A MAN with a life-long passion for bees has been honoured for an incredible 80 years of dedication to beekeeping. Ashley Barnard reports.

GEORGE Birks was introduced to bee farming by his uncle in the late 1920s.

That early interest sparked an enduring fascination with bees and led him to become the chairman of beekeeping associations up and down the country.

Now 92, Mr Birks, who is originally from Hartlepool but now lives in Arkengarthdale, near Reeth in Upper Swaledale, has been honoured for his work by friends and colleagues.

At an event attended by current chairmen of Richmond and Beverley Beekeeping Associations and the secretary of the Yorkshire Beekeeping Association, he was presented with a certificate celebrating his 80 years of beekeeping.

"I started when I was ten-years-old or younger - I grew up with them," he said.

"But when I was 12 I became a founder member of the Hartlepool Boys High School Boy Scouts group and gained my bee farming badge."

Mr Birks, who kept thousands of bees at any one time, moved around the country in his job at Midland Bank, and he joined and chaired many local associations including Yorkshire, Beverley, Cottingham, Alnwick, Harrogate and finally Richmond.

While a member of Harrogate Beekeeping Association, Mr Birks' hives contracted American Foulbrood - a disease which attacks the larvae in the hive and can only be stopped by burning the entire colony.

He said: "It was terrible - very distressing to see all your hives, bees and everything that goes with it to be burnt like that."

Although he enjoys honey, Mr Birks said this was just an interesting by-product of keeping the bees rather than the reason to have them.

He said: "I enjoyed handling them and manipulating them. I would wear a full veil because a bee sting on your face can be very serious, but I never wore heavy boots, gloves or anything on my arms.

"I think if you are all covered up you will not be as careful when you handle them so they will not be as calm for you.

"Of course I got a few stings - I had a tool I used to pull the stings out because if you just squeeze the end you release all the poison."

He said he was forced to give up beekeeping in his 80s because his knees were no longer strong enough for him to work on his hives - work he misses every day.

And amid international warnings about the decline in honey bee populations putting pressure on the already fragile food chain, Mr Birks said: "Bees are fascinating things - and they are so important. Almost everything we eat is dependent on bees to pollinate the crops.

"If honey bees were to die out I don't know what would happen to the human population."