About Emma Sarah Tennant

Hi, I'm Emma, a beekeeper and aromatherapist from Northolt Village, London. I'm a slow blogger posting fortnightly (just) about bees (mostly), aromatherapy, wildlife, photography and my travels.

The Great Honey Bottle

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Often when people meet me and find out I am a beekeeper, they say: “Taking honey from bees is cruel, isn’t it?” I don’t really mind because ‘they’ are usually (self-confessed) vegans and all I have to say is: “Yes, but I don’t eat almonds” to confuse them and make my escape.

Of course, as a beekeeper I don’t think taking honey from the bees is cruel. To me, a single jar of honey at the end of the season is a sign of strong and healthy colony and a well-managed hive. The honey harvest is a culmination of a successful partnership between the bees and their beekeeper.

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Today Emily (above) and I celebrated our harvest with a great honey bottling session. We poured and sieved our light golden and mildly sweet honey into containers and jars to be divided between us. I’m planning to label my jars ‘Myrtle’s honey’ after the queen who successfully led the colony for the past two years.

Ah, beautiful jars of honey – a taste for all our family and friends, thank you Myrtle.

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If you’re not a regular reader of my blog, be assured that no bees were squashed or maimed in the making of our honey. Not a tiny wing or little leg was found as we decanted the precious golden liquid. Emily and I take care to clear bees from the supers by gently brushing and handpicking stragglers from every frame before they are taken home. Although, I should say that with only four hives we have the luxury of doing this.

Later in the afternoon we returned the last of the wet super frames to the apiary for the bees to clean up and add to their winter stores. The elder beekeepers were surprised that we had returned so much honey in the frames for the bees and thought they had better check to see it was ok. Thumbs were out and honeycomb was crushed, “Blackberry and lime,” was John’s verdict.

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Though the days are growing shorter, the autumn has been mild and there was still time to look at our bees. Melissa (Myrtle’s daughter) has got her bees to work filling up another super, which along with the honey we have returned gives the colony more than enough stores for winter. Melissa’s workers had also left a mischievous honeycomb surprise in the hive after four weeks of varroa treatments. But more on that next week.

We took a look under the crownboards of our other colonies to see them calm and content, and building up good stores. Although someone needs to tell the bees that winter is coming as they are still very active: eggs, brood and even drone found in Pepper’s hive.

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We have just finished the Apiguard treatments for varroa and the mite drop has shown that both the treatment has worked and that sadly varroa often flourishes when the colony does. Emily and I are both worried about Chamomile’s sickly hive, which we will try to treat further with a thymol mix for the syrup next week.

I’ve never met a beekeeper who isn’t obsessed about the wellbeing and survival of their bees. When many of the beekeepers at Ealing apiary went to a showing of More than honey, a Swiss documentary directed by Marcus Imhoof, they were shocked to watch the treatment of bees at an almond plantation in California. At a larger commercial scale for the pollination industry, the picture for honeybees is grim as colonies are mechanically processed by machines that crush and grind bees in their hundreds. I had mixed reactions to the film – awe at the spectacular scenes of life inside the hive and horror at the management of colonies as nests are torn apart into boxes of ‘brood’ and ‘honey’.

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That’s why I don’t eat almonds, or buy almond oil. It probably doesn’t make a difference but I just can’t bring myself to make a purchase without thinking of that picture of suffering honeybees at the almond plantation. When I am asked what I think about taking honey, I suppose that I could explain how most beekeepers care greatly for their bees and how on the whole there are worse things that you could eat. What I really want to do on a Saturday afternoon though is enjoy beekeeping and having a nice cup of tea with the beekeepers, so I usually say nothing and hope the questioner goes away.

