We are providing a bit of a buzz ahead of the July 10 ‘Don’t Step on a Bee’ awareness day, by highlighting where visitors to Cumbria should take particular care and where they can see some of the most inspiring habitats and planting ideas that assist bee survival.
Mirehouse, near Keswick, is a wonderful place to start any bee journey and a historic house with which bees have a long association, as conveyed by historic home’s drawing of the poet Tennyson sitting in the Bee Garden potting shed waiting for the rain to cease, on one of his many visits.
Mirehouse’s tranquil, walled Bee Garden, established in 1780 and extensively restored in the mid-1900s, is a haven for honeybees and visitors alike, being always a few degrees warmer than other parts of the garden and with an abundance of plants that provide nectar and pollen for the winged workers. It has a central avenue of prunus and malus trees, a herb garden with honeycomb beds and paving, a fernery, a stone circle representing the knights of the round table and an orchard of traditional Cumbrian fruit trees, some now very rare.
The Bee Garden is just a short ‘flight’ away from the heather path maze, which provides a veritable feast for the bees all year round, due to having different species of heather flowering at different times. The Bee Garden is also close, as the bee flies, to the rare and ancient Mirehouse wildflower meadow with its 43 varieties of flora.
Visitors who have only a little knowledge of bees can learn more, by reading information panels dotted around the garden and taking a look at the apiary. Life in the industrious hive is explained, as are the mysteries associated with the bees’ foraging activities. In front of the hives, there is also an inscription from Virgil which reads: “The first thing is to find a suitable site for your bees.” The walled garden is certainly that, with the brick face attracting the warmth of the sun and recesses called ‘bee boles’ set into the wall, so that ancient skeps (hives) had a home.
Entrance to Mirehouse’s gardens costs £4 for an adult and £2 for a child, including access to the delightful lakeside walk. The latter allows visitors to take in the glories of Bassenthwaite, whilst also enjoying views of Cat Bells, Causey Pike, Barf and Seat How.
But if Mirehouse sets alight your interest in beeboles, and you’d be interested in finding out more about them, you should head to the Ruskin Museum in Coniston. There, the dry stone wall by master waller Andrew Loudon, is built in the traditional Lakeland style, without the use of cement or mortar and using riven dressed slate. It is just one of the highlights of a visit to a museum associated with names such as speed ace, Donald Campbell, and philosopher, John Ruskin.
The wall has its own bee bole in which straw skeps can be placed. You can learn how holes like this usually faced south to south east, so the morning sun could warm up the bees, and find out how many were created in the walls of gardens and orchards beside farms.
Just a short hop away lies Brantwood, where philosopher, writer and artist, John Ruskin, created a very personal garden – ‘the Professor’s Garden’ – that not only nourished bees, but also the soul of man. This garden contained an espalier of apples, a gooseberry patch, fruit trees, strawberries and flowers, whilst in one corner, it is said “there were beehives in an old-fashioned penthouse, trailed over with creepers.”
This garden was abandoned when Ruskin fell ill, but was renovated in the early 1990s. The bee penthouse was largely rebuilt and is now covered by a rambling rose. The straw skeps are here no longer, but the stone shelf that supported them is now often used as a seat. However, the bees are still in evidence, utilising the area beneath the shelf, which is full of many hollow dried stems, as a home. The fact that bumblebees are so prolific here shows just how healthy the garden was when first created.
Two National Trust properties within the Cumbria’s Living Heritage group also offer their own insight into bees. At Acorn Bank, near Penrith, there is a teaching apiary and four buzzing beehives established by the Penrith Beekeepers. These are situated in Acorn Bank’s orchards, which boast numerous apple varieties that allow Acorn Bank to stage an annual Apple Day event in mid-October – if the bees have been kept busy!
To encourage that, National Trust Acorn Bank maintains historic 17thcentury walls, which shelter the National Trust’s largest collection of medicinal and culinary plants within a fascinating herb garden. Acorn Bank’s orchards are carpeted with wildflowers and surrounded by herbaceous borders, whilst a fruit-growing area in the vegetable garden is protected by a wall heated by the flue gases of three fires.
At National Trust Sizergh, near Kendal, bee hives in the Orchard hum with bees that thrive and feed on the rich flora of the gardens, from clematis and roses, to sweet peas and stunning dahlia blooms. In Autumn, the Sizergh beekeeper harvests the honey and the trees in the orchard are laden with fruit, ready for the popular Juicing Day. Taking a guided walk with a volunteer around the gardens can explain all of this and more.
But another place not to step on a bee is most definitely 16thcentury Swarthmoor Hall, near Ulverston, known as the ‘cradle of Quakerism’ and a place where bees forage around the gardens in warmer weather, happily pollinating the fruit bushes and trees and diving in and out of the summer hives at the northern border of the property.
Swarthmoor’s small gardens, either side of the path that runs to the front door, are full of plants that provide a show of colour all year round, attracting bumblebees that forage for nectar. Similarly, a bank of catnip (catmint) beneath the windows of the house is irresistible to the hard-working insects, whilst the ivy climbing up Swarthmoor’s walls flowers late in the year, providing lower-quality, late nectar for the bee population.
For a taste of Cumbrian honey that will clearly demonstrate why none of us should step on a bee, visitors could head to Cumbria’s Living Heritage member, Askham Hall, where honey from their brother’s Lowther Estate is on sale and where plans are afoot to produce honey from the family’s farm in Maulds Meaburn.