Winter with the honeybees of Martineau Gardens March 8, 2021

Though winter is a time when much wildlife is hibernating or lying low, emerging for food then darting back to the safety of their abode, on a sunny day, you might notice a honeybee foraging for food. That got us thinking, what do beekeepers do over winter? We asked our volunteer beekeeper, Sam Walker, what are the main challanges are over the winter months.

What do beekeepers do over winter?

Sam explains: “Winter is less busy time, but it’s still an important time for beekeepers. Throughout the winter months, the hives must still be monitored but less invasively and less frequently, so as not to disturb the winter cluster. I’ve been visiting the hives at Martineau Gardens regularly over winter. I’m checking that the bees’ food stores are still accessible and topping them up, if needed. Honeybees prefer the the nest at a constant temperature, they achieve this by clustering together, just like King penguins huddling to keep warm!.”

Do bee’s hibernate?

A honeybee colony will hibernate but may fly if the weather is warm enough and there is food. By contrast with bumble bees and wasps, only the queen will hibernate – the workers (female) and drones (male) die out before the winter.

Is honey being produced over winter?

A honeybee colony may contain approximately 50,000 to 60,000 bees during the summer, but far fewer are needed over winter, this maybe reduced to around 10,000 bees over winter. This is the reason why honeybees store extra food. They need the extra stores to get them through the winter, so it’s important for beekeepers to ensure they have enough food. They don’t tend to make honey over winter in the UK as there isn’t the volume of plants they need to forage from to make honey.

Do honeybees forage over winter?

During mild winters the honeybees will actually use more food stores that they would in a very cold winter. If it is a mild day during the winter honeybees may be seen flying in the apiary for toilet breaks or to forage for nectar and pollen from the few winter flowering sources of food, such as ivy, gorse, hellebores, winter honeysuckle, winter heliotrope and winter jasmine and snowdrops. This website is a great and informative source of which wildflowers to expect each month.

Why have you been moving slabs around in the aviary?

So along with checking food stores it’s good idea to check that hives have not fallen over in bad weather. And that no unwanted visitors have been visiting such as mice and woodpeckers. As food becomes more scarce for these animals they look for any opportunities!

Winter is also an excellent time to do any work in the apiary as there are less bees flying! I have been making a few improvements. I have lifted the hives a little more and on to longer hive stands to give me more room to work, placing slabs on the ground below the hives to try to reduce the moisture within the hives, and save my back a little. Sometimes swarms land under the hives and this will make it a lot easier to retrieve them.

In January, when Sam was re-organising the area, she moved a slab and found a neatly gathered store of cherry stones – all nibbled with a small hole – the store cupboard of a woodmouse.

honeybee photographed at Martineau Gardens in February, foraging amongst snowdrops

What are your plans for 2021 at Martineau Gardens?

The start of the year I’m checking and cleaning equipment, making repairs, and planning the coming beekeeping season based on records made from previous years. Making sure I have enough equipment and reading up on bees, there is an amazing amount of information. This winter I have been studying honeybee pests, diseases and poisonings, forming a zoom study group with other beekeepers from Birmingham Beekeepers Association. We have also started to look into honeybee Management and Behaviour which are all modules run by the British Beekeepers Association to improve the beekeepers skillset. I have also had a little go at making mead too! (A traditional alcoholic drink made by fermenting honey.)

The beekeeping season generally starts in April time but is temperature and frost dependent. Full inspections of the honeybee colonies will not take place until there has been no frosts and the daytime temperatures have reached 16ºc. There is a short period before the honeybees start to expand their nest in which you can prepare for the swarming season, and start to look for cues that the colony is about to swarm which is the natural way in which honeybees multiply to make new colonies.

Beekeeping classes

We’ve run beekeeping classes at Martineau Gardens for a number of years, sadly we had to cancel our classes planned for 2020, due to the pandemic, but we’re looking at how we can deliver these safely this year, and will be letting people know what’s possible. An area of beekeeping that is growing in interest is ‘Natural Beekeeping’ – looking after the interests of the bee population, not just keeping bees for honey. I’m attempting to combine some of these practices into my beekeeping husbandry techniques to try to have more of a Natural Beekeeping focus.

Introduction to Beekeeping at Martineau Gardens

World Book Day March 3, 2021

A World Book Day favourite – Stick Man and family

While we’re in lockdown, we’ve been misssing Stick Man fans, who regularly come to Martineau Gardens to follow our Stick Man activity trail. Our friends over at Social Farms and Gardens thought they’d bring outdoor adventure to you at home, whilst the trails (at various locations around the country) are not available.

In celebration of World Book Day, check out their special online activity videos featuring your favourite character on their  YouTube channel.

We hope to see you at Martineau Gardens soon – please keep an eye on our Covid-19 Statement here for announcements regarding re-opening in Spring 2021. We can’t wait to see you again!

