Inspired by her home, beach hut and woodland apiary on the coast of East Sussex, beekeeper Katharine O’Brien has created an ethical apothecary steeped in shared learning and conservation. Words: Jessica Johnson
From the vast, grassy cliffs of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve, an Area of Outstanding Beauty known locally as The Firehills, the sea lies mirror-still, flecked by an early morning sun that seems to bathe everything in gold. Katharine O’Brien is one of several walkers enjoying the vistas. Today she’s led by her sprocker dog, Honey, who runs the winding paths ahead of her with all the gusto of a puppy, nose to the salty breeze.
For Katharine, The Firehills has become a spiritual place to nurture and create. It was here in East Sussex, in 2014, that she set up an apiary with her friend Leigh Dyer, a well-known artist and metal sculptor who happened to have some woodland just a few hundred metres from the cliffs.
‘I asked Leigh if he’d like to learn how to make mead!’ says Katharine. ‘When we started we were quite naïve with big ambitions. However we realised very quickly that conservation was our priority. I did a course in beekeeping and, borrowing wisdom from fellow beekeepers, did my best to pass it on to Leigh, which helped forge a lovely connection between us.’
The patch of gladed woodland is now home to three thriving hives. This summer, some 20,000 worker bees have made the journey to forage on tree pollen and blossom from the surrounding coastal forest, along with hedgerows that are fit to burst with wild honeysuckle, borage, dog rose and thyme to name but a few nectar-rich plants.
‘Each time I walk here by the cliffs I feel blessed that there are so many wildflowers which are mostly free from pesticides and industrial-scale farming,’ says Katharine, who eschews the term ‘beekeeper’ in favour of the idea of being, instead, the ‘custodian of an incredibly valuable species’.
‘I find living by the sea allows me to reflect on the ups and downs of my life and as a woman I am constantly in awe of the focus and determination of the female worker bees. That ‘hive’ mentality is a little like being by the sea; there’s a wonderful sense of mindfulness and gratitude to be found – when I’m not running around like something of a busy bee myself, that is!’
Although Katharine enjoys nothing more than a spoonful of homemade honey (in particular, blackberry and lavender-infused batches from the second flowering of the year in July), her vision has always stretched beyond the kitchen cupboard. Informed by a lifelong passion for natural cosmetics and a background in teaching and conservation work, she decided to create a line of holistic skincare products that harness the raw, nourishing and quietly powerful medicinal properties created in the hives.
‘Bee Heeled’ is a buttery beeswax balm to help soothe sore feet while ‘Bee Young’ – a 3-in-1 mask that draws on aloe vera and raw honey to help tighten and cleanse – is blended with sea algae harvested organically from an eco-marine farm in Spain. From her garden studio, Katharine hand crafts her small batch tinctures, oils and creams and pots them in apothecary-style glass jars, which are both re-usable and recyclable. And what her bees love to forage on, Katharine bottles for added goodness. The ‘Bee Clear’ healing ointment, for example, contains extracts of pimple-busting rosehip oil while the ‘Bee Warm’ rub aids aches, pains and congestion with help from the anti-inflammatory powers of the hypericum, (a yellow-flowering plant considered a high summer feast in the bee world). From raw honey and beeswax cappings to bee-pollen and propolis (a sticky resin the bees make from the sap of the trees), nothing goes to waste.
From hive to hut
Katharine is also an urban beekeeper and cares for two more hives from her garden in St Leonards-on-Sea. In 2014, after years of living in London running forest schools and a stint teaching in Bali, the decision to trade city for sea didn’t take much consideration.
‘I felt from a young age that the beach was somewhere for the soul to rest,’ says Katharine. ‘What I love most about living next to the sea is allowing the tide to take my thoughts and with my breath allow fresh ones in. When I’m anxious or worried about something I’ll focus on the water’s reflection, the colour of a pebble or the way the land meets the sea and the sky. I think about the bees in the hive and I feel like a little grain of sand and any worry is surmountable.’
Aside from daily beach and cliff walks with her dog Honey, Katharine also gets her sea fix from her beach hut on St Leonards beach, which she shares with a group of friends. In late summer, when it’s time for the wax cappings to be carved gently away from the honeycomb, the beach hut turns pop-up workshop – a place where she can tend to the sticky art of honey extraction using plain old elbow grease and an old-fashioned hand spinner on the shingle beach. By the end of the afternoon the hard work has paid off – a cauldron full of beautiful raw, golden honey glistens in the sunshine as pots, pans, knives and honey-covered fingers are rinsed off in the sea.
A buzzing future
During the year Katharine is attending a whole calendar of fairs with her Bee Potion goodies, but the message goes more than skin deep; it’s pioneering the greater bee cause. ‘I want customers to understand and value the correlation between bees, the environment and what we consume,’ she says. ‘That, and inspire children to take up hobbies that support the environment.’
This summer, Katharine and Leigh have been busy running various children’s workshops from their woodland apiary where a new generation of bee guardians were offered a first-hand glimpse into the intricate life of the colony and traditional bee-keeping in practice. Teenagers can learn how to make a beeswax lip balm or sample a honey cocktail, tapping into mystical, ancient bee wisdom around the warmth of a woodland campfire.
As a tiny independent business with its heart and values in nature, Katharine and Leigh have launched a crowdfunding campaign (see footnote) to help support their growing educational projects and enable them to market their bespoke woodland retreats by the sea. These in turn will help fund educational and therapeutic support costs for vulnerable groups which help reconnect disadvantaged children to nature.
‘Bees are a symbol of love and I became a beekeeper out of love, too,’ says Katharine. ‘I remember my friend Angie Biltcliffe, who was a beekeeper and community artist, holding up a fresh jar of golden honey into the dappled light of a beech grove. When she passed away a year later, I knew that my calling was to become a beekeeper with education at the heart of my hives.
‘Living in St Leonards has allowed me to pull back to a simpler way of life – sea, woods, walks and being part of an amazing community. Living on the East Sussex coast is a bit like being on holiday at home. We are a family of idealists – there is little industry here and wages are low but when you have the sea and the bees like me, then your heart is rich!’
To find out more about the Bee Potion crowdfunding campaign or to make a pledge, visit here.
Photographs: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Katharine's St Leonards Favourites
Little Mashers (01424 422786, littlemashers.com) is an arty kids apparel and workshop in St Leonards where everything is designed and printed in store.
Goat Ledge (goatledge.com) is right on the seafront and reminds me of the community cafés of the 1970s, where fresh ingredients really matter. It’s affordable, with a great local vibe and friendly staff with eclectic taste.
Stephanie, the owner of Graze on Grand in St Leonards-on-Sea (01424 439736, grazeongrand.com) is so knowledgeable about wine, and her restaurant/wine bar is upmarket but down to earth. Take a sea-view window seat and watch the world go by with a glass of wine.
Warp & Weft (01424 437180, warpandweftstyling.com) is based in Hastings Old Town and sells minimalist, chic, tailored clothing along with wonderful Moroccan leather and my Bee Potion range.
My friend Tony runs Soak (01424 422267, soakhastings.com), a Hastings-based apothecary selling well-known and local organic and natural brands, including Bee Potion. He has given me such great advice on creating my products and a brand that is versatile, 100% natural and modern.