Just up the road from where I live in West London there’s a tree with a wild colony of honeybees living inside a cavity in its trunk. You can see them in action here. Above the gravestones of Kensal Green cemetery, which include those of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Freddie Mercury, a Queen bee is laying her eggs in exquisitely engineered wax honeycomb, the way her predecessors have been successfully doing for at least fifteen million years. We’ve only been around for 150,000 years or so, with questionable success, and on this timescale the bees could consider our entire species to be the avaricious, destructive 1%. How might they feel about any of us calling ourselves ‘beekeepers’?
The half dozen beehives on my urban roof offer AirBnB accommodation. I don’t ‘keep’ the bees that live inside – they keep themselves far better than I can begin to comprehend. I’m merely a hive keeper, and only because swarms of local bees chose to move into the empty boxes I provided and transform them into hives of activity. Key to these swarms’ success is choosing the most ideal home for the family of 60,000 they’re about to raise. So I try to make my boxes emulate the tree cavities that have served the bees so well for so long.
Research into tree-dwelling wild bees tells us that the scout bees who are investigating potential new homes for their swarm are looking for a Goldilocks empty volume of around 40 litres – about the size of our kitchen bins. They need an entrance large enough to allow busy air traffic at the height of summer, but small enough to be defendable. Like scrupulously honest surveyors the scout bees will measure, share and debate these particulars before the swarm commits to its new home in a democratic process that puts ours to shame.
Offering up a 40-litre box we can putt golf balls into is not enough, because while we’re often focused on the excellent pollination and delicious honey that bees provide, their immediate intent inside the hive is neither of these: honey is important to them but somewhat niche – it’s the bee’s winter food and fuel, stored sunlight to survive the few flower-free months – pollination is plants’ private reproductive concern; however brilliant the bees are at facilitating it, plants procure sex from the incidental spillage as oblivious bees fly from bloom to bloom intent on gathering up protein-rich pollen to feed their young. As in all families the bees’ most pressing, immediate priority is raising the kids – what we call honeycomb the bees might call nurserycomb:
The interior of a hive is more of a neonatal ward than a honey factory – as many as 30,000 developing young need to be kept at a steady 35 degrees centigrade, day and night, or they will perish – and the bees have evolved an extraordinarily precise ability to maintain this temperature. But they perfected it in trees:
Typical tree cavities enclose the bees in around ten times the thickness of wood used in conventional beehives, and provide around ten times the insulation: thin-walled beehives require 50% more energy from the bees to stay warm in winter; baking summer sun can turn them into solar ovens that require vigorous emergency cooling. By cladding our hive boxes in 5cm of wool or cork we can provide the level of insulation from extremes of ambient temperature that the bees’ aircon has relied upon for 15 million years. Inside our hives we have now created a familiar space for honeybees to thrive.
But what have we done outside our hives?
Deforestation to allow for unsustainable intensive monoculture has decimated the bees’ habitat. Chemical fertilisers and excessive tilling have crippled the bacteria and fungi at the base of the Soil Food Web leaving poorly nourished crops more prone to attack by insects and fungi. This catastrophe has been symptomatically addressed with the diminishing returns of increasingly toxic and systemic pesticides and fungicides that are present in every cell of every grain of pollen the bees bring back to the hive to feed to their young. Research into sublethal effects of these toxins on bees rarely looks at more than one – and never at the synergistic toll of the cocktail of poisons found, literally, in the field. Even weedkillers like glyphosate, never intended to directly harm insects, disrupts bees’ sophisticated solar navigation, reducing their ability to fly home with food that isn’t labelled ‘Contains child-friendly poison which will affect your SatNav’.
Regenerative agriculture which puts the biology back into our soil is an essential part of an eventual return to sustainable nourishment for all, but right now the safest place for honeybees is in our cities. Instead of being surrounded by hundreds of hectares of a single crop like oilseed rape – which provides one flavour of chemically treated food for around six weeks after which rural honeybees will find themselves trying to survive in a food desert – urban bees enjoy unfettered access to hundreds of thousands of gardens artfully planted by humans to generate flowers from the early spring right through to the early winter. The diverse blooms that bring delight to our eyes and noses bring a rich, varied and prolonged source of food for the bees. Because urban gardeners are less concerned with yield and profit, they tend to apply fewer toxic chemicals, but we should press councils to lead by example, promoting zero use of chemicals that harm life in our public spaces.
Along with councils, tens of thousands of us already freely provide bird boxes without any expectation of eggs for our breakfasts. We could do the same for honeybees: putting out leave-alone, insulated, empty 40litre bee boxes, ‘Welcome Hives’ that could create in our cities a forest of tree cavities like the one in Kensal Green cemetery. Honeybees’ ideal hive entrance height is around 5 metres above the ground – out of harm’s way for all of us. An urban sanctuary of democratically chosen Welcome Hives would of itself add no honeybees to the environment, it would merely offer suitable shelter in the presence of food – generating habitat in which the existing honeybees’ population would naturally fluctuate into sustainable balance.
This year up on my roof the balance took a dramatic tip: for the first time none of the honeybee colonies living in my AirBnB had survived the winter. Silent spring hives. Post mortems were inconclusive, but what was certain was the feeling of bereavement – my non-interventionist ‘idle beekeeping’ had mainly consisted of reclining near the hives meditatively watching the bees come and go. Now I was alone with the sky and cold, empty boxes.
Two months later scout bees appeared out of the blue and began to check out my vacant hives. As they bobbed around the entrances, flying inside, reappearing, walking around a little, going back in, my heart leapt at the prospect of their enthusiasm. And now, even after three swarms have spontaneously moved into three of my hives bringing them back into business, I realise that so much more than any honey they might provide, it is the connection with these creatures that I cherish: when a swarm of 25,000 bees turns up and moves into your Welcome Hive bringing the air alive with the buzz of their dizzyingly singular, urgent intent, you don’t just feel democratically chosen, you feel blessed. Watch them arriving here.