Wild honeybees and bee trees

Wild honeybees…..

yes, trees are their natural habitat, though the first image we might have of where they live, is of a beehive – typically a box of wood. We also might have the thought that bees are there to make honey, and that by keeping bees we might ‘save the bees’ as they’re in trouble. But, if we take a step back a little and see what the bees choose, in where and how to live, perhaps we can learn from them about what works best.

Traditional beekeeping might say that allowing bees to swarm is a sign of bad beekeeping. It might also might say with pride about the quantity of honey produced, and so on. There’s a growing interest in more natural ways of beekeeping – this way considers swarming to be the bees’ natural behaviour and one which keeps the colony’s bloodlines fresh and varied. The emphasis on honey production is removed from the situation, and bees are allowed to be bees. Some people have looked into the tradition of tree beekeeping, something which dates back to at least medieval times in the forests of Eastern Europe. Whichever way you approach the thought, it’s easy to arrive at the observation that bees like to live in trees.

In trees there are natural cavities, and these cavities provide an environment which have stable humidity and temperature throughout the year. It’s fascinating to read Tom Seeley’s books about honeybee behaviour, and how scout bees find and explore these cavities. A recent film called ‘A Bee’s Diary’ also shows this, and it’s so interesting! How bees communicate this information back to the colony, and how the colony decides which new home to go to after swarming, is something you can read about in Tom Seeley’s ‘Honeybee Democracy’. Such interesting reading, and a real step forward in understanding honeybees.

I first started looking into this shortly after starting recording the trees in Sherwood. Many years ago I kept bees, and when I noticed more than a couple of bee trees, I realised that it could be something quite important. By studying each tree slowly and observing all aspects of the trunk and branches, I noticed more and more wild bee colonies. I’m currently monitoring 20 bee trees across Sherwood.

So what does a bee tree look like? Tricky to say really, but that’s one reason for documenting them. What bees like, is a tree with a certain size cavity, with an entrance that’s not too large and not too small. They would like a water source within flying range. They also need to find plenty of flowers, and/or flowering trees.

Bees have a definite cycle through their year. Swarming happens in the spring, which allows the new colony to find a cavity and build up stores enough for the next winter. If they find an old bee tree, where perhaps the colony died out, then this would give them a head start in that they wouldn’t need to build all of the beeswax comb before filling it with honey and their nest. The colony/tree where the swarm left from, will inherit that comb and will continue to live there – one tree in Sherwood, called ‘The Bee Tree’ has had bees living there for at least 30 years. Other trees may be bee trees for a year or a couple of years. It depends on many things.

The Bee Tree, Sherwood Forest

Often people may not notice the bees coming and going – they’re quite camouflaged against the bark. Also, it’s something they don’t expect to see, so they don’t see it. Here’s a bee flying in to the entrance – a pale streak against the dark opening:

The Bee Tree, entrance

Sometimes the entrance to the nest is higher up in a tree. A good time to see bees is in the spring, before the leaves appear and possibly hide the entrance. On a sunny day the bees may appear like dots of light:

Bee Tree, Sherwood

In this tree, the entrance is in a crack in the trunk – it’s a large crack, and the bees use quite a lot of it. Unusual in a way, but this is something to observe and learn from.

I’ve kept the locations of most of these bee trees secret for the time being, and am monitoring them carefully. There may be arguments against having wild honeybees present in nature, and there may be people (not necessarily in Sherwood) who would either wish to do them harm, or wish to catch a swarm from them, in order to populate their hives with disease-resistant strains. At present wild honeybees have no protection – there’s not enough data to classify them as fine, at risk or endangered. But one point is, that they are really happy living in trees, tend to be varroa resistant, and I personally think that they should be cherished, protected and respected. If there are arguments one way or another to protect or harm them, I’d like these to be open and on the table to be addressed.

A website has recently been created called Free Living Bees which has some good information:
People can send in their wild bee colony sightings, without giving away the exact location. As well as trees, bees find cavities in old church/castle walls, chimneys, etc. I think trees would be their first choice, and in some ways the  presence of veteran trees in our landscape is important to bees, the trees and the greater environment.

I wrote an article for Natural Bee Husbandry magazine about veteran trees which is now available on the Free Living Bees website:
It’s aimed at beekeeping community, who may not have thought about trees much, and ties in with one of my aims – to go into the information that’s missing from tree ID books.

So, if you see a bee tree when you’re out and about, send it it to the Free Living Bees website! If you see one in Sherwood, let me know!  If you want to keep bees, you could get a log hive, sun hive or similar, and let them find it and move in. Consider keeping bees for themselves, rather than as your own source of honey. Watch them, enjoy them, have a shallow dish of water for them, plant flowers for them, and see what you can learn from them. There’s certainly a lot to learn.