A Christmas gift from the bees

It has been a fantastic year of beekeeping. To celebrate I’ve made a book to say thank you to everyone for reading my blog. I’ve enjoyed sharing the ups and downs, queens and swarms, honey and drones, with you all. This is a gift from the bees.

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The industrious honeybee has inspired people for centuries, while the treasures of the hive bring sweetness in honey and light in candles. What is life like through the compound eyes of the bee? This little book of bee magic journeys through the honeybee year, from season to season.

You can download the ebook for free on Blurb books here to read on iBooks for iPhone and iPads. Or send an email using the form below and I will send you a copy of the ebook. I’ll wait a week to receive everyone’s requests before sending copies.

This is my first ebook, I hope you have as much fun flipping through the pages as I did making them. Let me know what you think, because I’m planning more ebooks with all funds raised donated to a charity Bees for Development.

Winter studies: The poison honey

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© Dr Henry Oakeley

“In the summer, in the College garden, the woolly foxglove, Digitalis lanata, is visited by little bees which become stuporose and lie upside down in the flowers, seeming unable to fly away when disturbed.” –Dr Henry Oakeley, Garden Fellow at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) Medicinal Garden.

I became fascinated with the idea of ‘poisonous honey’ when I worked at the College. Watching bees foraging on the intoxicating inhabitants of the physicians’ Medicinal Garden, my imagination ran wild with thoughts of insects tempted by sinister sweetness, putrid pollen and foul fruit. What seductively dark nectar would the bees return to the hive to convert into undesirable honey? When I asked Henry, he told me the story of the bees in the woolly foxgloves and he kindly sent two beautiful photographs taken in the College garden.

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© Dr Henry Oakeley | Poison honey and a whodunnit bee too, how exciting! Anthophora or Anthidium manicatum? See Mark’s comments below.

The colour and flavour of honey comes from the variety of nectar sources visited by the bees. From spring mint and summer blackberry to autumn woods and bitter ivy, the taste and smell of honey can evoke intense reactions, not always good. The strong flavour of privet honey, for example, is described as ‘objectionable’ in Collins Beekeeper’s Bible, while Ted Hooper in A Guide to Bees & Honey confesses: “I cannot say I have ever found much wrong with it”. But whether you like ivy, heather or rapeseed, ‘unpalatable’ honey is a matter of personal taste.

What, then, of honey with truly ‘undesirable’ qualities from the nectar that is gathered, being harmful to bees or humans, or both? In this post, I’m going to look at the possible toxicity of honey from the nectar or pollen of plants rather than artificial contamination.

“Just when you thought that honey was always a wonderful health food,” says Henry, pointing me in the direction of rhododendron – a common culprit of toxic honey that can be harmful to bees and humans. According to Wikipedia, a chemical group of toxins called grayanotoxins found in rhododendrons and other plants of the family Ericaceae may, very rarely, cause a poisonous reaction of ‘honey intoxication’ or ‘rhododendron poisoning’.

Rhododendron and clouds in Japan

Image: Rhododendron and vast clouds in Japan | 松岡明芳 via CC BY-SA 3.0.

Xenophon and his Greek army retreated ill from Persia in 399BC as a result of ‘toxic honey’ and Pompey’s soldiers fell foul of ‘maddening honey’ in the Third Mithridatic War in 65BC. These historical accounts name varieties of rhododendron honey as causing a “feeling of drunkeness, to vomiting and purging, and madness that lasted for days” (Collins). A botanist’s tale of poison honey is given by Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885–1958), during his travels in northern Burma towards Tibet. He recounts symptoms similar to acute alcohol poisoning, suffered along with his travelling companions, after eating honey produced in the rhododendron season. The local Tibetans ate the honey without ill effects (Collins).

Piers Moore Ede vividly describes sipping the ‘wondrous toxic honey’ of rhododendron flowers collected by the honey hunters of Nepal: “It resembled drunkenness at first, but then became visual, like a magic mushroom trip I remembered from university. Painted dots were dripping across my irises like technicolor rain. My body felt light and tingly, filled with warm rushes and heat-bursts. It was wild and strangely wonderful” (Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness).

