Keep happier and healthier bees
New practices in beekeeping could provide a solution to the recent decline in the number of bees. Suzanne Savill meets the woman behind Bristol Sustainable Bee Group. Pictures: Jon Kent
The white-painted beehives in Jenny Bradley's garden are not just any old beehives.
These are beehives she made herself, and which unlike many traditional bee hives are well-ventilated at the bottom.
Jenny is one of a growing number of people in the Bristol area who have become involved in sustainable beekeeping, and about a year ago she founded the Bristol Sustainable Bee Group.
She explains: "Sustainable beekeeping is about minimal interventionism, and allowing bees to live in the way they have done naturally – and without man – for some 50 million years.
"The main difference is that we put the welfare of the bees first, rather than attempting to maximise the honey production."
Sustainable beekeeping is a new response to the problem of declining bee numbers, which has been blamed on problems ranging from mobile telephone signals to pesticides.
The idea behind it is to keep bees in an environment that is best-suited to them – rather than most suitable for honey production – and helping to maintain the health of the bees by doing so.
"Bees need to keep themselves at a particular temperature to be healthy, and to breed and nurture their young," says Jenny.
"Every time you take the top off their hive to look at them, the temperature drops. Thus, the bees have to use valuable energy to get the hive back to 'bee' temperature.
"Traditional beekeepers usually check their hives once a week, while sustainable bee keepers do it much less frequently. Some do it as little as once a year.
"The varroa mite is a particular problem and thrives in lower temperatures than 'bee' temperature.
"It is a parasite that attaches to the bodies of bees and weakens them. In conjunction with viruses, it can result in bees being weakened by infections, which can contribute to killing them.
"There is some evidence that if you keep the temperature at a consistent 'bee' level, there is less varroa and hence bees are healthier.
"We also let the bees build their own honeycomb. They build beautiful heart-shaped cones and fill them with brood and honey.
"In traditional beekeeping they put in a frame with wax sheets (foundation) and the bees have to fill it in a particular way.
"They also restrict the Queen to a section of the hive and clip her wings to stop her flying away, which we don't do.
"Another difference is that instead of using a smoker to suppress bees – which causes them to panic – we use a fine-mist water-spray bottle with a teaspoon or two of cider vinegar added to the water.
"You can even add a drop or two of certain essential oils to the mix. Peppermint, lavender and eucalyptus are known to be an irritant to the varroa mite."
Jenny, who until recently was Bristol's Lady Mayoress, became interested in the plight of bees after reading a newspaper article in 2009.
"I was appalled at what I read about the decline of bees and the impact on the human species and I wondered what I could do about it," she says.
"Bees pollinate much of our food. Overall, they pollinate 30 per cent of our food, and in some crops as much as 90 per cent. For example, without bees we probably wouldn't have apples, as 90 per cent of them are pollinated by bees.
"I put the article on the wall of my office and I looked at it every day.
"I talked to people who might be interested in doing something, and out of that I heard about someone who was starting up a sustainable beekeeping group in Yatton."
This group proved so popular that Jenny decided to start one for the Bristol area, and got 10 members at the first meeting.
There are now 35 members, and meetings take place at members' homes.
"It's mainly a support group to encourage and help each other in sustainable beekeeping," she says.
"Our members are interested in green issues and sustainability, and we hope to raise awareness about the plight of bees.
"We also hope to show that it's easier and far cheaper to look after your own bees than people expect.
"I made my own hive at the first bee group using plans someone had taken off the internet. We all brought stuff and got stuck in and built hives that probably cost about £25.
"I can't do woodwork, so if I can make a hive then anyone can do it!"
Jenny has three hives, although she is only using one hive at the moment, which contains 40,000 to 60,000 bees.
Jenny points out that people do not have to keep bees themselves in order to help them to survive.
"You can help bees by having a variety of flowering plants in the garden, especially ones with open or single flowers as it makes it easier for them to get to the pollen.
"Have early and late flowering types, as these are the times of year when there are not many flowers around and bees get really hungry, especially when they come out at the end of winter.
"Also, speak out against the use of pesticides as these can kill bees and try not to use them yourself – go organic if you can.
"You can also encourage solitary bees – which do not live in groups like honey bees and bumble bees – by tying together pieces of cane in a bundle and placing them off the ground in your garden, as they will go into it and make a home."
For further information about Bristol Sustainable Bee Group email firstname.lastname@example.org.