Bees and Bee Boles at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Today we visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan and saw the old ‘bee boles’. These are recesses in a wall big enough to hold straw skeps. The wall would have provided shelter and typically would have been south or east facing. At Heligan most of the boles have removable wooden doors in place. I would be interested to know how the wooden doors would have been used. I’m guessing they may have been in place over winter to provide extra protection from the wind and rain and then removed come spring?

The International Bee Research Association (IBRA) maintains a Bee Boles Register which currently contains records for 1589 UK sites, 58 of which are in Cornwall. So I have plenty more to find! And having just checked their Heligan Gardens record, it indeed says the wooden doors were closed in winter and hessian curtains added when very cold.

Skep making is a lovely skill and the skeps are beautiful objects which are still useful for swarm collecting. However I am glad the heyday of skeps has passed, since the bees were often driven out or killed in order for the beekeeper to harvest their honey and wax.

Bee hives were marked on Heligan’s garden map, so I was hoping to see some, but was disappointed to see a sign instead, informing me that the Heligan colony had died out over winter.

Black Honey Bee Colony, Heligan Gardens

There were several information posters about the Black honey bee…

The history of the Black honey bee

The history of the Black honey bee

Black honey bee better adapted

Black honey bee better adapted

European honey bees

European honey bees

B4 project

B4 project info

You can find out more about the B4 project at b4project.co.uk. They describe themselves as a “group of beekeepers whose aim is to protect the UK’s native honey bee, Apis mellifera mellifera.” A native dark honeybee reserve has just opened on the Rame Peninsula in Cornwall, as featured in a recent Countryfile episode which I intend to watch soon (8 days left to watch!). From what I read on the BBKA Facebook group, the beekeepers filmed for the episode were not entirely happy with the editing of the show and the final quotes used.

Black honey bee population wiped out

I believe the disease referred to above is a mystery disease that ravaged British bees in the early twentieth century, the cause of which experts have since ventured a guess at. It was first observed in 1906 upon the Isle of Wight. Beekeepers there noticed that their bees were crawling on the ground around their hives, dying so fast that whole colonies were wiped out at the height of summer, when they should have been most strong.

The devastating affliction reoccurred at least three times from 1906 to 1919. By 1907 the disease had wiped out most of the bees on the island – it then spread to mainland England and wreaked havoc there. Huge numbers of bees had to be imported from Europe, so much so that some beekeepers claimed our black honey bee, the darker British subspecies of Apis mellifera, had effectively become extinct.

Looking back at 1906, when the disease first emerged, there was a gorgeously sunny April, drawing crowds to the Isle of Wight beaches. This was followed by an absurdly cold May – frosts and temperatures as low as -5°C (23°F), even in London. It was too cold for honey bees to venture out, at a time when colonies were full of young, spring bees. This created ideal conditions for a number of problems and parasites to take hold – such as dysentery (diarrhoea) due to the bees being unable to take cleansing flights. Of course if bees begin defecating on the combs this can spread nosema, if it happens to be present. Acarine mites can also spread easily from bee to bee due to the number of bees squashed in together tightly.

Although investigations in 1919 revealed the presence of acarine mites in all afflicted hives on the Isle of Wight, leading to the mites being identified as the likely culprit, it’s now thought that the crawling behaviour observed was probably due to Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV). It was in the 1950’s that Dr Leslie Bailey (who worked in the Bee Disease Section of the Rothamsted Research Station) first suggested that CBPV was spread by the mite, with many of the colony losses in the 1910s ultimately being due to attack by this virus.

Possibly the combination of unseasonably cold weather, CBPV and acarine mites was a potent one which proved too much for the bees. Diseases and parasites such as nosema, acarine and varroa may not always kill colonies outright, but can weaken the immune systems of the bees, allowing viral infections to take hold. We can’t know for sure what afflicted the bees back then, but the descriptions given by beekeepers at the time of crawling bees with trembling wings do sound like CBPV.

Anyway, I enjoyed my visit to Heligan and hope I can see some of the few surviving black honey bees soon, now that I’m living in the right place. Have any of my readers been lucky enough to spot them, perhaps in Cornwall or at the Black bee reserve on the Scottish islands of Colonsay & Oronsay?

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
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33 Responses to Bees and Bee Boles at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

  1. disperser says:

    Interesting post.

    I got to thinking that I’ve not read anything about climate change as it relates to bee’s survival. I ask because rapid changes in environmental factors can affect the types of plants available as well as changing the temperature ranges of a given region. maybe that’s not a major concern over the timespans associated with a changing environment, but that’s related to the averages. Climate change also modifies the occurrences of events outside the norm.

    Anyway, again, interesting reading.

    Like

  2. Ron Miksha says:

    This is fascinating, Emily. I’ve never seen bee boles, except in photos, and yours are great. It’s nice to see how the skeps were added so that visitors have a clear idea of the boles’ purpose.
    Your reference to acarine and the Isle of Wight during the early 1900s is well-informed. As you mention, at the time, tracheal mites were blamed for wiping out bees. Today hardly anyone even looks for HTM and few people worry about them. The virus explanation (as per Dr Bailey) is a much more likely scenario.
    With all the concern about imported genetic stock, I’m wondering if the pioneer of foreign stock bee breeding, Brother Adam, has become a persona non grata. He probably wasn’t mentioned in the black bee displays, was he?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks Ron. If only tracheal mites were all we had to worry about now! Yet both in the U.K. and Canada they have taken plenty of blame from beekeepers, as I remember reading in your book.

