave us some great feedback. Here are some of the comments we received:

“We were made very welcome and it was nice to see the building from where ‘everything happens’ and to hear from those people who work in all the various departments there who make it happen. We now have a much better idea of what goes on at Headquarters.”

“I feel that I gained a greater insight into the day to day life at HQ, I have only been a member since January this year and feel that I truly belong.”

“We really enjoyed our visit and found it to be both informative and enjoyable. It was interesting to meet with other WIs across a wider geographical spectrum and to hear their questions and some of their work.”

The NFWI Membership department will now be collating members’ application forms before the submission deadline of 31 July 2014. If you’d like to apply for a place, further information can be found in the March WI mailing, and on the Membership area of the WI Moodle.

For any queries on Members’ Open Days 2014, please contact Eleanor Rudge at, or telephone 020 7371 9300 ext. 247.