Bees evolved to live in trees, and the hives we use mimic these natural cavities. A honeybee colonial organism is made up of three parts: the outer protective structure, the wax combs, and the bees themselves. They maintain a constant temperature and humidity within the cavity, and coat the inside with propolis, a resinous substance which effectively sterilises the interior surface with a breathable, antimicrobial film. And of course – the trees are not opened up and dismantled on a regular basis as hives are, nor are the bees robbed of their honey stores and fed sugar syrup, or in any way manually interfered with by humans.
The symbiotic relationships between the bee colony and the other inhabitants of the tree (from birds, mammals and other invertebrates right down to the microfauna and flora that form part of a tree’s natural biota) are also of great interest. Many beekeeping methodologies encourage a constant ‘cleansing’ of the hive and removal of elements that may be seen as dirty or unwanted. Treatments for mites are powerful substances, and in the same way that antibiotics work within our own systems, these insecticides knock out both the good and the bad.
Trees offer living conditions for bees that we propose should improve varroa resistance and provide optimum conditions for health, and we are keen to see how these bees respond to hive life in a sustainable management program. In good years, feral or wild colonies throw swarms and this is a natural, reproductive division rather than an artificial split that would typically happen in a conventionally run apiary. We want to collect these swarms and then monitor them for varroa load, temperament, general health, tendency to propolise, winter survival and spring build up, and utilisation of honey stores. We will essentially keep them in the same way that they would live in a tree cavity, so with minimal disturbance, but record some data on these former tree colonies to see if their origins affect their ability to cope in what is an increasingly challenging environment.
This is a longstanding community of honeybee colonies in oak trees at the National Trust’s Market Wood.
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This is a colony that has inhabited a large hollow oak for at least the last 40 years.
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