We’re a hive of activity this month…

Our garden supervisor and resident bee-keeper Adam is helping to preserve an ancient bee-keeping craft through our Host-a-Hive scheme – a skill which his family has been practicing for four generations

Some would say Adam has swapped the family tree for the ‘family bee’, since bringing the centuries-old skill of apiculture to Abbotswood. 

Since the age of two, Adam has helped his granddad Barry make honey from his garden apiary, a skill passed down from Barry’s own father, who kept bees during World War II – and in the last two years has taken over some of his granddad’s hives himself, and is passing on his skills to other Cambridge residents via our ‘Host a Hive’ scheme.

Known for our artisanal and environmental approach to garden design and maintenance, we hire out the hives, the bees and most importantly the expertise to Cambridge gardeners (the homemade honey comes free!) – and when it comes to knowledge, our 21-year-old garden supervisor really is the bee’s knees. 

“I love the fact I’ve been able to learn a centuries old skill, and one which family has been practicing for so many years,” says Adam. “In 1942, my great-granddad and great uncle were able to sneak an extra sugar ration for keeping bees, so they could feed them over winter, and at one point they had up to 12 hives in the garden – although the bees rarely saw any of those extra sugar rations!”

Following in his father’s steps, Barry grew up watching and tending to the bees in the garden, eventually taking over the hives and passing the skills on to his son-in-law – Adam’s dad, Andy.

“Sadly, a series of heart attacks stopped my granddad from being able to carry on keeping bees so he got someone to take everything away,” says Adam. “That is, until three years ago, when I showed an interest and started the whole process up again!”

Reinvigorated by Adam’s interest, and as a retired joiner, Barry came up with plans to build a beehive for his grandson so he could get practical experience – and since then has taught him everything he knows. 

And there’s a lot to learn. As well as weekly inspections to check on hive health and swarm prevention, there’s also harvesting and feeding.

“It’s all about getting the bees ready in the spring to build up their colony size,” says Adam. “It’s our job as the beekeeper to add extra space in the form of boxes with frames, in which the bees will build their comb, and only once the colony is large enough, will it collect and store enough honey for you to start taking it out. In the autumn and winter, you also start feeding with sugar syrup to replace the honey you’re taking out, and get them through the winter.”

Despite the hard graft, Adam’s only been stung once since he became a beekeeper. 

“Not all bees sting,” he says. “Male bees or ‘drones’ don't have a stinger – and most bees will only sting if something has upset them. You need to be calm, quick and careful. If you bash the frames together or are a bit clumsy, the bees will only tolerate that for so long before you know about it!”

And, aside from the honey they provide, bees are of course essential pollinators – so, if you’re after better pollination in your garden (particularly in the vegetable garden), having a hive will be an enormous help.

“My granddad still loves to watch me and teach me,” says Adam. “I’ve already extracted 60lb of honey from my hives this year and, eventually, I hope to make enough honey to sell it from the gate as my grandparents once did.”

Four ways to bee-kind

Want to get your garden buzzing but don’t own a hive? Try Adam’s top tips for attracting bees…

  • Add bee bait to your borders by adding plants with big flowers or daisy like heads, which produce a lot of nectar. Great ones for planting in June include: yarrow, hyssop, hollyhock, snap dragon, buddleja, aster and bellflower. Bees will thrive in most areas even in towns providing there is enough food for them. 
  • Bees prefer to visit larger patches or clumps of the same species of plant rather than individual plants, so think about this in planting schemes. They also prefer plants in sunny, sheltered places rather than shaded or exposed locations.
  • Don’t be too quick to get rid of weeds either! Many of the plants we consider weeds, such as dandelions and thistles, are favoured by bees. If you don’t want a whole garden of weeds, simply sow a small patch of wild flower meadow mix.
  • Follow the lead of the EU-wide ban on three bee-harming pesticides and keep sprays and fertilisers to a minimum in your garden. Chemicals that fall on to the flowers can adversely affect the whole colony, so opt for natural barriers and mulches when the flowers are in bloom.