First Visit to West Rise Bee Sanctuary and School Apiary

I was invited to be involved with this project by the Head of the award-winning West Rise Junior School, Mike Fairclough, and Paul Youlten, bee enthusiast from Winchelsea. The apiary had been set up six years previously as a sanctuary for the native black honeybee, Apis mellifera mellifera but had sadly become rather neglected. The apiary is sited on the Langney Marsh and there is not much forage in the vicinity and the prevailing wind whistles across the land straight off the sea.

Following a forest school workshop with the children, Paul and I decided to shelter the bees from the exposure issue to see if this would help the two remaining hives: a National and a Warré. Using hay bales, we constructed a loose wall around each hive using the suggestions from this website as a guide.

The bees from both hives were flying well on the previous occasion and the Warré appeared to be a swarm as from looking through the observation windows, there were about 5-6 combs built in the upper of the two boxes, having previously been unoccupied.

We built the windbreaks first as we didn’t know how the bees would react to being checked, and didn’t want to have to haul bales wearing our beesuits! Here are the hives, following the construction:

Then we lit the smoker and investigated the hives, starting with the National. The top super had the side 4 frames full of partially honey but just foundation in the others. The super beneath had more drawn comb and again, partially capped honey. To our surprise, we found a metal queen excluder between the brood box and super, which seemed odd as the Sanctuary had been set up on natural beekeeping principles, and these are not usually used, especially not if the bees are not going to be checked regularly. The bees can manage their space effectively if they have the run of the hive but an excluder (as the name suggests) prevents the queen from laying in the upper boxes and this is only necessary if you are running your bees commercially for honey…and even then they aren’t strictly necessary. Drones also get stuck as they are bigger than workers and die, clogging the grid which is unhelpful and not fair on the drones. In other words, they should not be used unless there is very good reason!

Bizarrely we found that the brood box had 5 frames with the rest of the box just empty. The bees had attached the free combs to the queen excluder in a beautiful but completely unmanageable pattern:

We discovered that this hive was queenless – most likely the swarm in the Warré was from this colony as there were a number of queen cells. We then looked in the Warré, but we couldn’t remove any combs as the top bars didn’t seem to be correctly aligned and the bees had built crossed comb to fill the gaps. It is really important to start with correctly-spaced bars or frames: the bees might well do their own thing despite efforts to keep them straight but at least start as you mean them to go on! The lower box was empty and seemed to have some bars missing. There was capped brood present and having done some swarm calculations, we worked out the swarm must have arrived around the 10th June. Being a cast, this would mean that it probably took the queen a week or two to mate and start laying, hence the diminutive size of the colony at the 6 week mark.

We went to have a think about how to tackle the situation. The Warré was small and there seemed to be a lot of wasps which could rob the small hive, and there was a lot of honey in the National. How to combine the two? The stores (and bees) from the National would boost the Warré but how to unite them? There is a good argument for sticking to one type of hive in an apiary so that resources can be shared if need be. There was another Warré at the apiary but unfortunately we couldn’t use this for ‘spares’ as it was a different style and had shorter bars. It had had a tree bumblebee nest in it, showing a valuable diversity and at least the hive had housed bees of some description, and formerly a mouse nest; currently a huge Tegenaria spider…

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Following some thinking time, we made carried out our plan to help the Warré and sacrifice the National. If the Warré makes it through the winter, we can furnish the apiary with another Warré hive; if it doesn’t, we can get another National. We took the quilt box with the mouse-chewed burlap from the vacant hive and put a chunk of honeycomb from the National on top for the bees to eat:

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We then moved the National from its sheltered spot and put it on the stand next to the Warré. The hope is that the disorientated bees from that colony will join the Warré, and that they will work together to rob the National. Either way, in a month’s time, we will shake the bees out of the National, remove that hive and harvest the honey before the wax moth get going and render it unusable. Uncapped honey will be fed back to the Warré bees in a feeder, and the capped can be processed and jarred up for the school. We used a bit of one of the too-short bars to reduce the entrance size on the Warré to give the bees a better chance to guard it from marauding wasps:

We will be back mid-August to see how they are all getting on. The site has huge potential to incorporate not just honeybees but other species and bring awareness of the importance of pollen and nectar sources to a wide audience. Including the children and teachers at the school in ongoing maintenance and development will be a valuable opportunity to educate and inspire.

Further plans would include improving the hive windbreaks by planting willow around to both shelter and provide pollen as they flower; introducing a greater number of suitable trees to the site to allow microclimates to develop; seeding areas with more of the present flowering vegetation; providing information and courses on bees and other species on-site to demonstrate the value of these (and other) insects to the environment; an audit of the current flora and fauna to establish the biodiversity.

West Rise Junior School already has a profound symbolic relationship with the marsh and bees, and utilises the archaeological links to bring the children to a greater understanding of the history and value of the site. Different activities to support the apiary will deliver a wide range of environmental and communal benefits to the surrounding area.

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