In August, we moved the hives at Lambeth Palace, London’s oldest garden, to a dappled new location. A neat job, but not without its complications.
It was a shame to remove the bees from the secluded woodland in a far-flung corner of Lambeth Palace’s 11-acre garden. But it had to be done, with an archaeological dig by the Museum of London scheduled to carve a trench under the glade where the hives had previously been sited. A thoughtful walk with Head Gardener, Nick Stewart, along the curved pathways had been all that was required to select a new apiary area.
Moving bees a short distance involves a surprising amount of planning. In the first place, the new site has to be congenial for bees. We had identified a relatively secluded patch of ground, screened from the path by a tall flower bed and protected by a high wall at the rear of the apiary. The south-facing aspect was ideal to provide the bees with the maximum sunlight.
The old adage that bees can be moved “less than three feet, or more than three miles” needs to be heeded. In this case, a 75-metre displacement was planned. In particular, we would need to manage the foraging bees, imprinted with the conviction that their hive was in the former location, even if they flew from the hive on its newfangled site.
We designed the apiary layout to be in three ranks (a 2-4-4 formation, to allow for the nine “live” hive and one “store” hive), with the hive positions offset in each row and a 2-metre gap maintained between hives. All of the hives were placed on a base of a standard paving slab. Although symmetrical, this design really seemed to embrace the tranquil informality of Lambeth Palace’s ancient garden, especially given the homely mix of double-brood Nationals and larger 14” x 12” brood bodies.
The first logistical task had been to reduce the weight of the hives prior to the move. Coinciding with the honey harvest, we started clearing bees from the full honey supers and then took off the honey. This was performed over two evenings in the week prior to the move.
Finally, at dusk on the evening before the upheaval, the hives were prepared for the move by stapling together all the moveable surfaces, strapping the hive bodies up tight and then sealing the entrances with foam rubber insert, held in place with a band of our own Bermondsey Street Bees sticky tape!
To complete the preparations, next to all of the old hive locations, we placed a nucleus hive. These were intended to mop up the 10% or so of “flying bees” from each hive, whose sat navs would be programmed to return to the former location after a foraging trip.
The next morning, in a drenching downpour, my younger son, Maff, and I met Nick, with his mini-tractor and trailer to move the hives. Actually, that was not the worst weather for a hive move, since the bees were largely confined in their hives.
Removing the metal-clad roofs to reduce the weight, we lifted the hives into the trailer in loads of three, with their own hive stand and roof travelling with them to the new apiary site, just 75 metres away.
There was remarkably little “leakage” of bees en route, mostly from the underside of the hives’ metal mesh floors. And in three trips, with Nick’s steady hand at the helm of the tractor, we had successfully relocated all nine hives.
The next phase was to return the hives to their previous state, meticulously removing the staples from the sides of the hives and, with a final flourish, cutting the tape and removing the foam-rubber insert which had sealed the hive entrance. The Lambeth Palace bees were free to take to their wings again. And before Big Ben, across the river, struck twelve, the bees were flying from their relocated hives, some orienting themselves in their new alignment, others stubbornly navigating back to the old site, where a temporary hive awaited them.
With no stings taken by any of the three bee-movers and the job done inside the three hours allocated, the sun had miraculously come out. For the three of us, stripping off our white bee-suits, that made the morning a comprehensive success. For Lambeth Palace’s enchanting garden, it was just another footnote in its 800-year-old annals.