Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A Tale of Two Beehives

Near the busy Highbury and Islington roundabout sits probably the smallest garden open on Open Garden Squares Weekend – the Melissa Garden Bee Sanctuary. It lies in a pocket of land behind a Georgian house in Compton Terrace, with an atmospheric access via a dark alleyway down the side of the famous Union Chapel.

The tiny garden has room for three beehives in total, one tucked up high on a wall buttress, and two in the garden. A bench, table and chair, and a proliferation of bee-friendly blooms fill the remaining space. The garden was created in an abandoned area at the back of the house used by the New Acropolis Cultural Association, with the support of Union Chapel. Designed by landscape architects led by Miha Kosir and Asia Milewska, the bee-friendly plants include lavender, mint, melissa and geranium. Weeds already growing in the backyard were also incorporated. This intended haven for honey and bumble bees attracted 400 Open Garden Squares Weekend visitors last year.

The two beehives shown in the picture above are two very different designs. The larger one on the right was purchased first. It's a minimalist, super-eco design, made to house honey bees, not for the extraction of their honey. Designed originally by an Argentinian natural bee keeper, it's called a Peroni hive. Inside there is a log on the floor and wooden slats across the top, the idea being that bees form their own honeycomb around the log and hang from the slats. A year and a half ago, honey bees from a July swarm moved in and seemed to be settling in well, but a harsh, long, cold winter took its toll and they never made it. True to folklore, a swarm of bees in July isn't worth a fly. They left behind a beautiful heart-shaped spiral honeycomb around the log though.

The second beehive is much smaller, as it was felt that the larger, Peroni hive could have been too big for a new bee swarm. This one is a Warre hive (designed by a French nineteenth-century priest) and includes a luxury, sheep's wool lining, to keep the bees snug and warm in the future. There are windows on the side to check on the hive's inhabitants, and the design has room for the expansion of additional floors.

Sadly both hives sit empty. Although Melissa Garden Bee Sanctuary has been on two waiting lists for swarms, none has been forthcoming so far. It's a salutary tale of the dangers faced by our honey bee population, which has fallen by about a third every year over the last five years. They, and we, hope that next May or June their luck will be in and a swarm will get relocated to their garden, but swarms only form when bees outgrow their homes, so it's a waiting game.

As well as tending their own garden and giving talks on the importance of bees to the environment, members of the New Acropolis Society help out in Compton Terrace Gardens at the front of the house. The gardens have anchor shaped beds, about which various myths exist . Were they connected to the nearby Hope and Anchor public house? No-one knows. The sight of colourful annual plants in these beds was a feature of the past, but volunteers are patiently creating some pleasing perennial herbaceous areas in their stead. Corporate volunteers are also building pathways for children's play in another corner and a variety of fruit trees have been planted, including medlar, quince, pear and crab apple. Herbs are grown for local residents to use and enjoy - the chef at Union Chapel uses them to spice up the cooking.

New Acropolis believes in cultivating the better part of the human spirit and putting it to good use in the city. Its bee sanctuary garden is a noble project and, if you hear of a swarm of bees needing a loving home, don't hesitate to contact them, so that next June 14-15 there will be full hives to view as you sit in their garden, eating one of the best slices of Victoria sandwich cake on offer anywhere and learning about bees.

Further information on visiting the Melissa Garden Bee Sanctuary  »