Hives of activity
Bees must be among the most industrious workers at Kew, and there are several hives around the Gardens. In the second of our new series, Hattie Ellis meets the staff who look after Kew’s busy honey producers
Once temperatures start to rise and the flowers open, bees emerge from
the eight hives scattered around Kew Gardens. By summer, they’re
feasting on a botanic banquet. And as the bees get busy, so do the beekeepers.
Quite apart from the delicious honey, these amateur apiarists
get a close-up view of the fascinating life of the colony as it moves through the year.
“Every time I open a hive, I feel amazed,” says Tony Hall, team leader of the woody collections, who looks after two hives in the Conservation Area and another in the woods nearby – he also has an African log hive suspended in a Mexican oak. “You can pick up the basics of beekeeping very quickly, but there’s always more. Every year is different. It’s one of those things you never stop learning.”
The apiarists’ work starts at the end of winter, when they may give their bees some extra food if the insects’ winter stores of honey have been exhausted. From spring onwards, the bees can swarm, which happens when part of the colony follows the old queen to set up a new home. While these balls of bees look alarming, Tony says such insects are unlikely to sting – they’re calm, having eaten plenty of honey to enable them to ‘move house’, and it’s harder for bees to bend and sting with a full stomach.
John Lonsdale, Kew’s longest-standing beekeeper, has in the past often filled his hives with swarms from the wild colonies nesting in the trees. The insects will settle, perhaps on a bush or on the bough of a tree, while scouts look for a new site. At this point, you can carefully coax the bees into a box and settle them in a new hive. You then try to ensure they don’t swarm again by giving the colony enough space and ensuring that the current queen rules supreme.
“There’s not a lot of work in beekeeping
for most of the time, but you have to do the right things at the right
John. Throughout the summer, the beekeepers check on their insects to
see if they’re laying well and are free of disease. Such attention
has become especially important since the worldwide scourge of the varroa
mite has killed colonies at Kew. For this reason,
it is no longer practical to start new hives from wild bee swarms.
By late summer, it’s time to harvest the honey. “You have to be quite nippy,” says Alison Smith, who tends the two public hives in the Bee Garden beside Kew Palace. She places a special perforated board between the bottom section of the hive where the insects grow (the brood box) and the boxes stacked on top (the supers), in which the bees store their honey. This means the bees crawl out of the honeycomb but cannot return.
The next day, she gets in early, closes the area off to the public and she and her helpers heave the heavy supers into one of Kew’s little electric trucks and drive away quickly so the bees don’t follow their stolen food. Enough honey is left in the hive for the bees to feed on over the winter.
The honey is then spun out of its comb and filtered – or left in the comb, the purest form of all, containing even more of the pollens that are said to help relieve hayfever in those who eat it. Another Kew beekeeper, Phil Griffiths, samples different combs as he pots his honey, pondering what was flowering when to produce such a range of ambrosial tastes. “I never used to be a big honey fan,” he says, “but now I think it’s fantastic.”
Phil’s interest in bees
has now extended beyond the honeybee and into his work as displays co-ordinator
for Kew’s glass-
houses. This year he’s putting pollinating bumblebees into the Temperate House, and planning an unusual experiment putting South American stingless bees into the Princess of Wales Conservatory.
Kew’s honey is strikingly floral, coming as it does from such a great range of flowers. Tony Hall is so curious about what his bees eat that he’s having a pollen analysis done on monthly samples of honey. They may start early with the crocuses and willow, then move on to the fruit tree blossoms – apple, plum, cherry and so on – pollinating the plants as they go to ensure a good crop. The Bee Garden has been specially planted with such famously good bee-forage as lavender, borage, artichokes and sage.
These days, honeybees can actually do better in cities with their parks and gardens than they do in rural areas. Before coming to west London, John Lonsdale kept bees in the countryside while working at Wakehurst Place. “Wakehurst is set in woodland interspersed with dairy farmland and monocultures of wheat and barley. Only by moving the bees to seasonal fields of rape could a heavy yield be obtained.” At Kew it’s easy – his London urban bees produce three times more honey than the Sussex rural ones did.
For all this bounty, Kew’s beekeepers don’t produce enough honey to sell to the public and it’s soon snapped up by friends and colleagues. However visitors can see the bees close up in the observation hive in Climbers and Creepers, and then there are the display hives and information boards in the Bee Garden – the hives are set back behind a fence and stocked with a calm New Zealand variety.
Unless you interfere with the bees, for example by standing in the way of their flight path between the forage flowers and the hive, you’re most unlikely to be stung. A honeybee loses its life with its sting, so it’s their ultimate means of defence rather than an aggressive weapon of attack. Nonetheless, Kew’s beekeepers take care when they open a hive. After all, as well as sweet honey, each one may contain some 80,000 or so venomous darts – in such circumstances, it pays to be on your best behaviour.
Hattie Ellis’s book Sweetness & Light – the mysterious history of the honey bee is published by Sceptre