Winchelsea Visit

Now that the bee commitments are starting to quieten down for the winter, I went to visit Paul to discuss plans for next year with the Market Wood bees, and any other swarms we capture from the feral colonies in and around Winchelsea. I have one of the swarms here at my apiary as we didn’t have a permanent home for it when it issued, but we now have a possible location, and some ideas as to how to proceed with our tree bees.

A resident of Winchelsea has some land which has been planted with a number of native trees as well as fruit bushes, and it would be a perfect location for some hives. We are wanting to carry on with our monitoring of these former feral colonies, and document any observations we notice that might differ from conventionally managed hives. Collecting swarms is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, and on many occasions the whereabouts of the parent hive isn’t known, or if it is, it belongs to a beekeeper. What we want to do is hive swarms from known feral colonies (both new and longstanding) and keep them in such a way that resembles their natural habitat as much as possible. By this I mean checking (but not treating) for varroa, increasing and reducing space as the bees need it, and ensuring they are kept safe from badgers and woodpeckers. We won’t perform any invasive procedures and will keep the nest as undisturbed as possible, but they will be health checked and we will evaluate their progress. If there is genuinely surplus honey, we will remove this and use the proceeds to fund further aspects of the project. Small batch, individually harvested honey from bees living as close to naturally as possible is a rare and precious commodity. We will set up bait hives in preparation for next year’s swarms in Market Wood and the churchyard, as well as other places that people have mentioned seeing bees.

Conservation of honeybees is a contentious issue: I feel it would be better to keep our hived colonies in a more natural manner rather than try and “rewild” honeybees in some instances yet keep them so intensively in others. I know the Dark/Black/British honeybee Apis mellifera mellifera is technically native to these shores but the mongrels most of us have now are not, and conventionally farmed honeybees forage in the same way and have the same requirements as wild or feral colonies, so I’m not sure of the environmental benefit of conserving them as opposed to focussing on our truly native bumble and solitary bees. I know many people would go so far as to say that domesticated (I use the term loosely – mine sure as hell aren’t tame) honeybees are a downright scourge on the landscape and have no place in it at all, certainly not in the vast numbers we have at bee farms and large-scale hobbyists.

Although I am not in favour of conserving an already abundant and accessible species, I do think it is important to safeguard the genetic contribution of colonies which have clearly stood the test of time and look after themselves successfully. So the colonies we have are swarms which would have issued anyway; we are not making splits or unnaturally propagating them so these bees would inevitably end up somewhere. If we can watch and learn and take note of how well they do in hives we can then see if there are any common factors arising from putting bees from natural cavities into a wooden box.

The advantage of this stretch of land we can use is that where there is fruit, there are flowers, so the bees will have plenty of forage. This in turn will provide a feast of berries to feed the local and migrant avian population, aiding the bird ringing exercises that are carried out nearby.

I have never seen so many guelder rose shrubs. Great swathes of them, over 3 metres tall and festooned in red and orange berries, with spindle trees looking similarly inviting. I have noticed the first redwings in the trees near me, so these fruits should be a magnet for winter thrushes once they start arriving from Scandinavia. Sweet chestnuts in vast numbers too, making the paths and roads look like they are covered in sea urchins.

It’s not far from Market Wood, so the bees from the oak tree colony are most likely to already be visitors to this site. We will install swarms from local bees, with a view to running guided walks from the wild colonies on National Trust property to the hived progeny across the fields on the private land. It will be interesting to see how an area managed primarily for birds will benefit the bees. One of the advantages of having bees in hives is that they can be monitored in a way that other species cannot. Although they are very efficient pollinators and nectar-gatherers, to the detriment of truly wild bees if in large numbers, they can be used as a proxy of sorts to give an idea of the numbers of other insects in the locality.

Another feral colony which we have on our books is the poly hive at Crutches Farm. These swarmed from the church and were a bit too antisocial to live in the recipient’s garden, so they have been relocated to a sheltered spot by an unoccupied farm cottage where bees previously resided in the wall cavity. They were flying despite the clam and drizzle so that was impressive, though we didn’t go too close…

3 Replies to “Winchelsea Visit”

  1. Fascinating!! Thank you 😁 The genetics you mention having made me realize that in my area of north Georgia (U.S.), I have seen more and more Cordovan, not in my own stock but rather in fellow keepers. And in my experience, they are poor gatherers for winter stores, as was evidenced also in my inspection of a fellow beekeeper recently. Thanks for a really cool update.

    1. Exactly. I’m not sure of the merit of trying to breed “native” honeybees when actually we just need bees that survive…

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