Do you have spring in your step released from the confines of home on your one hour walk? What do you notice from this spring showtime season? Do you find it more technicolour and vivid than ever? From the tiniest dandelion peaking through the cracks of the city pavement, to standing in the frilled crown of an urban ancient oak on a rainy spring day, or stepping carefully through a fairy like bluebell wood, to following a trailing hawthorn hedgerow. Observe the movement of the air and see if you can spot one of our 32 varieties of bumble bee along with the little honey bees sucking up the nectar and attracting pollen from one flowing spring flower to another. Life can BEE sweet again.
In Hastings spring is celebrated with the ancient festival of the Green man. It is a good excuse to get dressed up as green gods and goddesses and paint the town, well...green. The Green Man represents the English oak tree (which bursts into leaf in April). The Oak King battles and slays the Holly King. Here in Hastings this is celebrated with lots of beer, international Morris dancing, chasing green giants and a jolly good knee's up. Romance, in true spring form also unfolds!
So the male of the oak and the holly must also be met by the feminine. The Greek goddess Maia (meaning May) represents Hawthorn. In ancient times the Welsh goddess Olwyn was said to walk across an empty universe leaving a trail of Hawthorn blossom, which thus formed the milky way. Hawthorn is the sixth tree of the Celtic Tree Ogham (the ancient tree alphabet). It represents love, fertility, the heart, protection, the release of blocked energy and preparation for spiritual growth. For this reason, hawthorn has an affinity our Celtic festival Beltane - the Hawthorn’s May blossom was used to decorate and celebrate this fertile time of year.
Before May customs were discredited by the church, Hawthorn played a valuable part in May Day celebrations, when the union of the May Queen and the Green Man blessed the fertility of the Earth. The Hawthorn tree's white and pink blossom is also symbolic of spring and fertility. It is worn by May pole dancers and traditionally was placed on the bed heads of the newlyweds. The scent of the hawthorn is very feminine and sweet too. You can eat the hawthorn leaves to which stop you from going hungry and make a lovely spring hawthorn cordial.
Honeybees natural habitat is in the hollows of the oak tree and over 300 other insects and multiply birds will be residing in the trunk and the canopy of this mighty tree. The blossom of the hawthorn too provides a rich nectar source.
You may be lucky enough if the sun is high to see a swarm of bees on a hot spring day in May or June and it is one of nature’s wonders to behold. Beekeepers before industrialisation 150 years ago would welcome swarming as it is healthy and necessary for bees to multiply, procreate and form new colonies. If we supress this instinct in bees (in our over controlling ways) then the natural intelligence bees have will diminish as will their ability to survive. Beekeepers want to keep their bees as it means getting a maximum honey yield. We practice swarm control methods, which are invasive too but effective for the honey yield.
Last year I watched one of my hives fly off in a huge humming swarm. I felt this huge surge of powerful hope and freedom as I watched them surge into the sky. Then moments later I felt a huge loss, I had failed as a beekeeper by letting them swarm. Or had I? This helped me understand a little deeper my respect for nature. Who knows if another beekeeper caught the swarm. If bees swarm naturally, they may find a hollow oak tree.
Up from our woodland apiary there is a glamorous ancient Beech tree that belonged to Alexander McQueen. Imagine if they lived in that. I dream of swarming bees now and no longer feel guilty for what I know is the way that nature intended. Why is it we always need to control nature?
Scout bees will look for potential new sites before swarming. You can hear the heated humming from the hive on a warm May day. The swarm will depart and settle on a nearby resting spot. The scout bees will then debate which is the best hive site to go to, unless a beekeeper catches them first. Another method which I am trying more and more is to create bate hives. This basically means creating a hive box away from the site, adding some old bee comb, bee propolis and some lemon grass essential oil. The lemon grass is said to be a similar smell to that of scout bee’s, excreted through a gland.
At our educational woodland classroom, I am expanding the types of hives we have. Last year we acquired our Tree Hive which is the equivalent of a bird box. The bees have a vital role to play in pollinating the trees, shrubs and flowers. We can take the bottom of the hive off and the children can look straight up into the natural comb.
I have been interested in top bar hives for some time as they are not as invasive and as standard beekeeping hives. There is less pulling apart of the hive and disturbing the bees. Top bar hives are used a lot in Africa. However, they are not very well insulated for this climate. When I was doing my research, I came across Matt Sommerville who is a natural beekeeper and makes tree hives and runs courses. He has also adapted and created the GOLDEN HIVE. It is like a top bar and easier to manage. Its double insulated with a special ventilated wood shaving box. You can take honey from the hive in small amounts. The comb is fresh and natural. The bees are rarely disturbed. Instead a lot of what goes on is through mindful observation. Gratitude and respect are two fundamental values we install in children at our woodland classroom. Learning to bee keep through giving rather than taking is part of that. The Golden hive will be a valuable asset in practicing these values. Here is a link if you fancy finding out more about the Golden Hive and the tree hives.
I collected the Golden hive, from Matt Somerville, with social distancing adhered to at a deserted country pub car park. The following day he was off to Wales to install a number of tree hives. Here is a link to his website the tree hive and the Golden hive. Another interesting fact about the hive is that the profits will be going to an African charity that teaches beekeeping to families to provide an income which pays for children to go to school. Excuse the pun but meeting Mat, buying a Golden Hive, that supports educational projects both here and in Africa was meant to be.
Back at the woodland wellbeing site, nestled in the ferns is our apiary. With my son I painted the golden hive and placed it away from the apiary. The video above, explains more. My hope is a wild swarm will be attracted to it. The hives at the apiary are surrounded by little oaks and hawthorn bushes. All but the birds and the bees share the wood this Spring.
In the future the hum of the bees and the bird song will be heard with children’s laughter learning and play, creating a springtime symphony. So here is to spring, bees, the flow of nectar, Beltane and future communities. Keep it green.