Last year, Paul was tipped off about some bees in an aged oak at Knockhatch Adventure Park and yesterday we went to see them, and hear about their history from Colin, the Managing Director of the family-owned Park.
The colony currently resides in the trunk of the tree, but originally they were in a branch which fell down, at which point the bees relocated. Of course, the bees we see today are ancestors of that colony, as the tree has been permanently occupied for at least the last 40 years. Paul and I are particularly interested in bees which have been living without intervention as the various projects we have underway require hardy bees who can build their own comb, manage their resources effectively, and thrive in the local landscape.
What impressed me was the bees’ position within the Park, and the fact that they are not cordoned off or deemed to be a hazard: this is so refreshing. There is plenty of room for people to sit elsewhere but it sends out a clear signal that the bees have a place, and can carry out their business in peace rather than being marginalised or worse, destroyed because people don’t like the idea of them actually being part of our world. This normalising is essential if we are going to prevent the decline of insects that is becoming so frighteningly apparent.
Knockhatch takes its conservation and promotion of natural areas seriously, and gently educates in the spaces between the rides and play facilities. The space where we are considering siting a hive is within an enclave with a bat barn, a log pile, a rockery and a pond. The oak tree is situated not far from this area, and it would be wonderful to create a link between the two by having a swarm from the oak tree in a hive nearby, so that we can monitor them and see how they differ from bees which have been managed commercially.
The tree itself is estimated to be about 500 years old, based on its girth measurement, and is now completely hollow inside. It is no longer in active growth, and so is technically “dead”, although as with all dead mature trees, its legacy regarding the flora and fauna it supports in, on, and around it makes it hard to regard it as anything other than a living organism. We watched the bees as they circled around the entrance which is about 2 metres from the ground – the propolis glistening at the entrance gave it away as we peered up through the ivy.
There was a lot of pollen going in, and a great deal of activity despite it being on the cool side. They definitely swarmed 4 or 5 years ago but they of course may have issued more since then, but in any case we are keen to get a bait hive or two in place to take advantage of any scouting behaviour.
The bees themselves are quite dark, and weren’t at all bothered by us taking a look at their home:
While we were looking for the entrance, we saw buff (or white?) tailed bumblebees going in to a crack on the other side of the trunk. They have a nest too, 90˚ around from the honeybees:
It will be interesting to see if we have any luck with capturing a swarm, and then seeing how they get on in a hive situation. We will be able to monitor mite drop, and perhaps measure cell size and take a sample of bees for DNA testing, all within the parameters of allowing the bees to carry on behaving naturally.