By Sarah Lewis
Whether you think of them as loveable garden helpers or scary stinging beasts, bees are essential to the environment and economy. And one of the ways to protect bees is to make them welcome in urban areas. This is why Aviva has introduced bees to four of its sites: Norwich, Bristol, Dorking and Perth, Scotland.
In total, there are around 300,000 bees managed and cared for by Aviva volunteer beekeepers. And it’s the beekeepers who are the most passionate advocates of the scheme.
The office beekeeper
Hannah Black, Aviva change consultant and one of seven volunteer beekeepers at Aviva’s Dorking office says, “I’ve been looking after the bees for three years now and love it. The bees were introduced as a trial but we’ve kept it going and now other offices have got their own bees too.”
“A year earlier my husband and I had visited an apiary because we hoped to keep bees as a hobby, but it wasn’t possible because of where we live. So when an email came to all staff asking for volunteers I replied yes straight away.”
Aviva finds suitable locations and funds the project, but the volunteers source everything including equipment and training. This means they often train at different apiaries.
“I went to a Blackhorse Apiaries in Woking,” says Hannah, “but colleagues went to apiaries in Reigate and Epsom. Each beekeeper will teach slightly differently, so we were able to share different techniques back at work.”
She explains, “there’s lots of ways of looking after bees and how you do it is up to you. You can use hives made of different materials, or choose to use a smoker, for example.”
A smoker is made by burning paper and dried grass and it can keep the bees calm before entering the hive. This makes it easier to pick up the frame to check the bees.
“You can use water spray bottles, which does a similar thing, and during the hot summers spraying some extra water in the hive is a good thing,” she adds.
To keep bees you need around nine-to-12 months’ practical training, which begins in the spring and then takes you into summer – the busiest time. Students have to learn as they go.
“We actually got our own bees [at the Aviva Dorking site] while we were training but had a British Beekeeping Association trainer come and help us get started. We can still call them if there’s a new or tricky situation,” says Hannah.
Looking after the bees can take Hannah up to two hours a week during warmer months, which come from an allocation of 21 ‘volunteering’ hours all Aviva employees get, as well as her lunch breaks. And there’s lots to do.
“Through spring to mid-summer there’s a weekly inspection on the hives to check the bees are happy and healthy. We can see if the queen is healthy and laying by looking for eggs or larvae. We also look for potential signs of disease as well as swarming, which is when bees make a new queen, splitting the hive in two,” says Hannah.
“The shape of the comb will be different for a queen larvae – so you can spot it quite easily,” she explains. “You can then find the old queen and split the hive, which is how we ended up with three hives. We started with one!
If they think the current queen is a bit rubbish, they kick her out and make a new one.
“As we only have space for three, now we just leave them to it. Half of the bees will leave with the old queen and start a hive elsewhere in the wild. The new queen will mate and start laying. That’s the scary part – we have to leave them alone for a while so we don’t disturb the new queen.”
“That’s one of the reasons I find bees so fascinating,” she says. “It’s the workers that make that decision. If they think the current queen is a bit rubbish, they kick her out and make a new one.”
Work eases in the winter, when the volunteers check on the bees just once a month.
“They have their own honey source but occasionally we need to add food. We use special bee fondant,” says Hannah, who stresses they don’t take any honey the bees may need.
“Bees need some of their own honey to last the winter so we only take excess honey. It’s gathered in trays called ‘supers’, which hold 10kg each. This year one hive made extra honey, so we were able to take a few jars.”
It can take years for an established hive to produce honey.
Stings and suits
One of the reasons training is so important is to help keep the volunteer beekeepers safe. Getting stung, as you’d expect, is a hazard of the job.
“A few of us have had a sore finger or thumb as a reaction,” says Hannah, who has been stung twice this year.
“Some reactions are worse than others and we check with doctors. We can’t get EpiPens via the NHS but we check with doctors and never go without protective clothing or on our own. There’s always two of us.”
“The bees will rarely sting you unless you’ve made a mistake, like accidentally squish them,” she adds.
Food and flowers
Being stung hasn’t dampened Hannah’s enthusiasm: “We’ve all been taken by surprise by how fascinating bees are, how intricate they are in their own hives and how much they do for us.”
We’ve all been taken by surprise by how fascinating bees are, how intricate they are in their own hives and how much they do for us.
She’s right. Bees pollinate food and many flowering plants but are in danger owing to pesticides, the destruction of natural habitats, and climate change. And with bees under threat, so are many foods and in turn, our economy.
Supermarkets, for example, or any business involved in food production, will be affected by pollination decline. Friends of the Earth says it would cost UK farmers £1.8 billion a year to pollinate their crops without bees 1.
“Without them we wouldn’t have much of the foods we have today,” says Hannah. “Almonds for example, whenever you eat an almond, it’s been touched by a bee. I love that fact, but I’m also saddened by it as it reminds me of the issues we face if bees became extinct.”
Indeed, you might not miss almonds, but vegetables and fruit also rely on pollination, as do flowers.
Help local bees
You don’t need to keep bees to help them, there are lots of things you can do to help the many species of wild bee under threat.
“Plant specific bee-friendly flowers ,” says Hannah. “Bees will love that. The more flowers the easier it is for them to build strong colonies. It will help their populations immensely.”
When it’s really hot bees can get dehydrated and tired, so Hannah recommends putting out a small bowl of water with stones in it so they can refresh themselves. You could also put out some sugar water if you see a bee in distress.
As for Hannah’s husband, “he’s very jealous,” she laughs. “But he did get to help with the honey extraction this year. He gets as excited as I do.”
Follow the Aviva Dorking bees and volunteers on Instagram @dorkingbees.
Did you know…
- All worker bees are female, the male bees only leave the hive to mate with new queens. Any bee you see out collecting pollen will be female
- The average bee will make 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in a lifetime
- Honey bees will pollinate 1,500 flowers during a collection trip
- According to Friends of the Earth 2, 35 species of bee are thought to be under threat
- A colony of bees consist of 20,000-60,000 bees and only one queen