A Shaftesbury environmentalist is planning a series of ‘gardening for bees’ tutorials in 2020. Alfred’s Keri Jones visited Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s garden and saw how her perseverance in encouraging bees with a log hive has paid off.
On an autumn afternoon, just before Bonfire Night, I went to view what looked like a huge rocket in a French Mill Lane garden. On second glance, the structure could be mistaken for a wooden version of a War of the Worlds tripod – a striking feature topped with a conical, thatched roof, standing on three wooden legs 15ft above Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s back garden.
Bees were buzzing around. This was a sign of success. “There are many ways to keep honeybees and my husband Rob is what you’d call a natural, or a sustainable, beekeeper,” said Brigit. “He’s kept bees for the last ten years. Last year, for his birthday, I paid for him to go on a log hive-making course.”
Brigit explained why the wooden structure is appealing to bees. “It is a hollowed-out piece of tree that is exactly the sort of thing that wild or feral colonies of honeybees, the honeybees that were around before human beings started putting them in boxes, would have gone for.”
The tree trunk had three holes in it, the size of holes on bird boxes designed for blue tits. “The reason they would go for something like this is that it’s very well insulated with thick walls, which means it doesn’t heat up too much in the summer and doesn’t cool down too much in the winter,” explained Brigit.
The wooden legs, which raise the log hive off the ground, are critical to its success. “That means it’s safe from badgers. Most people winch them up into a tree and bolt or tie them on. We don’t have a tree,” said Bridget. “Log hives have a 99% success rate in attracting a swarm without you having to catch the swarm and put it in it. We put it up last May and sat and waited. We had lots of scout bees coming and checking it out. Nothing moved in, which was very embarrassing because I had already told everybody that the swarm was coming. Then, in June, we started thinking that it was in the wrong place. Suddenly we started to notice bees going backwards and forwards.”
When honeybees leave their old hive, the old queen heads off and the new queen moves in. A cluster of her 20,000 workers will eventually appear on a lamppost or a tree and all the scouts will head off looking for somewhere to move into. “In July, there were up to a hundred bees going backwards and forwards and they stopped again. I thought I was going to give up. Rob came home from work at 4pm and there wasn’t a single bee in sight,” said Brigit, who then recounted how she witnessed an exciting development.
“I was upstairs with my back to the window working on something and Rob came into the garden and shouted, ‘They are here!’ I ran downstairs and 20,000 or 30,000 bees came over that house,” said Bridget, pointing to a neighbour’s property. “It was a swarm. The sky was thick with bees zigzagging all over the place. I ran down the steps and we stood by the pond. We stood in the swarm as it arrived. They were chaotic to start with and then they clustered all around the log like a carpet.
“It was covered in double or maybe three times its thickness with bees. Then, like water goes down the plughole, they cork-screwed into these three holes,” said Brigit, pointing to the log hive. “Within fifteen minutes they were all inside,” Brigit beamed. Her hard work and perseverance had paid off.
She will share her experiences and expert-knowledge with residents next year. “We are going to run courses from this garden next year, one-day workshops and tutorials about gardening for bees. It is a wildlife garden that we have created,” said Brigit.
The workshop and tutorials will cover the differences between honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees, their behaviour and life cycles and their importance as pollinators. The session will include relationships with flowering plants, the causes of bee decline and how to garden with bees and other wildlife in mind.
Brigit is in massive demand as a speaker at literary festivals following the positive reception of her recently published book, ‘Dancing With Bees’. She will be one of the speakers at Shaftesbury’s Book Festival ‘Reading the Land’ in November 2020, but as her talks schedule is not yet finalised, she has not been able to set precise dates for her proposed March and May Shaftesbury workshops. She says that one will take place before Easter though.
“I want to expand on what I do in my talks. If I have people here for the whole day, I can give them a lot of information. This is a bee-friendly garden and I can do walks around it. I can show how I am creating a wildflower meadow on a little bit of our lawn. It is so easy. We don’t want to run courses in beekeeping, but we can show them this and if they are interested, we can point them in the right direction,” said Brigit.
Brigit says she is happy to show locals the log hive and if her words have inspired any fellow residents to buy one, she recommends contacting maker Matt Somerville at Andover’s Bee Kind Hives.
We’ll let you know when the workshop dates are finalised on ThisIsAlfred.com.