A rise in the amateur apiarist is helping our threatened bee population. Siobhan Holt reports.

Plumber Mark Barrett is sitting down a breakfast of toast and honey with a huge grin on his face.

He is relishing the taste of his first batch of honey he has collected this year since embarking on a new hobby as a beekeeper.

The 42-year-old from Balsall Common is one of a growing number of urban beekeepers who are helping to combat the decline of these precious insects.

Despite fears the population of bees was plummeting due to disease and loss of habitat, the British Beekeepers Association has seen an increase in their numbers due to a growing popularity in hobby apiarists.

Mark may be a new recruit to the beekeeping community but he is quickly becoming an expert on the subject.

The active apiarist has been keeping three hives in the back garden of his fiancee’s home for the past year, although it’s not been without its problems.

“I have been stung a few times,” laughs Mark. “It all sounds a bit mad but it’s actually really interesting. This year I’ve produced around 28 pounds in weight of honeycomb which is equal to 28 jars of honey.”

For Mark, beekeeping is something he is very passionate about.

“I’ve always liked nature and agriculture. For my breakfast, I like to eat honey on toast and one morning, I thought why not cut out the middle man and make it myself.

‘‘So I took part in a 10-week beginners course in beekeeping at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire and bought all the equipment and I’ve being doing it ever since.”

Over the past year, Mark’s commitment has intensified.

“I now have one full-sized hive and two starter hives. In the summertime there can be around 60,000 to 70,000 bees in the hive,” he explains.

“It’s challenging, but good fun. It doesn’t matter what size your garden is, anyone can keep bees.”

Mark has had a few minor accidents. In the summer his bees escaped from the hive. “They swarmed next doors’ barbecue and I had to collect them all up,” laughs Mark.

Like many apiarists, he is worried about how the bees will survive during winter and how the weather may affect the hive.

There are lots of threats to bees, such as the varroa mite, but Mark has an interesting trick for humanely killing the mites by using icing sugar.

“If you sprinkle icing sugar over the bees they begin to groom themselves and kick the mites off. It’s a more organic way of killing them,” he explains.

Martin Smith, the president of the BBKA said a greater awareness about beekeeping as a hobby has led to a dramatic increase in the number of bees over the past three years.

The BBKA itself has seen membership rise from 9,910 in 2006 to around 20,000 this year.

A recent survey conducted by the BBKA showed that the average beekeeper manages six hives but beekeepers in the West Midlands have been leading the way with an average of about 7.3 hives.

The survey found that the average beekeeper produces in honeycomb, 30 pounds of weight from their colonies, however the region produced six per cent above the average from its colonies.

“The Midlands has more sunshine and higher average temperature which means that the yield is slightly above average,” he explains.

“Urban hives actually produce better honey than rural hives because there is a better mix of flowers throughout the year,” he adds.

The BBKA recommends people interested in embarking on the hobby should take part in a beginners course with a local beekeeping organisation.

“Keeping bees is a great stress reliever. It’s also a great way of doing your bit for the environment and ensuring that our countryside stays the way it is,” he adds.

But for those who can’t physically take up beekeeping they can adopt a virtual beehive.

People who sign up to the £29.50 adoption scheme will receive various gifts, such as a jar of traditional British honey and a regular newsletter.

The money raised from the adoption scheme will help towards research into combating the varroa mite as well as studying viruses and infections.

* To find out about beekeeping courses visit www.britishbee.org.uk