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Last autumn I remember a visitor to the apiary who told me he was a vegan soon after we met, perhaps he could tell that I am a butcher’s daughter as well as a beekeeper. He showed his displeasure at treating the bees with Apiguard and the use of chemicals in the hive. I didn’t really mind this either, because I had been to an excellent Bee Health Day at London Beekeepers Association at which I had made up my mind that I disliked varroa and bee diseases much more than I disliked treating my bees. But as there was tea and cake waiting on the apiary table, I hoped to make a quick getaway rather than stand around and explain about naturally occurring chemicals thymol and oxalic acid. So I said: “I’m sorry, is there a chemical on the periodic table that you don’t take offense to?” Unfortunately, smoke and mirrors failed as he persisted to poke me like a small honey-stealing bear until I finally agreed “Yes, taking honey is very cruel” and “Yes, I shouldn’t treat my hives”. That done, I apologised for going because I wanted a cup of tea at the apiary, before enjoying a slice of black pudding for my supper at home.

I suppose that I am as naughty as Melissa’s bees.

How to extract honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor

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“We lost almost an entire crop to rapeseed one year,” said Patrice. We were talking about the really thick honey that Emily and I had been unable to spin out in an extractor. “There is most likely rapeseed in the honey.” Patrice had seen rapeseed growing in the area local to the apiary, she thought it was probably spread around by birds who ate the seeds and left their droppings elsewhere.

Three years ago on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, Emily and I took six frames of honey off the same hive and got in a cab to my dad’s house to extract it straightaway. The honey wouldn’t spin out and instead we made cut comb honey in mini jars.

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The following spring we visited the Chelsea Physic Garden’s honey tasting session and brought a pot of honey for expert honey taster and beekeeper Peter James. He took one spoonful and gave us a definitive answer, “Rapeseed”.

Could our thick honey be from rapeseed flowers? It has some of the same qualities being too viscous to extract by spinning the comb, a light golden colour and a mild floral flavour with a slight tangy aftertaste. However, rapeseed honey granulates very quickly, sometimes setting in the honeycomb even when still on the hive, and our honey, like that of three years ago, is a smooth gel-like liquid that hasn’t granulated. Rapeseed honey is also said to be gritty with a cabbagey or peppery aftertaste, which doesn’t fit the description of our honey either.

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Fields of oilseed rape in Herefordshire by Jonathan Billinger via CC BY-SA 2.0

There are other types of forage that can produce viscous honey, but none of these have quite the right characteristics to fit the pieces of the puzzle. For example, hawthorn honey can be thick and difficult to extract, and granulates very slowly over time, but it also tends to be darker in colour and richer in flavour than our honey.

I’ve considered another option, though it doesn’t bear much thinking about. Bees can move honey from the brood box into the supers if they want to make more room in the nest. We stopped feeding our bees sugar syrup a week or so before the supers went on the hive, and the bees started to draw out and fill the supers quickly after. Was there some sugar syrup in the honey we had harvested and could that have made it more difficult to extract? I later discussed this possibility with Emily and she thought this wasn’t likely either.

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The only way to know for sure what is in our honey is to send it off to be tested, which is what I plan to do. The answer may surprise us and be either none of the above or all of the above. We’ll have to wait and see.

Still, there was the job of extracting honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor used for years and generously gifted by retired beekeeper Professor Robert Allen – thank you Bob. This is how I have done it.

Honey processing began in my small kitchen after work one evening. I quickly de-capped the frames in the supers using a hot knife. The wax cappings were caught neatly in a bucket to be used at a later date.

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That done, I hung the frames in a plastic container about the same size as a super and with plenty of room for the honey to drip into the bottom.

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John put the container on the work surface above the washing machine/tumble dryer, which is frequently used because I’m a clean freak. Here, the frames of honey have hung for three weeks, slowly dripping in the warmth of the kitchen with the subtle vibrations of the washer–dryer underneath.

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I’ve encouraged the honey to dribble out using a small (sterilised) metal key to stir each cell, working across every frame as diligently as a bee.

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Yes, I actually stirred every cell on the comb. I now have some idea of what it means to work as hard as a bee!