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Image: Rhododendron forest on Manaslu circuit, Nepal | Spencer Weart via CC BY-SA 3.0.

An incident of poisoning reported in honeybee colonies on Colonsay Island off west-coast Scotland in 1995, referenced in Yates Beekeeping Study Notes (Modules 1, 2 & 3). “The bees had died out completely in 2–3 days after starting to collect nectar from Rhododendron blossoms (Rhododendron thomsonii) caused by the poison andromedotoxin or acetylandromedol.” Ted Hooper writes on the case of Colonsay Island’s bees: The West of Scotland College of Agriculture Study showed that the poison andromedotoxin was involved”.

It sounds like rhododendrons are not a desirable source of forage for bees! However, to put the risk of honey poisoning from rhododendron, or any other toxic plant, into perspective, I asked John Robertson of The Poison Garden website: “Put simply, something has to go wrong for toxic honey to be produced and then it has to go wrong again for it to cause human poisoning.” OK, so what can go wrong?

“The first thing that has to go wrong is to have a lack of species diversity. Generally, bees visit so many different plants that they don’t get a concentration of any particular toxin. This can go wrong, as in the west of Scotland, where Rhododendrons are almost the only thing in flower early in the spring. But, nectar from Rhododendron is toxic enough to kill the bees so they tend not to return it to the hive. Experienced beekeepers know not to let their bees out at this time of year. I haven’t seen any reports of poisoning from honey made from Rhododendrons.” John writes more on The poison garden blog, entry for Tuesday 27 September 2011.

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Image: Coriaria arborea | Rudolph89 via CC BY-SA 3.0.

Both John and Henry brought my attention to honey from the tutu tree (Coriaria arborea) in New Zealand, which could cause harm to humans, but this is due to the unusual way in which the honey is produced by insects. John says:

“Bees collecting nectar directly from the plant do not produce poisonous honey. But, a vine hopper insect also feeds on the nectar of the plant and excretes a sweet ‘honeydew’ containing a high concentration of plant toxins. Especially in times of drought, bees may gather this honeydew rather than nectar from the plants. Because this is a well-known problem, however, there have been no instances of poisoning from commercially produced honey since 1974. When four people were taken ill in 2008, the source was traced to honey produced by an amateur who was not aware of the problem. Another instance of the flaw in the belief that the more ‘natural’ something is the better it is for you.” Read more on The poison garden blog, entry for Thursday 30 June 2011.

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Image: Drone fly (Eristalis tenax) – not a bee! – on ragwort flowers | Francis Franklin via CC BY-SA 3.0.

Rhododendron is not the only mischievous plant in the garden. Yates lists common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) in its section on unpalatable honey as “an injurious weed in the Weeds Act 1959, is poisonous to cattle and horses causing damage to the liver with pyrrolizidine alkaloids“. However, bees work the blossom for nectar and pollen with no ill effects to produce a bright yellow honey with an unpleasant smell.

What other mutinous plants, then, produce nectar and pollen that is harmful to the bee?

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Image: Ranunculus macro | Laura Brolis via CC BY-SA 3.0.

The innocent-looking buttercup that pops-up in spring has bitter tasting leaves from a toxin called protoanemonin present in the sap. In 1944 in Switzerland, spring dwindling, or ‘May disease’, occurred after bees brought home pollen from the Ranunculaceae family (buttercup): “Nurse bees appeared at hive entrances trembling and unable to fly, excitedly moving on the landing board, losing control of their legs, rotating violently on their backs, becoming paralysed and dying. The leaves of most species of buttercup are poisonous and avoided by livestock” (Yates).

As the reference to this case is old, I dug deeper for something more recent. I found a study in the journal Functional Ecology, published by Wiley-Blackwell, which showed the contradictory effects of buttercup pollen and viper’s bugloss pollen in two closely-related species of mason bees: “While the larvae of Osmia cornuta were able to develop on viper’s bugloss pollen, more than 90% died within days on buttercup pollen. Amazingly, the situation was exactly the opposite with the larvae of Osmia bicornis” (Science Daily press release). The researchers suggested that some flowering plants used chemical defenses to prevent all their pollen being used by the bees to feed their larvae, rather than to pollinate the flower.

