On a lovely calm day at the end of July, 20 of us gathered at Gareth’s place in West Oxfordshire to share a meal and see a large happy apiary. Gareth has not treated his hives for ~5+ years now and the bees are thriving; and following his extremely calm and low-interventionist approach, the bees too are calm and protective gear was totally unnecessary, even on opening the hives.
Gareth is a founder and trustee of the Natural Beekeeping Trust and has 45 years’ experience keeping bees. He makes his own hives and has been evaluating novel variations on old favourites, inspired by research around the world. We were able to inspect some of these hives, talk over apiary management practices, and share our experiences.
Group lunch and catch-up
It transpired that some of the swarms captured earlier in the year had problems (a couple didn’t lay brood, one absconded, one was overly defensive) but most are building up nicely, even late casts. Liz’s new swarm was doing nicely and built up abundant honey stores – but these are now being stripped by numerous energetic robbers, who are probably from a huge prime feral swarm she tried to add to her apiary – but they declined to be hived, absconded and are now living somewhere within flying distance. She’s built a transparent “porch” to put them off but the robbers are pretty persistent. (She’s since moved the hive several miles in an attempt to save the colony.) However, most of the 20 or so swarms we collected are doing OK.
New member Charlotte showed a new Warré knife available from Thornes – an excellent buy at £10 – this is the same as ones provided to the UK Regional Bee Inspectors to use on both Warré and TBH hives.
Peter F uses Nationals and described how he added massive insulation (4 inches) to their too-thin walls last winter using cheap offcuts of building insulation which he sawed to shape. I think he said it cost just £2 to super-insulate 5 hives! (See the article on Warm Hives for how important good insulation is).
Gareth talked about how he and the Natural Beekeeping Trust had exhibited at a recent Art in Action event at Waterperry, where the thing that attracted most attention was the new Freedom Hive made by Matt Somerville of Beekindhives . This is a conservation (leave-alone) hive resembling a double walled barrel strapped up a tree. It really grabbed peoples’ imagination and TV crews were interested. Matt has installed 11 of these this year and, because they are at the right height, just the right size of cavity and shape, super-insulated etc they instantly attract the attention of scout bees. Every one he has installed was found and populated by a swarm, the longest delay was 2 weeks but usually just within hours.
Following lunch we set off to see the apiary of ~20+ hives, meandering through a delightful garden of bee-friendly flowers.
Over the years, Gareth has kept bees in various hive-types including Nationals, TBHs, Warrés and other hives and now regards his apiary as an experimental one. “I’ve got a bit of un-learning to do” he laughs. In general, the hives are thick walled (at least 25mm cedar) and are based on Warré hive dimensions for a degree of standardisation. He’s particularly interested in beekeeperless bees – in the last few years it’s become apparent there are many colonies doing just fine despite not being ‘managed’ by humans. It’s almost as if beekeepers were the problem!
He hasn’t treated with miticides for >5 years. His bees are open mated and all are getting darker. (Will H speculated that this may be convergent evolution, because dark bees warm faster in the sun, rather than interbreeding with ferals, and Gareth conceded this could be true.) His bees are varroa-resistant (ie actively suppress mites, not just varroa-tolerant), and despite the open mating the varroa resistance is a strongly conserved trait. He attributes this to the fact that there are lots of feral colonies all round him – many of the houses are old with thatched roofs and offer many suitable nesting cavities.
Gareth began by showing us two of his leave-alone hives, which are high up to avoid damp. One has an entrance towards its top to simulate how tree cavities at that height “rot down” forming a “top entrance”. These are near-cylindrical hives to minimise heat loss and simulate hollow trees better.
Most conventional beekeepers would assume these hives were too small to survive and thrive, but the one pictured overwinters fine and has swarmed three times this season, providing starter colonies for other hives which is its purpose. The close-up shows how it has an inspection window, through which Gareth can monitor a honeycomb. Each swarm emptied the visible comb of honey, which was then refilled rapidly.
Next he showed us an experimental double-walled Warré, with an unusual floor which has a deliberate gap round the edges to allow condensation to drain out. In winter, a Warré can generate 10 litres of condensation. The extra insulation helps the bees to cook varroa mites by easily raising the internal hive temperature to 40C, expending less energy than they would otherwise need to use.