It may sound slightly mad, but the good thing about this method is that I’ve not crushed and strained the honeycomb to get the honey out; though it has left about a quarter of the honey in the comb, it has also left the comb intact. This means I can return wet supers to the hive for the bees to lick out the remaining honey and to repair the honeycomb with insect precision. We may not get as much honey as we thought, but we will still get plenty between us and I don’t begrudge giving some back to our hardworking bees. The drawn comb on the frames will also give Melissa’s colony a head start for next year.

When John dropped me off at the apiary this afternoon there was a small crowd of people talking about honey and wax. (We’re all bonkers.) Everyone has lots of plans of what they are going to do with their harvest. It has been a good summer for beekeeping and autumn will bring honey shows, cooking with honey, and recipes for wax cosmetics, polishes and candles.

After having a cup of tea we suited up to inspect the hives. Emily inspected Pepper’s hive without a smoker, although being allergic to stings I prefer to get the smoker going in case it’s needed, and I find Pepper’s bees quite feisty. The situation was good in this hive with a colony of healthy bees and brood, building up enough stores for winter.

Another visitor to the apiary turned up to watch the inspections.

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I’m told this is the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) by Mark Patterson of London Beekeepers. The lookalike hornet fly was very curious about us. He, or she, was perhaps a little too friendly, flying after Jonesy to say hello and making him stumble backwards in surprise. The extraordinary looking insect stayed around for a while, then flew off to find something more interesting somewhere else.

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Friendly hornet mimic hoverfly retreats to Emily’s glove after one of Pepper’s workers had headbutted her off the hive.

Unfortunately there were also wasps flying around the hives, and when I opened Melissa’s hive to find lots of dead bees inside Emily wondered if a wasp had got in and a battle had ensued. Aside from this, all was well here and Emily spotted the queen. The brood nest is getting smaller as the bees prepare for their winter cluster, and I counted about five brood frames (in addition to some uncapped super frames I was returning) for their winter stores.

How much honey does a hive need for winter? Sources vary between 35-60lbs and one frame is about 5lbs of honey. The amount of stores needed also depends on the size of the colony, how active they are during winter, and how fast they eat. I was counting the frames of stores while going through the hives and it looks like they’ll have plenty for winter.

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Spot the black bee in the centre of the frame? Emily thought she might be a robber bee, because robber bees are often blackened from having their hairs nipped off.

I inspected Chili’s hive next and the situation was much the same with a declining brood nest and a build up of stores. We watched our pink-spotted queen climb across a frame looking for cells to lay a few more eggs before winter arrives.

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Emily inspected Chamomile’s hive which has a large brood nest and quite a lot of stores. Chamomile appears to have mellowed in her second year and she is an excellent layer, though there are signs of disease in the hive. I do hope they survive the winter.

We are now halfway through the Apiguard treatment, and put a second tray on each hive. The bees are clearing the Apiguard with varying degrees of success. Melissa’s bees cleared the entire tray, while Chili’s bees have been less hygienic removing only half the treatment.

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There was a high number of varroa mites on all the varroa boards, worrying but also a good sign that the Apiguard is working. All the colonies at the apiary have thrived this year, and with larger and more active colonies it’s to be expected that varroa numbers would also rise.

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Another spot the … beautiful bright orange pollen amid the nasty red varroa mites on the varroa board.

That done, we cleared up our equipment and said goodbye to the bees as the light began to get dusky. Reflections of a good year’s beekeeping were comforting, despite knowing that we’ll soon say farewell to the bees for their winter slumber.

Summer’s end

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The moments of sunshine appear in and out of showers in these end of summer days, as I notice the bees nipping in and out of the fading flowers for every last dusting of pollen.

With the cooling of the summer’s warmth, is it my imagination that the bees’ furry coat becomes fuller?

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We spent the last week of summer visiting John’s family in Hereford where the round bales of hay were being rolled in the fields and the trees were showing the first tinges of autumn.