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Image: Abies alba Schleus Berg | Thomas Dreger, Suhl via CC BY-SA 3.0.

In 1951 another account of bee poisoning was reported in Switzerland, this time from the silver fir (Abies alba), which is a source of honeydew toxic to bees. “Thousands of returning foragers, with a waxy black appearance, were reported dying outside hives.” It was thought that sap-sucking insects feeding on the silver fir had converted the plant sap into sugars toxic to the bees (Yates). I was unable to find a more recently reported incident of silver fir honeydew poisoning in bees, although I came across a website that said silver fir honeydew honey is an “excellent table honey that goes well with cheese”. Is Abies alba still foraged for honey? If anyone has further information, I’d be interested to know.

In California, the pretty blossom of the buckeye chestnut tree (Aesculus californica) wickedly beckons bees to feed from its nectar and pollen: “The bees become black and shiny, trembling and paralysed. Non-laying queens, dying brood and infertile eggs have also been reported. As this species covers 14 million acres in North America its effects on honeybees are well known to local beekeepers” (Yates). You can read more about the buckeye chestnut tree and the honeybee in this interesting article by the University of California’s Bug Squad.

Then there is the mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), native to eastern US, introduced to Europe as an ornamental plant, and toxic to bees, humans and livestock due to the presence of andromedotoxin which could accumulate in the honey (Yates). However, the honey is reportedly so bitter that it’s unlikely to be eaten and cause poisoning (Wikipedia).

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All in all, it seems you’re more likely to come across a ‘poison honey’ in an episode of Poirot than find it on your breakfast table. John comments that the taste and texture of ‘bad’ honey, such as from common ragwort which “is waxy and unpleasant”, is probably enough to prevent anyone from eating too much of it. That, then, puts the lid on a fascinating topic.

With thanks to
A huge thanks to Dr Henry Oakeley and John Robertson for generously sharing their vast knowledge of plant lore for this post. If you’re interested in reading more about poison gardens or exotic plants, check out the links in the reading list below.

Further reading
A tour of the medicinal garden of the Royal College of Physicians by Dr Henry Oakeley, published by RCP
A year in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians by Dr Henry Oakeley, published by RCP
Rhododendron yakushimanum ‘Grumpy’ from RCP Medicinal Garden online plant database by Dr Henry Oakeley
The Poison Garden website posts by John Robertson from Thursday 30 June 2011 and Tuesday 27 September 2011
Toxic honey entry in Wikipedia
Collins Beekeeper’s Bible by Philip Et Al Mccabe, published by HarperCollins
A Guide to Bees & Honey by Ted Hooper MBE, published by Northern Bee Books
Yates Beekeeping Study Notes (Modules 1, 2 & 3) by JD & BD Yates, published by BBNO | (Yates recommends further details on undesirable nectars can be found in Honey Bee Pests, Predators and Diseases by RA Morse and R Nowogrodski, published by Cornell University)
Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness by Piers Moore Ede, published by Bloomsbury
Claudio Sedivy, Andreas Müller, Silvia Dorn. Closely related pollen generalist bees differ in their ability to develop on the same pollen diet: evidence for physiological adaptations to digest pollen. Functional Ecology, 2011; DOI:10.1111/j.1365-2435.2010.01828.x | sourced via Science Daily press release.
• University of California’s post on buckeye chestnut tree and the honeybee from the Bug Squad
Mad honey poisoning‐related asystole from US National Library of Medicine | National Institutes of Health
• Emily Scott of Adventuresinbeeland’s Blog has written a brilliant post on 1st Honey bee products and forage revision post: a list of floral sources of unpalatable honey;

Further winter studies for bees can be found in my blog index.

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.

Canal walk

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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06 On way home at trafalgar

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.

