On a beautiful weekend at the tail end of October, 20 bee lovers from Spain and Portugal joined NBT trustee Jonathan Powell at the Finca La Donaira eco retreat to experience the Trust’s honey bee rewilding project (link to project background details). In this project we take 29 commercial hives to see if we can:
- Create hive conditions that can help the bees live without any human assistance
- Encourage the bees into the forest cavities
- Introduce the bees in a deep and respectful way to the many visitors to the farm.
Three activities were organised for our bee loving volunteers:
- Rewilding project assessment and adjustment
- Conversion of tree cavities using experimental clay daub technique
- Develop the bee meditation experience of the La Donaira “Cama de Abejas” or bee bed.
A Set Back in the Tree Hives?
In this region there has been another drought, the 2nd in 3 years, and very little swarming. Going into the winter of 2018 we had 7 naturally populated hives in trees, but by the end of 2019 this had alarmingly dropped to just 4 hives despite a few new tree colonisations. We asked ourselves; “Why had tree colonies of 1.5 years of age all died at a similar age and a time of the season which should be peak hive development?”
Fortunately the history of a hive can be read from forensic examination of the comb and hive debris, combined with regular entrance monitoring notes. The evidence revealed an interesting story:
- The bees did not die from lack of food
- The bees did not die from varroa infestation
- The bees did not die of brood disease
- The colonies died with their queen.
We determined that in nearly all cases the queens came to the end of their natural lives, their stores of sperm exhausted and the bees were not able to replace them (Supercedure while possible is less common in bees from Southern Europe). In hindsight this revelation is not surprising – comercial queens are typically destroyed and replaced every year or two with mass produced queens. Our first year of swarms were all headed by old queens of the same genetic background, working life and age. Due to being used for honey farming, they have shorter lives of approximately 3 years.
A False Start?
It is too easy to be seduced by numbers, and in our case we were wrong to measure the project success by the 2nd year gains in tree hives, while at the same time witnessing the bees struggle to contain varroa in the large commercial layens hives.
In truth, the future of the project lay not in the first generation tree colonies, but in the original layens hives each now headed by a naturally mated local queen. Encouragingly, for the first time, the layens hives with their new queens and honey stores intact were strong – they carry the future of the project.
There are three critical factors these bees need to tackle in the next 6 months:
- At the end of November we will know if the bees have used the physical characteristics of honey binding to control varroa (see related blogpost which describes honey binding varroa control)
- The bees now face winter. Nature is the true judge of of work, including our own understanding ,which is often wanting
- We also need a good swarming season, however, while this swarm season has been frustrating it has been testing and revealing.
Workshop Picture Gallery
Forensic examination of the comb before the evidence is literally eaten by the wax moths and other insects. In a few weeks there will be nothing left.
We added traditional roofing materials to the layens ground hives. The purpose is to reduce the rain noise on the metal roof and also take off some of the summer heat.
While the specially designed tree hives (heavily based on warre hive design) have performed brilliantly, being square and white they are difficult to install and do not look great in beautiful veteran trees.
For the 2020 we will use traditional Corcho (cork) hives. These are beautiful, super light, warm, locally made, easy to fit to trees and provide the small volume that bees prefer.
We created 2 “clay tree hives”. These are oversized cavities which have been reduced in size by a clay daub structure to make them suitable for bees (around 40 Ltrs and 1-2 small entrances).
The idea is to quickly create more natural homes, using local materials. To our knowledge this has not been done before.
The clay tree hives will need to be waterproofed using a fermented cactus slip, and possibly propolis/wax/olive oil varnish. We will experiment.
Cama de Abejas (Bed of Bees)
Four of the participants from the Portuguese BeeWisdom collective ran bee bed meditations. The meditations included an introduction text, a soundscape of singing bowls, harp and voice and burning incense cones of artemisia and black propolis.
The construction of the roof made a sound board which amplified and enhanced the singing bowls. The effect inside the bed was quite extraordinary. All participants were deeply moved by the sessions.
Not once during the 25 meditations sessions did we detect any aggression from the bees. BeeWisdom have made a video of the bee bed in action here.
The bee bed is used to introduce retreat visitors to the bees in a new and intimate way. So far, the guests have been delighted and touched by this intimate experience.
Going into the weekend I was apprehensive because I knew the tree bees were struggling and I did not know why.
But as my fellow bee lovers and I worked through the weekend I slowed down and started to listen. Once again I was reminded to trust the bees and learn from them.
The bees at La Donaira have a strong majestic energy. The project continues and the bees are in charge!