I’ve always liked the autumn and winter months, perhaps because I was born in the winter. At the same time there is also a feeling of sadness as summer ends.

My grandad used to call it ‘the ebb time’. I feel the retreating evening warmth in the buzzing of the bees and watching them eagerly gathering every last flowerful of nectar from the Japanese anemones in the garden.

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This year it’s different because I see the summer sunshine in my bees’ honey. I can appreciate the hard work of summer’s end and enjoy the beginning of autumn as we take the harvest and prepare the hives for the winter.

In Hereford I saw the richness of the harvest in the fruits of the fields as we picked blackberries, plums and apples for pie and crumble.

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The cows were watching as we filled up tubs with fat juicy blackberries from the hedgerows. They (the cows) were inquisitive, said John’s mum. So was The Gruffalo, the magnificent new bull, but he got fresh hay, not blackberries, for supper and enjoyed his nose being scratched.

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After the bank holiday’s rain had passed, we drove ‘abroad’ to Wales to view the impressive Victorian dams set in the beautiful Elan Valley in Rhayader. The country is always changing in Wales. It’s stunning.

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A visit to the Elan Valley “never fails to delight and inspire” says the information at the visitor centre. I could imagine that living here would inspire creativity to flow from every pore.

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There is a feeling of spending time in nature that I can only describe as contentment.

We met a friend of mine for lunch by Hereford cathedral and he put into words exactly what I felt. In London there is everything to do and no time to do it. Here, there is a lot to do and more time to do it. While being on holiday puts everything in a romantic light, I could easily imagine swapping city life for living in the country.

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On the farm John’s dad brought home a bunch of hops and asked if I knew what they were. I didn’t.

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He also found a dead grass snake in the corn field to bring back for show-and-tell. We laid him to rest behind a tree in the garden.

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The last day of summer was the best day with deep blue skies and golden sunshine. I sat on the back of the bike as John cycled from the cottage to the farm house, listening to the birds and bees and watching the cats preen lazily in the yards.

We enjoyed a full roast dinner before saying our goodbyes and driving back to London. John took the very scenic route through Gloucester and Burford in the Cotswolds, and we eventually arrived home just before sunset. Our small London flat smelt of the honey that had been slowly dripping from frames hanging over a container for a week. Patience and perseverance has paid off, I may be able to return wet supers with drawn comb to the hive to give the bees a head start in spring.

Autumn is now here and as the sun rises lower in the skies so the afternoon shadows stretch longer and further, and the days grow shorter. My kitchen is overflowing with summer’s bounty of apples, plums and honey ready to make honeyed fruit crumbles and pies. Winter is coming so I’ll leave this memory of a playful calf frolicking at summer’s end.

Giving thanks for the honey

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The sweet golden treasure is this year’s honey.

Honeycomb slowly dripped viscous syrup as white wax cappings cleanly sliced away, pooling like liquid sunshine into a bucket. Every cell releasing the gifts of some flower’s nectary with an explosion of fragrance. I dipped a teaspoon in the honey and tasted soft sweet chords of floral top notes and fresh fruity twists.

The creation of honey is an alchemical process. Flowers produce a sugar-rich liquid by glands called nectaries, signalling the honeybee to come and drink deeply. Her honey stomach heavy with nectar, she flies back to the hive and shares the sweetness on her sisters’ tongues. Thousands of tiny wings fan the cells magically turning nectar into honey.

A dozen honeybees are needed to collect enough nectar to make one teaspoon of honey and each bee must visit 2,600 flowers for this to happen.

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This teaspoon of honey holds the nectar of 31,200 flowers. Summer’s essence distilled and concentrated in every drop. We have a beautiful harvest from Queen Myrtle’s hive. Like our honey crop of three year’s ago, it’s too thick for the extractor. We’ll take it over autumn by crushing and filtering through muslin.

I’m thankful to the trees, flowers and honeybees who made our honey.