Pink queens and a swarm?

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It seems neither the British weather forecast nor the British weather can be relied on after Saturday’s predictions of thunder, lightning and hail proved false. Saturday was a beautiful day for beekeeping, but Emily and I had already made other plans thinking there would be storms and rain. So we met on Sunday at the apiary beneath clear skies and decided to make short work of inspections. I checked Pepper’s hive while Emily checked Chili’s, then we both looked inside Myrtle’s and Chamomile’s hives.

Pepper is our newest queen and living up to her namesake of black pepper essential oil – a personality who finds it hard to show love! Her bees were feisty so Emily had to take over half way through the inspection as I had forgotten my thicker beekeeping gloves. We didn’t spot Pepper, she might have been sulking at the bottom of the hive.

Chili’s family looked well, said Emily. There was also a surprise when we spotted the queen – she was marked pink! Last Saturday at Andy’s party we had joked with Pat and John that we’d like our queens marked pink. The elder beekeepers do listen to us after all.

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With two supers full of honey on Myrtle’s hive, you need a hive partner to help lift the heavy boxes in an effort to avoid squashing bees. Myrtle’s brood nest had a less welcome surprise inside. No sign of Myrtle for the second week running, in the middle of the third frame were six queen cells that looked strangely squashed, and the tenth frame had two surviving queen cells. What could have happened?

We knew the apiary hives may have been checked during the week before the beginner beekeepers’ assessments, and I wondered if the queen cells had been squashed to prevent a swarm or culled to select the best candidate for supersedure. Was the queen present and should we do an artificial swarm though? It was really hard to decide what to do without knowing what might have happened, so we decided to send an email and find out first before taking action. Depending on the outcome, Emily and I may be back at the apiary after work this week.

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Chamomile’s moods can be as unpredictable as the British weather, so we’re never sure what to expect. We wanted to reduce her nest from a double-brood to a single-brood. I found Chamomile on the second frame and caged her to keep her safe during the procedure. We moved the frames of brood into one box and put the frames of honey into another box. Emily shook the bees into the bottom box as I held Chamomile safe and then released the queen back into her nest with the queen excluder placed on top. An empty brood box was placed between the brood nest and the brood box with honey frames to create a space that will encourage the bees to rob the honey from the top and take it down below. Emily scored the honey frames with her hive tool to make the task easier for the workers.

By then another beekeeper had arrived to check his hive and Albert turned up too. “Is it Saturday?” he asked.

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When John picked me up the weather was still clear, so we went for a walk around the 14th-century grounds of St Mary’s and stopped to sit on the green. I watched a common carder bee hovering over a clover before visiting its neighbour.

As a beekeeper and an aromatherapist I was doubly pleased to find out that bees and flowers do ‘talk’ to each other. In a wonderful new BBC bee drama Hive Alive, presented by Chris Packham and Martha Kearney, the secret language of flowers and bees was revealed. A flower has a negative charge that gives off an electrical signal to a bee. The bee has a positive charge that changes the electrical field of the flower when it lands to forage. This tells other bees that the flower has been visited and to come back later when it has replenished its supplies of nectar and pollen. Just amazing.

Hive Alive episode one aired on BBC2 this week and the second episode is due on Tuesday 22 July, 8pm, BBC2. I can’t wait!

Notes: In August the apiary hives are given Apiguard treatment for varroa that has a strong thymol smell which taints the honey stores. As Emily and I will miss each other at the apiary for the next two weeks, we’re harvesting our crop in early August. So there’ll be a short gap in bee posts until then.

Nanny Africa

01 Nanny Africa

On this day in 1927 Antonie Ursula Dees was born. Photographer, traveller and explorer, Antonie was an enigma to all who knew her. To me, she was grandmother. Antonie was a restless spirit, but she found her heart in Cape Town, South Africa, where she spent many years. In later life, she returned to Germany and lived in Dannenberg until she died on 9 May 2013.

