Urban beekeeper Bill Anderson on why he’s just put up scaffolding on his rooftop apiary
Standard beekeeping equipment doesn’t traditionally include a socket wrench. But on an urban rooftop, at this time of year, it can be a life-saver.
Idle beekeepers try to provide hives for their honeybees that carefully emulate a cavity inside a tree – the habitat they’ve been used to for 15 million years – and then just let the bees get on with what they do best.
But trees are rooted to the spot: every branch has its subterranean equivalent, penetrating and gripping for very life. Hives merely perch, so when the storms of winter roar in, these bees’ homes need substantial support to avoid being toppled and smashed by a blast of wind. At ground level a stake driven into the earth and lashed to the hive would do the trick, but rooves rarely respond well to having fence posts hammered into them so up on my rooftop I bolt together a scaffold: firmly fixed to the brick chimney breasts, it floats just above the breakable roof tiles and anchors my hives.
But stability is not the only essential defence against extremes of weather that a substantial tree provides for the bees. The thicker the tree that surrounds their cavity the better insulated the bees’ home. To survive into adulthood their youngsters need the hive temperature to be kept at a constant 35 degrees centigrade – at a healthy 36 centigrade there is one degree of separation between our body temperature and the bees’. With tens of thousands of baby bees, each developing in their own hexagonal cell of honeycomb, the hive is more of a womb than a room.
The bees fuel their incredibly sophisticated temperature control with honey: just one teaspoon requires a huge collaborative effort – flying nearly a thousand miles to over 30,000 flowers to gather sugary-but-watery nectar which they distil down to honey by fanning their wings. Over a cold winter a hive can consume over 20 jarfuls just to stay alive and warm. To reduce their bees’ phenomenal winter fuel costs, Idle beekeepers insulate standard one inch thin-walled wooden hives to return them to the equivalent cosiness of the kind of tree cavity bees would inhabit in the wild – whose walls are typically a massive ten inches thick. And we do it with wool: over eight million years it has evolved some spectacularly ingenious properties to help sheep maintain a body temperature nearly identical to the bees’ and our own. We can clad our hives in this thermally precise, lightweight, sustainable, recyclable material without breaking the bank or the back.
And the bees definitely prefer the level of insulation that has been familiar to them for millions of years: I always offer a choice of vacant potential new homes to house-hunting swarms, and they have always chosen the insulated empty hive over the identical uninsulated one. Every time. The swarms that show up are the end result of a highly democratic process. Somewhere, in a hive that’s become too small for its growing population, the oldest and wisest bees are designated as scouts: they scour the area for potential ideal new homes, measure them up, calculate an Energy Performance Rating to anticipate domestic fuel costs, then, a little like estate agents, they fly back and promote the details of this Des Res to all the other bees in a highly articulate Waggle Dance.
Many suitable contenders will compete, but there is a crucial difference between the dancing scout bees and estate agents: scout bees never, ever lie. Why would they? They’re not only going to have to live with the decision they make, they’re going to have to live inside it with all their fellow bees. So they dance the unvarnished truth.
And if a location for a new home looks good, other scout bees fly over and check it out – returning to verify the enthusiasm, or not. If a better site is found, rigorous honesty prevails. This process ensures that when the bees finally reach a quorum for one choice, and tens of thousands fly straight to it with dazzling conviction, they make the best decision over 95% of the time.
Swarm season is in the early summer, so scouts are considering the level of insulation from a cooling perspective at that time of year: intense sunlight beating down on thin-walled hives can turn them into solar ovens – the bees would have to expend huge amounts of energy to prevent their young from being cooked. But the same woollen insulation that will help keep the hive warm in winter, prevents the summer sun making it unbearably hot. Wool keeps its cool in the heat. Even if flames are applied, it will not burn. It’s self-extinguishing. Unlike the cladding that was chosen to insulate Grenfell Tower.
A few hundred yards away, it’s a landmark my bees see every time they fly, and when they flew out of their hives into a clear blue sky at sunrise on 14th June 2017 they saw it still burning. Now scaffolding has been erected around it that supports a shroud that shields the husk of the building. It bears the words “Forever in our Hearts”. The waterproof fabric that wraps the wool on my hives came with just one word repeatedly printed on it: “Protect.” As we investigate the fire that tragically killed 72 people when their homes were engulfed in the blaze horrifically accelerated by flammable insulation, it is clear that the cladding of Grenfell Tower was not a process where transparency and honesty prevailed, even though the building was owned by a democratically elected local council. Would the people who made the fateful decisions that lead to so many deaths have been more rigorous if, like scout bees, they and their families had lived in the building they were insulating?
Bees make beautiful hexagonal wax honeycomb to provide cribs for their young and storage for their honey, but they don’t build the structures inside which that comb hangs – they choose suitable trees or hives, they don’t fabricate them. Protection is the priority in that choice, from predators and the extremes of climate. But they never choose to insulate themselves from the verifiable truth. We could do a lot worse than emulate that.
In our climate of spin and fake news, verification is vital. Faced with a decision, scout bees don’t just whimsically click “like” to a seductive suggestion – they get off their butts and take the time and effort to get to the underlying truth. Astonishing efficiency underpins the bees’ 15 million years of success: those scouts’ assiduous scrutiny must save them energy in the long term or they wouldn’t do it.
We fabricate more than the bees. We make and use tools. We not only build massive physical structures to protect ourselves from intruders and environmental extremity, we build psychological and political structures for the same purpose. Sometimes these become fixed partisan dogma – like a reassuring scaffold clamp bolted so tight as to make its structure rigid. Safe, we think.
The insulation that clad Grenfell was not meant to burn and asphyxiate its occupants, any more than the burning of fossil fuels was meant to asphyxiate life on earth with CO2. We can never eliminate unintended consequences. But we can only learn from them if we are as honest as the bees.
The same socket wrench that tightens can be switched to release the grip of the bolts it turns, and we can flexibly reorient our structures so they better fit our top priority: survival. Outside the hive and our homes we face an emergency of climate extremity. Along with the bees and all living things on our planet we are, inescapably, all in this together.
Bill is the author of The Idle Beekeeper: The Low Effort, Natural Way to Raise Bees. He’s also the tutor for two Idler Academy courses The Guide to Idle Beekeeping Parts One and Two. Check out Bill’s online beekeeping course here