Life Video

By Alex Matthews


This grandad has been a hive of beekeeping activity for more than seven decades – making him the UK’s oldest beekeeper.

John Charlton, now 85, was just 13 when he first took up beekeeping as a way to beat the rheumatic fever that was plaguing him, and he’s now believed to be the oldest apiarist in the country.

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But he found it so interesting that he’s still keeping bees an impressive 71 years after he took over his first hive.

He estimates he has cared for hundreds of hives and millions of the insects during his lifetime and even discovered a new parasite no one else had known about.

At his peak retired engineer John looked after 25 hives at any one time but that number has now dropped to 10.

But he is keen to pass on his love of bees and has now got 11-year-old grandson Sam following in his footsteps, helping him to care for them and lift the heavy hive lids.

John from Sale, Greater Manchester, said: “Keeping bees has been a hobby throughout my entire life and I think it’s wonderful.

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“I started in about 1946. The only proof I have is that when I joined the BBKA [British Beekeepers Association] I had to buy a text book, the book is dated to around that time.

“It’s the 17th edition of the book which has been going since about 1901. I think it’s hardly changed even today.

“I got into beekeeping when I had rheumatic fever. The doctor couldn’t help me but someone said if I kept bees it would help protect me from it, so I started helping someone on Saturday afternoons.

“I got a few stings but I found it enjoyable, so I started my own hive the following year.

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“At my peak I had 25 hives in my apiary but now I have less than half of that. I’m 85 now and it’s getting harder to lift the lids off the hives now and I sometimes need help with it.

“I have almost got too many bees for me now, but my grandson is taking it up.

“I’m really pleased he is getting into it. It’s helped to teach him arithmetic as he is counting hives and checking amounts of honey. It’s an informative way of teaching.

Not only has John enjoyed beekeeping as a hobby, he has also been able to use it as a useful boost to his income.

When he was younger he was able to sell the honey the bees made and make hives for other people to help him pay off his mortgage.

According to John it was one way of keeping his wife of more than 50 years Hillary, 81, sweet as she otherwise had little interest in the bees.

He would also spend his free time making his own hives from scratch and after his retirement dedicated more hours to researching bee anatomy and parasites

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John said: “When I was younger I had a mortgage to pay and the honey sales was useful extra income. After that I turned my attention to making hives.

“It was always good fun to put them together and see what worked best, but I never made the lids myself.

“My wife Hillary used to like using the honey but otherwise she was not really interested in the bees. She would leave me to it whenever I went into the garden.

“Over the years I have become interested in studying bee diseases, it’s fascinating and has opened up a lot of interests for me.

“I even found a new parasite on bees that no one else knew about. It happened completely by chance as I was examining them under the microscope.

“I noticed a parasite I didn’t recognise crawling over the bee and after a long time researching and consulting others I realised it was completely new.”

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Being part of the British Beekeeping Association and the wider community has also helped John make a number of friends.

He is still an active member and travels the country discussing beekeeping with other enthusiasts.

John says that although reports of the Asian hornet arriving are worrying, the biggest challenges facing British bees are still pesticides and parasites.

John said: “It’s actually been a wonderful way of meeting people from all over the country.

“I don’t know anyone older than me who is still keeping bees. There is a chap in his 90s but he doesn’t have bees anymore – he can’t do it.

“The Asian hornet is worrying but there are few reports of it in the UK at the moment

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“I am still much more wary of parasites, that is a big problem for bees in Britain as are pesticides.”

The British Beekeeping Association confirmed John had received certification for keeping bees for more than 70 years.

Chair of the BBKA, Margaret Wilson, said: “This is a magnificent achievement to have stayed with the same craft for so many decades.

“John must have seen many changes in both the equipment used for beekeeping and the composition of beekeeping associations.

“We sincerely congratulate him on looking after honeybees successfully for so long.”