Beaulieu Bee Garden Project

Spring 2022 Update

Since September the beehives at the top of Haywards Meadow have made an interesting addition for visitors to Patrick’s Patch. Quite often when immersed in a hive inspection I can hear folk chatting as they watch from over the hedge, and also, following on from a chat with Head Gardner Rachel, friends from the New Forest Beekeepers will be helping out at a Bee Event at the Patch’s Potting Shed Club on Saturday 28th May.

The establishment of a New Forest Bee Garden in Hayward’s Meadow was always going to be a multi stage project, and I think the first stage is going ok. The bees have been well received and appear not to have caused any problems so far. They have been in modern beehives till now to allow easy handling of the bees and also because, in September, when the bees were introduced, the beekeeping game is really all about getting your bees to store away enough food for the long winter ahead. Using familiar equipment is essential for a beekeeper to be able to get the bees honeycomb larders topped up properly, and also to be able to easily insulate and weatherproof all the hives. So modern beehives were definitely the right starting point.

There are various interpretations of what a New Forest Bee Garden might have looked like. The one which I am going to try first is as shown in the following:

This is an artist’s impression from the NFknowledge.org website contributed by NFNPA Archaeology.

As I understand it there are archaeological remains of typical Bee Gardens (ie circular earth banks and ditches) dotted around the forest, and skeps, or bee baskets, seem to have been the preferred way of housing bees until into the early 1900’s in some areas.

Skeps are basically baskets made from local materials in which bees form their honeycomb. A skep provides a cavity of the right size which is as insulated and as weatherproof as can be managed by a bee keeper.

Whether the skeps were housed in roofed stands, or were maybe out in the open on individual stools, seems to be where the artist’s impressions I’ve seen of Bee Gardens do vary. One of the things I’m hoping will happen as a result of this project is that people will take an interest and step by step I can move towards a more accurate version of things.

Starting somewhere is necessary for this project however and, for me, keeping bees in skeps is a new skill which must be mastered if the ambition of establishing a Bee Garden is going to become a reality.

So, on Wednesday this week, two skeps were put in the covered stand already built in the top corner of the Meadow. The design of the skeps plus supporting brood chamber use ideas seen in a farming museum, and the extra box was necessary as these skeps on their own are probably a little small for our bees.

The skeps were populated with small swarms of bees about 3 weeks ago when they had loads of energy to create the new wax comb they need to live on.

The aim is to get the bees through to the end of the year, when hopefully there will be some honey to harvest, and then, maybe next year a more accurate version of a typical 1800’s New Forest Bee Garden can be installed.

For more information contact Andrew Welch: andrew.welch@ukgateway.net

with hive
bees and honeycombe
skeps
hive in field

 

Introduction:

Bees make honey, bees sting, but much more significantly they pollinate crops and wild flowers, and as such they play a key role in the web of life.

Unfortunately bees are in decline; mainly due to mankind and his ever more focussed farming practices, and ultimately our food supply could be at risk.

We can reverse the decline as individuals by planting forage for bees, providing habitats, supporting conservation campaigns, and keeping bees.

A group of New Forest beekeepers are hoping to run a small Project which achieves all of this in one of the main centres of New Forest culture and heritage, Beaulieu High Street.

Proposal:

We are going to initiate a project to try and redevelop and replicate beekeeping as it used to exist in the Beaulieu area about 100 years ago. The goals are to:

  • Develop a community Apiary which uses traditional beekeeping methods,
  • Raise public awareness regarding the conservation of insect pollinators by doing this in a visible manner.

How to achieve this:

Historical evidence exists of a number of “Bee Gardens” in the New Forest; that is collections of “skeps” (bee-hive “baskets” hand made from local materials) which are used to house honey bees and sited in areas of good forage.

Skeps were commonly used before wooden hives came into use and some people think they are a more natural way of keeping bees.

We envisage creating a display Apiary with live bees based on the Bee Garden idea.

This Project will involve a number of different aspects of beekeeping and is still at the very early stages of development, but an initial step has recently been taken to introduce a few modern beehives to Haywards Meadow in Beaulieu High Street in order to begin to investigate the practicality of such an idea.

Future steps:

Any Project like this needs to be done with the delicate balance of local nature in mind, and it is certainly not just a case of keeping bees in hives. Hopefully we can carry out an ecological assessment to get confidence we are not driving out local wild pollinators.

The Archaeological accuracy is important to us too, otherwise we won’t know if we are following in our forebear’s footsteps. Skeps need to be of the right size, and made from appropriate local materials. Even the strain of honey bee can be important. Local historians can hopefully help us out with this.

Learning to keep bees in Skeps is a new skill for most modern beekeepers and it will be very important to make sure the bees stay in their beehives and don’t cause a problem in key public areas.

The key difference between modern hives and Skeps is that the individual sheets of honey comb that the bees live on can be physically lifted out of a modern hive, whereas in a Skep they cannot. This is important with regards to being able to inspect and manage your bees properly. Having another site remote from Beaulieu High Street may even be appropriate in the early days in order to ensure that the bees in Skeps are able to be managed properly and safely before bringing them into Haywards Meadow.

Bees can be seen and understood better if you get close up to them, and a good way of getting closer is to use a glass sided bee hive called an Observation Hive. Various public Observation Hives have been safely established in gardens around the UK and it could be that we might eventually be able to set one up in the vicinity of Hayward’s Meadow. We are a long way off even attempting this but it would be a really excellent way of raising awareness and educating everyone about the way that pollinating insects are so important to everyday life.

In the meantime:

To ensure this Project is carried out safely throughout and ultimately achieves its goals in the long term a number of steps are being taken.

Advice from local stakeholders, including the Beaulieu Estate and Fairweather's, is being listened to and has included the following:

A trial with just a few beehives is being carried out, and they are being sited away from the High Street against the tall hedge adjacent to the B3054. The location by the hedge is good for the bees for a number of reasons and should result in the bees more easily able to keep themselves going throughout the winter.

(The beehives have been positioned facing South East, which is the best way of picking up the morning sun, and because they are next to the hedge they will be shielded from heat of the summer afternoon sun coming more from the West at a time when the air has really heated up. This is the sort of thing which keeps the bees more comfortable and therefore happier.)

(Bees also don’t forage well in strong windy environments, and being shielded from the prevailing South Westerly winds behind the hedge is therefore a good thing.)

(Being the tallest greenery around the hedge is good for another reason; if the bees are tempted to abscond from the hive for any reason then they would normally gather in the hedge as a temporary base before sending out their scouts to find a permanent home. This gives observers an opportunity to spot that they are on the move in a location which is away from the High Street. A bait hive will also be installed as a safety measure anyway when the swarming season starts in April, and this will provide very attractive accommodation for any bees which do feel the need to change homes.)

Installing bees in Haywards Meadow in September is about the safest time of year to do it. The bees are settling down for the winter; and they are accumulating the final stores in readiness for the wetter and colder part of the year when far fewer flowers are around. They are not interested in doing anything other than staying home and keeping warm by clustering up and looking after their Queen bee.

Conclusions:

This project has the potential to be a valuable asset for the local area. It fits in very well with the ecological ethics of Fairweather’s Garden Centre and Patrick’s Patch allotment, and the cultural heritage of the Beaulieu Estate. It is hopefully of interest to all beekeepers, and may even generate a few more along the way.

At a time when climate change is at the front of everyone’s minds and sustainability is key, this is hopefully one way of supporting our extremely valuable pollinating insects which after all are involved in the production of 1 in every 3 mouthful’s of food that we eat.

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