Harrow Beekeepers Association celebrates its 90th birthday this year. Theirs is a story featuring heartbreak, the black market, mysterious green sugar and the triumphant resurgence of the borough's bees. Member NAJMA KAZI takes us through the group's history.

EINSTEIN is said to have warned that if bees disappeared, man would only have four years to live.

He may have made his observation amid the then widespread concerns in the beekeeping community that honeybees were becoming an endangered species. Harrow Beekeepers Association began in March, 1919, the very year that bees were almost wiped out by the Isle of Wight disease, caused by a mite, which devastated the bee colonies of Britain.

It was this crisis that prompted the beekeepers of Harrow to come together. They held their first meeting in Gayton Rooms and Harrow Beekeepers Association was born as "a Harrow branch of the Middlesex Beekeepers Association".

The disease was clearly taking its toll locally and at the inaugural committee meeting held soon after, on March 21, 1919 at 289, Station Road, the secretary of the newly-formed association was asked to write to Mr HerrodHempstall, Hon Secretary of the Middlesex Association "for particulars of restocking scheme".

Harrow Beekeepers Association had an annual subscription fixed at five shillings. Altogether £15 and 15 shillings was collected there and then and from this we can work out that the association began life with 23 members.

During the war years membership jumped to an all-time high of 180 as honey production became an important element of the 'Dig for Victory' wartime economy, encouraging people to produce more home-grown foods.

Sugar, which had to be imported, was heavily rationed, but beekeepers were given an extra allocation to feed their bees.

Inevitably this led to abuse and illicit trading as some beekeepers used it for themselves or sold it on the black market. To counter this, the sugar allocated for bees was coloured green.

Rosemary West is one long-standing member who has been keeping bees for over 50 years at the bottom of her garden. Always one for outdoor pursuits, she became hooked on honey bees as a teenager while at college in Berkshire. The college kept bees, but it was a neighbour, Mr Barnet, who got her started.

Her opportunity to have bees of her own came when she turned 21. Her godmother gave her £10 for her coming of age birthday present and she took the plunge and splashed out on her own bees and a beehive.

Ten pounds went a long way in those days, she says. She still uses the same hive she bought in 1956 though she has since modified it.

Today membership of the association stands at 80 local beekeepers as well as aspiring beekeepers. Its members are drawn from 15 different nationalities - a multicultural crowd, many of whom recall the beekeeping traditions of their countries of origin and who reflect the cultural diversity of Harrow.

In addition, many attend the regular weekend courses run by the association. The original meeting place at 289, Station Road, is now Specsavers and part of the busy shopping precinct in central Harrow. The association now has its own apiary in Hatch End where members meet on Sunday mornings.

As the association celebrates its 90th birthday there is again the looming fear of the spiralling decline of the honeybee population. This time the cause is another mite - the varroa - which has devastated so many bee colonies up and down the country, that it is now regarded as an epidemic, just like the Isle of Wight disease in 1919.

As a lifelong beekeeper, Rosemary was heartbroken when she lost her bees to disease two years ago, though with the help of the association she is now back in business. Last year she restocked her hive with the first swarm of the season and was overjoyed to harvest 40 pounds of honey from her one hive.

The secret of her success?

"I'm not an expert," she says. "Mr Barnet always said to give them a jar of honey for Christmas."

"I want a garden with a house in it because I want to keep bees" is what Michael

Papantoniou told the estate agent when he began looking for a house. He said it was for him, his

family and his swarm. At 88, he is the oldest member of the Harrow beekeepers association and has been keeping bees for almost 30 years in his back garden.

Paul Goggin is 15 and the youngest member of the association. Paul's interest was triggered by a weekend course in beekeeping run by the association that he attended.

He was looking for something different as a practical project for his Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme.

After losing his bees twice he was delighted to finally harvest 15 pots of honey from the association hive he volunteered to look after.

As in 1919 so today beekeeping continues to be the preserve of a dedicated band of people who take it up as a hobby rather than as a full-time occupation and who develop an intuitive grasp of the art and the science of beekeeping. [25a0] The association is running a two-day beginners' course starting on Saturday at its Hatch End apiary. For information about Harrow Beekeepers Association contact Jo Telfer on 020 8868 3494.