In summer an extra box is mounted below the rest of the hive, acting as a nadired “super” fixed below the stand itself. The entrance is then one third of the way up the hive like in a Zeidler tree hive, and the theory is that the bees will store excess honey (which can be taken as a crop) in the lower box once they have packed the upper boxes, which act as their own winter stores. That’s the theory – To be tested!
It has only recently been (re?)recognised by Western beekeepers that bees prefer thick walled cavities high up in trees – as per the Zeidler tradition of tree hives. This tradition was discontinued in Eastern Europe when kings decided to build navies, felling the large-girth bee-trees to do so; thus the practical knowledge was seemingly only retained in remote parts of Russia by the Bashkir tribe.
Gareth is also experimenting with octagonal hives. Bees seem to love them, but they are tricky to make and manage. He warned that it is a nightmare trying to machine wood precisely if it isn’t flat. His Kingston Bagpuize supplier stores wood carefully so it doesn’t bend – unlike most.
He’s also trying entrances in different locations – a normal Warré has the entrance at its base, but he indicated one with an extra entrance one third of the way up, and pointed out there was much more traffic through that entrance, the bees preferred it. He told us they are storing excess honey below, like a Zeidler (Bashkir) hive.
With 45 years’ experience and the opportunity and skills to trial novel designs, he’s gradually getting a feel for how hives might be improved. Regarding Nationals, he joked “nice as a wine crate, not so good as a beehive” – referring to the fact that its dimensions derive from the original Langstroth framed hive, which is said to have been built around some wine crates Rev. Langstroth had lying around.
He’s now trialing 300mm deep Warré boxes instead of 200mm – and considering 400mm deep ones – because bees sometimes get stuck when they hit first set of bars and build no farther down (“stuck box syndrome”) – presumably this is because bees ideally want comb, not interrupting wood bars, all the way down.
Gareth’s hives are arranged together in pairs, so if one’s queen fails the bees can easily defect to their known familiar neighbours and reinforce them. One pair adopted opposite survival strategies this year: one bred like mad (often an Italian trait) and a few weeks ago had lots of bees but had almost no stores, eating them as fast as collecting. The other carefully limited how many young it reared, kept its population lower and concentrated on building up honey stores. Gareth said he expected the first to starve (we wondered if it would simply mob and rob the other if it ran out of food) but, on removing a window, it was clear it had plenty of honey now – so its breed-or-bust strategy had lucked out this time.
He’s only had one swarm starve this year. He let it dwindle and starve without intervening to feed because he is running a survival-of-the-fittest apiary; this colony just kept breeding, like the one mentioned above, but this one’s timing proved to be ‘wrong’, hitting a dearth of nectar and thus failing to thrive. This breed-breed-breed approach can often prove not an especially viable survival strategy in the UK with our unreliable weather leading to unreliable nectar flows. Having a number of colonies and swarms to repopulate with each year, he allows the weak ones to die – focussing on raising healthy bee colonies rather than honey yields.
Gareth has come to the tentative conclusion that the assumption that bee colonies need to be big to be healthy and deal with problems, etc. is really not true for the dark bees operating in our climate with its intermittent forage. The optimal strategy for them seems to be modest sized colonies, with relatively frequent swarming and brood breaks – much like skep beekeeping. It was noticeable in the apiary that there were only a couple of large 4-box Warré colonies, most were 2-box, because he’s happy for them to swarm and thus increase the number of successful varroa-resistant bee superorganisms around. (This is a fairly rural location and escaping swarms wouldn’t alarm anyone.)
To demonstrate to some of us how to inspect a Warré, Gareth opened a couple of hives for us. We were all impressed by the gentle manner in which he opened them, the bees were so calm no one needed protection.
A few comments on his approach and technique:
- He only opens a hive if there is a clear reason to, that cannot be properly addressed any other way. Remember his primary interest is healthy bees, not honey. In this case, his purpose of opening was teaching us.
- He moves very slowly and smoothly, with no sudden movements to alarm the bees.
- He starts by gently puffing his smoker, which uses dried hay as fuel, around the hive entrance – not to panic the bees but just to dull their sense of smell.
