A year in the bee garden – February

In the short month of February there is little activity in the bee garden, but there is a lot to observe. Which early bulbs have emerged – the snowdrops and crocuses planted in the shade beside the ivy or those planted in the lawn? Which plants are already springing up new shoots – the crocosmia or daffodils? These seasonal observations tell me which type of flowers grow well in the soil and which conditions of light, shade and shelter suit them best. Year after year, I can invest more time in the flowers that thrive in the bee garden and in the bees who visit them.

Planting a bee garden – or a pollinator or wildlife garden – is very exciting and there are many ‘plants for bees’ lists that publish at this time of year to give you plenty of ideas. However, planting any garden that successfully blooms and attracts a wide variety of insects and other wildlife is not as easy as it sounds. There are important observations that need to be made.

1. What is the soil like?

When you pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it, is the texture clumpy and sticky (perhaps like clay) or looser and gravelly (perhaps like sand)? When it rains, does the soil drain slowly or quickly? When it is dry, does the soil harden and crack or retain its moisture?

You don’t need to become an expert in soil types, or rush out to get a pH kit to test the acidity or alkalinity of your soil (although you can if you want to), but a few simple observations like these will give you a better idea of what types of plants will grow best in your garden. You’ll know, for example, when you read the plant label or seed packet whether your soil can provide suitable conditions or not. February is often a good month to make these observations as the weather can change from mild and wet to cold and dry from one week to the next.

If you suspect that you have heavy, clay soil that drains poorly, then this doesn’t mean that you can’t grow a bee-pleaser like lavender which prefers lighter, well-draining soil. It just means that you may have to dig over the bed with plenty of multi-purpose garden compost or some horticultural sand, and/or add this to the hole in which it is planted [*See edit below]. Alternatively, plant the lavender in a raised bed (such as building a new bed at ground level and filling it with more suitable soil), a container or a large pot.

Remember to observe the soil in different parts of your garden, because there may be some variation.

*Lindylou adds a useful comment below on taking care not to remove the fertility of clay soil by adding amendments. This includes adding coconut coir or cardboard to heavy clay soil rather than sand, which may produce cement. She says both coconut coir or cardboard “allow airpockets to develop by enticing garden earthworms which love to eat both products”. In addition, she also uses lava grit “to take up the water that will not sink during winter time”.

Like all things, learning how to garden is as much about trial and error. My lavender grew poorly the first year when I planted it in the clay soil of our garden. It also didn’t have enough sun. So I moved it to the back of the garden and mixed the soil with garden compost (and a very small amount of builders’, not horticultural, sand!) and it seems to have perked up! I will try cardboard next time as I have plenty of that at home.

2. How much sun and shade do you have?

The middle part of our garden is long and narrow with an ivy hedge to the right and bushes of cotoneaster, jasmine and choisya to the left. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that few flowers will grow in the shady, walled bed beside the ivy where even foxgloves and bluebells struggle. This part of the garden has become a haven for frogs and thirsty birds and insects with a selection of frog ponds and shallow baths. I’ve also half buried broken flower pots and crockery in the soil to make shelters for weary creatures to rest. The decking at the front of the garden has a flowerbed that sticks out further, and in spring and summer it gets enough sunlight in the morning to sustain the myrtle tree with flowers and berries. The back of the garden is very exposed – a suntrap for sun-loving plants like toadflax, Mediterranean herbs, and, of course, sunflowers.

Observing how sun and shade fall across your garden from season to season and at different times of the day can help to plan where to plant. For instance, there’s no point in planting a row of sedum along a sunny fence in early spring only to later find out in autumn, when sedum flowers, that it gets very little sunshine.

It’s also a good idea to notice which parts of the garden get shelter from wind and rain – useful if you’re planning on planting tall plants like sunflowers or buddleias, which may benefit from some shelter, as well as plenty of sun, on a very windy day.

3. Who visits your garden?

It’s not all about the bees. Our garden enjoys a variety of insect visitors including hoverflies, butterflies, lacewings, solitary wasps, ants and spiders (ok, arachnids too). There are many different bees who visit from honeybees and bumbles to leafcutters and masons. We’ve even had the occasional dragonfly, although they don’t seem to lay their larvae in the pond and are probably prowling for bees to eat. Observing which insects are already in your area can help you to choose the flowers that attract them.

For example, our toadflax caters for the carder bees from early summer to late autumn. The honeybees and bumbles are satisfied by the smoke tree in spring, salvia and lemonbalm in summer, and snowberry and sedum in autumn. The sweat bees are kept happy by leaving the yellow thistles to flower in spring. However, I rarely see leafcutters or masons foraging in the garden, although they use our nesting tubes. Perhaps I need to plant up more areas for these solitary bees and leave more dandelions for the masons.

4. What is flowering in your area?

A walk around your local area to see which plants are growing in your neighbours’ gardens can be a good indicator of what will grow well in your garden. Year after year in winter, yellow primroses pop up in front gardens along our street and winter-flowering hebes produce rich purple-red blooms. There are so many that I suspect the birds and squirrels have been very busy gardening, although many humans are good gardeners too.

5. How much time do you have to spend in your garden?

This is the most important observation of all. Before you begin planting a bee garden, consider how much time you actually have for weeding, pruning, mowing, watering, and transplanting throughout the year. If you don’t have much time, then read up on hardy plants and shrubs that are easy to care for. Do you want to grow annuals (that you may have to re-seed or re-plant each year, although some do successfully re-seed themselves) or invest in perennials (that are more likely to return and flower each year).

