Fleetneedles Forage: Heavenly Hives at Manchester Cathedral
Since cultivating my bee garden, I’ve grown increasingly interested in the life cycle of bees. I’ve fancied doing a beekeeping course for ages so I was over the moon to be able to visit the hives at Manchester Cathedral.
I’m ashamed to say that I’ve walked past the cathedral thousands of times but have never been inside. It’s a truly beautiful building and I could spend an hour gazing at the stunning interior. Today, though, my business is with the bees.
I’m met by the lovely Catherine Charnock, one of the apiarists working with the hives. She whisks me away through a private door which is closed to the public and, as we walk up the narrow stone spiral steps, I wonder if I’ve accidentally stumbled into a Harry Potter film. At the top we find ourselves in the beekeeping room which has the unmistakable whiff of beeswax. We chat about all things bee, including my garden, as we change into our beekeeping suits.
My first question is this: Manchester isn’t the greenest city in the world so where do the bees get their nectar? Charnock corrects me. “Manchester is very green because the bees forage trees as well, so all along the tram lines between here and Oldham there are loads of trees. There’s also a lot of Himalayan balsam around at the moment too, so they are coming back looking like ghost bees with white pollen on them. They can travel three miles, so parks and green spaces are all around.”
It’s a glorious day as we step out of a low stone doorway onto the cathedral’s roof. The views are amazing and there is a strangely quiet calm, totally unexpected in the busy city centre. Founded by Canon Apiarist Adrian Rhodes in 2011, the hives have gone from strength to strength with the help of volunteers from the cathedral charity and staff.
There are two rows of hives and I ask how many there are in total. “We had eight, but we had a swarm in one of the trees so my son and I collected them and now we have nine,” Charnock explains. She lights the smoker which is filled with cedar wood. The aromatic smoke adds to the tranquil atmosphere of the hives and I can understand why the bees find the smoke calming.
The last few weeks have been a busy period for staff and volunteers because late Summer is honey extraction time. But all the Heavenly Honey has now been jarred and is ready for sale. As we approach the hives you can hear the hum of thousands of bees and I explain that I’d love a hive of my own, but our close proximity makes it impossible. However, Charnock doesn’t see this as a problem. “If you ask your neighbours and they are OK it should be fine.”
She explains how it would be possible and suggests finding a local beekeeper and bribing them with cake while I pick their brains. She also recommends some useful books such as Guide to Bees & Honey: The World’s Best Selling Guide to Beekeeping by Ted Hooper and Haynes Bee Manual. Needless to say, they are already on my Christmas wish list.
Charnock describes the construction of the hives, starting with the stand, then a floor with an entrance at the front followed by the brood boxes, after which is the supers where the honey is made. She wafts the fragrant cedar smoke into the hive and begins to separate the sections. The first part she uncovers reveals mostly female bees who are drinking from pools of nectar. Then, in the next section, she begins to loosen the frames which are stuck with propolis (resinous mixture made from tree buds) and slides them out individually. Each frame is alive with bees and full of wax and honey, a sight which is glorious to behold. Describing how the honey is formed, she explains that the bees collect nectar which they bring back and put it into cells, fanning it at night to reduce water content. Once it is below 20 per cent, they cap it over with complex sugars broken down to simple sugars, thereby creating the honey.
They also collect pollen to feed the baby bees, providing protein. Normally, the honey is taken off-site to be extracted but this year it’s been extricated at the cathedral with the help of volunteers. Charnock hasn’t tried it yet but she’s heard that it’s delicious.
Meanwhile, the next frame contains the Queen Bee who is highlighted with a numbered green dot to single her out from the rest of the hive. On the third frame, Charnock points out the shiny cells full of pollen which have been made ready for the Queen to lay her eggs. “The eggs in the cells are called brood and this is where the eggs become larvae. When this reaches the pupis stage, the cell is capped over until a fully formed bee emerges from the cell.”
Each frame is lifted out, checked and replaced once a week to ensure the hive is forming correctly and that there are no diseases present. A number of bees buzz around me and Charnock suggests that perhaps they like my scent. I’m flattered but wonder what odours they dislike.
“They don’t like beer or bananas, but they really don’t like pear drops as that’s what the alarm pheromone for the hive smells like.” I’m so enthralled by the whole thing it seems a shame that this experience isn’t open to the public. But having squeezed up the stone staircase to the roof I can see why.
Then it’s my turn. I nudge the frame slightly with the hive tool to loosen it and lift it carefully out. It’s covered in bees busily doing their job and smells like a heady mix of honey and beeswax. I thought I’d be nervous of being so close and touching them but, oddly, I feel totally calm. It is so absorbing that I can completely understand why people find it deeply soothing and addictive. Charnock’s passion for bees is obvious and she admits to having ten hives of her own dotted around in a range of locations from an allotment to the rugby club, as well as her own back garden. It also seems that the word’s out on the street as two separate swarms have recently arrived in her front garden.
Charnock is equally passionate about encouraging me to start a hive, and suggests finding a local beekeeper for guidance as well as checking The British Beekeepers’ Association website. She has seen how tending the bee hives has had a positive effect on the lives of volunteers from the cathedral’s charity Volition, which aims to get individuals back into work. She shares some of the success stories and how she has seen involvement in the hives build confidence in people, as well as having a cathartic effect on those suffering with mental health issues.
Having our own hive is something that I’d like to investigate, so who knows? Meanwhile there is a live stream camera on the Manchester Cathedral hives which is incredibly relaxing to watch. If you’re having a stressful day, I highly recommend it.
Heavenly Honey is available from the Cathedral café or online. All proceeds from honey sales go to Volition.
To read Claire’s tips on how to please the bees, click here.
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