Welcome Melissa

We named Myrtle’s daughter and the new queen of our honey hive, Melissa. While we wished for her to emerge the bees were the picture of contentment, which gave us the wisdom to wait a month for the queen. This inspired the name Melissa.

“Melissa oil promotes sensitivity and intuition and helps us find inner contentment and strengthen ‘wisdom of the heart’.” (Salvatore Battaglia)

The sweet blossomy lemony fragrance of melissa suits our light golden honey very well. The name Melissa is from the Greek ‘bee’ indicating the attractiveness bees feel towards the plant. A perfect name for the queen who continues the legacy of our favourite hive.

Remembering Myrtle

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Myrtle emerged inside the hive in July 2012 after a dramatic season of monsoons and regicide. It was during the London 2012 Olympics, her grandmother Lavender had swarmed and left behind her mother Neroli who failed shortly after. We were delighted by Myrtle’s gentle and playful nature, and she would become our most successful and long-lived queen.

Two year’s later, Myrtle disappeared in a suspected supersedure and we have anxiously waited a month for the new queen to show herself and start laying. The beautiful picture above was taken by John during our trip to Lancashire last month. I’ve posted it today in remembrance of our lovely Queen Myrtle.

And yesterday we spotted her beautiful daughter, here’s a blurry close-up.

IMG_4565We were fairly sure the new queen was Myrtle’s daughter, rather than from the frame of eggs put in by Emily from Chamomile’s hive, but I wanted to check our records at home first. The timing is right, the new queen is from Myrtle’s line. I’m so glad that we patiently waited for the queen and the bees, rather than combining the colony with another.

I have the perfect name for Myrtle’s daughter, although I won’t reveal until telling Emily. I’m just so happy and relieved that our long dynasty of gentle queens continues. Here are some of Myrtle’s old daughters looking content with their new matriarch.

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Emily was just finishing an inspection on Chili’s hive when I arrived yesterday. Chamomile’s bees instantly stung a beginner beekeeper, British traffic policeman Rick, as he pulled the first frame. It was Rick’s first day as a beekeeper, I hope he didn’t feel like arresting our bees. You can see Chamomile at the bottom of this picture.

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Fortunately it takes more than one sting to put off the British police. Rick inspected Pepper’s hive, who were cautiously well behaved. He spotted the queen on the fourth frame in and seeing that all was well we finished the day’s inspections. Emily smoked down Pepper’s bees to avoid squashing them when the super went back on.

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Emily and I are extracting the honey at my dad’s house today. Four strong hives (though one not so healthy) and two supers of honey. I feel like it has taken a long winding road to get to where we are today, a bit like crossing a river of stepping stones. So here’s another lovely photo by John as this year’s beekeeping season comes to an end.

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Myrtle links

Myrtle, the quiet one

A plant study of Myrtle

Olympic queens (Queen Myrtle is named)

The story of our summer bees

Merry Christmas Queen Myrtle and her bees!

A tale of two colonies

A case of supersedure and a super goes on (our last sighting of Myrtle)

A flurry of honey

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Jonsey had been stung twice by the time I arrived at the apiary. “I put my head around the net and they got me,” he said, pulling on his suit. It was a hot and humid Sunday. We were taking off the honey, although the muggy air was the more likely reason for the bees’ defensive behaviour. Jonsey was helping out while Emily was away.

I had put a clearer board underneath a super in Myrtle’s hive on Saturday afternoon. A clearer board has one or two ‘escapes’ that let bees go down but not back up, so ‘clearing’ the super of bees. I took off the roof and saw that the clearer board had done the job. Jonsey carried the super to the apiary table where we brushed off stragglers and wrapped the box in plastic to prevent more bees, or wasps, from flying inside.

That was two weeks’ ago. Since then Emily and I have taken off a second super, both are sitting in my dad’s kitchen ready to spin the honey.