My grandfather called her ‘The African Connection’, which I think she liked. When Nelson Mandela died last week, I reflected how strange it was that another life passing can make the grief well for a loss not yet felt. Mandela inspired a nation and his story caught the world. My grandmother was my African connection and my inspiration. This is her story.

Antonie was born in Pritzwalk, a village in what was then East Germany. Her parents, Franziska and Rudolf, had five children – Antonie, her two sisters Inge and Ilse, and two brothers Heinz and Rudolf. ‘When we were little my father would wake us early,’ I remember my grandmother telling me how they would ‘rub down in snow and go for a run before breakfast’.

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My great grandmother Franziska with Antonie as a baby and her two brothers Heinz and Rudolf.

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My grandmother was a beauty. Here she is aged 17.

Before the start of World War II, the family moved to Hamburg and when the war began Antonie recalled how everything changed. ‘We had to watch in the playground at school as the old Deutschland flag was lowered and the new Nazi flag raised up the mast.’ Antonie and her sisters also quickly learned to choose their friends with care. ‘A Nazi youth caught Inge talking to a Mexican boy and warned her not to speak to him again. We were afraid because families disappeared overnight.’

When Antonie’s father, my great grandfather, refused to let his children join the Hitler Youth, he was sent to the front line in France where he was killed by a British bomb. In later years, my grandmother and her siblings traced their father to an unmarked mass grave in France.

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Antonie Dees, photographic student in war-torn Hamburg c1934.

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My grandmother knew a sculptor who made this bust of her. It was destroyed by British soldiers after the war.

Antonie was a photographic student growing up in war-torn Hamburg. She remembered night-time raids and women with babies running to the River Elbe to dowse the flames. Hamburg was demolished by the time the war was over and the British troops arrived. ‘My older brother Heinz made friends with a British RAF soldier who gave him food to feed the family. Then one day Heinz brought the soldier home.’ The British soldier was Kenneth Spooner, my grandfather. Antonie and Kenneth fell in love and he asked her to return to England as his bride. My grandmother was one of many young German women who sailed to England on a war brides’ ship. ‘They had boats in front to break the ice as we travelled across the North Sea.’

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My handsome grandad somewhere in Africa during World War II.

08 Nanny Africa_Rifle toting grandfather in post-war Hamburg

British soldier Kenneth Spooner stationed in post-war Hamburg.

I can remember my grandmother tell of her amazement when she arrived in England. ‘There were apples, oranges and bananas that we had not seen for years.’ Antonie said that the British people were very welcoming and she soon felt at home in England.
Kenneth and Antonie had two children, Kenneth and Veronica – my mother.

10 Nanny Africa Kenneth and Antonie with Kenneth and Veronica in January 1951 - London W13

Kenneth and Antonie Spooner with Kenneth and Veronica in January 1951, London W13.

11 Nanny Africa_Kenneth and Veronica (aged 10 & 6) Ealing c1957

Kenneth and Veronica, my uncle and mother (aged 10 and 6) in Ealing c1957.

Sadly their marriage was not to last and after it ended Antonie opened a studio in West Drayton called CameraCraft.

By my mother’s accounts, nanny was a trailblazer in her day. Antonie was the first woman to take the photography course, and pass her exams, at Ealing Polytechnic and Harrow College. Highlights of her career included aerial photography in a Hughes 300 helicopter, travelling to Austria and Switzerland to make films, shooting actress Una Stubbs for Women’s Magazine, and training an apprentice for renowned British photographer David Bailey.

12 Nanny Africa_Mrs Dees Great experience

Reaching the height of her profession, Antonie was featured in a newspaper article ‘Mrs. Dees Great Experience’. The article reported ‘she accomplished something few women have’ on her experience of going up in a helicopter to take photographs for a local authority. The reporter wrote: ‘Mrs. Dees feels she can photograph practically anything. She has photographed wounds in hospitals; vehicles jammed under bridges, the Lord and Lady Mayor of London, and many other events.’

