Raymond Blanc, bees and being on the beat: Steve Barrett, of Lowestoft, who looks after hives for Adnams and Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
We are taking a look at Suffolk food producers with interesting stories, and this time round, reporter Kevin Hurst talks to Steve Barrett of Barrett’s Bees.
What Steve Barrett doesn’t know about bees isn’t worth knowing and that is why he not only keeps bees for one of Suffolk’s top breweries but is also head beekeeper at a restaurant that has held two Michelin stars for 39 years.
The 70-year-old, originally from Norfolk but now living in Lowestoft, says his love for bees started during his school days in Dereham and was inspired by an old deputy headteacher called Harold Whitby.
Steve said: “I have been involved with beekeeping since 1968, but I did not keep bees then – I read about them and had a passion for them – I got my first hive in around 2008.
“Then I started to make beehives and that has developed in to what we have now.”
What it is now is 40 hives for Adnams Brewery, reaching over an 18-mile round trip from Steve’s apiary at Pakefield to Gisleham, Henstead, Frostenden and finishing at the company’s distribution centre at Reydon.
He calls it the #beecorridor on Instagram which includes one at a retired vicar’s house, another on the site of a plastic bottles manufacturing factory and at one of The Southwold Flower Company’s flower fields.
But this was not Steve’s initial career path, having been in the police force for 40 years.
“I joined up in 1975 in London, working for the Ministry for Defence police at Woolwich,” he said.
“Before transferring to Suffolk in 1979, including working as village policeman in Kessingland for 10 and a half years.”
In 1984, Steve was also sent to Port Stanley in the Falklands for six months by the constabulary.
Retiring from uniformed service in 2002, at the age of 49, he continued to work as a crime reduction officer until 2012 – by that time Steve had a true buzz about bees.
He said: “I have been doing this now for about 16 years, I can’t ever imagine doing anything else, I am never happier than when I am out with my bees and I spend all day with them.”
Steve wrote to Adnams Brewery 15 years ago to ask if he could keep bees for them and says he loves working with the business – even taking an exhibition hive full of bees to their stand at the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival this weekend.
He said: “I love Adnams, they are a lovely company and I fly the flag for them. I built all their apiaries from nothing, making all the hives with their names on.
“They contribute to the bees, providing a bit of sugar and all the honey I get from the bees I sell back to them, which enables the corridor to keep going.”
On top of all of this, Steve is now head beekeeper at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great MIlton, near Oxford.
Having been introduced to the world-renowned chef by his friend and former chef at the hotel, Johnny Spillings, a couple of years ago Steve has been looking after the site’s hives since March.
He goes to see the bees four or five times a month, has been training two of Raymond’s chefs in beekeeping and has even contributed to the updated version of one of the chef’s books, The Lost Orchard.
He said: “They are all Suffolk bees that I brought down to Raymond and four of the hives I built for him are made from upcycled skip wood kindly donated from Johnny’s dad, Pat.
“They are very kind to me and look after me very, very well. They are pleased with how I have worked with them so far and when I meet the people there, they are all lovely.
“It is a real privilege to do this with them – they are smashing folks and I like going down there.”
With bee season being roughly from March until mid-August, Steve says he is now in the process of putting all his bees ‘to bed’.
This involves making about 25kg of sugar syrup for each hive and filling feeders, which will take him until the end of September to complete.
Asked what the bees in the now untouched hives do during the winter months, Steve said: “They keep the temperature to about 34 degrees in a cluster and they dislocate their wings and vibrate to keep warm and generate the heat.
“And then, like penguins huddling in the snow, when the bees in the middle get hot, they go to the outside to cool off and keep swapping places – they ultimately surround the queen and look after her.”
Steve has just invested in a ‘Barrett’s Bees’ camper van and trailer to travel around for his bees and will now make sure that his hives stay intact and there is no damage caused to them over the winter months.
He said: “The idea of the camper van is like shepherds looking after their sheep. Well, I am a beekeeper who is going to be out there looking after his bees.
”I have my own cabin and I will live in that when I am at La Manoir for a couple of days or at other spots on the corridor – I just love my bees.”
If you know, or are, a Suffolk food producer with an interesting story like Steve we would love to hear from you – please email firstname.lastname@example.org