If you go down to the Denes today…you might be quite surprised by what you find! Heather Barron meets a Darlington couple who started with one bee hive in the garden, and are now founding members of Darlington Beekeeping Association. 

AS keen gardeners using natural methods wherever possible, Maureen and Laurie Brown knew all about the importance of bees, not just to the garden but the ecology of the planet.

They also appreciated that bees are in decline so they wanted to do their bit to encourage their work and survival, but little did they realise where it would lead.

One of Laurie’s work colleagues kept bees and they agreed to take a hive, thinking that the colleague would look after the bees while they learnt from him. But he delivered the hive, along with 20,000 bees – and left them to it.

“We were novices, and we thought that he would come every week to look after the hive and to show us what to do, but he just said, ‘They’re yours now’,” admitted Maureen.  “We very quickly read a lot of books about bee keeping!”

It was a steep learning curve, but over the years, that one hive in their garden in Harrowgate Hill has become eight – five in the garden and three on another site.

Maureen and Laurie, along with a number of other keen beekeepers, wanted to share the joys of beekeeping with others, and set up the Darlington Beekeepers Association (DBKA) with the help of lottery funding.

The Northern Echo:

The association was approached by Darlington Borough Council, which agreed to rent them the old bowling green in Brinkburn Dene, as long as they didn’t make any substantial changes.

In June 2014, the DBKA community apiary was established to enable all residents of Darlington, and the surrounding area, an easy and accessible route in to beekeeping.

The apiary has 15 hives – which can contain up to 60,000 bees per hive – some of which are owned by the Association, while others are owned by individuals.  The hives are located behind high netting, so that the bees have to fly up before they set off in search of pollen.

“We don’t want people walking into the bee’s flight-path,” explains Maureen, “so they have to fly up over the netting when they first leave the hives.”

Members and visitors can stand outside the netting to watch the bees at work, but if they want to go inside, they have to ‘suit up’ in the traditional beekeeper’s protective outfit.

Both Laurie and Maureen admit to being stung during the years they have been keeping bees, but, as Maureen says, “When I’ve been stung, it’s because I’ve been doing something I shouldn’t.”

The Darlington Association comes under the umbrella of Yorkshire Beekeepers Association, which, in turn, is part of national body, British Beekeepers Association.   

Chairman Laurie says: “We started with 12 members and we now have around 70.  Not everyone has their own hives here, but they are interested in beekeeping and come along to the site to get involved and learn more.”

The group meets at the apiary on Mondays through the summer, between 6.00pm and 8.30pm (although, admits Maureen, “we finish at about 8pm, and then we have a cup of tea”). Mondays are bee inspection night, and members also meet on Tuesdays to tend the gardens and carry out any maintenance.

Through the winter, when the hives are quieter because the bees aren’t out collecting pollen, there are monthly meetings at Brafferton Village Hall.

Membership is available for both beekeepers and non-beekeepers, and volunteers are always welcome.

“We are always in need of volunteers to come down and help us,” says Maureen.  “Donations of time, to help with the garden, or of plants and flowers, are always welcome.  And you might get bitten by the beekeeping bug while you’re here.”

There are nine beds planted with bee-friendly flowers and shrubs.  A favourite is borage, but there’s also plenty of lavender, herbs and soft fruits.  Along with some further general flower planting are areas of wild flowers, with plans to introduce butterfly- and bee-loving buddleia.

The Association is always happy to visit schools or businesses to spread the B-word, and a number of corporations support them by sending volunteers to help with gardening and maintenance.

Anyone interested in membership, or more information, can contact any of the officers through the website, or visit the apiary on one of the meeting evenings.

There will be an Apiary Open Day on Sunday, September 10, between 2pm and 4pm.