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Interview: Maureen Little, beekeeper, gardener

19 May 2023

‘Allow nature to do what she needs to do and it’ll come right’

My dad had a market garden in Sussex; so I grew up knowing instinctively how to grow things. A chance encounter with a beekeeper about 15 years ago led me to be bitten by the bug — or, rather, stung by a bee, literally — and I took up beekeeping myself.

I realised that it wasn’t the bee’s fault: it was my fault. You open the hive to check there’s no disease and no problems, but, if someone came and ripped the roof off your house, and rummaged around your bedroom, you wouldn’t be best pleased. The bee was defending the queen and the colony. They only sting if they’re forced to.

My bees are doing well. I’ve just got two hives now. I have losses, but these things happen. It’s down to husbandry as well — if you look after them, they’re more able to look after themselves if interlopers get in.

Don’t forget, each hive needs about half an acre of forage to maintain it. We’ve got to almost saturation point in towns, simply because there isn’t enough food for them. We can top up their food, but bees need a varied diet, like us.

Overall, honey bees are OK, but they’re only a small part of the pollinator brigade. There are so many more species, and other bees — solitary bees, bumble bees — aren’t perhaps doing so well.

My books are all gardening-related, including growing perennials and herbs, but my new book is on plants that are beneficial to pollinators.

We’re much more aware of pollinators and wildlife in general and our place in the natural world — thanks to Sir David Attenborough and others. If it fails, so will we. If every house in the country had nothing but a window box, the impact would be tremendous. We can all do our bit. There’s lots of information and new initiatives like “No Mow May” when you don’t mow your lawn, so that hidden flowering plants can grow to help bees and other insects early in the season.

I wasn’t ready to do my degree in Business Studies and German; so I joined the WRENs at the tender age of 20, and married a sailor — it’s an occupational hazard. I was an education assistant, running the library, arranging courses for sailors and WRENS, and taught basic maths and English myself. The only sea time I got was the Gosport ferry. A few years after I left, they decided women could serve at sea on the front line. I’m glad I didn’t have to do that.

After I brought up my family, I did a degree in English literature and language, and they asked me to lecture for them for many years. I did an MA in Women’s Studies, and then we moved to Lancashire; so it was one of those crossroads: “What do I do now?”

I did a garden-design course, and, after that chance meeting with the beekeeper, he asked me to write a chapter of his book on urban beekeeping. I realised that there was more than a chapter, and I ended up writing a book about gardening for honey bees, and other books on gardening. More recently, I owned and ran a plant nursery specialising in pollinator-friendly plants. I’m now semi-retired, getting back to writing, and talking to groups.

For the most part, they know about pollinating insects and their importance. What they don’t always appreciate is what plants are best: that’s where I come in. Wallflowers are unsung heroes: beautiful, scented, and great for pollinators. My gardening slots on our local community radio also reach gardeners and non-gardeners alike. People need very little persuading, once they appreciate the benefits of planting for pollinators.

We’ve moved recently, and my garden is now in containers. This isn’t so bad, because I can tailor the soil to whatever I’m growing and move the containers to the optimum position. I’ve always loved growing culinary herbs. You can’t beat fresh basil on your tomatoes or oregano on a home-made pizza.

What many people forget is that you can’t allow your plants to starve. I find the slow-release food not that efficacious. I water when necessary, and once a fortnight I give a soluble feed. When I plant up for the winter, I give my plants pelleted chicken manure — sustainable, and with all the nutrients — and then leave them alone.

If you’ve get the ecosystem right, it will more or less look after itself. I remember plagues of aphids one year. Do I spray? let nature take its course? I left nature to take its course, and . . . along came an army of ladybirds. They didn’t annihilate all the aphids, but they killed enough to let the plant recover. Some pests are a food source for frogs and birds; so allow nature to do what she needs to do, and it’ll come right. It may take more than one season, but it will happen. You have to be patient.

With adverse weather, it’s down to having the correct plant for the right place. We’re ravaged by wind, halfway up a hill; so I only use plants that can cope. Find plants that love sun or shade. All the problems that gardeners see are challenges rather than problems; there’s always a way round it, but it may take time.

The gardens I admire most are well-designed: those that feel right as soon as you step into them, whether it’s a Zen garden, with practically no plants, or a kitchen garden crammed with fruit, veg, and flowers.

Gardening’s open to anyone, whatever their circumstances. If you’re a beginner, choose plants that are easy to grow. If you’re disabled, raised, accessible beds are an option. If you’re busy, some plants almost look after themselves. There’s loads of information on various websites. Or join a local gardening group: gardeners are generous and only too willing to help.

I was born in Sussex, and life was tough. My sister and I helped Dad and Mum with the market garden after school. Summer holidays were spent picking tomatoes, and we lived so far in the country that school was a mile walk and a 45-minute bus ride away.

It wasn’t all bad. It taught me that you had to work for anything worth having, and, as a result, you value and appreciate it more. It also showed me the wonder of nature and how none of it was man’s doing.

I was never aware of a moment when God made himself known to me, and certainly didn’t have a road-to-Damascus experience. It was more realising that something is behind everything. Gradually, I came to know that that something is God.

I now experience God every day — sometimes not even consciously. As the hymn says, “God is working his purpose out,” and he uses those who believe in him as his instruments. A kind comment, a word of encouragement, a listening ear, a hug: these are small but very significant ways in which we help each other experience the love of God.

One experience comes to mind: when I was checking my hives. It was a beautiful summer’s day, and the bees were contented, buzzing around collecting nectar and pollen, not at all disturbed by my presence. I paused before moving on to the next hive, taking a deep breath and savouring the moment. Then, another sound layered itself above the buzzing of the bees: a skylark had begun its heart-lifting song, reaching ever higher. All else melted away: it was just me, the bees, the skylark — and a privileged glimpse of heaven on earth.

Bees buzzing and birds singing are the best sounds of all.

I rarely get angry, but I find injustice hard to bear. When something so obviously wrong or unfair is happening, I want to shout out against it.

There is so much wrong in the world that it would be easy to say there is no hope, but, as long as there’s faith in God, then we are saved.

I pray first and foremost for my family. On a larger scale, I pray for peace in all its manifestations: no more war, no more hatred, no more fear; peace of mind and contentment for everyone.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Monet, to hear about his philosophy and how it influenced his art. He was a great gardener; so I’d pick his brains about water lilies and irises.


Maureen Little was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Little Book of Plants for Pollinators: A gardener’s guide is published by the Bee Garden at £18.99, available at: www.thebeegarden.co.uk

The UN World Bee Day is marked tomorrow, 20 May. un.org/en/observances/bee-day

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