Build A Bee-Hive
Construction Site

I’m an optimist. It goes with the beekeeper territory. For me, each New Year is an onrushing utopia. And late December is when that optimism goes into overdrive and I shift into construction mode to accomodate an expanding bee-population. If the innkeeper in Bethlehem, 2014 years ago, had been a beekeeper with similar impulses, then the entire Nativity story could have been different and we would be singing carols like: “Away In Brood-Box”, O Come All Ye Foragers” and “O Little Hive Of Bermondsey“.

Anyway, last weekend’s build was designed to shelter a single mother and her 50,000 offspring (from up to 20 different, all mysteriously deceased, fathers) from the mean streets of SE1. That’s a tall order. The material for this 14” x 12” brood box was cedar, a light and durable wood. Hand-crafted construction, a modicum of low-impact nailing, a dab of wood glue – et voila! – the perfect four-wall habitat for raising a large family in central London.

Measure twice, cut once, is the carpenter’s motto. And the measurement at the root of all beehive construction is an improbable fraction: 5/16 of an inch. That’s the magical “beespace”,which is the gap between two surfaces which will allow two bees to pass, back to back. Any bigger than 5/16 inch and the bees would span my serried, removable brood frames with wax “brace” comb. Any smaller than 5/16 inch and they would gum up the gap with propolis. In both cases, the frames would become as rigid as a toast-rack. To get the right results, precision is key.

It’s a funny old thing, beespace. At 5/16 of an inch, it shares its awkward mathematics with other constants like pi, attractively packaged at 3.14159, or the speed of light, which clocks on at precisely 299,792,458 metres/second. In a parallel universe, in which Douglas Adams wrote the Beekeeper’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything would be 5/16 of an  inch (rather than the correct answer of 42 for our own universe, of course). So my cheery Advent optimism was severely challenged by a visit to one of the last functioning limbs of the necrotic Heygate Estate last week. Yes: the discovery of an eternal formula for harmonious human habitation would be a good thing. I half-thought that I was onto something when I saw that the red bus which served the Estate was numbered “42”. But even that happy integer could not lift my hopes that human beings might be able to mimic the Extremely Social Housing of the beehive anytime soon.

That said, it’s hardly surprising that the same sort of things which diminish human quality of life in social housing are very similar to the things which will really upset bees in their boxes, too. Take this article from the Guardian on the Housing Associations Charitable Trust’s seven top negatives for social housing, in descending order of degrading the quality of human life…..

  1. Noise: If you want to see angry bees, try pushing a two-stroke-engine lawn-mower past a moody hive.
  2. Damp: Moisture is more fatal for bees than cold: it promotes mould and can block breathing tubes.
  3. Poor Lighting: Obvious when you think about it, but the inside of a hive is dark ! The exception.
  4. No Garden: Yep, I can see how that works for bees and humans alike.
  5. Condensation: See “Damp”. Another problem is that the varroa mite loves high humidity.
  6. Rot: Another product of high humidity. Ever picked up a rotten hive and the bottom fell out? I have!
  7. Vandalism: Bees are happy to pilfer each other’s stores, but averse to wantonly damaging property.

(If you are feeling like delving deeper into the human aspect of Social Housing, take a peek at Chris Brown’s excellent regeneration blog)

As for the build, take it from me that the Bermondsey Street Bees will be delighted with their brand new hive….and that, without the faintest shadow of a hint of a doubt, 2014 will be a much better bee-year than 2013 !

Bee-Hive Built
Extremely Social Housing

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