- Then, taking the hive roof off he waves the smoker round the exposed top cloth, over his hands, pausing with his hands on the top cloth. Partly this tells him where the brood is (the warmest patch) but also it allows the bees to recognise his smell as not being a threat. He holds his hands there for 15-30 seconds as part of his overall calming opening ritual. “If I miss this part of the process out, the bees seem to get annoyed and sting me” he told me later.
- He also talks – quietly – to the bees. I do this myself, it keeps me calm and by treating them as people, I automatically treat them with respect. A loud voice disturbs bees.
Like any good low-intervention beekeeper, he only opens the hive as much as he needs to, to determine something. He doesn’t completely expose boxes, he just tips them back. For one hive he just looked at the bottom of the combs and pointed out there were no queen cells, so swarming was not imminent. For another he peeled back the top cloth and pulled out a comb to show us how slowly he does it. On other occasions I have seen him rest a box on its side, look in the bottom of the box and part the combs with his fingers to confirm there were capped brood and larvae within. Of course, entrance observations and windows tell you a lot and opening is not often needed.
When closing the hive up he avoids squashing any bees if possible because any alarm pheromone released will start a lot of trouble.
One technique he uses involves placing his hive tool between boxes as he lowers a box gently, which gives a two-stage lowering process – onto the tool first then removing it – allowing any stragglers in a gap to hurriedly withdraw from it.
Miscellaneous other snippets of bee wisdom…
Over the course of the day, Gareth gave his views on our many questions, which can be summarised as follows:
- All ‘pollen’ in combs is really bee bread – it’s already been part digested by bees before being stored. It’s perhaps better thought of as bee cheese!
- Crush & strain honey contains more pollen, better for allergies than regular honey.
- Capped honey varies in colour depending on the race of bee. Italian bees give “dark” cappings because the wax cap is in contact with the honey. Gareth’s dark bees leave an air gap between the honey and wax cap, so their capped honey looks white. This is a trait of apis mellifera mellifera and shows there maybe still a lot of a.m.m. genetics in UK hybrid bees.
- If photographing bees do not use a flash: they hate the bright blue light.
- All plastics are bad in hive construction because they all eventually break down into biologically active compounds. So putting a colony in a polystyrene hive, which runs internally at 40C, and is full of wax to absorb and retain fumes; and propolis which absorbs fumes and contains enzymes to accelerate breakdown…is not optimal.
- A bee colony is like an inside-out animal, with its sensitive parts exposed to everything in its environs – its foragers are exposed to everything in 40 sq km and bring it home.
- Bee colonies are much more susceptible to disruption from poisons than individual insects, because they rely on subtle communication cues for the whole superorganism to work. A neonic dose that is sub-lethal to an individual insect can have a serious developmental impact on the colony (affecting not just behaviour but fertility also).
- The neonic debate is easily confused by a problem of big datasets: there is data supporting both sides. But consider: no yield difference is found in Oil Seed Rape crops with or without neonics. Someone even tried cutting off all the leaves which flea beetles would eat, and found as long as the growing tip wasn’t touched the yield was unaffected! There seems no justification for using neonics on crops.
- Many conventional beekeepers insist there are no feral bees in the UK, and that they are all escaped swarms from managed apiaries which repopulate various cavities each Spring and give the impression of continuous occupation. This dates back to some work by a researcher who defined feral as pure apis mellifera mellifera, the British Black Bee, which are very rare due to hybridisation with the unrestricted imports of other bees, and unsurprisingly she found “no ferals”. But surveys by the Natural Beekeeping Trust and others, defining wild bees instead as ‘unmanaged colonies’ which thrive outside of hives, indicate there may be 10,000 wild colonies in England – almost all some kind of hybrid. The key characteristic of a “feral” colony in this viewpoint is that it survives over winter without human help – and as many observers can attest, there are plenty of ferals which don’t die out over winter as shown in this video. There are only about 50,000 – 60,000 managed colonies. So actually the ferals provide a huge pool of locally adapted “survivor” genes to improve your bees, if you permit open mating.
After what felt like a very full afternoon of practical advice and education, we all left feeling quite inspired by seeing so many different ideas being trialed and what was possible if you approach your bees with respect.
Given his vast experience and knowledge, which he is happy to share, we are lucky that Gareth also runs courses on natural beekeeping in Oxfordshire – more info here.
Many thanks to all who came and especially to Gareth and Lynne for sharing their house, garden and time with us!