In 2015 I helped set up a community apiary with Andy Durling in Westham, East Sussex, with sustainable beekeeping at its core. The difficulty with setting up community bee activities is that there is often generous funding to establish the apiary – hives, bees, beesuits, smokers, extractors – but no money to fund the ongoing project. I was really keen to promote not only sustainable beekeeping, as in the hive management, but also the sustainability of the project. Honey sales are not a reliable form of income, as firstly, we need to allow the bees to retain all they need which as we know, may not be all that they produce in a poor year, and secondly, it entrenches honey as the only valid reason for keeping bees. As the Forest Garden is run by volunteers, we also wanted to use the hives to allow those who perhaps couldn’t or wouldn’t consider keeping bees themselves to have the chance to be involved with the maintenance and upkeep of the bee colonies.
So, today’s event was a “Meet the Bees”, where people could come and hear about honeybees and other species, and have a look at the hives in situ, and see how they fit in to the local ecology and the Forest Garden itself. Forest gardening is a form of permaculture which mimics the layers found in a typical forest, from upper canopy to shrubs, ground cover, and roots. Honeybees provide a link between all these layers and also to the wider environment, and the whole ethos of the forest garden is to promote biodiversity.
11 people attended, and firstly I discussed bee species generally, then honeybees specifically. We talked about how the superorganism functions, and its needs, and how we can manage the colony and its surrounds in such a way that allows them to be as productive as possible.
We had a look at the 4 National P&hives we have on site, and saw young bees orienting, drones in quantity, and bright yellow pollen pants aplenty. It’s great when people can visualise what’s going on inside the hive without us having to disturb the bees themselves, and watch them coming and going on the understanding that there is a whole other world running busily inside the box. The planting at the forest garden has been done with bees in mind but of course it also encourages other wildlife: there are newts in the pond, lizards bask in the sunshine, compost bins teem with invertebrates, and the fruit trees and shrubs provide pollen and nectar for all sorts of insects. Note the border surrounds and paths are made from found wood and crushed wood; everything is reused and sourced on site. It really is the most wonderful space and the hard work of Andy and his team of volunteers is really reaping benefits.
We do have some small taster pots of raw honey from our bees, and Andy and Fiona’s daughter had made some lip balms from the beeswax. We have plans to run an event selling bee-friendly plants, and bug and bird houses from wooden offcuts to encourage people to plant forage and provide habitat as these are ways of providing an income for the project. By charging a small amount for the talks and training we bring people together, provide skills to volunteers, and educate local people on how to encourage wildlife.
If you would like to visit the Forest Garden, or come along and help with either bee duties or indulge in some green gym activity, do get in touch with us via our facebook page.