She loved to travel and explore faraway places. Cape Town, South Africa, was far from London being on the other side of the world. Antonie was enraptured with the country and its people so she decided to live there. And that was that. Without much in the way of permission, my free-spirited grandmother in her early fifties left her home and flew to South Africa to start a new life. She quickly made many friends and had many adventures. Here are some photos from her albums.

19 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA 20 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA 21 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

23 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

Antonie got a job as the first woman working for the Boiler Maker Union where she changed the oil in large tanks to pay her way. She eventually settled in a small flat in Cape Town at the foot of Table Mountain and overshadowed by the Lion’s Head. Her experience in photography allowed her to get a job at the South African Government library archives where she completed a huge project to microfilm all of the newspapers of the last century by the time she retired.

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My grandmother at her work for the South African Government library archives. Her maxim ‘We don’t just talk about it. We do it’.

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Antonie never lost her passion for photography. She liked to take photos of everything she saw.

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View of Lion’s Head mountain, Cape Town, South Africa.

I remember infrequent visits by my grandmother from Cape Town to London. She was a mysterious and glamorous figure in my life growing up, and on one of her visits she brought back an owl ivory necklace for me, ‘her little wise owl’. We loved her stories of travels and safaris and would miss her so much when she returned to South Africa. My mother took my sister and I to visit Antonie for a month in Cape Town, and we all understood why she fell in love with Africa.

18 Nanny Africa_Windy memories in South Africa

Windy memories in South Africa with my mother and younger sister. My grandmother is behind the lens.

Some years after Apartheid ended, and now retired, my grandmother returned to her roots in Germany. She lived the remainder of her life in Dannenberg.

Antonie Ursula Dees, our African Connection or Nanny Africa as my sister and I called her, passed away on 9 May 2013. Her life burned very brightly and she will always be my inspiration. Farewell nanny.

04 Nanny Africa_young Antonie

Thank you to my mother, Veronica Ilse Howard, for the photographs from my grandmother’s albums for this post.

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In the Land of Fire and Ice

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Iceland – the Land of Fire and Ice. Where rainbows live in waterfalls…

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Hot pools bubble and mountains rumble…

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Northern Lights beckon…

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And locals don’t deny the existence of elves. They live in the lava…

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‘We started the year with hot volcanoes so let’s end it with cold volcanoes,’ said John as we booked a holiday to celebrate the first year anniversary of when we met. He was referring to our trip to Lanzarote in spring and now Iceland waited for us in autumn.

A place of incredible natural wonder, I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland, which John knew. So one night he stayed up till 1am to surprise me with an Icelandic adventure in two parts. First, we would explore Reykjavik, a city of art and literature, and then we would discover Iceland, a country of snow-capped volcanoes and frost-covered lava fields.

We stayed at the Grand Hotel on the outskirts of the city and a brisk 20-minute walk to the centre, although it took longer as we dawdled taking photographs on the sea front…

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Reykjavik is a sprawling city of beguiling beauty – historic and modern at the same time with colourful old houses and art deco buildings overlooked by Mt Esja and surrounded by the cold blue sea.

There are so many things to do and so much stuff to see that we were lucky to have our own guide, Hjalmar – an Icelandic beekeeper, show us around his city for the afternoon. And there were a few gems that we stumbled upon ourselves, including…

The Sun Voyager – a hauntingly beautiful sculpture of a Viking ship facing the sea. The sculptor, Jón Gunnar Árnason, created the monument to remind Icelanders of their Viking heritage.

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The Old Harbor – where you’ll find ships, whale watching, Northern Lights tours, restaurants serving fruits of the sea, and a friendly atmosphere.

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Perlan – Reykjavik’s most futuristic building, and home to the Saga Museum, built on four rotating cylinders with a 360-degree viewing platform that provided panoramic views of the city. I loved this beautiful sun dial.

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The iconic white tower is Hallgrímskirkja – the church named after Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson. It was designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson to symbolise the flowing basalt lava fields of Iceland.

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Harpa – Iceland’s biggest concert hall where a recital of Rachmaninoff was playing when we took a look inside.

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We walked the circular route around the expansive suburbs of rivers and parks, past pretty residential areas to the lake near the town centre. Sunset is striking in Reykjavik.

