Installing hives for conservation or improving biodiversity is fatally flawed, in that a honey bee colony is a hungry organism, and will require a great deal of natural forage (both pollen and nectar) to survive the winter, and this can mean they outcompete the resident pollinator population. They can be regarded as native, but the numbers we have due to farmed and hobby hives means they skew the population dynamic wholly in their favour.
There is also understandable confusion regarding the ‘endangered’ status around bees. Although bees are among our most familiar of insects, there are of course a multitude of native species distinct from our managed honey bees and it is these that are feeling the pinch of loss of habitat and lack of diversity, but the blanket problem of agricultural/horticultural chemicals and the feast-famine of food supply affects all bee species, as they are obliged to work in the same environment. This is where they differ from livestock (even though honey bees are categorised as such) because we cannot determine where they go to find food, or nest, or gather water.
I am a big believer in working with what we have, and being honest about the potential. People love bees, for the right and wrong reasons, and to disregard honey bees because of their potential Viking-raider approach to nectar-gathering is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
So this is the value in using honey bees as part of a conservation project
…with a few caveats.
Beehives can be regarded as a tangible focal point for biodiversity intentions. They are long-lived, visible, well-regarded, and provide a totemic landmark both conceptually and in situ.
The hive should be regarded as the STARTING POINT: an emblem of the future as we use it to guide us with our planting and habitat provision.
Any type of hive can be used, but the Warré is primarily designed for hands-off beekeeping. They can be painted or embellished to represent a brand or colour scheme which is preferable to promising own-label honey, and more immediate for photos.
Stocking density should be around 2 hives per hectare, and any wild-living nests should be counted as a hive for population purposes.
Sourcing your bees
Install a local swarm in to the beehive, or set up the hive and wait for it to become occupied. This homes an offshoot from an existing colony rather than supporting bee breeding and bee farms. They will also be far less expensive (potentially free) and by baiting an empty hive and seeing if a swarm arrives, it highlights the point about working with nature. Local bees from a swarm are more likely to be successful as they will know the area, and if the bees don’t thrive, that can be an illustration of how we need to maximise our positive husbandry of the area: the hived bees have as much chance as the rest of the wildlife to be successful, and can be viewed as a proxy as to the challenges facing all our insects.
Bees will forage on land within a 3-5km radius of the hive, which allows us to justifiably promote bee-friendly practises within that area – perfect for a community garden or school as we can demonstrate how the bees from the hive will be visiting your garden, your outdoor space, your park, your allotment.
Treat the immediate area – as much as you can spare – around the bees as an insect haven. The lack of disturbance (mowing, strimming, dogs, livestock) around a hive encourages all sorts of flora and fauna that might otherwise not take hold. These will occupy the hive too, encouraging a more balanced colony ecosystem. Honey bees evolved as woodland creatures, so the influx of woodlice, earwigs, and countless microorganisms is beneficial and the hive becomes part of the landscape, as the colony would function in the wild.
If areas need to be cleared or cut, do so on a rotational basis so the same basic amount is maintained.
Honey bees will work bramble flowers, as will virtually every other species of pollinator. The fruits from these pollinated flowers feed birds, mammals, and other insects, and the thicket habit of a mature bramble stand provides protection for nests, fledglings, hibernating mammals and saplings.
There should be no need to provide the bees with supplementary food as this is giving them an unfair advantage over other pollinators: allow the colony to grow at its natural rate, and it will adjust its size and vigour accordingly. If there is a lack of forage resulting in low winter stores in the first year, supplementary feeding may be necessary, but this should be addressed in the following years with increased planting and more insulation on the hive to prevent energy loss trying to keep warm. Accept that there will be losses, if the bees are not being mollycoddled: the point is that we are working with nature.
If there is a varied habitat, there is less danger of the honey bees monopolising the resources. There will be species/types of flower, and shady or damp areas where they are less likely to forage, allowing other pollinators more suited to these areas to thrive: this too encourages a diverse approach rather than getting hung up on particular plants.
potential aims & outcomes
Sadly we have lost our faith in nature to provide us with the solution, as it often has a different timescale, approach, or outcome to what we envisage, even though by its standards it is doing the correct thing given the resources it has. We have absolutely no grasp of many of the relationships in the natural world, but we don’t trust the dynamics as we are concerned that we may be inconvenienced. What we forget is that how nature determines an outcome will ultimately be correct for that set of circumstances: it can’t do anything else as it has no agenda.
A beehive can contribute to greater awareness of the beneficial and detrimental activities both near and further afield. There should be effective communication between ecologists, entomologists, planners and beekeepers to evaluate the best practices that broadly combine the needs of insects and people. Many of our procedures are done out of habit and arbitrariness and small adjustments could and would positively impact honey bees and therefore the wider wildlife. The popular and hands-off “no-mow” campaign by many councils can be applied to other maintenance such as pollarding, hedge-cutting, and weedkilling.
Honey bees can only produce a surplus (ie harvestable crop) of honey if there is abundant forage of nectar and pollen. Nectar is the basis for honey, and pollen provides the basis for beebread, the fermented mixture fed to bee larvae which then form the workforce to collect the nectar. The workforce can only operate effectively when the bee colony is running efficiently. and this means a healthy, functioning queen; a safe, secure, and appropriate hive; a well-rounded ecosystem to stimulate natural behaviour. If we take honey and/or feed sugar, we upset the delicate balance of incoming nectar vs stores. If a small amount is taken during times of plentiful forage – late spring and early summer – the bees can accommodate this reduction and it doesn’t unduly harm the equilibrium, but viewed as a requisite each year to justify the bees’ presence puts pressure on the colony and the available natural resources.
There is another consideration with honey extraction: it requires lifting, expensive and bulky equipment, glass jars, and a degree of skill. It sounds counter-intuitive, but if we take away the promise of honey, it focusses attention on the educational and mission-statement aspect of the hive, and brings the presence of a hive in to alignment with the conservation ideals of the project.
Ideas for an alternative quantitative “crop” from honey bees include:
- Improved pollination of local fruit trees
- Increased number of no-mow participants
- Choice of native hedgerow as boundaries
- Increased tree and flower planting
- Number of talks and visits educating and informing people of the value of wild spaces
- Reach of social media
Use saved seed, divisions, cuttings and donated plants from the local community to engage and foster a sense of responsibility. Hold plant sales to raise funds rather than selling honey as it presents a much more balanced picture about bees and beekeeping, and is more representative of the inputs/outputs of what bees need.
The advantage of a beehive over other species is that it is accessible for observation all year round. A couple of lightweight protective tunics can be supplied for those wishing to get in closer to watch the bees at the entrance (there is no need to open the hive). Many hives have windows so that the combs can be seen without disturbing the bees’ internal conditions.
Sweep nets are great for use by children (and adults!) in the summer to show what other species are benefiting from the bees’ presence. Collect and broadcast seed from the wild flowers. Build insect habitat from donated items such as pallets, sticks, broken crockery, and plant stems.
There are many citizen-science initiatives involving wildlife that can be tapped in to as a way of involving the local community. The results of these can be published in parish magazines, newsletters, social media and blogposts.
This is by no means an exhaustive essay, but hopefully clears up some of the potential greenwash/beewash/pollinator-v-honey bee conundrums. If you would like to discuss the benefits or problems with your conservation hives or project, do please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org