The extraordinary life of bee lady Dr Eva Crane

2:09pm Thursday 13th November 2003

A DSc in Nuclear Physics, a traveller of 60 countries, an abseiler in pursuit of honey bees - welcome to the extraordinary life of Dr Eva Crane. Richard Jones visits her in Chalfont St Peter


A TALL upright lady of senior years pulls on her raincoat and sets off for her regular daily constitutional with Kirsty, her much loved Lakeland terrier.

She walks briskly through the leafy avenues of desirable properties on the fringes of rural Buckinghamshire, but few of her neighbours realise her universal fame and status in the world of apiculture.

For this is Dr Eva Crane OBE, DSc, who for more than 50 years has devoted her life to the pursuit of bee knowledge.

On her return we sit down to a cup of tea in a lounge with bay window and French door looking out on lawns that fall away to beech trees and beckoning countryside beyond. For Dr Crane it is her study and workroom where since 1956 she has produced hundreds of papers, articles and a good number of hefty tomes on the science and practice of beekeeping worldwide, giving her world status in her field Ð not bad for a lady who opted for late retirement in 1984.

I assume the Dr in Dr Crane is a result of her early studies into the ways of the bee. Wrong Ð never assume with this lady Ð observe, check the facts and always get your research right. She smiles tolerantly and says: ÒOh no, the only degree I have for that is an honorary one from the University of Ohio.Ó As a child she was not strong and was prone to illness, and so she read and read. Helped by teachers, mainly females who had lost husbands and fiancŽs in the First World War and thereafter devoted themselves to their students, she obtained a scholarship to KingÕs College, London to read Mathematics. This was followed by a MasterÕs degree in Quantum Mechanics, a rather new subject in the 1930s, then a DSc in Nuclear Physics.

She took up a lectureship at Sheffield University, got married and got into bees all about the same time. Indeed the bees came as a result of her marriage to James Crane in 1942 Ð they were a wedding present!

The honey produced was a welcome addition to a diet constrained by the needs of wartime rationing. The stimulation to the scientific mind proved even sweeter.

Although I am fascinated, Dr Crane is obviously finding this line of conversation tedious and insists that she really is not at all interesting. Rather, it is the places she has been to and the people she has met on those travels that are interesting. Therefore, she will not write an autobiography but is just about to publish a book of her travels Making a Bee-line - My Journeys in 60 countries 1949 -2000.

A bee-line is the direct route taken by a bee from its hive to a nectar source and back again with the liquid gold it has collected. It is an apt title for the golden treasure of facts and information that this lady has foraged for.

ÒDo you know,Ó she chuckles, Òwhen I first flew to Washington it took 11 hours via Reykjavik and I made my own sandwiches to take with me as I did not know if there were any catering services on an aeroplane.Ó On that occasion she returned on the Cunard liner the Queen Elizabeth, which was probably the best option as she had acquired a range of beekeeping artefacts that would have totally blown the luggage allowances on even a modern plane.

The first honey bees introduced to North America were brought by the colonists and, according to Dr Crane probably landed up the James River, Virginia in the 1620Õs. SheÕs been there to check it out.

Her travels have resulted in other discoveries and her ability to put together clues and evidence make her a veritable Miss Marple. On a visit to the upper Indus valley in Pakistan she found beekeeping being practised in horizontal hives identical to those that archaeologists had found when excavating ancient Greek sites. However, it was she that made the bold step to suggest that perhaps a soldier from the army of Alexander the Great, who invaded from the Hindu Kush in 327 BC, could have stayed behind and introduced Greek practices to the region. On a return visit she went everywhere carrying details of AlexanderÕs movements, all of which seemed to prove her theory.

Talking about the interesting people groups she has met prompts her to delve into a meticulously indexed slide collection to illustrate her point. It also gives me an opportunity to dip at random into the photographic record of her past 50 years. I find a strange picture of rock painting in the Pyrenees (her book The Rock Art of Honey Hunters was published in 2001). ÒTell me something about this?Ó I ask.

She pops it in the viewer and then shifts her glance to some infinite spot beyond her picture window. ÒAh yes, I have it. We had all slept soundly in our sleeping bags on the straw underlay [in a barn]. Breakfast was eaten standing or sitting near the fire. It was very cold, so I wore gloves even when eating. Later that day we reached the top of the gorge directly above three large rock ledges and Robert used a nylon rope he had brought to secure each of us while climbing down.Ó ÒDid you go down the rope?Ó I ask incredulously, knowing that the slide was taken not too long ago and many people of her age were supported by zimmer frames, not dangling on ropes over Pyrennean precipices.

ÒYesÓ, she replies simply but with some disdain. I am so amazed I pursue the idea. ÒHave you got a photograph of you doing that?Ó ÒWell of course not, I was there to photograph the rock paintings and Robert was holding the rope.Ó Totally logical and therefore the question was unnecessary and anyway irrelevant. Dr CraneÕs intellect takes no prisoners.

All too soon it is time to take my leave of this remarkable lady. Her tales of journeys by dog sled at 20 below in Alaska, by dug-out canoe for hour after hour in the humidity of the Mekong delta or trailing migrating herds of wildebeest across the Ngorongoro Crater in a light aircraft leave me both in awe and in envy of this remarkable woman.

Everywhere she went she sampled the life of the local people, sometimes in the remotest rural areas of the world. She went ostensibly to share her beekeeping knowledge and to teach governments, NGOÕs and farmers. Yet, typically, she claims to have learnt much more than she taught. One thing of which you can be certain, Dr CraneÕs visits were well off the tourist beat and way ahead of any rough guide that may now entice the more adventurous traveller. Yet when she walks her dog tomorrow, to some neighbours she will be secretly known as the ÒBee LadyÓ but few will know of, or can even begin to imagine, her travels and adventures.

Making a Bee-line: My journeys in 60 countries 1949 -2000, by Eva Crane, £14.95 + £3.55pp from The International Bee Research Association, 18 North Road, Cardiff, CF10 3DT, or www.ibra.org.uk

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