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So what about the bees? Our favourite hive may be queenless. Myrtle mysteriously disappeared a month ago with strangely squashed queen cells found inside the hive. The workers are behaving calmly, not erratic like a queenless colony, but there is no sign of a new queen, eggs or much brood. We put a second test frame of eggs from Chili’s colony into the hive to see if the workers try to make queen cells.

Emily inspected Pepper’s hive and reported all was well, though the queen was in hiding. Queens Chili and Chamomile did make an appearance. Can you spot Chili in her queen cage? She has a pink crown.

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Chamomile was hiding in a crevice underneath the comb where we couldn’t cage her. A few bees were crawling around with shrivelled wings, a sign of deformed wing virus (DWV) which can be transmitted to queens when they mate with infected drones. We also saw black shiny hairless bees who may have chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV), which is thought to be transmitted by varroa. Soon we’ll be starting varroa treatments on the hives.

So that’s where we left our bees at the weekend with the honey harvested and the queens still keeping us guessing. Jonsey observed drones cowering in the corners of frames. The season is nearly over and they know what is to come…

Here’s a big beefy drone who fell in love with me. He sat on my yellow gloves during a recent inspection, fluttering his wings. I felt like a queen bee.

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Inbetween not-a-bee post

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We stood on high ground overlooking the rural moors and rugged hills of Lancashire. Sheep stared quizzically as I raised my iPhone to take a photograph. The camera was in the car boot, and time spent admiring the darkly inviting Northern countryside was measured by a lack of road signs and failing satnavs.

Crossing an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) meant we were spoilt for choice for taking pictures, but the weekend was a whirl from start to finish: a wedding in Stonyhurst, a farmers market and ukulele band at Otley, and a reunion with mutual friends from Dubai in Bradford. The camera never got out of its case, but we took plenty of pictures.

Here’s a fantastic photo taken by John as we stumbled across a stony brook at the Inn at Whitewell.

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And a snap I took walking through the village of Silsden, still decked out for Tour de France.

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When we got back home to London on Sunday night I unpacked my camera with a pang of guilt, mixed with satisfaction there was no memory card to process.

I inherited my passion for photography from my photographer grandmother, Antonie Dees, who had a studio called Cameracraft in Surbiton, London. My interest grew as a magazine editor working photoshoots with professionals like Mark David Hill and Jonathan Perugia, till I finally bought my Canon DSLR.

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The joy of using my Canon camera to capture almost what my eyes can see – the light, colours, textures, detail – hasn’t diminished. However, I’ve learnt that a good picture can come from seizing, as well as seeing, the right moment, like the photo above taken while we explored Cowley on a rainy Saturday afternoon. So I’ve put my camera aside this summer for a busy time at work and a new resolution at beekeeping to focus more on keeping bees than photographing honeybees.

And bumble bees…

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Instagram started as a tool to improve the quality of iPhone photos for my blog, but it fast became an opportunity to see a great photo on the move and take it quickly. And it was fun. Here is a space not only for snapshots of daily life but for creating a scrapbook of moments. As a teenager I loved making scrapbooks and now I have a virtual one on my phone, called @cameracraft2010 after my grandmother’s studio.

Mark David Hill once said to me, “All you need is a camera phone.” He was right. Here’s the story of the summer so far in a stream of scrapbook-style memories…

Swans frolicking in the lido and a woodland train ride at Ruislip.

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People or bird watching at lunchtime.

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Or just noticing the ordinariness or splendour of where you are.

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I hope you found some inspiration here for camera phone pictures too!

This is an inbetween not-a-bee post while the honey is harvested, but bee drama returns next week.

INSTAGRAM 101

Thinking of trying Instagram? Do, it’s easy and fun to use. If you want to use it professionally, such as brand building or networking, then the same applies as any communication channel – post excellent content that stands above the rest (less is more) and which appeals to a very, clearly defined audience. There are many articles online that give advice about times to post and hashtags to use, but there’s no real secret to success other than posting good stuff.