Gardens Illustrated
One of Matt’s rocket hives sitting in his Hampshire garden.
© Andrew Montgomery

Wild bee hives: become a bee watcher rather than a bee keeper

Published: July 21, 2022 at 8:44 am
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In his Hampshire workshop, Matt Somerville crafts bee hives that mimic the way bees live naturally in the wild. Words Alys Fowler, photographs Andrew Montgomery

There is something very gently animated about Matt Somerville’s Hampshire workshop. Around the edge chickens roam through flowering meads and long grass, and a little farther away, against a backdrop of beech trees swaying in the wind, is a group of tall, wooden sculptures that are distinctly alive in design.

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With their pointy hats and long ambling limbs these structures look as though they might march off through the meadows and into woods at any minute. But move
a little closer, slow down and really look, and you see that they are alive in another, unexpected way, as swathes of bees alight and take flight. For these aren’t really sculptures at all, but bee hives made from hollowed-out logs and perched above head height so you can watch the bees without disturbing their flight path.

Honeybees at work in Matt Somerville's bee hives
Honeybees at work, cleaning the base board of one of Matt’s hives. It is coloured orange with propolis, an antiviral, resinous mixture that bees use to seal their hives. © Andrew Montgomery

These quirky rocket hives have charm but they also have a practical, scientific, even philosophical, purpose. The bees that live in them are wholly autonomous, you don’t get to manipulate them or for that matter take any honey. Each hive is fashioned from a single log (roughly 1m x 50cm) of Douglas fir or larch, which Matt hollows out using first a chainsaw then a long gouge, leaving a 10cm wall for vital insulation. Matt adds holes to let the bees in and out, a reed hat or waterproof membrane for more insulation, and a removable base so hive owners can keep an eye on the colony, but nothing else. Everything, is designed to allow bees to be bees and form strong, healthy colonies capable of coping with varroa, viruses and other pathogens. “Many things in honey-driven beekeeping are against bee health,” Matt explains. “The shape of the hives is wrong, and the practise is only efficient because of feeding bees sugar to replace the honey taken.”

Matt, assisted by Spencer Upton, adds the sockets to a hive body
Matt, assisted by Spencer Upton, adds the sockets to a hive body into which he can bolt the bevelled legs. These can either be stag oak or sweet chestnut, both of which are high in tannin so they last a long time. © Andrew Montgomery

Matt used to keep bees that way himself. Although, by profession he’s as a cabinet maker, he studied agriculture at college and it’s still in his blood. Shortly after he and his wife Emily moved to Hampshire he bought a cider orchard where in spring he loved to lie on the grass listen to the bees buzzing in the blossom. Until one day he couldn’t hear them. He’d read about the decline in bee numbers and felt compelled to do something, so he signed up for a beekeeping course.

Freestanding log hives are topped by a reed hat
Freestanding log hives are topped by a reed hat, known as a hackle, to provide insulation and keep the rain off. Reed is more durable than wheat straw, and regular cutting and harvesting improves the biodiversity of the reed beds by ensuring the willows don’t become dominant. © Andrew Montgomery

“Like many people, I got into beekeeping thinking that it was a way to help out,” he says. “At that point I didn’t know about all the chemicals, the suppressing of swarming and the manipulating.” Then around 12 years ago he had what he describes as his Damascene moment. One day one of his hives swarmed, so he chased after it, and saw that when the swarm came to a tree with a long slit the bees went in. “All I’d heard was that bees couldn’t survive in the wild,” he says, “but it wasn’t true. I knew then what I needed to be doing to help the bees.”

Matt and Spencer winch up the hive body
Matt and Spencer winch up the hive body so they can bolt on the 2.4m stag oak legs. These raise the hive to a height at which the bees like to nest. © Andrew Montgomery

Reading Honeybee Democracy by bee expert Thomas Seeley added science to what he had observed. One of Seeley’s ideas is that bees like to nest at around 4-5m high, which corresponds to the height at which larger branches often rot away, creating a hole in the trunk. “It’s why bees like eaves in a roof,” says Matt. It’s also why Matt’s hives can also be strapped to a mature tree, where they can be left largely undisturbed. Our instinct to marvel at the architecture of combs is strong, but if you have to get a ladder to do so you’re less likely to meddle.

Using a long chisel, Matt cuts flat sockets into which the bevelled legs will sit
Using a long chisel, Matt cuts flat sockets into which the bevelled legs will sit © Andrew Montgomery

For those without a suitable tree, Matt’s rocket hives offer the ideal opportunity to stand and watch. And both types of hives have now found their way into everywhere from farms and orchards to schools and prisons, and a great many gardens both large and small. As well as making the hives Matt also installs them advising customers on the best position for their hive, which is normally an open glade or the edge of a wood. He also uses a few tricks, such as fitting a portion of old comb, and rubbing the wood with propolis and lemongrass, to encourage the bees to make this their home. This can take several weeks or as little as an afternoon, but once the bees find the hive the rewards are greater than any honey.

Matt collects reed for a hackle
Matt collects reed for a hackle, which each require Matt sources from the Norfolk broads. © Andrew Montgomery

“It’s lovely to watch in the summer, in the evening when they come out to fan and there’s this gentle hum,” says Matt. “It’s something that you don’t really get to experience with a hive on the ground. Watching bees has also changed the way I garden. You start by focusing on the flowers but if you learn to look, you’ll see the flower is alive with life. That’s what bees teach – how to become a bee watcher rather than a bee keeper.”

A selection of Matt’s tools
A selection of Matt’s tools, which include long framing chisels for cutting the long sockets, a baton for ensuring the sockets are flat and a wooden mallet. © Andrew Montgomery
The bottom of a hive has a removable base
The bottom of a hive has a removable base so that infrequent inspections can be made to check bee health. © Andrew Montgomery
Matt hollows out the centre of the log
Matt hollows out the centre of the log leaving an outer edge of around 10cm, which is essential to keep the hive well insulated. “It’s calculated that it takes ten per cent of the colony’s energy to keep warm or cool,” explains Matt. © Andrew Montgomery
Matt begins by taking a square core out of the log with a chainsaw
Matt begins by taking a square core out of the log with a chainsaw then finishes hollowing out by hand. He uses a gouge on a long pole made specially for him by master blacksmith, Hector Cole. © Andrew Montgomery
An established colony of honeybees sits on a comb
An established colony of honeybees sits on a comb they have filled to the bottom of a hive. Each hive can hold up to around 40,000 bees. © Andrew Montgomery
The log hives have three entrance holes.
The log hives have three entrance holes. Bees tend to use the top hole most often as an entrance and the bottom one for fanning to help cool the hive and remove excess C02 during hot weather. © Andrew Montgomery
Matt carefully removes the base of a hive
Matt carefully removes the base of a hive to inspect the colony. His log hives can either be strapped to an existing tree or free standing on a tripod of legs for easy positioning in meadows and gardens. © Andrew Montgomery
One of Matt’s rocket hives sitting in his Hampshire garden.
One of Matt’s rocket hives sitting in his Hampshire garden. Its wonderfully gnarled legs are either made either from stag oak or sweet chestnut he sustainably sources from the Weald of Kent. It’s important to Matt that all elements of his hives are sustainably sourced; it’s important for the sustainability of the woodlands too, as regular coppicing lets in the light. © Andrew Montgomery

Find out more about Matt’s freedom hives at beekindhives.uk and follow him on Instagram @_beekindhives_

Head to our guide on how to make a wildlife garden.

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This feature appeared in the July issue of Gardens Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Authors

Alys Fowler is a horticulturist, garden writer and Guardian columnist.

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