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Gardening blog: Give bees the conditions they like, and they will stay healthy, unstressed and strong

PUBLISHED: 17:36 20 August 2014 | UPDATED: 17:44 20 August 2014

Honey bees working at  Lynn Malloy's   Shepherds Hill allotment

Honey bees working at Lynn Malloy's Shepherds Hill allotment

© Nigel Sutton email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

My Highgate Allotments neighbour, Margaret Jarvie, has been keeping bees for decades. Although she never presents herself as an expert, the upsurge of interest in beekeeping has naturally increased the number of people stepping down her allotment path.

If the subject is bees, I have learnt to avoid gatherings outside Margaret’s shed (beekeepers together can talk of nothing but bees) but shreds of information have filtered through. Long before the dreaded name varroa was voiced on national news, I heard it from Margaret.

“Since its discovery in England in 1992 the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, has spread throughout the UK … The mite causes varroosis, a very serious and complex infestation of honey bees … The onset of resistance to the treatments available will make controlling the mite more difficult … it will continue to be a serious threat to the sustainability of European apiculture and to the environment through the disruption to pollination.”

Thus a booklet, Managing Varroa (Defra, 2005), which Margaret lent me when I mentioned the Top Bar hives I was going to see on Shepherds Hill Allotments. I had relayed to her the claim that keeping bees in a top bar, as opposed to conventional, hive increases the bees’ chances against varroa. Her response was a hmmm, and the suggestion that the beekeepers I was going to see might be inexperienced.

As it happens, Lynn Malloy and Fiona Godfrey are quite open about being inexperienced with bees. They learnt from Barnet Beekeepers, but were then attracted by the alternative methods promoted by Phil Chandler (biobees.com), author of The Barefoot Beekeeper

They both have had allotments at Shepherds Hill for years, but now their planting choices are shifting towards bee-friendly flowers. The sun was shining and the bees were out on the Verbena bonariensis, marjoram, orange cosmos, borage, sunflowers and cardoons as we sat on Lynn’s plot, talking of top bar hives, sustainability and low honey yields. “If you’re after a lot of honey,” says Lynn, “top bar hives are not the answer.”

Honeycomb

This less intense method of honey production seeks to mimic the natural ways of bees, letting them build honeycomb downwards from a bar rather than starting them off within a square, flat “foundation”.

There are many bars lined up like coat hangers inside the hive, so I imagine. Lynn showed me a bar she lifted out from one end, from which was hanging a honeycomb shaped like a map of South Africa.

For both Lynn and Fiona, taking a tithe of honey and leaving most of it for its natural purpose, to see the bees through the winter, is fine. For Fiona particularly, the motivation for keeping bees is to try to help them, so under siege as they are from pesticides, lack of forage and diseases.

On her plot she is growing Tagetes patula “Linnaeus”, the pretty burnt orange French marigold, Tithonia rotundiflolia “Torch”, a sensational flower with a throat like a vase (both from seeds from Sarah Raven) scabious, foxglove, achillea, helenium, clary, coreopsis – all in the bees’ interests as well as her own.

I did not feel I came away with a cast-iron reason why more “natural” methods of beekeeping will protect bees from varroa, although among my notes I like “there is a theory that within an undisturbed hive there’s a fug that protects the colony; every opening of the hive means the colony needs to rebuild its fug”.

The argument seems to be much as that for organic gardening: that given conditions they like, bees or plants will be healthy, unstressed and strong, so not in need of chemical interventions. It is not, says Lynn, that there are no varroa mites at all in her hives, just that their impact is limited, and the bee inspector gives her bees a clean bill of health. For gardeners who don’t want to keep bees but would like to help them, growing bee-friendly plants is a pleasing option.

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