We are so enchanted by flowers it’s easy to forget they don’t give a fig what we think about them, because the audience they are really trying to please isn’t human. Einstein is rumoured to have said that if bees died out, civilisation would collapse because pollination is so critical to agriculture. Okay, it may not have been him (historical sleuths can’t find solid evidence) but the word is definitely out – we know that bee populations are crashing everywhere, and that the impact on all our lives could be staggering if this trend continues.
Pesticides are the biggest problem. Even bees that aren’t killed outright on exposure are weakened by tiny quantities absorbed from pollen and nectar. But let’s look on the bright side: some countries are waking up to the problem and starting to regulate pesticides. Also, if we stop thinking of bees just as semi-domesticated creatures serving our needs, and focus on wild populations, we can help them recover.
Matt Somerville, founder of Bee Kind Hives, is working with us to help boost the bee population on our flower farm. Matt buzzes all around the UK setting up hives less like those square boxes we often see, and more like homes that bees actually like. “We need to look at how bees live in the wild rather than imposing our human perspective on them,” he says. He creates hives by hollowing out sections of tree log, leaving cylinders with walls about two inches thick, which is great for insulation. “Conventional beekeepers’ hives have much thinner walls, so the bees have to expend a lot more energy ‘fanning’ their wings to keep warm in winter.”
Beekeepers usually harvest honey and replace it with sugar water to keep the bees fed during the lean winter months, but as Matt says, “That’s like giving them junk food. It has none of the minerals, nutrients and antibacterial qualities of honey, which is far more complex than just sugar.” Matt’s advice is, if you want to keep bees, do it more for their own sake rather than to harvest their honey.
After one of Matt’s log hives is installed in a suitable location, that’s it. You put the hive in and wait. “The main thing about this kind of beekeeping is, we are not beekeepers, and we can no longer manage and control them,” he says. “If the bees are within our reach, there’s a temptation to keep looking at them. Are they doing the right thing? Are they making enough honeycomb? But if you position a hive high up in a tree, beyond your interference, you have a totally different viewpoint and are more relaxed.”
The bees will arrive by themselves. You just bait your new hive with some old honeycomb and a pinch of Iemongrass (which, apparently, bees find irresistible). And then, in the swarming season of early summer, they’ll come. After Matt set up a couple of hives on our pesticide-free flower farm – exactly the kind of place we thought bees would like - we waited. And we waited. And…the bees did not come. “Keep the faith,” Matt told us.
At last, they came! They sneaked into the farm when we weren’t looking and occupied one of the hives, strapped to the trunk of our lovely oak tree. They spent an energetic couple of weeks making home improvements, and huddled in a tight ball in the ‘roof’ space of their log to keep warm during the June wet spell. We’ll keep you posted about the colony’s progress.
Although Matt’s log hives may not be an option for everybody, there’s always something we can do to help. He recommends, “Don’t be too tidy in the garden. Let the wildflowers come out. Leave brambles alone while they are in blossom as bees love bramble nectar. And make sure there are small, shallow sources of water because bees get thirsty just like the rest of us.”
Perhaps we can all help save the world, one thirsty bee at a time.
Photography by Piers Bizony