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What tree beekeeping means to trees (and bees)

We are often asked whether the provision of a hollow in a tree to create a hive for bees to live in harms the tree; the visual image of power tools cutting into a live tree can be troubling for those who feel a deep connection to nature and trees in particular. Here we place the resurgence of interest in this ancient form of beekeeping, to which the Natural Beekeeping Trust is proud to contribute, in a larger context.

Tree beekeeping is an old tradition that has been developed over thousands of years. Experience shows that the tree is not harmed but continues to live with the bees for hundreds of years. Old-time tree beekeepers (Zeidler), with their deep understanding of trees and the forest as a whole will often add that the tree is, in fact, invigorated. In ancient times there were even laws to protect a tree from felling if it contained a tree bee hive. Compare this to the box hive, log hives in trees or even your own home where all the wood is from trees that have been felled. If you have a newer home, the wood is likely to be from barren commercial forests treated with aerial herbicide sprays to reduce ground plant growth or kill trees that are not the target crop. The same applies to the majority of consumer products made from wood. To explain in more detail why the tree in tree beekeeping remains essentially intact, the following needs to be considered. The layer next to the outer bark is called the inner bark or phloem. This thin layer acts as a food supply line from the leaves to the rest of the tree. If you were to cut a band around the trunk through the bark and phloem, the tree would probably die. That is because the phloem would be severed and food could no longer flow to the lower trunk and roots. Cavities intended to serve as tree hives are only cut into trees of at least 80 cm diameter. Consequently, the damage to the phloem caused by narrow vertical tree hive cavities is less than 7%. This is no problem for the tree. Detailed examination of mature trees will show that many have natural breaks in the phloem, such as woodpecker holes and broken limbs from wind damage, often enlarged into sizeable cavities by the action of rot or fungus growth. In the case of the cavities provided in trees for the purpose of hosting colonies of honeybees, nearly all the wood removed from the tree is so-called “heartwood”. This wood is dead and often the very central heartwood is partially rotten; it is no longer needed by the tree. The height of the hive, at least 4m above the ground, the depth into the tree of 35cm and the position relative to limbs are all carefully selected to ensure that the structural integrity of the tree is not compromised. One might also consider that the cavity, once adopted as home by a colony of bees, will be entirely coated with propolis, a healing substance prepared by bees from resins collected from shrubs and trees, not to mention the beneficial consequences of increased pollination as a result of the tree/bee symbiosis. To enable others to approach the task of providing tree habitats properly, we have published this guide. The reason we do not have trees for bees any more is because trees with trunk diameters of larger than 60cm are routinely cut down in commercial forests, as they are easier to process than larger trees. Moreover, trees with cavities, fungus and deformations are typically culled in these forests in favour of straighter more “economic” trees. In ancient forests open to the public, tree limbs, as well as entire trees displaying any sort of natural cavity in older age, are routinely felled due to concerns about safety. This is the reason why natural habitats for bees are disappearing. Most people are no longer aware that the honeybee’s natural habitat is a tree, and not a wooden box on the ground, arranged like a filing cabinet for convenient beekeeper management and, all too often, crass exploitation and maltreatment. Thanks to the growing interest in giving bees back some of what they have lost due to human depredations upon nature - and the tree beekeeping movement is indeed a vivid testimony to that interest - foresters in many parts of Central Europe are starting to create habitat forests where old, oversized, deformed trees with cavities are protected. Tree beekeeping must be approached with the same respect and specialist skills that the Zeidler of old applied to the craft. When our deeds are grounded in love for the being of both tree and bee, when we act in consciousness of our subtle connection with the living spirit of both, the tree, an ancient symbol of strength and power, is sure to be enhanced. And the vitality of the bee - that beautiful symbol of love and abundance, which creates more even as it gives more - will be restored in time. At a time when bees are under extreme pressure, the benefits of restoring natural habitat and allowing our bees to exist in freedom of disturbance by humans can hardly be overstated. As the worldwide movement of tree beekeeping gathers pace, we have real hope to make a lasting contribution to saving our trees and our bees for future generations.

Blog Photograph copyright Richard Rickitt.

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