A year in the bee garden – November

A few lingering butterflies rested their wings on the ivy flowers in November, but they were too fleeting to catch with my camera.

November is a good month to plan next year’s garden by taking note of which plants have thrived best in which parts of the garden, and which have attracted the most insect visitors.

My bee garden calendar is slowly coming together, starting with spring flowers and spring-flowering shrubs (snowdrops, crocuses, bluebells, cotoneaster, hebe, smoke tree), long-lasting summer flowers (salvia, scabiosa, toadflax) and late summer to autumn blooms (snowberry, sedum). All of these plants seem to grow well in our heavy clay soil.

November is also a month of surprises.

Our fatsia has flowered for the first time to the delight of honeybees, bumble bees, hoverflies, and to me.

The mornings are getting frosty. Even the frogs are no longer bothering to pop up and watch John when he is gardening.

Soon the bee garden will sleep for winter.

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A year in the bee garden – October

Summer came back in October – word had reached her of the ‘backwinter‘. The bees made the most of the ‘backsummer’. The hive entrance was too busy to put on mouseguards as foragers flew home with baskets of yellow pollen.

However, a quick inspection showed that nectar was out of stock. I filled the syrup feeders, and filled them five times again in October, and the bees drank up every last drop.

Since then I have been unable to visit the apiary and my husband John, my mum Ronnie, and Ealing beekeeper Thomas have put on mouseguards and fondant for winter.

In the garden, the salvia was pleasing a few late bumble bee queens, the orange buddleia was still blooming for the carder bees, and the spiders were trying to catch the last honeybees visiting the snowberry.

October is a good time for a garden tidy-up before the ground gets too wet or hard. John and I finished the weeding started in September, while John laid plastic sheeting and gravel over the most stubborn areas of weed, and I mulched the flower beds with soft bark chippings and fallen leaves.

Gravelling and mulching may sound very unfriendly to bees, and other wildlife, but I’ve found that many bee-friendly plants will grow happily in-between and that slowing down the growth of weeds (without using chemicals) leaves more time for other wildlife-friendly activities. Such as emergency bee rescues.

John found a carder bee frozen still on the garden hose. I made her a warm nest for the night from rolled-up corrugated cardboard and put her in the shed. The next morning she had sugar water for breakfast before flying off.

Our ivy had only begun to flower at the end of October, but fewer bees were visiting. Who will be left to enjoy it?

A year in the bee garden – September

The honeybees built the comb with bright yellow beeswax this summer and filled cells with vibrant orange-yellow pollen. Emily and I imagined that our bees had been visiting sunflowers.

The weeks have since flown by and Emily has now moved to Cornwall. After almost seven years of keeping bees together, I shall miss my hive-partner-in-crime very much, but I will continue to follow Emily’s adventures in beeland as she discovers the bees and wildlife of the west country.

Meanwhile back in London, the sunflowers are in full bloom in our garden.

The sunflowers were a gift from the garden of John’s aunt and uncle, Jo and Brian, who live in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. We had visited them earlier in the summer for the Hay-on-Wye Festival and came home not only with books but sunflower seedlings and a rowan tree sapling.

Today I caught a carder bee on the sunflower – her face full of pollen.

Summer has turned into autumn and the bees are busy foraging for every last drop of nectar and dusting of pollen that the garden has to offer.

The gardener’s year, I think like the beekeeper’s year, begins in September. The honeybees clear out the nest by throwing out the drones and the queen lays fewer eggs as the brood nest becomes smaller with more space instead for winter stores. In the garden, it is a good time of year to clear out weeds and prune back overgrown plants to make space for what you will grow next summer.

This was the first weekend that I have had free from work for a couple of months, and the sun has been shining. I made a start in the garden by pulling up the weeds around the apple tree and working the soil into a fine crumble ready to scatter the toadflax seeds.

A toadflax meadow had sprung up between the gravel this summer, but the flowers were now fading and the seed pods beginning to burst open. I moved as many of the toadflax as I could from the gravel to the apple tree bed and into large containers to let the seeds fall where I want the flowers to grow next year.

The apple tree bed is prone to weeds, but toadflax seedlings are easy to recognise (see above) with their narrow spiral of pale-green leaves and are less likely to be weeded out by mistake.

The carder bees buzzed around me as I moved the toadflax that was still flowering to the containers and then inspected my work to make sure it matched their standards.

I uncovered some slugs and snails, and moved them to another patch of weeds that I plan on tackling next weekend. They can munch on these in the meantime.