      Brother Adam wasn’t mentioned in the display, no. He is generally well respected in England but I am not so sure about in Cornwall. I have yet to learn about the views of local beekeepers here. However surely purchasing a U.K. bred Buckfast queen has to be preferable to importing from New Zealand or Italy.

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  3. I find skeps interesting too but as you say I would not wish to keep colonies in them. In France the walls of houses can be so thick that this allows bees to be kept in special spaces in the walls and some can even have access from the inside. I have been told this is traditional in some areas but I have never seen them myself. There is a small society promoting pure black bees in this area with a small breeding apiary. I noticed on Murtagh’s Measow Blog that black bees were not wiped out in Ireland during the IOW incident in England and are more numerous than once thought http://www.lit.ie/News/Item/LIT_Scientist_Proves_Existence.aspx. I do not like the idea of intensive breeding for bees but there again I am not keeping bees for money. Amelia

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  4. “Diluted the gene pool” is such dangerous terminology haha

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    • Emily Scott says:

      You mean from a scientific point of view or a human one? I did think about how the Cornish generally have a reputation for being suspicious of outsiders!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s just a weird concept in general…what does a “pure genetic line” mean? Biologically there’s no such thing, so we’re assigning some sort of human value to certain phenotypes. It’s possible for a gene to be lost due to interbreeding, but if it’s really essential to the survival of the species, it’ll be selected for…unless humans are actively selecting against it!

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        • Emily Scott says:

          Is this just a case of one subspecies taking over because humans have imported so many in? Are you saying that if the black bee has an environmental advantage it will gradually recover in numbers?

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  5. Thanks for this interesting post Emily. I have only been to Heligan once but I have a strong memory of the pineapple house.
    As for the Countryfile programme, I think you did a much better job of explaining the black bee project than the presenters did. Their approach seemed very superficial.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Ah yes I saw the pineapple house too. Amazing how much effort went into growing pineapples, with a garden boy even sleeping overnight by the pineapples to tend to them. And a lot of that knowledge lost by the sounds of it, since no written instructions were passed down by the pineapple experts.

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  6. Helen says:

    Fascinating! That wall must have been quite a sight when all the skeps were occupied. Are you planning to get any black bees for yourself now?

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    • Emily Scott says:

      It must have been lovely to hear the hum on a summer’s day. I’m not sure how feasible getting authentic black bees would be but certainly I would like to get some local bees that are adapted to the mild but soaking climate here.

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  7. Pingback: Bees and Bee Boles at the Lost Gardens of Heligan | Raising Honey Bees

  8. Pingback: Bees and Bee Boles at the Lost Gardens of Heligan | Beginner Beekeeper

  9. rockgardener says:

    I was fortunate enough to visit the back bee sanctuary on the Island of Colonsay in Scotland in 2017 and take one of the beekeeping courses there led by Andrew Abrahams.
    What a wonderful learning experience and to get the opportunity to work with the black bees in such a stunningly beautiful location is a memory I’ll never forget.
    Thanks for your brilliant blog.

    Gordon

    Like

  10. mike g says:

    Fantastic to see you’re still posting even after moving away. Your blog has been an inspiration as I’ve followed my own bee journey a couple of years behind you.
    Will you be getting bees again in the spring? Have you got space for your own apiary? What forage is there nearby?
    Looking forward to hearing how it goes

    Like

    • Emily Scott says:

      Hi Mike, thanks for your comment. I have been in two minds about carrying on with both the bees and the blogging, but comments like yours make me feel like I should continue. I’m in the process of buying a place with a small garden that would be suitable for 2-3 hives. It’s in the city centre of Truro. I haven’t investigated the nearby forage in detail but the local gardens will have a fair amount. I’ve joined the local association so I’m sure the members here can tell me more once I go along to a meeting 🙂

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  11. Thank you for an excellent article as well as an interesting thread of comments and replies. Fascinating indeed. There is something here for everyone. The history of these boles, the exploration of Isle of Wight disease (the result of which is still written into US law), the likely connection of tracheal mites leading to CBPV which probably would have been beyond study at the time Isle of Wight disease was recognized. And, in comments, recognition of the effects that changes in our environment is having on specialized bees. You’ve filled my head with bee thoughts! Thanks!

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  12. beatingthebounds says:

    Fascinating stuff! I’m very taken with the idea of beehives built into the walls of houses. I went to a talk on sustainable housing recently and nobody mentioned that eminently sensible idea.

    Like

    • Emily Scott says:

      I like the idea of solitary bee homes being built into walls. There’s a company that sells concrete bee bricks with holes drilled in, some of those incorporated into all new homes would be great.

      Like

  13. Pingback: Bees and Bee Boles at the Lost Gardens of Heligan — Adventuresinbeeland’s Blog | Beekeeping365

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