Bees at Wakelyns

Wakelyns hopes to support the wild honey bee by offering homes for its swarms. With Gill Horrocks’ help, we already have a one year-old colony which housed itself in a Layens box, but for the future we have developed a Wakelyns box which is 30-40 litres in capacity, and heavily insulated with sheep’s wool and recycled material from the renovations on site. The cavity offers the same sort of protection as the inside of a tree trunk, and is based on the design of the People’s Hive by the French village priest, Warré. This means it’s easy to construct with available bits of wood, and costs in labour rather than resources. The Wakelyns hive has top bars because we hope to take just a little honey for the bakery, in keeping with the farm’s sustainable, low food miles model. But it can also simply be left as a bee hollow for species conservation.

Bee kind at Wakelyns

For some years now, we have known that bee-kind is in trouble. The honey bee is suffering from various diseases introduced by modern agriculture and modern beekeeping practices, and some of these diseases are passed on to the many species of wild bees. Over 40% of our food is produced with the help of the honey bee; another 30% is pollinated by other kinds of bee, fly, and wasp. So the crisis is serious enough for serious re-thinking.

Wakelyns, is trying to be ahead of the game, just by providing a healthy eco-oasis. Always a haven for solitary bees and wasps, it turns out that it also supports a hidden population of honey bees living wild, too, in old bird nests inside thick tree hollows. This is very special, because it means they have out-evolved the worst parasite of the current age, varroa, and they have done it all by themselves. And, because the balance of the proportion of honey bees to other pollinators is delicate, we are keen to keep the balance stable at Wakelyns, so as to support the health of all the invertebrates here.

Our first Wakelyns swarm – spring 2021

Right now,  it’s Swarming season!

As the old rhyme says:

A swarm of bees in May

Is worth a load of hay

A swarm of bees in June

Is worth a silver spoon

A swarm of bees in July

Isn’t worth a fly

So, we want to see early swarms who will have a whole season to establish themselves. July swarms have least chance because nectar and pollen are less plentiful from then on – but they can, and do survive.

Swarming is how bees reproduce. It’s carefully planned parenthood. First, when conditions are right – plentiful food, favourable weather, good population of bees – they invite the queen to lay princess eggs in specially-constructed cells – usually about 8. At her fertile weight, she can’t fly. So the bees then stop feeding her and become her personal trainers, encouraging her to keep moving until she’s lost 25% of her weight and is strong and light enough to fly. At around 16 days, the princesses are mature, and the colony is ready to split. There are some practice flights out of the hive for the queen, then when she is up to it, on a fine day, about half the colony leaves with her. This is wonderful to see, with the bees circling above and sounding like a jet engine, and they move in this circle towards a convenient place to settle, say, around a branch, or hanging down in a tear-drop shape.

Rival queens – a swarm settles under a convenient chair during the Queen’s inspection of the Grenadier Guards at Windsor Castle (BBC photo)

Once they have all collected, the bees wait for information brought back by scouts about the best sites for a new colony, and decide together which one they prefer. Then they all fly off and occupy the favoured hollow.

Meanwhile, in the mother hive, the princesses are released from their cells as unmated queens. They will fly off with their own swarm – often more than one queen per swarm – and set up a new home. One new queen will inherit the original hive.