While I was moving this snail, I noticed that she had a little hitchhiker on her back. Mum and baby are now happily eating up my bindweed, I hope.

That done, I left the garden to go indoors. It wasn’t long before John called me outside again. He had been mowing the lawn and spotted a rare visitor perched on the roof.

We stood on the decking to take photos of the heron who looked unimpressed with the cage around the fish pond.

And then he was off!

Everything ends and starts again in autumn. As Emily and I move on to our new adventures – from bees in Cornwall to wildlife gardens in Ickenham – I hope that we will always be inspired by the natural world around us and that our paths will one day cross again beside the hives.

Life in the garden

The selfish ivy had taken everything out of the soil for itself. As I dug up the echinacea, verbena and thyme to replant in pots, I realised that few but the most stubborn plants would grow in this unfriendly earth. Further along the walled bed, two small trees had littered the soil with fallen leaves and not even the Japanese anemone nor the lemon balm would venture any further into the shade.

Then I had an idea. Bees, butterflies and other garden visitors need water as well as food. If I couldn’t grow any flowers for wildlife to eat, then I would give it a place to drink instead.

A cinnabar moth resting on a cool leaf. Non-flowering foliage is as important as the flowers in the garden, because it provides a place for wildlife to hide, shelter and rest.

A quick search around the house and garden and I found everything that I needed to create two mini-wildlife ponds.

Tip: The garden is a great place to find new uses for old things. I also feel that we rely too much on recycling. The next time you think about buying garden accessories have a look around the home or second-hand shops first. A bucket with a broken handle could make a frog pond, a cracked flower pot for a toad house, chipped cups for bird feeders and old serving forks and spoons can be used as stakes for plants.

An empty plastic container and a stained washing-up bowl – both in the queue for a trip to Harefield’s recycling skip – were just the right sizes for my mini ponds. I dug a hole in the earth for each and buried the bowls up to the rims to make it easy for hedgehogs to stop by and dip in for a drink.

The ivy is home to many creatures in our garden, including spiders who usually walk out on their webs when I disturb them doing the gardening.

Next, I poured gravel into the bottom and made a pile of stone ‘steps’ for frogs, toads or newts to climb in and out. Larger stones and broken paving slabs surrounded the edges. That done, I filled up the ponds with tap water – and some dechlorinator (it hasn’t rained enough lately to collect rainwater in buckets) – and added duckweed and hornwort from the larger fish and frog ponds.

Tip: Duckweed and hornwort can quickly grow and become a nuisance. I find it easy to manage by removing a handful now and then as compost for the garden or to put into the bird bath and rain buckets. The plants seem to keep the still water clear and to deter mosquito larvae as well.

Finally, a few pieces of crockery filled with pebbles made watering holes for thirsty insects. Here are the results:

It wasn’t long before the frogs, and the snails, found the new garden ponds.

A walk in the garden at night revealed that a lot of wildlife comes out after the dark like this trail of snails climbing over the plant labels to the pond.

Although some still prefer our more established frog pond.

We have a lot of slugs in the garden too, but, as you might guess, we don’t use slug-and-snail pellets. Any slugs that I find on the Japanese anemone, which is their favourite thing, are put on the compost bins where they can eat to their hearts’ content.

The mini-wildlife ponds are also the perfect place for baby snails but overall life in the garden sorts itself out, and the frogs seem to keep the slug and snail population in balance.

As you might imagine, our garden is also pesticide-free and weedkiller-free. In fact, I was once told by a gardener, when asking about how to control the bamboo and bindweed last year, that the bees don’t mind Roundup. I didn’t believe him and I’m glad to say that we found another gardener willing to dig out the bamboo (an expert job because its roots were entwined around the roots of the smoke tree) rather than poison it. Meanwhile, John and I weeded out the bindweed and covered the area using garden sheeting and gravel.

We’ll never be rid of either (bindweed seeds, for example, can live in the soil for many years), but we manage both quite well by physical methods – digging, hoeing and weeding.

The old bamboo grove is now used as a bird-feeding station. Here, the birds can feast on fat balls and splash about in the bath and make as much mess as they want on the rhizome-riddled earth. The area is sheltered by the smoke tree and bushes to allow small birds to make a quick exit if the sparrowhawk flies past.

As a thank you, the birds have left us some beautiful flowers this year from other gardens, such as this love-in-a-mist. Birds are very good gardeners.

Life is always very busy in the garden.

After the bamboo was cut down, several thistles sprung up in its place. John and I kept the largest thistle next to the fence for the sweat bees. It has been a popular breakfast bar.

