An update from our beekeeper Emily.
I can’t believe it has been just over a year since I joined Village Farm as the beekeeper. There were three hives when I started in June and 13 months on we now have 30 hives. I’ll allow you to insert the well-worn phrases on keeping up with the bees’ work ethic!
There’s a special relationship between the honeybee and people, of the approximately 270 types of bee who live on these isles, the Western honeybee is their poster child. As it is the only bee species to live in colonies of thousands of individuals, for the population to live into the winter and on for several years, there is a chance to build a deep relationship with honeybees which is enduring. Of course there is a vested interest in nurturing these insects, their sweet distillation of nectar, honey. And I hope to be able to share some with you in the future, should there be enough to spare.
The hives are designed to be low input and to facilitate light touch, minimal intervention beekeeping. The bees know what they are doing better than I do, so on the whole I leave them to get on with it. We’ve built three different designs of hives so that they can be compared and demonstrated side by side, to learn more about the advantages of each. They are Kenyan top bar hives, Warre hives and Lazutin hives, a type of horizontal deep box hive .
The hives take their cues from nature, assuming that evolution has honed effective and healthy ways for honeybees to live, even if we humans might not always understand the full reasoning behind why things are the way they are. Made of wood, with some wool insulation, the hives are all designed to be as warm and thermally stable as a tree hollow, so the bees don’t waste energy heating and cooling their home.
None of the hives start with any beeswax foundations, to allow the bees to arrange their brood, food and honeycombs as they see fit. The wax they live on is fresh and pure, 100% sweated from the bees on the farm.
The bases of the hives are filled with deadwood and leaf-litter to encourage a living ecosystem with beneficial species interactions. Why all the artifice, why not just let the honeybees go feral in the trees? Well hopefully one day they will, when we’ve replaced the trees stripped from the farmed landscape by previous generations. Nationally there is a woeful lack of standing deadwood and tree cover, the 15,000 trees we’ve planted on the farm since we took over the tenancy begin to repair the loss of tree cover, but it will take a while for their trunks to home honeybees. In the meantime, the hazels, willows, chestnuts and more will provide much needed pollen and nectar to feed the colonies.
As a beekeeper I’ve always felt it inadequate to molly coddle bees in a hive only to let them fly out into a barren and toxic landscape. That’s why I was so keen to be part of the Village Farm team, where the land is being managed not with one species in mind, but to regenerate it for an abundance of diverse life.
Yes, moving our sheep to fresh pasture every day is great for their health, but it also rests the pasture for at least two months. In the summer this means the fields burst into colour with clovers, magenta sainfoin, yellow melilot, blue chicory and purple knapweeds, some of the 20 species originally sown to restore the pastures when Village Farm took tenancy of the land. Not to mention the 60 plus species in Butts Lane End wildflower meadow, an unusual smorgasbord for bees given that the UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s.
The new coppice Pete planted over the winter will provide wood fuel in future, but the honeybees reap the rewards of early pollen and the sheltered microclimates they provide. The lucky ladies (all worker honey bees are female) are heirs to an increasingly rich landscape, which only bodes well for their equally rich honey. But relationships in nature tend to be reciprocal and the honeybees will help ensure that the pastures set seed ready to start anew the following year, that the orchard is heavy with fruit and as the trees grow older the pigs will benefit from nuts pollinated by their neighbours the bees.