The taste of summer in a jam jar

Looking after the waterways isn’t just about managing the actual water. We look after more than 2,000 miles of hedgerow nationwide and many of these hedges contain vital food sources for bees.

Queen bee (the one with the red dot) on a honeycomb Queen bee (the one with the red dot) on a honeycomb (courtesy Caroline Robson)

So this year, if all goes according to plan, Diamond Jubilee Wood will become a busy, buzzing hub for producing gorgeous golden Caen Hill Honey.

The wood, planted in 2012 and next to the famous Caen Hill Locks in Devizes, is the new home for five hives. And the bees are already gorging on the blackberry blossoms around the site. "If we find that the bees, ourselves and Canal & River Trust are happy with the arrangement, we plan to make this the permanent site for Kennet Beekeepers Association (KBKA)," says Robert Carpenter-Turner, the club’s chairman and Bee Inspector for Wiltshire.

"Our intention is to settle up to 12 hives here and apply for lottery funding to build a clubhouse where we can train people in bee keeping, give talks, store materials and have a mesh-encased viewing gallery," he says.

Giving bees somewhere to buzz

Bee keeper, David Brown, with frame

Each hive, located in the old farm area of the wood, contains up to 60,000 bees, 95% of them female worker bees. KBKA Apiary Manager David Brown expects an established colony to typically produce 30lbs of honey in a year. 

Bees will travel 1.5 miles to collect pollen, nectar, water and propolis.

Jubilee Wood courtesy Caroline Robson Jubilee Wood courtesy Caroline Robson

Jubilee Wood looks promising as they have a wide area to forage and David hopes to get both a spring and summer crop of honey. “Hawthorn and blackthorn in the hedges provide a spring feast. A nearby field of oil seed rape is good for early summer forage. The grassy walkways through the wood will produce flowers and nectar and the bees can collect propolis from the sticky buds of trees. They use this to seal any cracks in the hive and strengthen their honeycomb,” he says.

As David highlights, hedges such as blackthorn, hawthorn and ivy contain vital food sources for bees. It's an old wives’ tale that ivy can strangle and kill trees. Because of this myth, many people think it’s necessary to sever ivy to kill it, but here at Trust, our environment team leave ivy on trees as an important resource for bees and other insects late into the autumn.

Being bee-friendly

According to David, the Jubilee Wood bees have a nice, gentle temperament, making them easy to handle. The Queen mates up to 30 times with male drone bees during her mating flights. It is this cocktail of genetics that sets the mood in the hives.

Bee hives: David Brown 'smokes' the bees

From early April to the end August David visits once a week to inspect the hives. He quietly apologises to the bees with an “Excuse me, girls” before sending a little puff of smoke their way to prevent them getting agitated.

He calmly checks the frames to make sure the queen is laying her eggs; there is enough food until the next inspection; and the bees aren’t making moves to swarm and fly away.

At the end of July David will take the main harvest and then prepare the hives for winter. He will treat the bees for varroa mite, which lowers their resistance to disease. “After August we start feeding them a sugar solution to get them ready for winter – we use 20lb of white sugar syrup per colony. Until October, the bees will gather pollen and nectar from ivy, and then over the winter they hang about the hive, only leaving on mild days to collect water and excrete.”

Where to see bees near you

Nationwide our bees are facing many challenges, including reduced natural forage, so beekeeping helps to maintain their numbers. You’ll find a number of nature garden and bee hive projects around our waterways. In 2016, our team and volunteers at the Tees Barrage created space for nature with a community garden packed full of wild flowers as well as clearing space on the lock island for a local bee keeper to set up some hives.

Bees at Tees Bees at Tees

In 2017, the Buzz Project at our Standedge Tunnel Visitor Centre was set up to help local refugees and job seekers to increase their sense of wellbeing by getting out by the water and make new friends through bee keeping. Standedge is playing host to up to 10 bee hives and providing a place for the bee keepers to meet and make honey.

Standedge bee hive project group

A beeline to wellbeing

"It’s a wonderful hobby that gets you out and about. But it takes commitment and it is never predictable," says Robert. "It’s all the strange little facts that make it so interesting, such as:

  • male drones buzz louder than worker bees
  • males don’t have stings
  • the queen has a sting but will only use it against a rival queen
  • in winter, the bees form a ball around the queen to keep her warm, and each bee has a specific duty

If you fancy joining the 600-plus folk who look after bees in Wiltshire you could get in touch with Kennet Beekeeping Association. 

If this a step too far – get involved in one of our Towpath Taskforce events or volunteer to create nature gardens and local woodland spaces. See our volunteering opportunities near you for details. That way you can do your bit to create more forage for bees and help us make their lives better by water too.

Last date edited: 5 July 2018