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And as night falls fast and freezes, the mirror-like Harpa building is lit by multi-coloured lights. John thought it reflected the Northern Lights.

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Image by John Maund

Mid-week we woke up excited to start part two of our Icelandic adventures – from eclectic city break to exploring a strange volcanic wilderness of moss-and-lichen covered rocks with thermal vents of steam rising into the icy air.

We left the luxury of the Grand Hotel to meet our Explore group at Keflavik airport. There was some time to get to know our fellow Explorers before our itinerary started with a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Can you imagine a place so magical that it’s indescribable? This, for me, is the Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa pooling into the heart of a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, south-western Iceland. The warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur – you can smell the sulphur – to which the lagoon is attributed healing powers for skin diseases like psoriasis. I don’t know about that, but I do know my skin has never felt so soft and silky from head to toe after swimming in the Blue Lagoon.

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Image by John Maund

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Image by John Maund

Magical is one word to describe the Blue Lagoon. Otherworldly is another. ‘It’s like we’re in a science fiction movie,’ said John, as we swam in the hot steaming pools. We were surrounded by a weird volcanic landscape like something out Prometheus, which incidentally filmed the alien world on location in Iceland. I can’t describe anything more romantic than swimming in the mist-covered Blue Lagoon as the setting sun caught the sky on fire and cast a red-and-orange glow across the blue waters.

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The Blue Lagoon was a highlight of our holiday, but even better was yet to come.

Hjalmar had warned us of winds from the ‘Northern Pole’ arriving later in the week, and they did. A snow storm blew in as we set off to discover the Golden Circle – one of Iceland’s most popular tours.

Our guide was an Icelander named Valli (I think, at least it was pronounced ‘valley’), and a true bard. Valli was quite kooky, like many Icelanders – I like them! She told and sung us the story of Iceland on our journey – an Icelandic folk song, Christmas carols and the national anthem as we drove past dark serpentine rivers and snowy mountain ranges.

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‘Iceland is the youngest country in the world,’ Valli told us. Geologically speaking. And it is still growing, forming, changing. Our Golden Circle tour encompassed the natural wonders of a country newly emerged from volcanoes and glaciers as it continued to evolve. The land is torn and ravaged by sharp ravines, rift valleys, deep gorges and spouting geysers.

At times it was far too snowy and windy for my DSLR to capture, so this was when John’s automatic was very handy.

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We were travelling in the company of a great Explore group and the blizzard made the day very atmospheric, but Valli had an extra surprise in store. For 200 ISK, or about 70p, we could experience an earthquake 6,3 on the Richter scale.

In 2008 there was a 6,3 earthquake under Mt. Ingólfsfjall – Valli remembers it well – that hit in Hveragerði, Selfoss. Today there is an exhibition of the earthquake – the opening in the earth is covered by glass and an earthquake simulator stands nearby! This is kooky Icelandic humour at work, I think. Valli smiled knowingly as we walked into the shed (earthquake simulator) and walked out shaken (literally) by the experience.

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Our fellow Explorers and Valli made the Golden Circle tour lots of fun, but the best day ever was still to come.

The untamed shores of Southern Iceland have black sand beaches, troublesome volcanoes, waterfalls bursting out of mountain sides and ice caves sculpted in glaciers. Our trip to the coast was met with the return of the sun and scenes so awesome and dazzling that no one could put down their camera.

You may recognise the popular tourist spot below – the unpronounceable volcano that Icelanders fondly call the ‘problem child’. Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 spewing ash clouds that caused havoc to air travel across Europe.

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However, this is just a baby volcano. Icelanders are waiting for Katla.

The surrounding area of Eyjafjallajökull is covered in volcanic ash. ‘Please take a bag,’ said our guide and bus driver. ‘We have plenty. No really, take away as much as you want.’

We were so lucky that the weather had changed again, because without the sun we would not have seen the famous rainbows in waterfalls. John joked that I had the biggest smile stuck to my face, but I have never seen anything like this. This is actually real…

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Iceland is magical. Where else could I walk to the end of a rainbow?