And, meanwhile, watch our environmental educator, Juliette Green, making a Stick Man out of twigs and craft materials, in the woodland at Martineau Gardens, filmed on a sunny spring day in 2020:

If it feels a bit too cold to be looking for twigs for your Stick Man figure, then watch this film in which Juliette demonstrates a few indoor crafty alternatives to celebrate World Book Day 2021 (filmed in lockdown).

Good news – shelter from the storm March 1, 2021

Now the vaccine programme is well underway, we can’t wait to welcome back our volunteers as soon as lockdown provisions allow.

Therapeutic Horticulture Set to Continue

With Covid restrictions continuing into 2021 and in anticipation of frost, rain, or freezing fog, we have been considering our options for January and beyond. Gardening together on the Therapeutic Horticulture programme is a mainstay of many volunteers’ lives, and maintaining safe space indoors is key to facilitating winter work.


Visiting Martineau Gardens Summer 2021 February 24, 2021

What to expect when you visit

A breath of fresh air and we hope an experience of calm and tranquillity. Our gardens have been well looked after over these last few months, by the Therapeutic Gardening team – there are new things to see and the gardens are flourishing. Your visit will be a little different to the times you have spent with us before, please read through the following so you are prepared.


Snowdrop spotting January 27, 2021

Snowdrops are in flower between January and March, they seem to start a little earlier each year.


Preserving the Gardens’ bounty January 11, 2021

Throughout the growing year, Martineau Gardens grows a huge variety of fruit and vegetables that are suitable for preserving. From apples, pears, rhubarb and gooseberries to figs and mulberries – the orchard, vegetable beds, glasshouses and soft fruit cages produce quite a bounty.


Martineau Mondays January 11, 2021

We are sorry to announce Martineau Gardens is temporarily closed for volunteers and public visits during the early weeks of Lockdown 3. We’ve taken the decision to pause Therapeutic Horticulture and our Martineau Mondays for a few weeks until we feel it is safe to begin again. Some staff are furloughed with a smaller crew looking after the Gardens and keeping in touch with our volunteers.


The Winter Wellbeing Fund: Festive Fun December 21, 2020

Pictured here, the first to receive their Christmas Bags

Usually, in December, we would hold our Volunteer Festive Gathering – enjoy eating homemade food together, the windows of the Pavilion steaming up as we laugh, exchange cards and generally have  a jolly time.


Gardening joy December 16, 2020

Pictured here, one of our Friday volunteers having a very satisfying gardening moment. Pat is particularly interested in seed saving, and has the skill and patience to reap success. Back in Summer 2019, Pat brought into the Gardens a very expensive and great tasting punnet of tomatoes from which she extracted, dried and stored the seed. These were then sown, just before March lockdown in 2020. They germinated and so Pat planted them in troughs in the keder house and has tended to them ever since.

By early summer, the plants were being raised in the keder house – providing a delicious and sweet, pale orange fruit.

Pat had picked a sturdy variety – here she is in December 2020, picking the final tomatoes.

Restoring the Shipwreck Play Area December 2, 2020

Our volunteers have been gardening with us through much of the winter months, the light is dwindling, the temperature is lowering but getting together and gardening keeps our spirits high. Our much loved Shipwreck Play Area has seen better days – we are starting to work on improving it to enhance the natural play experience. Watch our short film ‘Restoring the play area, part I’ here, to see volunteers at work this month:

Restoring the play area film – part 1

If you’re planning to visit Martineau Gardens with children when we re-open – ‍it would be best to prepare younger visitors for what to expect since changes in the play area are taking place and certain areas may not be accessible when you visit.  We are restoring the popular Wheelhouse, relocating the sandpit and furnishing the area with eco-friendly play equipment – the refurbishment will be in keeping with our commitment to consider the environment and wildlife in all we do.

Our Stick Man self-guided trail is running however –  (pick up a pack on arrival, £2.50 donation welcomed). 

We need your help …

Please consider becoming a Friend or making a donation at your next visit, to ensure that Martineau Gardens continues to be a safe and welcoming place for all. Whilst our Therapeutic Horticulture Project has been well supported, the ‘behind the scenes costs’ that keep Martineau Gardens looking beautiful still need to be met. We need your help to keep the hot water running, the toilets flushing, the tools repaired, the seed box replenished, the lawnmowers serviced and a myriad of bills that keep coming in. These essential costs are normally met through our public engagement activities such as the Garden Party, plus venue hire, plant and produce sales. Since March 2020 all these income streams have been lost in the year we faced Covid-19 together. This is where we ask you, our community, to support us by donating so we can continue to care for these beautiful gardens, and keep them open for all to enjoy. 

Find out more about how we garden together during the pandemic here.

Information about visiting the Gardens in 2021

Planning to visit the Gardens in Spring 2021? Please read these links to help you know what to expect.

Covid-19 statement – for latest position around access to the Gardens

Visiting the Gardens in Spring 2021 – what to expect