Within the past week, the community of beekeepers lost a great man. Peter Little of Exmoor Bees and Beehives moved on to the great apiary in the sky. I’m sure they welcomed him with open arms. My thoughts are with his family. I cannot claim to have been incredibly close to Peter, but I did visit him several times and, of course, interviewed and photographed him for my book. Along with many others, I also had long conversations with him on the telephone at ridiculous times in the night. I knew him well enough to hold him in great affection.
Elusive but chatty
The expression “talk the hind legs off a donkey” was appropriate in Peter’s case, but not always. Nobody expected him to depart so early, and his loss is not just an emotional holocaust for the family. Running a family business that involves breeding some of the best queens in the country, tending to over 600 hives and building cedar hives and frames for sale is pretty full-on. I’m sure that the business will continue, and his wife Sandra and their five sons will work out how to make up for the loss of a giant of the beekeeping world.
I’m in no position to write an obituary, but I can reflect on some of the traits that I observed in Peter. He was, it’s fair to say, a bit of an introvert. I can identify, but he took avoidance of people to lengths way beyond my amateurish level. Having said that, once he did agree to meet me, he was a friendly and entertaining host. He told me that he hated mobile phones and would never own one. He said that aeroplanes were terrible polluting things and suggested that they all be grounded, broken up and turned into pots and pans or other helpful paraphernalia.
Peter had a strong spiritual connection to Brother Adam, who did so much for beekeeping, particularly breeding, in the twentieth century. For one thing, he bred Buckfast bees. Peter used the isolated mating station on Dartmoor that Adam set up. He possessed many items of historical importance from the Buckfast heyday, some of which he handed over to people or institutions that respected the legacy. One example is an original mating hive from the Dartmoor site, which he gifted to Michael Palmer in Vermont. Michael certainly respects the history of beekeeping and the groundwork laid down at Buckfast.
It wasn’t all about Buckfast, though. He was also involved in helping out with establishing the native black bee project on the Rame Peninsula in Cornwall. Peter loved all bees. He was very much a lover of nature. My wife and I often laugh when we remember the story he told us about an ‘explosion of shrews’ that he witnessed up close. I remember David Kemp telling me that so much of Brother Adam’s talent stemmed from his intuition. That was precisely the word used by Peter when describing how he selects breeding stock. His was forged by hours, days, years, decades with bees – he said that you needed to work bees in all conditions over several seasons to know them properly. It is no accident that Peter produced great queens.
Peter kept up to date by reading many research papers. It wasn’t all about personal experience; he was a sponge for knowledge wherever he could find it. He told me about spending hours on the ‘phone with Joe Latshaw and Sue Coby in the States. They helped him along the way as he took up instrumental insemination of honey bee queens. In this way, Peter could select both queens and drones, then raise daughter queens so that he could test the daughters’ workers, and indeed the daughters’ daughter queens.
Another trait of Peter’s was his generosity when explaining what he does and why. He would not force his views on anyone, but out would come a great treatise when asked. You would get every little intricate step of any process, with sound reasons why one way and not the other. Not many people have the patience to do that. Peter was also very self-sufficient and resented overpaying for anything. He made not only hives but frames and wax foundation too. He even made his glass tubes for inseminating queens. The last time I saw him, he’d made a machine to dry honey so that he could reduce the water content if needed.
My last communication with Peter was on 1st July 2021 using a well known messaging service. He told me that he was sorry to say that it was a losing battle and that they had given up treating him for his cancer. A few weeks later, he was gone.
In his own words
Here is a part of my interview for my book:
Steve: My last question is, what are your plans for the future?
Peter: The Bahamas sound very nice! My plans are to carry on as long as I can, like most old beekeepers, breeding queens.
Steve: You’ll probably always do that, won’t you?
Peter: I want to do that until I’m carried away in a wooden box. I’d be quite happy if I dropped dead one day out in the apiary. If I’ve got to go, I’d rather go quick and be out doing what I enjoy doing, with my bees. I hope that my boys will take over and make a success of it in their time and probably turn it into a bigger business than I ever would. That will be down to them. I’ve shown them what I do, and they’ve spent enough years with the old man around, so it will be up to them. That will happen long before I pop my clogs, though.
I hope they all stay working together. My ambition is to stay on as long as possible, keep breeding bees, and then one day drop dead in an apiary.
Rest in peace, Peter.