Farming

Honeybees

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The honeybees at Waltham Place have been a permanent fixture for many years, housed in conventional white wooden, WBC beehives in the apiary.

In recent years we have become increasingly aware of the problems facing honeybees in a countryside dominated by conventional agriculture, with an emphasis on control through the use of pesticides and herbicides. In the last ten years we have struggled to maintain the honeybee populations at Waltham, as they crashed year after year. In 2016-2017, the honeybee population at Waltham Place crashed dramatically and it became evident that something had to change. It was then that beekeeper, Vinnie, discovered the work of Matt Somerville online. A cabinet maker, whose enthusiasm for keeping the natural bee population healthy and strong led him to design log hives, a radically different method of keeping bees in hives raised up off the ground. Matt recognized that wild honeybees like to be up high, ideally in cavities in trees, about 12-15 ft off the ground. However, there is a shortfall of naturally hollowed old trees in the landscape, due to changes in habitat use and our fear of old trees falling.

The log hive was designed to address this imbalance. In April 2018, Vinnie attended a Log Hive Course with Matt and recognised straight away that this was a very positive way to establish honeybee populations in any given area, for what could be more obvious than mimicking natural wild hives by hollowing logs which were then attached to a living tree high in the canopy. The most inspiring aspect of this was that the logs are inhabited by choice, through the natural instinct of the honeybees themselves. They choose to live there. So successful have the log hives proven, we now have four on site. Two in trees and two on 9ft tripods. Management of the log hives is minimal. The bees live within them as wild bees would, attracted by a bait of lemon grass oil and old honeycomb. Once inside, the colony begins to build long uninterrupted honeycombs and are able to sit under their honey stores during the winter. In a log hive the bees keep their honey as Winter feed; it is not replaced with sugar syrup as commercial beekeepers do. The thick outer shell of wood offers excellent insulation, reducing stress and energy consumption. Whilst maintaining warmth during winter; it also helps to prevent overheating in hot weather. As the inspection hatch is underneath the hive, on the odd occasion the hatch is removed there is minimal loss of heat or pheromone and therefore minimal disturbance to the bees. As varroa mite like a cooler hive the log hives are not conducive to varroa mite infestation. We have experienced no problems with varroa mite or colony collapse disorder since implementing the new management style. Vinnie no longer considers himself a beekeeper, he has become a bee observer!

The question always remains, what about the honey? Although we view our bees as pollinators rather than producers of honey, the gift of honey is a very special thing. Under the log hive system, the beekeeper would usually wait for a colony to die out naturally before taking honey from the hive. We have now established two active ‘golden hives’, at Waltham Place. Similar to a top bar hive, golden hives utilize the same mindset as the log hive - providing excellent insulation and a cavity in which the bees build deep comb onto bare frames (for ease of removal) but without any other manmade interventions such as foundation or queen excluders. Designed for minimal intervention the beekeeper can add extra frames as the colony grows. In Summer 2021, we hope to take a modest harvest by removing a few frames of capped honey without disturbing the brood. In line with our view that our bee’s value lies in their pollination skills, we will be leaving the majority of honey for the bees.

We offer a yearly course with Matt Somerville, making log hives. We have also taken the idea to Johannesburg, South Africa, where we made two log hives for Brenthurst Gardens and the St Andrew’s Office Garden, with help from the Brenthurst staff and those attending the 2019 Oppenheimer Research Conference.

To learn more about Matt Somerville and his beehives visit beekindhives.uk

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