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A sense of wonder? Wow.

And the day just got better. We went ice climbing on a glacier…

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Our beautiful mountaineer who took us safely around the glacier. She and her team were absolutely brilliant. And made sure we had a fantastic time.

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John, the intrepid explorer.

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Drinking pure glacier water – delicious! Image by John Maund

Walked across beaches with alien black sand…

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And roamed behind thundering waterfalls…

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And did we find the elusive Northern Lights? They took some hunting down…

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And more than a few nights searching. Lucky that John had booked us extra time on our tour so that we could try one more time…

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A week had sped past and as our plane flew away from the Land of Fire and Ice, I thought of how many dreams had come true.

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I hope you get to go to Iceland too.

Useful links

Flights – we flew with Icelandair
Accommodation – we stayed at the Grand Hotel
Activities – we booked with Explore

Food and drink – there are lots of excellent restaurants in downtown Reykjavik. Is it expensive? I’d say central London prices. And I particularly recommend eating at the Laundromat.

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Next post 23 November: back to the bees!

Street lights

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‘The night sky isn’t always black,’ said Wei as I aimed my camera at the silhouettes of buildings outside Waterloo station and expected my lens to be swallowed up by the blackness of space. What I got was an electric blue shot of London’s cityscape revealing colours in the night sky that I had never seen. This was Destination Blue Hour – the magical moment when the sun drops below the horizon on a cloudless day electrifying the sky with a blue glow.

Wei is the organiser of the London Camera Club on London Meetup setting monthly ‘missions’ for anyone with a camera (DSLR or automatic) or camera phone to join and practise photography. I had signed up for Mission 6 – Destination Blue hour, for £2, on October 28, 2012, 4:30pm. Our meeting point was Waterloo station, South Bank exit, where we would head towards Hungerford Bridge, Victoria Embankment, Westminster Bridge and walk along the South Bank.

Destination Blue Hour is also referred to by photographers as the ‘Golden Hour’ or ‘Magical Hour’ Wei told us. While many photographers get up early to capture the sun rise, Wei prefers the evening sun: ‘You’ll be able to see blues and oranges in the pale sky against the glow of street lights without any special effects’.

We were told to keep all flashes off and, for those of us with a DSLR, Wei had provided guidelines for experimenting on manual. I chose a low ISO of 100 and, as I don’t have a wide angle lens, a low aperture of F3.5 (and lower), while adjusting shutter speeds of 1/30–1/8–6. I was surprised with the results.

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As nightfell, and so did the rain, our mission changed from Destination Blue Hour to Street Lights & Motion as Wei encouraged us to have fun playing with ISO 100 and very low shutter speeds to capture London’s traffic. I thought my first attempt was a fail, but Wei was delighted with this photo of an invisible bus speeding past…

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… so I tried some more…

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It was an amazing tour as I saw London through new eyes. Wei is a fantastic teacher and I highly recommend his camera club and workshops. The evening ended at a pub where we were told to choose one photo to show the group and then have a drink, and a packet of crisps, to share our experiences.

Since then I’ve rarely gone out without my bulky Canon 600D stuffed inside my bag. Wei opened up a whole new world of night photography to me and gave me the confidence to keep my DSLR setting on manual. I’ve tried his techniques many times while out and about. Here’s Tower Bridge at night and a walk along the Thames with a view of the glittering Shard.

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The low ISO and slow shutter speed method works well for darkened interiors I found at the Natural History Museum’s After Hours when visitors can explore the museum in a different light.

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I love London.

And closer to home in the western suburbs of Greater London – a dusky walk at Osterley Park House and Garden provided the opportunity to capture a fair at the mansion and eerie lights across the lake.

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If you live in London and have an interest in photography, I highly recommend Wei’s workshops. Destination Blue Hour 2 is scheduled for 27 October, this time for £2.50!

To find out more about Destination Blue Hour and night photography visit http://www.bluehoursite.com/.

Next post: 26 October ‘What our bees did’