Image: Mark Doughty, Principal Ecologist at Wessex Engineering & Construction Services, on standby to help Sal Pearson and Roger Wood of North Somerset Sustainable Bees encase the huge honey beehive attached to a poplar tree at a Bristol wind farm.
Guest post by Thrive Renewables
A rare, giant beehive is creating a buzz among experts after taking up residence at a Bristol wind farm.
The wild honeycomb hive represents a unique find given that honey bees are under threat. Reported in the Guardian only last week, the UK Government will now back a total ban on insect-harming pesticides. A decision taken by environment secretary, Michael Gove following a shock discovery that 75% of all flying insects have disappeared in Germany and likely much further afield.
Given the exposed position of the beehive an on the spot decision was made to call in help to save the wild colony in time for winter.
Local ecologist Bernice Roberts, Principal Consultant of the Landmark Practice, was on hand to advise.
“The very substantial colony of honey bees, which are under threat at a population level, had established itself on one of the woodcrete bat boxes beside the access track to the pumping station and wind turbines.
“The colony has extended below the bat box by some 500mm, comprising 5 or 6 substantial combs, which appeared to have anchored very firmly to the supporting tree. If left, the colony could very well die in damp and cold weather but, given the size and anchoring to the tree, it was not readily moveable to a suitable hive.
Image by M. Doughty: The top half of the honeycomb and bees can be seen extending from the bat box above
“We sought advice from a local bee group and were given contact details for Sal Pearson, coordinator of North Somerset Sustainable Bees. Sal Pearson visited the site and the decision was made with Wessex Water, and its renewable energy company GENeco, that the colony could not be safely moved, so a temporary structure has been built to shelter it on the tree through the winter.”
The Landmark Practice has been involved from day one with protecting and monitoring habitats at the Avonmouth wind farm owned by sustainable investment company, Thrive Renewables, where the wind turbines were erected in 2013. The site has seen a number of protected species safeguarded over the years.
Bernice went on to explain why the biodiversity of the sewage treatment works, and now also a wind farm, may be attracting honey bees to set up home in a bat box.
“The site was originally part of the farmed Severnside Levels, absorbed into the developed area around Avonmouth and Lawrence Weston by urban and industrial expansion. The ponds at the site attracted bird interest and removal from agricultural intensification encouraged more diverse ecosystems to develop.
“The land has developed into a suite of habitats, which support a whole range of notable and protected (often threatened) species, such as water vole, barn owl, bats, great crested newt, reptiles, invertebrates plus, of course, numerous bird species, including internationally protected species associated with the Severn Estuary.
“Survival and success of any bee colony (indeed of any wildlife species) depends on the quality of the surrounding environment and the foraging potential. The bees need a variety of food plants to source nectar for adults and pollen for the developing larvae, they also need water and shelter.
“Whilst they can fly from site to site to find these, it certainly helps to maximise energy budgets if they are all within easy reach. That their environment is ‘clean’ of artificial pesticides and neonicotinoid insecticides (unlike much of the farmed landscape) is a huge advantage. The site is a rich ecosystem now isolated within the industrial area, so the dedicated conservation management is key to its current and future success.” Said Bernice Roberts.
Local and natural beehive co-ordinators, Sal Pearson and Roger Wood were able to step in and find a somewhat alternative approach to temporary accommodation for the bees this winter.
Thanks to the ingenuity and quick thinking of passionate, natural beekeeper, Sal Pearson and Roger Wood, with support from Mark Doughty, Principal Ecologist from Wessex Water, they were able to set up a large encasement around the beehive using natural materials, cow dung and straw. This provides an ideal protective layer for the beehive including an insulated outer cover to give the bees access in and out of hive during winter months.
Sal Pearson said:” It’s unusual for honeybees to nest in such exposed positions but when they lack any alternatives, such as rotten tree trunks and spaces big enough for them to consider setting up home, they will make their home where they can. Since we had a dry spring, it was certainly an option surviving in the open. Damp will kill a colony faster than the cold and since the weather had turned wet and windy rapidly over that particular weekend, it was clear that some form of protection would be needed to give them a fighting chance to survive the winter. Whilst it is quite possible they were bees from an imported queen, as they were very good natured, all honey bees would require winter-protection.
What is needed in the Wessex Water wild patch are more beehives at a distance of 300 yards from each other for when these bees, with luck, swarm in the mid to late spring looking for a new home.”
Mark Doughty’s father is a veteran beekeeper and has been brought up around bees all his life. He naturally stepped in to help Sal Pearson and Roger Wood set up the temporary encasement around the colony.
Mark Doughty was also surprised by the discovery:
“It was just amazing to see the galleries of honeycomb all formed up with the hive in its natural state, I’ve not seen anything like it. Usually we see man-made hives but this natural beehive is fantastic to see and encouraging that wild bees are rewilding” said Mark Doughty.
Mark Doughty with Sal Pearson and Roger Wood acted fast to get the casing up and around the bees.
“We had to get the structure up the tree and over the beehive. We put some scaffold in place under the hive, hauled it up, then took a break and the bees were placid all the way through. Hives can have a character all of their own and can be unpredictable, yet the honey bees let us work around them quite happily. We didn’t use any measures to pacify them, no smoker or anything, we just worked quietly and calmly. You can be sure they’ll let you know if they’re unhappy!
“We slid the enclosure over the hive and then left it for a while. The tree was at an angle and quite a challenge to deal with. But we did it and the case was attached to the top of the tree and finished using ply to close the gap.
“A bucket of cow dung from the back of Sal’s car and straw was used to make a wadding and fill the gaps. We started trowling dung over the top and covered it all with a natural cement. It’s a substance the bees won’t reject and will accept. The case is now strapped to the tree. We came back a couple of days later and could see the bees had access from behind.”
Mark Doughty explained that bees have their own social structure and organisation, as well as being all genetically related. All honey bees are female and able to regulate their temperature and even able to fan the hive and bring in air to maintain the temperature.
Going forward it’s really become a team effort as Wessex Water and GENeco work with wind farm owners, Thrive Renewables, the Landmark Practice and the Natural Beekeeping Society to arrange natural beehives on site to encourage future rewilding of the honeybees.
Thrive Renewables, a Bristol based sustainable investment company and owner of the wind turbines, spoke about the discovery:
Matthew Clayton, MD of Thrive said: “It was surprising to find the honey-bee hive on the site. We operate renewables projects all over the UK, many on industrial sites, but none have been quite so interesting from an ecological perspective.
“We’ve worked for a number of years with Wessex Water, GENeco and the Landmark Practice to encourage and sustain the natural habitat of the wind farm. When we first built the four turbines, which are spread across the waste water treatment works, and the now nature area, we had a number of measures put in place to protect and safeguard the great crested newts that were already there. We discovered in 2016 nesting barn owls and it’s now our second year to have them breeding on site.
“Seeing the incredible natural honey beehive demonstrates the site is providing a safe and natural haven for protected species. Sustainability is core to our values, and is a key motivator for people to invest in us. We continue to support and work with our partners to protect the habitats that are thriving on our wind farms.”
Mark Doughty, Sal Pearson and Roger Wood having installed the temporary bee cover
The whole team are delighted to know the wild honeybees are safe for winter and very much hope they’ll decide to stay and set up home in one of the new natural beehives that are looking to be put around the site in the next month.
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