The Art of Urban Beekeeping – From the Castle Beekeeper!
Tue 26/11/2019 at 11:07 by Gina Lawrence
As we become more aware of the importance of bees to our eco systems, we ask Castle Beekeeper Sean to share his wisdom on the art of urban beekeeping...
The Castle Garden is home to thousands of bees. Some of them are wild bees foraging for nectar and pollen others are honeybees that we support in our hives. Many of us are increasingly aware of how important bees are, in the Garden it is our intention to support the bees as much as we possibly can. We do this in 2 ways. One way is by providing a rich and diverse range of flowering plants throughout the year for bees to forage on and appropriate nesting spaces for wild bees to lay their young. The other way is by looking after honeybees in our apiary.
Our approach to working with honeybees starts with the bee first. Through our attempts to understand honeybees more deeply and find respectful ways to work with them we have come across some points that have informed how we work with bees. Here are some of the principles of our approach.
Working with health
We seek to understand what makes a healthy honeybee family and use this as our starting point for our activity. Like all genuinely sustainable farming methods we seek to create health in the whole system rather than retrospectively react to disease. We prioritise the health and wholeness of the honeybee over the convenience of the beekeeper and high honey yields.
Bee-appropriate and sustainable hive design
We seek to use hives that are designed with the health of bees in mind. Our blueprint is the hollow tree - the nest site that bees evolved to live in. We allow some concession for the ease of the beekeeper but not at the expense of compromising the integrity or the health of the bee. We seek to use sustainably sourced or recycled materials. and minimize the carbon footprint of our activity. We seek to engage in the process of building our own hives using simple, low-tech and open source designs that increase accessibility and decrease our dependence on outsourcing our equipment.
Hive temperature and atmosphere
Honeybees very carefully regulate the internal temperature of their nests, especially in the areas where they are raising the young bees. We recognise the significance of the internal hive atmosphere on honeybee health. We seek to use practices and hives that maintain the integrity of the internal hive temperature and atmosphere.
We view wax as part of the structure of the honeybee super-organism. The wax functions for the bees like a skeleton, uterus, larder and communication system (chemically and vibrationally). We believe wax comb should be secreted and constructed by the bees themselves with as minimal human interference as possible.
We believe that swarming is the natural reproductive behaviour of the honeybee and as such should be inherently respected. At the Castle witnessing a swarm bees is common during May to June. This is nothing to be afraid of, it’s probably one of the safest times to be around bees. Many of our staff members love this time of year and often get involved in rehoming swarms. We seek ways to to work with swarming rather than suppressing or dramatically manipulating this behaviour. We believe that swarming is integral to the health of the whole family.
Locally adapted genes
We believe the international trade in honeybee genetics is deeply problematic. We only use bees sourced from our local area. We seek to use practices that strengthen the gene-pool and promote genetic resilience.
We seek practices that minimize all interference within the hive and the life-cycle of the honeybee. Inspections are only carried out when deemed absolutely necessary. We practice the art of learning to understand the honeybee super-organism through patient external observation.
We believe honey is the most appropriate food for bees. We feed bees sugar only in emergency scenarios. We only harvest honey if it is truly surplus to their needs. We only extract honey by pressing, draining and sieving and seek to maintain the integrity of the honey. We seek to challenge and shift the perspective of beekeeping as a practice primarily of honey extraction to one of supporting healthy bee populations.
If you’d like to learn more about bees keep your eyes open for beekeeping courses that we run at the Castle. If you are lucky enough to see a swarm in the garden please let a Duty Manager know.
Garden 10 Year Anniversary
Sean wrote this article as part of our Garden 10th Anniversary celebrations in November 2019. Built on sustainable permaculture principles, the multi award-winning garden has gone from strength to strength in the last 10 years, and is now responsible for growing produce for the café, including a huge variety of fresh fruits, delicious vegetables and vibrant, unusual salads – much tastier than bland supermarket varieties! – as well as the drinks you've read about here.