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Stephen Douglas, Dugy

Community Beekeeping

First published in the BBKA News, issue 229, November 2022

In March of 2021 I created Pure Buzzin Community Interest Company. The company has three aims: to promote inclusion; to increase mental health and wellbeing; and to reduce social isolation. All through the craft of beekeeping.

I have always been a nature lover. As a young lad I would sit on the pavement watching the ant nests, squashing a beetle and putting it near the nest to observe the ants take it below. I grew up in the west-end of Newcastle Upon Tyne in an old mining village called Scotswood; my house was behind Scotswood Natural Community Garden nature garden and I would climb the fence to sit by the pond and explore. A member of staff once found me there and gave me a pair of binoculars and a book of the native plants,
encouraging my journey. Little did I know that in the years to come I would end up working at the garden delivering play and exploration sessions for young children and their families.

Stephen Douglas
Stephen Douglas, Dugy

When I left school, I studied early years education; I had become intrigued about our development as humans. I think that because I have always felt a little different in the way I have thought or behaved, I felt that studying our development would help me understand myself better. Working in day nurseries with young children, I soon became particularly interested in the development of communication and autism. In the next ten years, I went on to work in family support roles, spent time working for a NHS speech and language therapy department, in managerial roles in children’s nurseries and I volunteered and worked in community centres. I love working with people and have worked in areas with high
levels of deprivation; the areas in which I grew up. I had studied to degree level and made a rather successful career, but I felt I wanted something different and looked towards nature.

Bitten by the ‘beekeeping bug’

Towards the end of 2017 I was preparing for my son to be born and I wanted to pick up a fulfilling hobby; honey bees had come up now and again. I attended a course on beekeeping while working in the community garden that I used to go to as a child. After finding a nest of bumblebees in my garden I contacted a colleague who I knew kept bees for advice. This advice led me to scour Wikipedia and YouTube, learning more about these curious insects. I was soon convinced that I wanted to be a beekeeper!

A friend from school and I decided to get our first hive. I had recently relocated to North Tyneside and had quickly got an allotment. When browsing social media, I found a message offering daffodil bulbs from a nearby community centre, enjoying ‘owt for nowt’ (anything for nothing) I went down to Meadow Well Connected Community Centre to get some bulbs for my new allotment plot. I noticed they had a huge community garden. I am a rather forward person at times, following the local saying ‘shy
bairns get nowt’ (shy children do not get anything), so I explained to the staff I was wanting to become a beekeeper and asked if I could use a space in their garden. I was taken through the formalities and welcomed into the centre to use their space. We would go down to the gardens on a Sunday to work on our bees while making lots of mistakes and trying to be better beekeepers.

Community Beekeepers building hives

The community beekeeping project was born

During lockdown of 2020, I spotted a crowdfunding platform, SpaceHive, asking for local people to start up community projects. With my experience in community projects and working with others, alongside my new-found obsession for bees I decided to create a campaign. I pitched to run a community beekeeping project; to fund ten hives and colonies of bees, including suits and tools. The campaign was a success and we raised over five thousand pounds. Seeing the campaign do so well I began to wonder if I could do this full time; working with people to improve outcomes in a community, providing a place for people to come together and thrive, and getting to work with bees every day. I knew I did not want to become a honey farmer, there were already a few companies in the north east doing this very well. Throughout my previous career working with people, I learnt that almost everyone desires one thing; to be included and feel a sense of belonging. I wanted to create a platform for that while sharing my
obsession of honey bees.

I contacted The Business Factory which is a local organisation that provides business support. They gave me assistance in registering as a company and helping me understand what else I would need to do to run a company. I attended workshops including how to create a website and marketing. I was still working as a family support worker delivering a disability inclusion service. I decided that if I was to
make Pure Buzzin a success I would have to leave the family support role to focus on my community beekeeping venture. This was a huge risk to me and my family, but decided we must take risks and follow our instinct.

