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Nick Buttle has built homes for a population of almost half a billion over the past decade. He is surprised by the calculation, but the fact remains he has constructed about 4,000 hives and each contains up to 120,000 bees. Honey is where the numbers stack up; each hive produces an average of 100lb of honey a season once fully productive. Over the course of their first 10 years, Buttle’s hives have produced an estimated 2m pounds, or almost 1,000 tonnes of the sweet, sticky stuff.
Buttle grew up and remains in Tideswell, Derbyshire, in England’s Peak District. Having studied law, in the mid-1980s he turned to a career in IT and for almost 10 years programmed computers. Yet he wanted to “use my hands to good effect”. So in 1995 he set up a wood shop to make sash windows and staircases. “They’re nightmares, stairs — every one of them is different with its own twists and turns.” Trial and error proved a good teacher — “when it costs you, you learn quickly”, he says — and the firewood improved his winters.
Buttle attributes his initial interest in beehives to his father, Harry, who died last year. Harry was a keen gardener who brought home leaflets on solar energy in the 1970s when environmentalism was largely seen as an affectation. He encouraged Buttle to keep an allotment for vines, peaches and strawberries. A decade ago, by which time his father’s views on nature had become mainstream, Buttle’s own idea of making beehives perfectly suited his yearning for purpose. It also harnessed the joinery skills he had developed.
Bees are particular creatures. Obsessive about making perfect, uniform hexagons of wax, they are equally fussy about the spaces they need to navigate inside their homes. Buttle got hold of the patterns for the “Modified National Hive” design deemed optimal accommodation for bees according to the British Standards Institute in 1960. Behind this modern design was knowledge of bees honed over the centuries since medieval bees were given mere wicker domes called “skeps”. Some of the credit must also go to an American called Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth from Philadelphia, who, in 1852, patented a hive with vertically set frames for honeycomb. Langstroth knew that bees required a gap of less than 1cm to move around between the frames — any more and they would reduce the excess space with honeycomb wax, a distracting effort — or worse still seal shut the whole void with propolis, a resinous glue and varnish gathered from the buds of trees. The optimal gap was found to be 8mm, and that remains standard a century and a half on.
In those early weeks, after making some trial structures, Buttle put hives in his parents’ garden. Something amazing happened. Their flowering cherry tree, which had blossomed happily enough for 45 years, bore fruit for the first time. The garden burst into more vivid life. The bees were pollinating everything. He was smitten. “I got the bug,” he says.
The timbers Buttle brings to his workshop are red deal — a superior pine — and western red cedar. He recommends the latter for hives, due to the lightness of its less dense cell structure (that helps if you’re carrying a hive with 30lb of honey in it), which further offers better insulation for overwintering the bees. Cedar is also rot-resistant from a natural oiliness and you may choose not to paint it, but enhance its ruddiness with a non-toxic mineral oil. He first experienced its properties when a cedar tree fell 20 yards from the dowager Duchess’s home on the nearby Chatsworth estate; the word was out that Buttle was looking for English cedar, and both the tree warden and noble donor were delighted it was going to the bees. He had the timber milled, but there’s only so much stately British cedar to go around — now he imports it from Canada and regards the North American stuff as superior.
To construct the stacked boxes on a stand, he makes a bottom board with grooves for bee access. They will want to climb because above them is a hive body or “brood box” of the queen and her workers, with suspended frames containing a matrix for honeycomb production (these are the parts separated by 8mm). A wire mesh goes on top of this so the queen cannot ascend and abandon the colony. Then come the “supers” — stacked boxes for excess honey production — of variable depth. On these is set an inner cover that creates an air space to insulate it in the winter, and then an outer or top cover with a metal sheet to divert rain clear of the hive.
Does Buttle find making a standard product repetitive? “You have to vary the work or it’ll become too tedious,” he says. “I tend to pick up a couple of orders for hives at a time, and alternate what I’m doing with special orders.”
A basic hive in cedar costs about £260; red deal closer to £200, which makes the enterprise seem very worthwhile when farmers’ market honey regularly sells at more than £5 a jar. But there is more to it — you have to buy beekeeper’s clothes, and make it a good set, Buttle says, “because confidence is everything. Nerves pass on to your bees.” His advice is to join the local beekeeping association. “They’re often heavily subscribed, as bees are more popular so you may need to be patient, but their advice and support will be invaluable.”
Buttle sells his honey at the local shop, but makes no claims about it supporting a livelihood at £3 a jar. He speaks fondly of the process, of his clients and fulfilling commissions. His workmanship is sent across the world, but one order sticks in his mind — the hives that sit on Manchester Cathedral’s roof. The emblem of this industrious city? Worker bees.
The cities sweet on bees
Cities worldwide are nearing peak bee, writes Melissa Lawford. In London the numbers of honeybee-keepers tripled between 2008 and 2013 to 1,237, raising the city’s hive density to more than 10 times the English and Welsh average. Hives now furnish the rooftops of schools, mosques and even the Tate Modern.
The surge in interest began when sharp declines in the global bee population caught the public’s attention, says Tim Lovett, director of public affairs for the British Beekeepers Association. The vogue for “sustainable” food is also a factor, says Paul Webb, co-founder of Barnes & Webb, a start-up that rents honeybees to Londoners. “People want part of the good life in the city.” London’s trees, parks and wildflowers offer a greater food diversity and a longer flowering season than the mono-cropped countryside. The city’s honey yield per hive in 2015 was one of the highest of any region in the UK.
In Berlin, commercial keepers in the countryside move their hives into the city for the lime tree blossom season, says Nils Simon, founder of the Kreuzberg Beekeeper Association. Companies such as BienenBox, a Berlin start-up, specialise in balcony hives.
Since the ban on keeping bees was lifted in New York in 2010, the city’s beekeeping association has grown by about 100 members a year. However, though honey yields are strong in the leafy Bronx, most beekeepers are concentrated in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where there is not enough pollen to go around. Yields in some Midtown hives have fallen up to 75 per cent, says Andrew Coté, founder of the New York Beekeepers Association.
People who think that hives on balconies are helping to save bees are well-intentioned but misled, says Coté. Urban apiaries offer wild bees little protection from the broader forces impacting their numbers, including pesticide use and mono-cropping. “Honeybees in the city are like museums,” he says. “They’re not really necessary, but they enhance our lives.”
Photographs: Leo Goddard