Honey bees on Cripley Meadow

The 2009 AGM voted to allow members to apply to keep honey bee hives on their plot. To retain the balance between introduced honey bees and all other natural pollinators the limit is two bee-keeping members for the Site.

Our two members with bees are Christine on 10A (07771 838521) and David on SF12/13 (07974 654082).

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The benefit of keeping honey bees is that there is increased pollination, and therefore increased production on all our plots. The bee-keepers also gain honey and the pleasure of watching these amazing creatures at work. More widely, keeping honey bees responsibly is essential to maintaining their population, which is under threat.

Our bee-keeping members belong to the Oxfordshire BeeKeepers Association and the British Beekeepers Association, so are appropriately trained, monitored/supported, and insured. Their hives are registered with DEFRA on Beebase.

There are risks associated with all insects and honeybees are no exception – the main potential issues being swarms, stings and vandalism.

In the many years that we have had beehives on site, bee-keepers, their fellow members and the Committee have worked together and successfully managed the risks with no major problems. Our bee-keepers recognise that the safety and peace of mind of members is important for enjoyment of Cripley Meadow Allotments, and want their bees to enhance, and not detract from it.

See below for details on each risk and how we manage it on Cripley Meadow, including what ordinary members can do to help.

1. Swarms

The risk: Typically swarms initially alight temporarily on a branch, bush or a post (a couple of hours up to a couple of days) whilst scout bees investigate the options for a new permanent home, before the swarm moves off.

Swarming happens when bees feel ‘crowded’. It is a natural means of reproduction for bee colonies. They rear a new queen, and when she is ready to take over, the old queen leaves with most of the adult population to find a new home, leaving the youngsters in the old one. Bees in hives are managed (see below) to prevent swarming – so most swarms you might see are wild honeybees, or bees from hives with inattentive bee-keepers. Swarms are NOT dangerous if left alone, unless they are in a house or other enclosed space. They can become aggressive if poked or otherwise approached by someone who doesn’t know what they are doing (see note below re. Swarm Collection contacts). On the allotments, swarms are most likely to be in a tree.

How the risk can be managed by the bee-keepers: Essentially, bee-keepers manage this risk by keeping an eye on the bees, which is one reason they inspect regularly during the active season. They check that the bees have enough space in their hive by adding additional frames to the hive. If the existing queen is a few years into her breeding lie, the hive may decide to supersede her with a new queen (generally the old queen gets killed so they remain in the old hive). If the bees seem determined to swarm, the keeper will ‘fool’ them by shifting them into a new section, so that the bees think they have swarmed.

How the risk can be managed by allotment holders: If you see a swarm on Cripley Meadow, call our bee-keepers Christine (07771 838521) or David (07974 654082). (If you see a swarm elsewhere you can contact the British Beekeepers Association on bbka.org.uk where they have advice and local contacts for swarm removal. This is a free service although donations are welcome).

2. Stings – particularly important for anyone with an allergy to stings

The risk – There are wasps, hornets, wild bees, solitary bees and bumble bees on the allotments already, so there is an underlying risk of stings. It would seem that most stings are from wasps; bees are less likely to sting unless they feel under threat. Most bee stings happen when people tread on bees barefoot or put their hands around them when gardening. Honey bees are likely to be less aggressive because they are bred to be handled and more used to having their hive approached.

How the risk can be managed by the bee-keepers: the level of aggression in the colony is managed by the bee-keeper. If the queen is ‘nice’, her colony will follow suit. Cripley bee-keepers get queens that are bred to be very nice. If hive becomes more aggressive it will normally be because a ‘daughter’ of the queen has bred with drones from the wild bee population. If this happens, the beekeeper can re-queen the hive with a queen of better stock. In the unlikely event that re-queening doesn’t work, the swarm can be destroyed and the hive re-settled with more amenable colony.

The risk is also managed by timing the opening of the hive – i.e. early or late in the day, and avoiding weekends, when neighbours aren’t on their plots. This is a good idea anyway as more bees will be at home then when the keeper checks for disease and other problems.

How the risk can be managed by allotment holders: Allotment holders can manage their risk from any stinging insects by avoiding bare feet and wearing gloves. Allotment holders should not be on others’ plots without invitation and this is certainly good advice when it comes to the plots with bees on (honey bees will normally take no notice of you unless you are within a few metres).

Allergy to wasp stings is more common than allergy to bee stings and those who have a known allergy will already know how to manage this risk. Anaphylaxis, the most serious type of allergic reaction, is extremely rare and sufferers would be advised by their doctors not to expose themselves to risk by gardening in any form, and they will carry epipens to administer adrenaline shots.

3. Vandalism

The risk: It is unlikely that thieves on the site would approach the hives, and if they do the risk is largely to them. If they risk stings enough to destroy the hive, there would be an impact on the bee-keepers (who are insured, through their membership of OBKA), and the bees would leave. This could lead to swarming (see above). There have been reports of badgers attacking colonies weakened by disease, with the same risks.

How it can be managed: The site is kept as badger-secure as possible. Bee-keepers screen their hives to make it less obvious to passing vandals, and long-handled implements are also kept away to minimise temptation. Bee-keepers’ contact details are at the top of this page, and on the notice by the front gate, so any problems can be reported to them by plot-holders.

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