Bees are truly amazing insects. Without them, civilization as we know it would crumble.

When bees first started to keep me, it seemed strange to me that we didn’t have any hives full of bees on WWT properties.  Not only would pollination be improved in the locality but the bees could also be used as a valuable educational resource, teaching young people and adults alike about their amazing world and what we can learn from them.  With luck and good fortune, there might also be the possibility of some delicious treats as well, a taste sensation that has been sought after for millennium.

After much discussion, thought, deliberation and support from the Conservation and Land Management team, a location was decided for the Milestones Project to keep some hives at the WWT Sandpool reserve.  A small area of land was identified and it was agreed that we could separate the land from the adjoining scrub with a wildlife hedge.  My friend Kris from Mitchell Eley Gould Architects suggested that his firm could donate the necessary funds with which to buy the hedge.  His firm would not only buy the trees and materials but would also come along en masse to the reserve to plant them, the idea being that photos of the team day would be sent out to customers instead of the more usual Christmas cards.

After a good few days of scrub bashing by myself and Simon (my fellow Milestones Project Officer), the planting of the hedge commenced in December 2016, with Kris and his team planting the first side with the level of precision you’d expect from a team of architects!  In one of many discussions about the area, we had decided to plant the hedge in the shape of a hexagon, the six-sided shape favoured by the seemed appropriate and it made us laugh - far too many straight lines in the countryside! The first side of the hexagon was soon followed by the other five sides and a magnificent wooden gate was erected.  Simon and I, as part of our Milestones brief, are tasked with working with Community Payback and it was to them that we’ve looked for the vast majority of our labour.

When the ‘hexagon hedge’ was finished, we tried to protect the area with deer fencing.  Well, it might have protected the hedge from deer but we discovered that rabbits just bite rabbit sized rabbit holes through the plastic and come through anyway.  They seem particularly fond of hawthorn.

As our idea was to use the area and bees as an educational resource, we decided that it would be a good plan to build a small shelter within the hexagon hedge under which the bees could be sited.  The benefit of this would be twofold.  It would give the hives some shelter from the elements whilst enabling us to inspect the bees even if it was raining.  For some reason, bees tend to get a bit narky if the hive is opened and they are inspected when it’s raining.

Anyway, permission for the structure came shortly after a ‘Living Roof Course’.  It was therefore somewhat inevitable that whatever structure we built would be under a living roof, a green roof, and we set to making plans.  As is the way of things we decided to make the structure a hexagon.  A hexagon within a hexagon.  Art.  Fun.  And a construction challenge we hadn’t fully anticipated, to be honest!

Shortly before construction began in earnest, Ray, one of the Cirencester College tutors, (who happens to be a beekeeper), mentioned a talk he’d been to about the anti-bacterial properties of honey and the research that was being undertaken at Cardiff University by Les Baillee, who had given the talk.  A variety of honey had been tested from all over the UK and one particular honey from two hives in Wales had been found to be particularly potent.   Research into the composition of the honey indicated that the four main pollen grains collected by the bees had been woodruff, dandelion, bluebell and clover.

Dr Peter Wooton-Beard from Aberystwyth University had become involved at this point, searching for a bee-friendly plant that could be used on living roofs within urban settings.  Three of the four plants identified would be no good on shallow living roofs for obvious reasons, woodruff and bluebells are woodland plants and wouldn’t survive and dandelions have a tap root that would be too deep for the roofs.  Clover, on the other hand, has a shallow root system, can be drought resistant, spreads well, has a long flowering season and has been used in honey production for centuries.  Peter was keen to help our little project and personally delivered clover seed, the trays to grow them in for the roof and organized for the substrate, a brick rubble and organic mix for the roof, to be donated and delivered by one of his suppliers.

Cirencester College students began the task of growing the clover in the polytunnels at the Care Farm and tending the plants as they grew on.

All we had to do then was build the living roof with a structure underneath it!  Work began in earnest in Spring 2017.  Although we had a little technical help from Kris the Architect, most of the structure was built from back of fag packet drawings (not that any of us smoke!) and improvised as we went along.  Our main concerns were that the structure should be strong enough to take the weight of the living roof and built in such a way as to minimize the possibility of the structure becoming weak.    

Some serious problem solving occurred over the next few months and if you’ve ever seen Simon or me you’ll now understand why our golden locks aren’t exactly flowing anymore.  As the build progressed we realized that the structure had the potential to become a wildlife habitat in its own right ....the bat using the roof before we’d finished it gave us a clue! Clearly, the living roof would play its part but the design of the build but also lent itself to more wildlife friendly improvisation. We created gaps and crevices within the roof space that birds or bats might use and built several integral bird boxes within the structure.  A variety of insects were also showing a keen interest in moving in as we worked throughout the autumn.

As we needed soil to grade out the slope away from the structure, and we had the necessary labour in order to do it, we started digging into the clay cap at the bottom of the slope.  The area used to be a waste tip and has approximately two meters of clay and rubble covering the waste.  Digging at the bottom of the slope would not only give us sufficient material to build up the sides of the structure base but the resulting hole would also give us a great pond area, considerably enhancing the wildlife possibilities of the area.

Once the pond was big enough, we lined it with EPDM and covered the top with turfs cut from the area.  We have decided to leave the pond to its own devices, filling naturally with rainwater and collecting wildlife and plants as it seems fit.  After four weeks and a few feet of rainwater, three water beetles had moved in.  Algae are already growing on the EPDM and for some reason, numerous worms have sacrificed themselves to become organic matter at the bottom of the pond.  Frogs, toads and newts in the pond by April??

In December 2017, Kris and his team were visiting again, this time planting nine fruit trees they had bought for us with a little help from Cirencester College students.  So now we have an apiary, a pond and an orchard containing five apple trees, two pear trees, a cherry and a plum.

And the bees??  Three hives were moved to their new home in November 2017.  Let’s hope they survive the winter OK and enjoy the area as much as we have. It is such an exciting and fascinating multi-faceted area.  It is a special area of interest but a slight word of caution if you do decide to go and have a look.  Please respect the bees’ space.  They should be OK if you don’t get too close but they are wild and they do have an entertaining little sting if they feel threatened.                                       


Many, many thanks to everyone who has made this possible but special mentions for all at the Milestones Project and those other WWT staff who have put their faith in us to deliver something special, all those Community Payback workers over the year, all the Cirencester College students who have played their part, Mitchell Eley Gould Architects for their funding and labour and Dr Peter Wootton-Beard for the living roof materials. 

The Milestones project is one of 31 Our Bright Future projects across the country. Each one is equipping 11-24-year-olds to make a difference in their local community and for the environment. Our Bright Future is a £33 million programme funded by the National Lottery through the Big Lottery Fund.

Written by Tony Brazier