Rewilding honey bees at Sheepdrove

Rewilding Honey Bees

The Sheepdrove “Rocket” Freedom Hive – made from Sheepdrove larch with its gnarly legs provided by Sheepdrove stag oak branches by Matt Somerville from Bee Kind Hives ably assisted by Sheepdrove’s Mike Barker – was assembled at the end of the avenue opposite the metal sheep sculptures.

Matt makes several sorts of freedom hives for rewilding honey bees – all of which we are hoping to install on the farm. To tempt scouting bees, Matt adds a portion of old comb and rubs the wood with propolis and lemongrass; fingers crossed this will attract some wild honey bees to make the hive their home.

All wild bees need safe places for nesting,among tussocky or long grass, at the edge of hedgerows and, in the case of honey bees, in the hollows and crevices in veteran trees. On our organic farm we know we have good nesting sites for wild solitary bees by not being too tidy and allowing tussocky grasses and grassy field margins but what about wild honey bees?

Up on the open windswept Lambourn Downs there are few veteran trees. We know we have free living wild honey bees in our ancient woodland and in the veteran trees in the woodland that surrounds the farmhouse. One solution is log hives which are made from hollowed out tree trunks and raised above the ground on a tree or post as honey bees  like to nest at around 4-5m high, which about the height at which larger branches often rot away, creating a hole in the trunk.

But what’s wrong with standard hives? In contrast to the cylindrical tree cavities well insulated with several inches of wood and bark that wild honey bees evolved to live in, modern conventional hives are square boxes that are too draughty and chilly in winter and too hot in summer subjecting honey bees to stresses seldom encountered in nature.

It’s also vital that bees have enough flowers to forage – did you know that managed honey bees are routinely fed sugar to either replace honey that is taken from them, or to avoid starvation, but there is evidence that sugar is detrimental to their health, impairing their immune system and making them more susceptible to disease?

We have lost 97% of our flower rich meadows and half of our hedgerows and the UK sits in the bottom 10% of most biodiversity and nature deprived countries in the world. Studies conducted in France where there are many more flower-rich areas still demonstrate serious levels of competition and impact of managed honey bees on all wild bees.

None of this is the fault of honey bees and we must not demonise honey bees – they are also victims of industrial farming methods that leave no space for nature. So many things in modern, managed, intensive beekeeping, driven by honey production in large quantities, are against honey bee health.

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