On the gravel patch, I planned to plant mini-wildflower meadows in pots but the garden had other ideas. This summer’s surprise is the butterfly-and-caterpillar habitat that has sprung up in the form of a toadflax meadow.

The carder bees also buzz around the purple flowers all day long – toadflax is a rewarding plant for wildlife.

While my mason bees that I ordered earlier in spring fell victim to the backwinter and an army of ants, a single local mason bee found the insect hotel when the weather warmed up again. She worked very hard for almost a month to fill as many tubes as possible with her eggs and food for her larvae.

The mason bee was too busy to keep up with her housework this year and often left piles of yellow pollen outside her front door.

Sometimes she had a lie-in on a Sunday morning.

I last saw our mason bee resting on the fence, her exhausted and bedraggled body fit to drop, and then she was gone. A fortnight later, I realised that she wasn’t coming back and that three of the tubes were only partly finished. So I completed her work by making mud plugs myself and hoped for the best for next spring.

The leafcutters moved in next and have been busy filling up the remaining tubes.

Another resident has been watching their progress with interest.

As far as I can tell, he has not caused any mischief and so has not been evicted.

The ants made up for their earlier destruction of my mason bee cocoons by allowing me to watch this year’s queens fly away to start new nests. They didn’t fly very far it seemed and probably we will have more ant nests on the lawn again.

The honeybees returned after the June gap for their annual crop of a flowering shrub around the fir tree. As a beekeeper, I have an interest in planting a garden that is pleasing to bees. This summer, the salvia and scabiosa have been the clear winners, probably because they have flourished and grown rapidly in the sun. The honeybees have also discovered the lemon balm which is in flower and a few bumble bees have opted for the more traditional choice of our lavender bush.

The scabiosa has been busy entertaining bee and hoverfly visitors all day long. This carder bee can’t wait to get in on the action.

I’m also delighted that our myrtle tree is in flower for the first time since it was planted in the garden, although it has not yet produced enough flowers to delight the pollinators.

Of course, it’s not all about the birds and the bees. On occasion, we have human visitors too.

My mum and stepdad enjoying Sunday lunch in the garden yesterday.

They provide something interesting for the fish to look at.

Life in the garden is precarious and it can all change as quickly as it came. Already the plants seem too far ahead of the season and the blackberries are beginning to ripen over the fence. I have found a new hobby in collecting my own seeds and cuttings to grow more of the plants and flowers that the wildlife in our garden loves most. Bluebell bulbs can be divided and planted under the smoke tree in autumn, seeds are being collected from the salvia and seedheads from the scabiosa to provide more forage for next year’s bees, and the toadflax and rose campion ‘alba’ are being encouraged to sprout everywhere for next year’s butterflies.

This week on BBC begins The British Garden: Life and Death on Your Lawn looking at how well British gardens support wildlife. From the frog ponds in the shady flower beds to the compost bins and piles of logs and leaves, I like to think that our garden supports a lot of wildlife and that there is still much more to discover beyond our back door.

 

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

What the bees did

“The bees don’t listen, do they?” said Jonesy. John Chapple and I nodded in agreement.

Alan had put on the kettle to make tea as we sat under the shade at the apiary table and shared stories about misbehaving bees.

Last weekend, it was a gloriously hot and sunny Saturday afternoon and the nectar, as well as the conversation, was in full flow. Emily and I had inspected our three hives and found that the honeybees were not wasting a second of the good weather either.

We had arrived at noon before the other beekeepers to carry out a thorough inspection of a suspected queenless colony. The queen was last seen three weeks ago by myself and Jochen. She was big, orange and beautiful. But she had since failed to lay a single egg and the colony was dwindling without brood or stores.

Eggs can be tricky to see on the comb until you know what you’re looking for – one tiny grain of ‘rice’ sticking up from the middle of a cell. Here I’ve ringed two eggs laid by Queen Angelica.

TIP: I have since learned from anecdotal sources that a virgin queen can be large rather than small and so appear to be mated, or, of course, a mated queen may look big and beautiful but may not have mated well. The only proof of a successfully mated queen is seeing eggs, larvae and worker-brood on the frames. Thanks to the Women in Beekeeping Facebook Group for that tip!

While waiting for her majesty to settle into her egg-laying duties (which can sometimes take a few weeks depending on the conditions inside and outside the hive), Emily and I had reduced the colony to one hive box by encouraging the bees to rob out the super above and take the honey down below. This would make it easier to search for a missing queen or to combine the hive, if it truly was queenless, with a queen-right colony.

Going through the frames, there was no sign of a queen or eggs and we were about to reach for the newspaper to unite colonies when at the eleventh hour (or the tenth frame) Emily spotted a queen. She was not the giant orange beauty but a smaller, darker queen, and as I held up the frame we watched her release an egg from her ovipositor and carefully deposit it into a cell, surrounded by a retinue of attentive workers.

After so many years of keeping bees, it is still a sight to see the queen in action. And with no other eggs seen inside the hive, perhaps we had watched her lay the first egg.

I also never get tired of seeing a bee emerge from her cell by chewing away the wax capping. 

What happened to the orange queen? I had put a frame with four or five queen cells (two looked particularly promising) into the hive on the weekend of the first May bank holiday. This was an attempt to requeen the colony after the old queen, Patience, had disappeared without leaving behind any daughters. Had more than one queen emerged? Perhaps this dark mystery queen had killed her sister for the throne?

Or did the orange beauty get eaten by a bird or fly into a spider’s web on her mating flight, (a queen’s mating flight can be a perilous journey), or even fly away in a cast-off swarm? We’ll never know.

The hive was not out of the woods. The new queen and her old workers faced the huge task of rebuilding the nest. So Emily and I put in a frame from our stronger colony and refilled the syrup feeder above the crownboard.

John arrived as we closed up. He had a surprise to show us.

A wasp queen and her workers had also been busy nest building and their creation was a work of art. I’m not sure if this is a paper wasp nest or a wood wasp. Does anyone know?

What we named the queens

A heatwave was about to hit London (this time last week) and I hoped that the foragers would fly home with stomachs full of nectar and baskets heavy with pollen for all three queens and their colonies.

Emily and I name our queens after essential oils – partly because I’m an aromatherapist and had started this tradition with my first hive, and partly because of the intricate relationship that exists between the honeybee and these vital essences of flowers.

The queen of our largest hive – an amber-and-black striped amazon – is named after the essential oil of everlasting, because she comes from such a long line of queens. The queen of the nuc hive – who has a long dark tail with orange–brown flecks – is named after the essential oil of angelica, which reflects the angelic nature of our bees. And the newest queen – who is small and dark – is called Rose-Jasmine (RJ) as these were the names of Emily and my first queens respectively at around the time that we became hive partners in 2011.

I’ve added the new queens to our honeybee-family tree:

What the bees did next

When the hottest day for forty years arrived on Wednesday (sounds biblical doesn’t it) and temperatures in London soared to almost 35°C, I went to the apiary to put a super on Everlasting’s hive and to transfer Angelica’s colony from the polynuc to a full-size hive. This was to give the bees more space and to stop them from having ideas about swarming.

On Saturday I was eager to open up the hives and find out what the bees had done during the heatwave. Everlasting and Angelica were building up their brood nests nicely. Rose-Jasmine did not show herself again and disappointingly had not laid any more eggs. Had yet another queen failed for this unlucky colony?

Emily and I looked at the signs. The workers had drawn out honeycomb on a new frame and were forming strings of wax builders, polishing out cells, bringing home pollen and glistening nectar, and behaving calmly and purposefully – all of which suggests that a queen was present and keeping the colony working as a whole. There were no signs of laying workers, which might have suggested that the queen was gone.

When the workers prepare to swarm, they starve the queen to make her skinny to fly and to slow down her egg-laying. Perhaps something similar was happening here. The workers were not preparing to swarm, but they had not brought home much nectar and the queen might be simply too hungry to lay eggs.

We decided to give the colony one more chance by feeding it as much as possible for the next two weeks to see if this will stimulate the queen to lay. If she doesn’t produce the goods, then she may lose her throne. We’ll have to wait and see.

The queen drama in June reminded me that the bees never put all their eggs in one basket. The workers may build up to sixteen queen cells to make a new queen even though the colony needs only one. To make life you need a lot of chances.

Queen Hope left behind at least two daughters who have proven to be good egg-layers for their colonies. Here is Everlasting with her long beautiful orange tail and black markings – I think she has the looks of her great, great, great, great grandmother Neroli.

This is something that particularly hits home for me. In the past twelve months, my husband and I have had two failed IVF cycles and the loss that comes with it. It can take some time to move on from that.

That is why I felt a pang at the idea of taking down any of the queen cells in May, and instead used them to requeen the queenless colony and to create a split colony in the nuc. It is a pleasure to see that all three colonies did produce a queen and that two, at least, are alive and laying. And as ever, it feels like a privilege that the bees tolerate and allow me to be a part of their world.

That done, Emily and I helped John Chapple to take off some honey from his hives and then we all had a well-deserved sit down and a slice of cake at the apiary table. You can read about the cake in my previous post, in which Stan did the honours of cutting it with a hive tool.

Tom was giving a beginners session on queen-rearing by showing the beginners how to graft young larvae onto starter cells. Yet more queen drama about to begin at Ealing apiary!

Last weekend, my husband John discovered a butterfly meadow just around the corner from where we live and took me to see it as a surprise. I’ve never seen so many butterflies. So you see, you never know what lies around the corner in life and that’s why it’s a good idea to enjoy the sunshine while it lasts.

This weekend rain is forecast for the week ahead and to be honest it is needed for the trees and flowers to continue producing nectar for the bees, butterflies and other pollinators. After that, the sun is welcome to come again.

Chocolate volcano-ring cake for the beekeepers

As regular readers of my blog will know, the Ealing and District Beekeepers Association is really a tea-and-cake association. Everyone turns up on a Saturday afternoon for a bit of cake at the apiary table washed down by a very good cup of tea. Occasionally, there is some beekeeping too. Yesterday I baked a chocolate bundt cake that disappeared very quickly. It is easy to make.

Ingredients:

  • 200g (7oz) butter
  • 200g (7oz) caster sugar
  • 300g (10.5oz) self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 4 medium eggs (beaten)
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 100ml (4oz) semi-skimmed milk
  • 3 dsp assorted chocolate sprinkles
  • icing sugar
  • 22cm (8–9in) bundt tin
  • large mixing bowl
  • wooden spoon

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (338°F) and grease the bundt tin with butter and a light dusting of flour. Also whip the eggs and put to one side.

2. Mix the butter and sugar in the large mixing bowl until the mixture is golden and creamy

TIP: I use a wooden spoon for all my mixing.

3. Gradually fold in the whisked eggs.

TIP: a teaspoonful of flour added each time helps to stop the mixture from curdling.

4. Fold in the flour and baking powder, then fold in about half (50ml / 2oz ) of the milk until the mixture is soft and easy to stir.

5. Stir in the cocoa powder and chocolate sprinkles, then keep adding a drop of milk until the mixture is soft and dropping again.

TIP: I find that I never need to use all of the milk.

6. Pour the mixture into the bundt tin and smooth it around the tin using the back of the wooden spoon.

7. Bake the mixture in the oven at 160–170°C for about 30–40 minutes.

TIP: the cooking time depends on your oven and how much time it takes to prepare your mixture. (Yesterday I got distracted by a woodpecker visiting the garden.)

TIP: insert a skewer to test that the cake is cooked (if it comes out clean).

8. Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes then turn out on a wire rack and leave to cool for 20 minutes before dusting with icing sugar.

It wasn’t my intention, but when I first started experimenting I found that baking in a bundt tin sometimes makes the cake mixture crack as it rises. (This can be fixed by reducing the temperature of the oven.) However, I liked the effect. The ‘crater’ makes the ‘hole’ in the ring-shaped cake look like a volcano’s caldera – inspiring the name chocolate volcano-ring cake!

Stan cut the cake at the apiary using a hive tool and I took one slice for me and one slice to crumble for the robin. It was a busy day in bee-world. Tom was giving a beginner session on queen-rearing, John was taking off the honey from his hives, and Emily and I had our own queens to visit. You can read about that in my next post.

With thoughts and prayers

Waking up to a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning after the shocking news of last night’s terrible events in London feels unreal. Words cannot express how truly sorry I am that people have died in such a horrible way and that many more people have been terribly injured.

I sat here at my computer this morning thinking about what I would write about bees and beekeeping as I usually do, then I decided to postpone this week’s post out of respect for what has happened in my home city.

I was born and have lived most of my life in London and as a Londoner I am not unused to hearing this sort of news, but still, I cannot believe or accept that it has happened again and I hope that I never do get used to hearing about it.

Although it has been said many times, my thoughts and prayers are for those people who have died and who will never spend another day like today with their families and loved ones.

London is a wonderfully free city that has always welcomed people from all walks of life – my own experience as a Londoner has been that, for the most part, we can all live and work together alongside our differences. I hope and believe that us Londoners will continue to stand strong and to celebrate each other’s rich diversity of cultures and beliefs despite those who would continue to try to stop us from doing so. Stay safe and stay strong everyone.