When organising the community beekeeping project, I advertised the opportunity widely and was surprised to hear from so many individuals who wanted to take part. Everyone was asked to fill out
a short questionnaire including why they wanted to take part. Those who responded that they were on their way to becoming a beekeeper or had already purchased a hive were directed to the Newcastle and District BKA as my aim is not to train up hobby beekeepers; associations are very good at this and they are the best place for people wanting to become a beekeeper. The people I recruited were those who wanted to take part in a community-based activity, meet others, and learn new skills. I purposefully
chose a diverse group, made up of different genders, age, working or studying status, ethnicity and including those who identified as having a disability. I wanted to represent North Tyneside for its diversity, which is something I love about the UK. Priority was given to those living closest to the community centre so I could make the most impact within an area with a proven high level of need. We first met using Zoom, because lockdown restrictions were in place. We spent every Saturday morning
meeting via Zoom for five weeks. I delivered ‘beekeeping basics’ to the group and one week we were joined by the chair of my local association to learn about the BBKA and what our local association can

When lockdown restrictions were lifted, we began meeting in person at Meadow Well Connected Centre on Saturday morning. The hives we purchased through the crowd funding scheme needed to be assembled; this task was a great activity to really bring the team of volunteers together. As we know, assembling a beehive requires some problem solving and communication, alongside developing our carpentry skills. We learnt together, I did not give step-bystep instructions showing how I approach
the task, although I did give a little guidance when faces were looking overly puzzled.

Before our nuclei arrived in July, we spent some mornings in the Community Apiary going through mock manipulations such as the Pagden split using the empty hives. I have some of my hobby hives in the apiary and when doing a mock Padgen split, one of my hives swarmed! We followed the swarm which settled on a nearby apple tree and the community beekeepers watched in awe as I demonstrated how to collect a swarm.

Members of the project are not only learning the craft of beekeeping but I am seeing them create connections and positive networks in their community. Some people, due to various reasons, were feeling isolated and are now given an opportunity to meet other local people. Participants found an environment where they can share their story, tell people what they have been up to and their plans for the future, but also listen to the stories and dreams of others. I feel that this networking and the connections are vital in our lives; we long to feel a sense of belonging.

Friendships have clearly emerged; we have even had two members find love and begin a relationship with each other. Participants share celebrations together and we support each other through our
struggles and worries.

Personally, I find beekeeping meditative and calming. There have been numerous occasions when a community beekeeping volunteer has attended and they are feeling down, stressed about work or health or worried about other current circumstances. I then observe them at the community hives and see them begin to relax. I encourage volunteers to talk to the bees and lead by example as I am always chatting to the bees. It is wonderful seeing members connect and support each other, although realising that they are also communicating with the insects and finding comfort from the bees brings me so much joy.

Some participants have taken up other services offered by Meadow Well Connected, where we have our community apiary. I see this as critical for any service or organisation; one service cannot provide everything to meet the needs of a community or individual. As we can learn from the honey bees, it is by working together that we can better support a community.

During the colder months, there is not a lot to do apart from repairs and building new equipment. We still meet during autumn and winter, anticipating the warmth and practical beekeeping which spring will bring. We sometimes share food around a fire and continue to connect and support each other. From the start of the project we have had a WhatsApp group, which is used by the members to continue to connect with each other through the week. I am now over one year in, working full-time as a community

I have received a further two thousand pounds in funding from the Arnold Clark Community Fund, which helped to buy equipment such as a new extractor and more hives. I deliver Beekeeping Experience sessions for members of the public to attend, and sell a little bit of excess honey and candles.

I also run an Alternative Education Programme for local high schools. Students attend a six-week course where we assemble hives, discover honey bees and pollinators and learn the art of beekeeping. The students often have a high level of need surrounding their emotional wellbeing. I work to improve this and help them to engage in education in a meaningful way.

a student painting their beehive

The Community Beekeeping Project continues to run on a Saturday morning and we have members of the local community attending each week, for free, to learn more about bees, but maybe more importantly, to find a place to connect with others and find a positive support network.

I am continuing to work with The Business Factory to secure more funding to ensure that the company can continue and expand. I currently manage 55 hives alongside the community work, which
is more than enough for one person. I am not making a lot of money; the reason I set up as a community interest company was to ensure that profit was invested back into communities. I have learnt the power of communities and the importance of investing in them. Financial gain was never my intention; my intention is to live a lifestyle I enjoy, to learn more from the bees and be able to connect with the natural world. I also make sure I continue to use my skills in working within communities and improving outcomes for others.

I hope that next season I can take on a beekeeping assistant, so we can increase to one hundred hives and I can focus on delivering the community side of the business. I have ideas for other projects I want to deliver, to include more people, and products I can take to market but this all takes time. For now, I feel thankful that I have been given the support along the way to work in a role I love so much and which I am learning from.

From being the young lad observing ants, I always felt I would end up working with the natural world in some way; the decade working with people helped me progress to that in a more meaningful way. I always share with those who come to a beekeeping experience, or students at my sessions that we can learn so much from the honey bees; what one bee does might seem insignificant at first, but the
way in which the bees work together for a common cause and for the wider community is inspiring.

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