The unexpected arrival of a squatting swarm of bees poses some interesting legal questions of ownership for Catherine Pugsley
One of the few good news stories to come out of the terrible fire at Notre Dame was that the three honey bee hives on the roof had survived the conflagration. It was this fact which led my husband to proclaim ‘We need bees for Granny’s garden’, as our family (comprising, two parents, two dogs, two troublesome teenagers, Granny and a toothless cat) drove across Europe during the Easter holidays.
My mother shuddered. ‘I loathe those creatures, especially when they swarm!’ The teenagers take up the cry. ‘We need pollinators’ said my daughter stoutly, adding dramatically ‘or my generation will all die’. It seems they have become environmental activists in the half term since I saw them last, or else they sense a good family argument in the offing, with which they can while away the empty hours across the plains of Normandy. The bee debate lasted two whole weeks, it was like a war of attrition, and no one budged their position.
We arrived back to Dorset where my mother’s ancient thatched cottage lies nestled deep in the countryside. In her rose beds, Gabriel Oak and Eustace Vye mingle with Darcey Bussell and William Shakespeare whilst delphiniums and lupins march purposefully amongst them, nodding their respect to the catmints and sages. Apple trees flourish in the rich Dorset soil but their flower cups are silent. The borders are silent. Bee-less borders.
The bee debate had faded into truck packing and the search for tennis shoes. But had it? A curious buzzing in the garden… could it have been that much of a coincidence that a huge swarm of bees were taking up residence in the topmost branch of an old apple tree?
Or was it fate? Peering up into the branches with uncontained excitement my son declared: ‘NOW we have bees and Granny can’t do anything about it! They came to us, the bees chose us.’
But whose are they? Who owns the bees? ‘They are in our tree, in our garden but are they legally ours? Can we keep them Mummy? Pleeeease!’
As any apiarist worth his honey knows, and if he doesn’t, recourse to the Institutes of Justinian, Book two, title one, section 14, (via Halsbury’s Laws of England) will inform him that:
‘Bees are ferae naturae, and there is thus no property in them except by reclamation. So if a swarm settles on a tree, no property passes until the bees are hived. When hived, they become the property of the hiver; and if a swarm leaves the hive, this property continues in the hiver so long as they can be seen and followed.’
I was faced with a dilemma. Could the original owner see them over the wall? Should I put up a notice in the local shop ‘found: A swarm of bees?’ There was no such quandary for my husband and son, who built a ‘bait’ hive festooned with bee pheromone, which they positioned under the apple tree. Dancing around in glee they shouted encouraging messages of welcome, such as a bee would like to hear, into the branches of the old apple tree. The bees buzzed back fondly but did not shift.
Two weeks later we still don’t ‘own’ the bees. The hive remains empty whilst the bees dangle from the branch. The group is swelling and the ball of bees looks precarious. May Day was spent in deep debate, should we scoop off the hanging group of bees with a bucket on two long pieces of bamboo strapped together with tape? Will the owner spy them as the bee-ball swells in size? Will he come and collect them? Will they die if we don’t rescue them?
The war of attrition continues. The bees have a home but are unwelcomed by Granny, who smiles quietly into her tea cup waiting for us all to go back to work and school so she can deal with the intruders as she thinks fit. Is she a NIMBee?
Catherine Pugsley is a senior associate at boutique private wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner