And it rained…

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Our hives survived December’s wind and rain, while John and I spent Christmas at his family’s farm in frosty but sunny Hereford. The first Saturday in January, we went to the apiary in the afternoon and found a small crowd huddling around tea and Clare’s gingerbread men and women. Emily was then stranded at Drew’s family home in Cornwall due to floods.

The pink- and blue-iced gingerbread people looked very tempting, but I was keen to see our hives were still standing after the storms that had torn across the UK. They were. John watched as I hefted Myrtle’s hive, which was too heavy to heave, and Chamomile’s and Chili’s hives, which also felt a good weight of stores and bees.

Winter checks include looking into the entrance to make sure it isn’t blocked by dead bees. You would expect more dead bees at the entrance and lying in front of the hive in winter. Workers can get cold and weak even in the cosy warmth of the cluster, and a few may fall to the bottom of the hive and die. Of course, a whole pile of dead bees on the floor might be something to worry about.

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Raindrops on winter blooms at White City tube station last year.

Undertaker duty is a bit neglected in winter, when poor weather prevents flights or the workers may not have enough energy to carry dead bodies away from the hive. So it falls to the beekeeper to gingerly poke a stick through the holes in the mouseguard and tease out any dead bodies, so they don’t pile up and block the entrance.

I was wearing my full suit and veil to do this, despite mocking from some bearded beekeepers, because bees don’t take kindly to sticks being poked in the hive in winter, or, incidentally, at night. I wanted to avoid an indignant guard charging out and stinging my eye.

Hives heaved and entrances cleared, we went back to the apiary table for tea and gingerbread. Clare mentioned the apiary was showing Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof’s documentary More Than Honey the following Saturday. I had already watched the film over Christmas, a surprise gift from John. This led to lively debate. More Than Honey contains both incredible and disturbing scenes of bees and beekeeping around the world. I’m writing a review on my blog towards the end of this month, although I may not be able to include some comments made at the apiary about the pollination industry. If you can’t wait till then, Emily has written a thoughtful review on her blog.

There was a good turn out of Ealing beekeepers talking about their bees and buying oxalic acid. Sara, of lovely homesteading blog Hen Corner, was chatting to Elsa about great posts she has written recently on the pig process. Thomas, who was conferring with Jonesy about bee matters, has also started a blog about bees and life on the river.

Eventually, we all drifted away from the apiary and back to our other lives.

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A peek under the umbrella at rainy London on my way home from work.

There are so many things to do in winter like visit the Chelsea Physic Garden’s snowdrop days, coming soon, or the Natural History Museum’s (NHM) Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, now on.

John and I went to NHM with friends last weekend to see this year’s gallery of astounding wildlife photography. My favourite was this picture of two grumpy-looking bedraggled lions in the rain. I know how they feel!

Invertebrates seemed rather under-represented, I’m thinking of entering bee photos to the next competition – entry details here. So come on all you Hymenoptera and other invertebrate people! Let’s not have the tiny animals forgotten!

'Where the hell can I get eyes like that?'

Bumble bee precariously balancing on echinacea in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians.

The wheel turns

‘Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.’
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

The sun was hard and bright as we drove to the apiary on Sunday morning. With the passing of the winter solstice the days begin to lengthen. The honeybee colony senses the incremental increases in daylight hours and the queen stirs deep within the cluster. She will soon start to lay for the coming spring.

In the UK beekeepers treat their hives with oxalic acid around 21/22 December. This is thought to be an effective anti-varroa treatment when there is little or no capped brood inside the hive. The varroa mites have nowhere to hide and are most vulnerable to treatment.

Last year I made this video of Emily dribbling oxalic acid on our hives.

As I wrote then, ‘Giving the bees oxalic acid‘, the treatment is given as a pre-mixed solution of 3% oxalic acid in sugar syrup with 5ml of solution dribbled across each seam of bees.

Emily had treated our Hanwell bees with oxalic acid and now we had three hives waiting at Perivale. John waited outside the apiary as I pulled on my beekeeping suit and untangled the hives from wrappings of chicken wire.

I opened up Myrtle’s hive – our oldest, and my favourite, queen – and peered into the still darkness. All was quiet. Then the workers ran up as one and peered back at me. To anyone but a beekeeper it would be disconcerting. A couple of young-looking fuzzy workers flew out and buzzed curiously around my veil. I realised it was time to stop enjoying the bees. They were losing precious heat, so I dispensed oxalic acid between each frame and closed the hive.

Next, Chamomile’s bees were clustered above the frames tucking into fondant. They were slightly more indignant, although not bad tempered, at being disturbed. So I didn’t linger. Last, Chili’s bees, having strangely taken to the medicine with the sugar, were too busy investigating the sweet drops to make a complaint. Yes, I too have noticed Chili’s bees are a bit weird.

Recent research has challenged the traditional way in which we give oxalic acid treatment, as Emily reports in her post ‘The great Facebook oxalic acid controversy‘. While I enjoy a midwinter visit to the bees, I feel uncomfortable about disturbing the winter cluster. The thought of a further inspection and destroying sealed brood when the colony is about to enter its most perilous time of year fills me with doubt.

However, as I reach the end of my fourth year as a beekeeper, I realise that I must become less sentimental about the bees. As beekeepers we love every bee and often anthropomorphise about life inside the hive, but the honeybee colony can be a ‘vast and cool and unsympathetic’ intellect acting as one mind. Workers will dispose unhealthy larvae, retire old queens and dispatch drones for the good of the whole. If this new research proves to be the best approach then we may have to change the way oxalic acid is given in future. But for now, I’d rather wait and see.

It has been a busy year for our bees, but we have reached the end. I’m taking a break from blogging for the holidays, so here are some of my favourite beekeeping moments from 2013.

Happy Christmas everyone and see you in the New Year!

Best beekeeping pictures of 2013

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Snowmageddon – Emily finds evidence of woodpeckers in the snow.

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My first sighting of a honeybee this year foraging on a purple crocus.

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This could get out of hand – our bees make new queens.

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A wonderful Bee Surprise from my boyfriend John and his friends.

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Autumn is coming – the year passes too quickly and soon the bees are preparing for autumn.

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My favourite queen Myrtle walking across the frame. She’s a long amber beauty.

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Our bees love building wax comb where they’re not supposed to!

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One of my favourite pictures of Emily beekeeping this year – What is a swarm cell and what is a superseder cell?

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Beekeepers in Iceland!

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And last but not least, a congregation of Ealing beekeepers.

Nanny Africa

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Who keeps the beekeepers?

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Winter is here and, as every beekeeper knows, you will get asked at least once a week ‘What do bees do in winter?’. People are surprised when you say that bees don’t hibernate in winter and they are fascinated to hear how the workers cluster into a small, tight ball around the queen, vibrating their flight muscles to maintain a core temperature of around 21–24°C inside the hive. The winter bees eat the honey stores made by their summer sisters, because generating that much heat requires energy. ‘During the winter a colony will use an average of about 1kg per week just for heat production. (So do not skimp on feeding!)’ says Celia F Davis, The Honey Bee Inside Out. On a clear, mild day, the workers venture outside to stretch their wings or on a ‘cleansing flight’ (bees don’t like to poo indoors).

Honeybee colonies are much smaller in winter – on average, around 10–15,000 workers and the queen – so there are fewer bees to keep, but still beekeeping to do. Insulating roofs to conserve heat energy, checking mouseguards are secure and entrances clear, wrapping hives in chicken wire to deter peckish woodpeckers, and hefting the weight of stores. Beekeepers can then look forward to the tradition of giving bees a gift of fondant on Christmas Day, although many of us leave the fondant under the roof much earlier.

Sadly, people rarely ask what do beekeepers do in winter, who keeps the apiary warm or who maintains vital stores of tea and cake? Luckily, at Ealing apiary there is a hard core of beekeepers who turn up every Saturday afternoon to keep each other. And while we can’t vibrate our flight muscles like bees to maintain a tropical 24°C, the urn is boiled, tea is poured and cakes served warm from the oven. I arrived at the apiary yesterday to find a small crowd chatting over cups of tea, two varieties of cake and curious about my offering of a packet of jaffa cakes.

As regular readers know, there is a show-and-tell each week at our apiary. John Chapple was showing a photo of a strange numerical construct built on to the front of a house ‘for the bees’. I never got to the bottom of what it was. Thomas had brought a pretty collection of beeswax balms made by a lady beekeeper at Walpole Friends apiary, which the Ealing (men) beekeepers thought were good for buying, sticking on a gift label and saying ‘here, have this’ at Christmas.

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Beekeepers are great hobbyists and have many hobbies to keep them occupied in winter. One of those hobbies is talking to other beekeepers about their bees. I had a fun chat with Andy, a beekeeper who admitted that Emily and I are not the only Ealing beekeepers who name our queens. While Emily and I use a naming convention of essential oils, Andy names his queens for famous female scientists. So far his queens have included Rosalind (Rosalind Franklin, British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer), Jocelyn (Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Northern Irish astrophysicist) and Valentina (Valentina Tereshkova, Russian cosmonaut and engineer). Valentina swarmed with her colony which, said Andy, taught him not to name future queens after astronauts or aviators, ‘There will never be an Amelia’.

The apiary’s core temperature of around 8–10°C doesn’t allow sitting for long, so we joined Andy Pedley and the other beekeepers stretching their legs around the hives. Albert noticed a few dead bees were blocking the entrance to Chamomile’s hive and Thomas thought the bodies might be trapped by the way our mouseguard was placed over the entrance reducer. ‘I noticed lots of hives here have entrance reducers and mouseguards on, but this might make it too difficult for bees to get in and out,’ he said. Thomas and Albert helped me to reposition the mouseguard and remove dead bodies. As soon as the entrance was clear a worker bee flew out impatient to get past and buzzing loudly. Perhaps she had been waiting for a cleansing flight for a long time.

There was not a sight of a bee outside Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives and I hoped our queens were well inside. I shouldn’t have favourites but I am fond of Myrtle, who was named for my favourite essential oil and, like her namesake, is a gentle and kind queen. Here she is walking elegantly across a frame this summer.

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Satisfied the bees were well being kept, the beekeepers drifted out of the apiary and all was quiet and still again. The day was getting darker and colder, so I was grateful when Stan offered a lift home to Northolt.

Today is the 1st of December and John and I are putting up the Christmas decorations. I will, of course, save some tinsel for the bees.

Further reading

Hivernation – a useful read on what the bees get up to in winter, by blogger Apis.

Understanding bee anatomy – Thomas found a fantastic blog by a doctor and Master beekeeper, very useful for winter bee studies.

Small thoughts on Bug Hotels

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‘With a cold snap on the way, it’s nice to give solitary bees and other useful insects a place to stay,’ I posted on my Facebook wall last Sunday with a photo of a pretty bug hotel I had bought in the afternoon at Westfield shopping centre. ‘Though I don’t yet have my own garden, hopefully it will find a quiet, undisturbed corner in a friend’s backyard.’ The post was inspired by a recent article on A french garden‘s blog, More on the mason bees, and proved popular with family and friends. I hoped they would be inspired to build bug hotels in their gardens.

This small thought grew in the week as I tweeted: ‘Building a bug hotel is so easy, looks so pretty and makes bugs so happy ow.ly/qUmTd #homesfornature #bug @Natures_Voice‘. The link was from a website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). RSPB is running a wonderful campaign named Giving nature a home. The idea is that anyone can make a home for nature no matter how big or small a space you have to give.

There’s even a useful free guide on how to help wildlife on your doorstep.

My tweet was also popular and @MrKevinMatthews tweeted me a link to his blog post on Insect House in the middle of their street. Well, it’s in the middle of their garden fence, but you get the idea. It’s a fabulous construction that not only makes an attractive garden feature but creates many homes for nature. Another thought – imagine if all fences and walls along our streets and around our parks were built with insect houses? Entrances could face away from traffic and glass-panes on the back could provide observation panels for curious passersby? I think insect manors would be a great feature for any city! Welcome to bug capital!

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St James’s Park near my new place of work. A five-minute stroll for me but a long trek for a little lacewing.

Parts of towns and cities can be a desert for our insect pollinators unable to find a nearby tree or flower to feast. Local wildlife can become homeless as compost heaps are swept away, fallen twigs and leaves tidied up, and messy hedgerows cut back. While the walk between the office and the nearest park at lunch may be five minutes on foot for me or you, it could be a day’s journey for a hungry lacewing or tired beetle. Bug hotels placed here and there would make ‘bridges’ or places to rest for small creatures trekking between one habitat and the next. I think they would make our cities more pleasant and interesting places for humans to live too.

Why? Because who doesn’t enjoy the first fat bumblebee popping out of a daffodil in spring, or being surprised by a ladybird landing on your coat, or sighting a dragonfly purposefully darting in and out of reeds? Spaces for nature, big or small, will help keep nature in our lives and ensure today’s children grow up seeing butterflies and bees buzzing in our towns.

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In the late autumn gloom of the apiary on a rainy Saturday a few weeks ago.

All is still at the apiary as honeybee colonies cluster together for warmth deep in the darkness of the hives. Emily and I miss our bees over winter, but we often think of solitary bees and bumblebee queens nestling away from the cold. We feel sorry that they don’t have keepers to insulate their homes and feed them fondant and pollen cakes when stores run low in February.

I hope our apiary provides a messy sanctuary to the wildlife we can’t see hiding beneath deadwood and wet leaves.

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And as regular readers know, in sun, rain or snow the apiary is home for beekeepers who are partial to tea and cake…

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Today’s high tea was delicious iced chocolate cakes made by Emily.

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Some beekeepers have been losing sleep worrying about woodpeckers! Jonesy kindly helped Emily wrap our hives in chicken wire, while Thomas has provided insulated roofs.

Honeybees get a lot of attention but other insects need keeping too! Bug hotels are great alternatives to supporting local pollinators and encouraging other bees (around 25 bumblebee species and around 240 other bee species including solitary bees in the UK) into your garden, local park or place of work. Hives make attractive features but so do bug hotels and they come in many more varieties – look at this incredible collection: Insect hotels on Pinterest.

This winter I’m writing to councils, parks, golf courses, schools and businesses to ask them to get involved by encouraging bug hotels. As my friend Suzanne would say, ‘It’s not asking for the moon-on-a-stick’ – just a little bug hotel on the back of a garden shed!

And if you need any more inspiration then I’ve collected these links and more at the end of this post. I’d love to see pictures of bug hotels that you build for a follow-up post in spring.

Useful links
More on the mason bees by A french garden

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB):
Giving nature a home
Twitter @Natures_Voice
RSPB Love Nature Facebook (wonderful for sharing inspiring ideas and stories)
Download RSPB’s useful free guide on how to give nature a home

More Bug Hotels:
Insect House by @MrKevinMatthews
Build a bug mansion by Wild About Gardens
Making a bug hotel downloadable leaflet by Royal Horticultural Society
Make a bug home by BBC Breathing Places
How to make a bug box by Gardeners World
Handmade Homes For Snug Bugs by Bug Hotel

Finally, thoughts from 2012 on why our native habitat maybe disappearing:
Disappearing bees – countdown to catastrophe or one to watch? A past post reporting on a talk by Dr Stuart Roberts of Reading University’s Centre of Agri-Environmental Research, speaking at the Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Association’s annual Beekeepers Day on Saturday 25 February 2012.

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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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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Image by John Maund

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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Image by John Maund

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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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Image by John Maund

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!

Beekeeping in Iceland

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Image by John Maund

I watched our bees fly home on a mild autumn day with the treasures of their colourful forage bulging out of pollen baskets, and wondered when they would start to huddle up to survive the forecast of a long, harsh winter. I couldn’t imagine then that a colony would flourish in a place where autumn cooled to 0–3°C during the day and dropped to below zero at night.

The following week John and I flew to Reykjavik in Iceland for the first year anniversary of when we met expecting to see glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes and, of course, the Northern Lights. We had packed thermals, knitted jumpers, hats, scarves, gloves and waterproofs to prepare for wind, rain and snow, although we soon found that the weather report changed from hour to hour and, as the locals said, ‘If you stand still for five minutes you will have all-new weather’.

We had a full itinerary to explore the eclectic city of Reykjavik and discover the strange and fantastical country of Iceland. We hoped also to find time to meet an Icelandic beekeeper, Hjalmar Jonsson, who had contacted Emily through her blog and, after hearing that John and I were visiting Iceland, had generously offered to show his hives and take us around Reykjavik. When I emailed to arrange to meet on Tuesday, he replied that we were lucky to arrive early in the week as ‘strong wind from the Northern Pole was on his way’.

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Image by John Maund

Iceland was not the first country I thought of when thinking about bees and beekeeping, but Hjalmar is part of a growing beekeeping community in Reykjavik and neighbouring towns. After meeting at the Grand Hotel, he told us a bit about beekeeping in Iceland as he drove us to see his hives. The honeybees in Iceland are Italian and usually imported from Sweden or Norway where they are bred. We were told the colonies have little or no disease or problems with varroa due to their isolation. The main challenge the bees face is not the snow and cold but wind and rain. Hjalmar uses polystyrene Langstroth hives to help keep the bees warm and we later saw that these were firmly strapped down and lined up against a wind barrier of trees and bracken.

This year the summer in Iceland was wet with prolonged spells of rain and a poor honey harvest for Hjalmar, who has two hives, and his neighbour, who has six or maybe more! But Hjalmar was content to have two strong colonies to overwinter and had even set aside two jars of honey for myself and Emily. A very valuable and generous gift!

The day was full of cold bright sunshine with a sharp bite in the air as we walked along the path to take our first view of Icelandic bees. We could have been looking at a row of hives in London, it was all so familiar. We took a few photos and Hjalmar said ‘Now let’s take a closer look.’

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Image by John Maund

A deserted Warre hive stood empty to the side and in which Hjalmar said the bees had only built two boxes before giving up. He thought the Warre hive might not have been warm enough to keep the colonies going. There was an observation panel at the back revealing the beautiful emptied nest of natural honeycomb inside. I thought how much fun it would be to observe the hives this way in winter, although our bees would likely propolise the window to stop us from being nosy.

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Natural honeycomb built by bees inside a Warre hive.

We walked back towards the Langstroth hives where Hjalmar pointed to a piece of honeycomb lying outside the entrance, he thought it was drone comb. ‘This is when it is hard for us males, John,’ he said. ‘To see when we are no longer needed by nature.’ He was referring, of course, to the end of summer when the males (drones) are evicted from the nest by the females (workers) – a gripe of many male beekeepers. I sensed bonding was occurring.

Unconcerned by the fate of their brothers, a few workers were flying in and out of the entrance, perhaps on cleansing flights or to stretch their wings on a clear day. I asked Hjalmar if his bees were good natured and he nodded, ‘Except one time when I opened the hive too early in the year. They weren’t ready for me’.

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Leaving the bees to enjoy their winter break, we took a stroll along the path to a salmon river – an oasis of calm outside the city populated by dog walkers, ramblers, birds, and salmon. Birdwatching is another passion of Hjalmar’s along with a growing interest in photography and blogging. And he was very pleased to show us the untouched beauty of his country as we drove to see a vast mirror-like lake – Iceland is a land of incredible natural beauty.

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Another surprise was waiting – a visit to a farm in the suburbs where the farmer has been keeping bees and growing apple trees, which, like many trees, are scarce in Iceland.

We were warmly greeted by the farmer’s daughter who was keen to show her father’s hives. ‘We make mistakes and we are learning all the time.’ They were learning fast and their happy, healthy bees suggested they didn’t make many mistakes. Two rows of Langstroth hives were situated under a wind shelter with bees contentedly floating around jars of sugar syrup warming in the sun outside the entrances.

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There were even thermostats on the roofs, so while we were shivering in 2–3°C outside, I could see that the bees were a snug 22°C inside.

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Having grown up on a farm in Hereford, John was keen to look around and we were treated to more Icelandic hospitality with a tour of the greenhouse apple orchard and egg factory. We even left with organic apples in our pockets to eat later.

Iceland is a relaxed country to put it mildly, and Icelanders have a quiet, dry humour that I was only just beginning to appreciate. So when Hjalmar told us we were going to see the president of Iceland, I thought he was joking. He was, sort of.

It is possible to drive up to the President of Iceland’s house, which is white, in Bessastaðir, Álftanes, a town in Reykjavík. The residence is surrounded by mountains and sea and overlooks a view of the city. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and his very popular First Lady Dorrit Moussaieffare are said to sometimes enjoy strolls with visitors in the grounds. You can read more about it on this blogger’s visit. Amazing. It gave me a real sense of the closeness and ease of the Icelandic community, which I liked very much.

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I took this one. Behind the church is the house of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland, in Bessastaðir, Álftanes, a town in Reykjavík.

After all that bee-ing and sightseeing, it was time for a trip to the oldest coffee house in Reykjavik. If you ever visit, you must go there. Mokka-Kaffi opened in 1958 from its beginnings as a place for artists to meet and today is famous for its hot chocolate. Hjalmar nodded towards a man sitting by the window sketching into a notebook.

As our day was drawing to an end, Hjalmar drove us to the harbour ‘and to take photos’. Hjalmar is practising photography for his blog, which I hope to post a link on these pages soon. The city looked even more picturesque from the other side of the harbour with the sea sparkling across the bay.

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My lovely boyfriend John and official photographer for the day!

John and I had been overwhelmed by the Icelandic hospitality and generosity we had received that day and as Hjalmar dropped us off at the Aurora Borealis museum, I said that we hoped to see him in London next year to visit our hives.

We have kept in touch since and as Hjalmar said, we were very lucky with our visit to Iceland. This was only part one of our holiday, part two including bubbling hot springs, rumbling mountains, waterfalls and glaciers was yet to come…

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Further reading

I suspect the farm Hjalmar took us to visit was the same as featured in BeeCraft magazine: ‘Beekeeping in the land of fire and ice’.

You can read more about Icelandic beekeeping on the association website.

A great blog/website with a personal view of all you need to know about a trip to Iceland