Dec 12, 2011

Bees Make Good Business Partners

Somehow the fact that I was staring at a hive of cranky bees through a camera lens kept me a little less worried about getting stung as I inched closer and closer to them. My lens was almost touching the little opening at the base of the hive when I got "buzzed."


Bee careful! Click to watch the video.

I suppose the bee that rammed itself repeatedly into my hat just above my ear was warning me that she and her 15,000 other buddies inside the hive were trying to get some shut eye and were not to be bothered. It was a cold day in November, and bees just clump up and sort of go dormant during the winter months. And whereas I think everybody knows not to wake up a sleeping bear, I’ve never been told not to disturb a beehive in the winter. But like bears, and me for that matter, bees can get quite cranky and short tempered if bothered during their sleepy time.

"Do you want to put on the bee suit?" Roger asked as we got to the gate that separated us from about 20-odd hives which sat quietly amongst the trees in the woods. "Are you?" I answered. He said he wasn’t, so I thought aloud, "Well if you aren’t, I’m not gonna." I figured I would trust the man who does this year round, and if I just stuck to the rules (move slowly, remain quiet, and no panicking) I would be ok. Everything went well, and when I finally got buzzed I did manage to control my urge to do the Invisible Insect Panic Dance. After a careful check in the folds of my hat, I figured my time was up, so we packed the gear and left.

The Paynes family and staff.

Roger Payne is a tall, gentle fellow who spends his days with bees. Hundreds of thousands of them. He is a third generation beekeeper, and along with his family runs Paynes Southdown Bee Farms. Located in the tranquil Sussex countryside in the south of England, Roger and the rest of the family and staff tend to countless hives scattered around the area and harvest the honey and beeswax that the bees produce. They turn that bounty into a range of products that are both edible delicacies, such as raw honey, jams, and candies, as well as functional accessories for the home and tools and equipment for the practicing beekeeper.

As is typical of the region this time of year, it was grey and a bit drizzly the week I spent there. It was also a bit odd that I was shooting a documentary on a beekeeper during the winter months. Maybe it fits MailChimp’s commitment to being unconventional. Regardless, there was ample activity at Paynes facility to make up for the lack of busy bees flying around practicing their pollen collecting activities that mark the warmer seasons.

Tucked into a cluster of small buildings which used to make up the stables of a larger estate next door, Roger and family are utilizing every square inch of space for the different aspects of running a thriving bee-based business. From small workshops in which they pour beeswax molds or build hives, to a jarring and labeling room, a storefront, a shipping and packaging area, there was not a square inch left unused. There were computers and desks tucked under staircases and squeezed into storage rooms between shelves stacked with cases upon cases of honey products. Yet I felt as though nobody seemed to mind the cramped quarters, perhaps because they spent so much of their time outdoors, year round, tending to their bees.

I spent a lot of time walking while there, mostly between the B&B, the bee farm, and the local pub (best sticky toffee pudding EVER), so I felt as though I got to feel the land a bit. And regardless of the weather being cold or the season grey, I could see how working with nature in such lovely surroundings could be a satisfying choice for three generations of Paynes. And to think that that little operation provides such a vast (and delicious!) collection of products to an entire region of the world really adds meaning to the phrase "busy as a bee." As far as beekeeping goes, I think the word "keeping" refers more to "keeping-up-with" than any other meaning one might infer. And as Roger put it, with a smile, "they’re in control of us… definitely."

Watch the customer story.