My journey to free-living bees
What I learnt along the way, was not what I expected.
My journey with the honey bees began in 2012. I participated in indigenous trainings where I learned to see the honey bee as a teacher for guidance in day to day to life. I understood why our predecessors honoured them, even way beyond their vital role as pollinators. For me the honey bees role is planetary health, simply sitting by honey bees seems to bring a sense of calm and peace. It is not something I can put into words, everyone needs to sit by them and experience it for themselves.
I have always loved nature but this was the start of me seeing nature in a completely different light. Nature, not something to be controlled for our personal gain, but as our source of insight, inspiration and joy. One that freely gives to us when in a relationship of respect. After this initial training I felt called to work with bees and didn’t know where to start. I undertook a local mainstream beekeeping training and was shown how to split an existing hive into six with queen cells in each, from which after original queen bee was killed by the teacher. I was shown how to treat bees with chemicals and that one must definately prevent bees from swarming. It was like being shown in every way possible way how to stop bees being bees. I actually cried in front of a large group of people witnessing some of the interventions, everything about it felt both shocking and deeply sad. I did not last until the end of the course, I knew this was wrong for me.
Luckily through friends I came across that Natural Beekeeping Trust and entered a world of people that put the bees health first, where bees were allowed to be bees. Here I have meet some of the most nature loving and caring people I know. I came to see the state of the bees as symbolic to the health of humans and our wider ecosystem. Being a ‘beekeeper’ was not the answer to bees being healthy, it required a holistic approach to ecosystem restoration. Land regeneration being integral to bee health.
This led to the purchasing of 10 hectares of land in Central Portugal, which went on to be called Quinta Das Abelhas (Bee Farm). Although I remembered at the time of buying the land it was a very random plan, something in me simply needed to act. The land came with a deep knowing from the idea that we could provide a space where bees could be protected and left alone to get strong again.
We began with mainstream hives on the land, Langstroth and Top Bar, with the bees naturally swarmed into the hives. This was a special time for us and where our deeper learning began. We celebrated them through hive painting, left them to live how they wished and supported them through land work - planting, transforming the monoculture and improving the soil. Through this time I began to receive the teaching of venom through being stung. For me the venom brings a wealth of insight and self reflection to my own unnatural ways. That is for another story.
Over the first 3 years hives continued to swarm onto our land with the homes we put out. Then came the day a hive died. When I looked inside their home after their death, I saw the inside was covered in mould. I couldn’t imagine living in such a mouldy home, I would be sick. These hives were not right for the weather conditions in Portugal, I knew they could not thrive in these thinned wall boxes. At this time there was a great deal of science that could be accessed, through the likes of Torben Schiffer, showing how bees live in their natural settings, trees. I had an instant draw and excitement exploring the world of bees in the wild, rather than in the domesticated honey producing hives.
Many bee lovers were mimicking tree hive conditions and producing.log hives. The walls being much thicker and better insulated to be more aligned with bees living in trees. We began making these hives in both Portugal and England. This was another stepping stone for us and I feel these beautiful bee homes bring greater awareness to the fact bees are forest dwellers. At my home in England I happened to be there when a swarm arrived into my log hive. I will never forgot this moment, it felt like being in the centre of creation itself. My whole body was fully alive and tingling and I spent the next week in what I can only describe as bliss. From this I participated in a workshop, run by the Natural Beekeeping Trust, in Spain where we closed up natural cavities in old trees for bees to arrive in. Again another step closer to my own truth of giving bees the real homes they need.
In 2020 there was a pause and we had to remain still on the land, all plans put on hold. Here was a great opportunity for me. I looked at our journey with the bees and felt a kind of uselessness. My dream was to see the honey bees thriving in the trees, yet I couldn’t suddenly create old trees with cavities for them to live in. We live in a pine monoculture region, the natural forests destroyed to plant trees for building materials. I wondered if I had a role any longer that aligned with what I believed in.
At this time a fellow bee lover discovered a hive living in a chestnut tree near our land. When I sat by them I knew that my true journey with bees was being answered. To be part of the human contribution to support them living in the trees. This symbiotic relationship is a vital requirement for ecosystem health - their separation is causing great harm. I only know this for myself from sitting with the bees in the trees.
Through the 'lockdown year' I walked a great deal through the valleys around our land and I came across more and more ancient chestnut trees in amongst the monoculture. On one of these walks an even deeper peace arrived. Here we are transforming the pine monoculture and everywhere on our land the chestnut and oak saplings are bursting through. The old story is dying, we are part of returning a healthy mixed forest once again. I realised that the true results of my personal work will not be seen in my lifetime. That maybe in a few hundred years a swarm of bees may arrive into the trees on our land. This timescale was really hard for me to accept, my head saying but we are in ecosystem collapse now, I can’t wait this long. Yet my heart knows when I sit with the bees in the trees, there is no doubt to my individual role. Once upon a time humans made decisions based on the next 7 generations.
So writing this my hope is that others experience the magic of bees in the wild, of a swarm or just simply being next to the wonder that is the honey bee. To get involved read more about the current chapter of my journey, read here: