of La Donaira
Over the years of our existence as advocates for the honeybee we have been fortunate to attract hugely diverse offers and requests for initiating or co-operating with promising and inspiring endeavours to support the Bee. Here we would like to tell you about a unique rewilding project in Southern Spain which we began in 2017 with a sense of excitement and trepidation - it is early days yet, but we are full of hope for the bees to assert their resilience living in the wild as well as enchant the people who get to meet them there.
Potential for a unique sanctuary
La Donaira is a 1,700 hectare holding situated outside Ronda in the Andalusian mountains, some 100km from Malaga. “We bought the land with the aim of creating a biodynamic eco-effective farm and tourism project back in 2005. Rudolf Steiner and William McDonough were both big influences” says owner Manfred Bodner, whose vision for the land also encompassed the creation of an exemplary sanctuary for birds, bees and other wildlife.
Our involvement started with the submission of a five-year proposal for the gradual rewilding of honey bees into La Donaira’s ancient stone oak forest, starting with a stock of 29 layens hives that had been kept commercially on a single apiary area prior to our arrival early in 2017. Although local commercial beekeepers told us there were no-longer any wild bees in Spain, the owner’s interest in wild living honeybees had been piqued by Jonathan Powell’s tree beekeeping efforts as documented on our website and elsewhere. The first practical action involved the construction of a proper Zeidler style tree hive on the property, close to the farm house. This was completed over an intense and hard-working weekend, with help from La Donaira staff. A promising beginning and at the same time quite an education for local beekeepers who were invited to admire the work.
Jonathan Powell giving instruction to Juan José Santos on Eastern European log hive making
The team at La Donaira make the log hive their own by adding local traditional roofing material
Beginning with 29 commercial hives, treated and sugar-fed
Since then there have been many visits to the property by various of our trustees, a gifted local employee has been trained in the essentials of bee care (the colonies we took over from the commercial beekeepers needed lots of feeding as well as monitoring), simple locally built hives adapted from Warre hive designs were strapped to the trunks of old oaks over a large area and the 20 hives were positioned in “good spots” with plenty of room between them, waiting for swarms to choose them.
The Warre adaptations were:
Single box design with storm proof connections
Small volume (27 ltrs)
Single 30mm diameter entrance
Thick walls, painted white to reduce hive heating.
We would have liked to make Zeidler style hives inside the stone oaks, but the forest trees are protected, and producing many Zeidler hives in a matter of a few weeks was not possible. However, in 2019 we hope to make some of the many natural cavities more attractive to bees. Large exposed cavities will be enclosed and small entrance holes provided in the hope to better meet any scout bees’ criteria for suitable nesting sites. It’s surprising how even in a whole forest only a few of the naturally occurring tree cavities are suitable to make a nest; it can take a forest to make a home for a bee colony! But with a bit of ingenuity and a good understanding of the nest site preferences of the honeybee (thank you Tom Seeley) we envisage a good offering of suitable sites for the bees in time to come.
Gareth John inspects the arrival of the commercial bees (Apis millifera iberiensis) .
One of the 20 tree hives which has just been chosen by a swarm as a new home.
As we anticipated, losses in the first season were high - 50% in November 2017. The area is subject to severe, prolonged droughts with concomitant effects on nectar flow. The bees get extremely stressed by this and will frequently not cope with the additional stress of coping with varroa infestations. We (NBKT) have a clear advocacy of treatment-free beekeeping, based on our experience of many years, hence our resolve to begin this project as we mean to continue.
Emergency feeding of the bees earlier in the year had saved them from the effects of the drought, but of course, the unsuitable diet of sugar syrup would has also have weakened their gut. Thankfully, despite the difficult start, some of the survivor colonies succeeded in becoming strong enough to issue swarms, and some of those swarms - to our immense delight - occupied the newly provided tree hives. Right from the start we had set up a good monitoring system, ensuring that our new trainee, Juan Jose Santos, kept an eye on the hives and reported his findings on a regular basis. The importance of this for a remote project cannot be overstated.
Typically, the ground colonies swarmed to tree hives located 0ver 100m from the mother hives. At this distribution, if varroa kill their host they also kill themselves. It is important to remember that we are just as interested in the natural selection of the varroa mites as we are in the adaptation of the bees to “non-management” which is by its very nature treatment free.
Vicky Gutiérrez Ruiz uses a listening tube to check for bees in the winter survey.
Grounds for cautious optimism
As the bees face the end of the second year, there has not been a reoccurrence of the first year’s losses, and the number of colonies has now recovered to to 22 - 7 of those in the trees. We shall discover fairly soon how they fared in winter.
It is far too early to claim that natural selection has made any difference. We think that the bees have used their honey stores to restrict the brood space and as a consequence contained the end of season varroa growth. The gradual dispersal of the bees into the forest will also have a significant impact on their health. Space between hives and good sources of food are two critical components of honey bee resilience.
In the first year the bees arrived with no food and housed in large hives full of empty comb. In response the queens laid heavily, which allowed varroa mites to quickly reproduce and eventually destroy many colonies. In the wild 40-60 Ltrs would be a more typical hive volume; a volume that the bees can manage more readily to their advantage. Honey and pollen are not only optimum nutrition for bees, but such stores can also act as a physical control on colony development. By removing honey we are liable to disrupt these simple controls, thereby placing the bees in a state of developmental imbalance just as they are prepare for winter. It is helpful to consider honey stored in combs as a part of the bee’s ‘body’, and not just a separate food source that can be removed or substituted without consequence.
Any honeybee rewilding endeavour - to have any chance of success - needs to be grounded in a thorough familiarity with colony biology and natural habit and support these in all ways possible.
Bees have been associated with healing for thousands of years; the products of the hive such as wax, propolis and honey are found in many medicines. At La Donaira we are aiming to assist the bees in directing their healing to themselves by not forcing them ever to use their enormous powers of plasticity to put right our wrongs. At the same time we are also interested in what the bees, through the very beauty and harmony they manifest, can accomplish for human beings. Many of the bees’ problems today can be traced back to severe imbalances in our human societal priorities, to our selfishness, ignorance and greed. We clearly stand in need of the bees’ healing powers, but to receive them we need strong and healthy bee populations.
At La Donaira the owners have a vision of a different kind of healing from the bees - one that is not based on removing precious products from the hive - and this orientation gave rise to the genesis of the La Donaira bee bed. This is a bed-like structure that contains bees. A bed to lie on, to dream, to sleep or meditate. All the sounds, scents and vibrations from the bees can be experienced in total darkness. Mesh inserts in the platform enable a very immersive experience.
After a day of encountering bees, learning about them, observing their nests in the wild - a kind of bee safari - guests at La Donaira are offered the amazing opportunity to spend some time in the bee bed - away from technology, visual distraction and social interaction - a time, maybe, for deep reflection immersed in the scents and sounds of the hive. For those who can leave the human world and engage with the apian world the experience can be powerful and intense.
The bee bed - while we recognise it is not as good a home as as tree - the bees are still free to manage their own affairs
Jonathan introduces Valle to the bees.
Spreading the love of the bees
It has been amazing for us to find that on every visit to La Donaira wonderful opportunities arise to talk about bees and weave beautiful bee connections with strangers that cross one’s path here, guests staying at the splendid finca, members of staff working for the enterprise.
A poignant contribution at the 2018 Learning from the Bees conference was the message that the bees can look after themselves, but that they are ‘worried’ about us humans. At La Donaira we are resolved to give back to the bees the freedom they need to heal themselves, and we are also providing opportunities for guests to reflect on how they live in this world alongside the bees.
As the bees in our world need to turn their healing energies inwards to recover their integrity and health we ourselves must take responsibility for the damage we’re causing them and the whole of the living world. Then a time may come where we may turn again to them for healing. These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves at La Donaira in good faith, and hope that nature has the answers we seek. We are grateful to the bees for their inspiration.