Honeybees in the Canopy
‘The bees are back!’
Midday at Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire, and I was enjoying a leftover fajita after a morning exploring the arboretum grounds. Next to me sat Susanna, the Forestry England interpretation support officer who had kindly given up her day to show me around, as well as a few other women from the Westonbirt team. I had just reached for another sip of tea when another staff member bounded over to us, smiling as she shared her news with the rest of the table: ‘The bees are back!’
A new bee colony had just been settled into one of the arboretum’s hives, tucked beneath the fronds of a Siberian spruce. But the team soon realised the hive was facing out towards the footpath, which meant a stream of bees would be zipping back and forth in the direction of the visitors. Most would be fine with this, but to save any trouble, the team decided to rotate the hive 90° so the bees would emerge parallel to the path.
The problem came when the team weren’t sure if they had rotated the hive in time. When a honeybee colony settles in a new hive, they must first complete orientation, flying in tight spirals around the opening to establish their correlation to the sun. They will share this information by emitting chemical signals to each other, which are said to smell like pear drops. If the hive is rotated too late after the colony arrives, the bees will have already orientated and will then try to get back into the hive via the old opening, bumping into the side of the hive instead! Fortunately, the Westonbirt team rotated the hive in time and the bees returned to their new home through the correct opening.
After we had visited the hive, Susanna and I walked down an avenue of lime trees, one of the many perfectly designed tracks and walkways that made Westonbirt such a beautiful place to wander on a warm afternoon. Bees love lime flowers, feeding not only on the nectar and pollen, but also collecting the honeydew left on the leaves by aphids. Honey made from lime flowers is said to have a pleasant minty flavour and greenish tinge, and is often used for flavouring liqueurs and medicines on the continent.
This was apparently one of the best paths to walk in high summer. When the sun was hot and the air swelled with the scent of wild roses, the peace of the lime avenue was broken only by the gentle murmur of honeybees, drawn to the canopy above our heads. I watched them linger on every flower around the arboretum, pollinating the forest in their desire for sweetness, and securing the future of this botanical sanctuary for years to come.