Eight of the ONBG headed to Wiltshire to visit the first tree hive to be setup in the UK. This is at Pertwood farm, a source of excellent muesli.
Lower Pertwood Farm is a 2,100 acre farm that has been organic for nearly 30 years. They are active in supporting the wildlife on the farm and have seen red listed birds increase in number as a result. Active example: in early spring they are distributing 2 tons of bird feed a week. This greatly benefits the corn bunting, linnets and yellowhammers. More details on the back of a pack of their (great) muesli or here. Their sympathetic farming methods result in large areas of the farm being virtually untouched by humans.
We joined about 30 other bee enthusiasts plus Jonathan Powell, Nick Adams, Pertwood’s wildlife specialist and Chris who seemed to know everything about the farm itself.
As well as being an expert natural beekeeper Jonathan has been studying and making tree hives for some years. He led us to a wildflower meadow which was lined with trees. Which tree had the hive? Not at all obvious from 5m away. If you look at this video the ash tree used is not quite in full leaf. By the time we got to see it the entrance was obscured by leaves giving the hive entrance privacy and good shelter from the full summer heat. As the hive was completed bees discovered it and it was occupied within a couple of days by a prime swarm.
Tree beekeeping seems to be a European thing; there are no records of it in England. For example, in 1820 there were an estimated 100,000 tree hives in Poland. This practice also had, by then, a long tradition with its own values and rules. For centuries honey was the only source of sweetness and was worth more than the timber. Hives were passed down the generations; new hives were setup by one generation for the next. Long term integration with the environment … then along came some Tsars who wanted some cheap wood and sole use of hunting grounds and it all went downhill.
On the plus side tree beekeeping didn’t die out completely. It turns out some people in the Urals have carried on the tradition. And it is this knowledge that Jonathan and others are seeking to develop and share. This is covered in more detail in this blog post and this book.
Jonathan gave us a brief history of the beekeeping practices. It is a very light touch; one inspection in spring to see if a colony is present and another in early autumn to assess and maybe take some surplus honey. He demonstrated the tools for making a hive and used Robert as a model tree to show how the rope is used to climb to and descend from the hive. We did not do any tree climbing nor was Robert hurt in any way.
On an overcast day we could see the bees coming and going. At 5 metres above ground it is assumed that the local badgers will not attempt the climb; similarly mice would think the risk too great – exposure to owls etc. and the entrance is pretty tight as you can see. So after an hour or so of being enthralled by a tree with a hole and some old fashioned tools (no sarcasm here – it was fascinating) we went for a walk round part of the farm.
The impressive thing behind the statistics1 of the farm is the effort these people put into their organic enterprise. They have opened their farm for us to look around and given their time to help us understand what is going on. And they fed us – at least three cheers for Jonathan and the Pertwood team. If they repeat the open day I would recommend it wholeheartedly. But do avoid the A303.
1 Here is one – They get a yield of around 1 ton per acre and have to intersperse their main crops with ones to regenerate fertility. If they used the usual array of chemicals for assistance they might get 3.5 tons per acre. But they would lose the benefits to wildlife of a later harvest and the under sowing of the main crop with (say) clover. This latter point means when the main crop is taken the field is a green sward for everything to enjoy.