The couple who mean bees-ness when it comes to saving honeybees
Customers are swarming to Kevin Hancock's Gardeners' Beehive invention, as MICHAEL VAUGHTON found out when he met the South African couple behind the hobby turned growing business...
A husband and wife from Stansted determined to do their bit to arrest the drastic decline in honeybee numbers are causing a real buzz with their small business.
Kevin and Caroline Hancock's mantra is bees for bees' sake, and they have developed a product which enables people to host a colony in their garden without having to become a beekeeper.
The Gardeners' Beehive, which requires no specialist training or equipment to set up or maintain, mimics nature: the mock tree stump is made out of a specific type of pine, and the lure and biomass contained within provide everything honeybees look for in the wild.
Their unique product has the potential to make a huge impact – a hive can play host to a colony of 20,000 honeybees, whose population has declined by a third in the last five years.
But not only has it been selling well, it has also earned them a place in the final of the London and South East Family Business of the Year Award. They will discover at a ceremony at London's May Fair Hotel this month if they have won.
"It's a unique product and a really quirky one to try to get into the marketplace," said Kevin, who makes the hives in his Stansted back garden.
"It's at a point now where it's not actually a business yet, more like a hobby that's getting a bit out of hand. I'm doing all the work and it's taking over my life, but I can see where it's going.
"Hopefully, in the near future, it will be at a point where I can employ a couple of people to help me and maybe set up a factory somewhere so we can manufacture these things."
The Gardeners' Beehive has been 20 years of tinkering in the making for 53-year-old Kevin. He developed a passion for bees while growing up in the Free State in South Africa, where he helped out on his grandparents' safari farm as a child.
He came to England to sort out his paperwork as he planned to start a new life in Australia, but he met fellow South African Caroline in 2003 when they were both travelling around Ireland and they got married two years later.
The couple moved to Stansted from Loughton 10 years ago and their daughters Amy, 9, and Nicole, 8, go to St Mary's CE Foundation Primary School on Foresthall Park.
Kevin, who is a member of Bishop's Stortford (1944) Rifle Club, is a mechanical and electrical engineer by trade and still runs his own business, Hancock Maintenance Services, alongside his labour of love trying to help the honeybees.
While he is the inventor, he is dyslexic, so Caroline, a qualified accountant, does all the paperwork for the Gardeners' Beehive.
Kevin first developed a top bar hive and tests saw his idea evolve into the successful mock tree stump design.
"What I'm trying to do is provide a home for a colony of bees because they're under pressure from pesticides, herbicides, GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and farming practices," he said.
"A colony of about 20,000 will move in, which is a small swarm, and they will fill the box. This is based on my research into bees in the wild. It's not coming from the beekeepers' point of view, it's coming from observations of bees in the wild as that's my hobby.
"Mechanically the box is what they're looking for, biologically it's what they're looking for, and the lure I use works with the natural rhythm of bees. Having those three key aspects at play all at once in a single unit means they move in."
This is the third year the Hancocks have had the growing business up and running, and they are regularly out and about spreading the word about their product.
As well as attending events such as the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff and BBC Gardeners' World Live in Birmingham, Kevin regularly gives talks and demonstrations at the likes of Van Hage in Great Amwell, Langthorns Plantery in Little Canfield and Cammas Hall in Hatfield Broad Oak.
Kevin and Caroline have sold their boxes to customers all over the UK, from Cornwall to the north east of Scotland, and in Europe including Italy and Switzerland. They have plans to expand their continental client base.
And they have sold hives to celebrity chefs and jam producers, while their products can be seen in the walled garden at Audley End stately home.
"We're seeing more and more people understanding the plight of the honeybees and they want to help," said Caroline. "There's a real need for people to step up and do something.
"We try to keep in contact with customers and always say to let us know how the bees are doing. The year before last, which was a more successful summer, from what we could establish we got about 70-80% uptake in the hives, so we know it works."
Bee hosts can enjoy guilt-free honey as an optional extra. A honey box, which mimics a nook, can be attached to the side of the mock tree stump and the bees store the excess in it, so you are not taking away any honey the bees need.
"The simplest thing we can all do to help is give them somewhere to live," said Kevin.
"If you look at how successful my things are at getting populated then you see just how in demand having somewhere to stay is for the bees."
* The Gardeners' Beehive retails at £235 plus postage. Visit gardenersbeehive.com to find out more.