This is the second in a series of posts in which I provide a short audio clip of my interviewee. Today I’m featuring Murray McGregor of Denrosa Apiaries in Perthshire, Scotland. He has over 3,000 colonies and his main honey crop comes from the heather. In this clip he talks about how he got started on the bees by helping out his father when he was just eight years old, and later on he reflects on things to consider before becoming a commercial beekeeper.
Here’s the rough transcript of the audio clip:
Steve: How did you start?
Murray: My father started keeping bees in 1950, so as a young child I was brought up with bees in the family. They were with us all of the time. My mother used to extract the honey while my father did other things. I would be with her in the pram even, when I was tiny, but I started actually going to the bees with my father when I was eight. I had a little barrow that I used to carry supers in over a little bridge to the apiary in the evening when Dad came home from work.
When I got home from school, if I knew it was going to be an evening with the bees my mother had terrible trouble trying to get me to do my homework, because all I wanted to do was go out to the bees with Dad when he came in at five o’clock.
Steve: You weren’t scared of them or anything?
Murray: No, not especially. I mean I didn’t like being stung, I never did, and I still don’t, but it’s just a fact of life, it happens.
Steve: That was from eight years old…
Murray: Yes, then I got my first bees when I was fourteen years old. I used to pick raspberries in the summer for money, along with many young people from Coupar-Angus. It was strawberries and raspberries in the summer, potatoes in the Autumn, and once I had the money my father took me to a town near Arbroath, to somebody who was selling bees, and my raspberry money was duly invested in my first hives.
Steve: You obviously had a good teacher in your Dad.
Murray: Yes, he was a good beekeeper and he had guidance from good beekeepers, so we were surrounded by the bee culture from an early age. He didn’t just do bees, he was an electrician and did some market gardening just to try to make ends meet. He grew dahlias and chrysanthemums and in the mornings before school we’d be cutting them to be taken to the florist. My mother had an acre of blackcurrants which we used to pick and sell too. Then there were the bees.
Steve: As you got going with bees and were learning from your Dad…
Murray: Well, only for about three years, because at seventeen years of age I made the decision of infinite wisdom to leave school and join the merchant navy. I joined Shell as an officer cadet.
Steve: Oh right, OK.
Murray: My bees then were just incorporated into my fathers, which was a far larger operation. He had 300 hives and I had 12, so it just got absorbed.
Steve: So that was the end of beekeeping for a while? [another of my classic stupid questions]
Murray: Yes, but I realised from quite early on when I was at sea that I’d like to come back and take over the bees, and run it after my father. I liked bees, I liked the countryside and being in tune with nature. Working with the rhythm of the seasons gave me a good bit of pleasure. I was always a bit of a dreamer.
Steve: Other than your father did you have any beekeeping heroes as it were, or people that you read up on, or were inspired by?
Murray: I would have to admit, possibly to my shame, that I had never actually read a beekeeping book from cover to cover. Even today the number I have read I could number on the fingers of one hand. I didn’t have any other beekeeping heroes apart from my father. There was no particular beekeeper who I thought was wonderful, but there were a couple I thought were disastrous. I learned mostly from my father and once I was back working as a professional beekeeper he remained my best advisor, friend, and confidante until he died a couple of years ago.
Steve: That’s nice isn’t it, to have that bond?
Murray: Yes. He was so interested in what was going on with the bees that if I came in to see him and anyone else was there with him they knew right away that his time for them was over, because even at 95 years old he would say, “I want to hear about the bees.”
Steve: One of the things that I always ask is about people (and you have referred to dreamers) who think that having successfully kept 10 hives they can scale up to hundreds and go into business. I just wondered if you have any advice for those people? To go into business as a honey farmer what do you need to keep in mind before throwing your money at it?
Murray: You have to bear in mind that it is a very inconsistent profession. You’ll get years when you think it’s easy and you’ll make money and do very well, but you’ll get at least as many years when you make a loss. It is not an easy thing to do long term. It is best for people who have already got significant money behind them and they can afford to take a few seasons of losses. The best plan is to go from being an amateur beekeeper to part-time professional; keep your job and do your bees at evenings and weekends. Once you’ve ironed out the errors and you are starting to do consistently better than the average Joe around you, then that’s the time to jump to full time professional. You must always be aware of the risks.
Steve: If somebody near you had such aspirations, I guess you could argue that they are future competition, could they come and work with you for a few years to learn the ropes? Would that be a good path?
Murray: We generally don’t take people on in that kind of way. You have to accept in life that if somebody works for you and they decide to go off on their own and run their own business that’s just a fact of life, and you just have to accept it, and feel good that you played a part in getting them there. You can’t resent it because you can become obsessed with inconsequential matters if you do. We would not particularly take anybody on who at the outset declared that their aim was to go into full time business on our patch.
Steve: No, that wouldn’t make sense would it.
Murray: If they stated initially that their intention was to go into business we wouldn’t hire them. We train people on the job with us in the hope that they’re going to work with us for several years.
Steve: Can you say roughly how many hours you spend per week working?
Murray: It’s probably somewhere between 28 – 29 hours per day! Seriously though, in a field like this, the distinction between work and leisure is very blurred. This is a life rather than a job. You live the bees. The bees are your life, and you can quite often find yourself working with bees all day and then, what to do in the evening? Look at more bees!
Because it’s a pleasure as well as a job, you can spend a lot of your time doing things that are not particularly constructive in terms of achieving some work target, but they are actually good for your soul. You go around and just look at things and smell things and see what’s happening – it’s not work per se, but you’re still at the bees. So, to distinguish between the number of hours that are actual work from those that are just pottering around is quite hard. There will be weeks where, if you took a strict line on how much was work, then some weeks I’ll do nothing, but on other weeks I’ll easily do 100 hours.