You might also want to consider the type of flower beds that will require the least attention – mulched beds (where a layer of gravel, bark, leaves or compost is laid above the soil) allow the stems of established plants to continue to grow but slows down the growth of weeds. Otherwise, container gardening may be more manageable if you’re just starting out or have a small garden, although containers and pots needs more watering than plants that are in the ground.

Once you’ve got to know your garden, choose some bee-friendly flowers to plant from these lists. Don’t forget the birds either – they’ll appreciate plants that berry and seed for autumn and winter.

Plants for bees and other pollinators

The RHS Perfect for pollinators provides a very comprehensive lists of plants.

The International Bee Research Association (IBRA) also has a good book Plants for Bees by W D J Kirk & F N Howes.

Use the Bumblebee Conservation Trust online tool to find out how bee-kind is your garden.

Buglife also provide a good guide to gardening with bugs in mind.

[EDIT] philipstrange also suggests this list of bee-friendly plants on Dave Goulson’s web site: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/resources/flowers and singles out pulmonaria “as a must for bee enthusiasts as it attracts the very early Hairy-footed flower bee”.

Consider where to buy or source your plant. Perhaps a friendly neighbour will let you take a few cuttings from their garden to get you started, or you may already have bee-friendly plants in your garden that just need propagating and spreading. Otherwise, order online from nurseries like Bee Happy Plants who don’t use pesticides and herbicides.

The RHS guide to soil types is helpful for getting to know your garden and the plants that will grow best.

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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.

 

Welcome to the luxury bee hotel

I love to watch the bees hard at work in our garden, but often think they deserve a holiday. So I was thrilled to get an email from Fiona Lane of Taylors of Harrogate about the world’s first luxury bee hotel. Welcome to the poshest insect residence where tired bees can hang up their wings and enjoy a five-star overnight stay in an indulgent spa.

© Licensed to simonjacobs.com. 20.06.16 London, UK. A general view of a Taylor's of Harrogate specially commissioned bee hotel on Hampstead Heath. FREE PRESS, EDITORIAL AND PR USAGE. Photo credit: Simon Jacobs

© Licensed to simonjacobs.com. 20.06.16 London, UK.
A general view of a Taylor’s of Harrogate specially commissioned bee hotel on Hampstead Heath.
FREE PRESS, EDITORIAL AND PR USAGE.
Photo credit: Simon Jacobs

Each room of this charming miniature hotel will delight bees and bee-lovers alike. The Sour Cherry Bedrooms include hollow nesting tubes for solitary bees. The Rose Lemonade Restaurant serves a feast of pollen for fuzzy guests. The Peppermint Leaf Gym gives bees a full-wing workout, and the Sweet Rhubarb Suite is all-the-buzz with decadent sugar-water baths and a UV disco room for waggle dancers. Here are two gym buddies enjoying bee yoga, image courtesy of Taylors of Harrogate.

Bee Hotel interior

The luxury bee hotel was inspired by research led by the University of Bristol which found that a wider variety of bees are thriving in UK cities compared to rural areas, while Taylors of Harrogate’s own research found that under half of Brits surveyed are unaware of the important roles bees play in the production of fruits and vegetables. The Yorkshire-based tea experts created the bee hotel to celebrate the flavour that bees bring to our food and to promote the hard work of our insect pollinators. The hotel is made from balsa wood and key features, such as the sugar-water baths and ultraviolet patterns, are based on scientific research that suggests bees will be enticed to enter for some rest and relaxation!

While city life might be getting better for bees there’s always room for improvement – the luxury bee hotel is certainly a fun idea, but it also reminds us of the importance of bees and that much more can be done to help insect pollinators. Kate Halloran from Taylors of Harrogate says: “Bees are so important in helping to provide great flavour, but less attention has been paid to show how urban areas can be made more pollinator-friendly. The aim of the bee hotel is to not only educate and entertain, but to also inspire action…Many people may be unaware that some of our favourite fruits, including apple and cherries all depend on insect pollinators, including bees. We want to raise awareness of this issue and encourage everyone to get more deeply involved and help create a network of real bee hotels, starting in their own back gardens.”

Tim Barsby from BeeBristol, adds: “Bees pollinate one third of every mouthful we eat and they contribute around £651 million per year to the UK economy. We are all in agreement that we need our hard-working friends but also, right now, that they need us. We’re delighted to see Taylors of Harrogate launching this fun and captivating campaign to help draw attention to the plight of pollinators in such a unique way.”

Taylors of Harrogate’s bee-friendly campaign includes some fascinating facts about bees, provided by The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, including:

  • There are over 250 types of bee in the UK – one of them is the honeybee, 25 of them are bumblebees and the rest are solitary bees.
  • A bumblebee can travel up to 6km daily to visit flowers – this is the equivalent of a person walking around the globe 10 times to get to the shops!
  • Bumblebees see in the ultra-violet range of the colour spectrum.
  • Different bees specialise on different types of flower and have different tongue lengths because of this – the garden bumblebee’s tongue is a whopping 12mm long, allowing it to probe into deep flowers to access nectar, while the honeybee’s tongue length is much shorter at 6.6mm meaning they forage on more open flowers.
  • Bees have smelly feet! They leave a temporary scent behind on the flower they have just visited as a sign to other bees that the nectar in that flower has already been taken, so the next bee visitor to that flower can simply avoid that flower until more nectar is produced, and doesn’t have to waste precious foraging time.

Thank you to Taylors of Harrogate for sending the press release with the information included in this post and the video and pictures of their luxury bee hotel. If you want to find out more about opening your own bee hotel or other ways that you can help the bees, click on the links below.

Links:

The Story of Bees with Taylors of Harrogate in partnership with Kew Gardens https://bees.taylorstea.co.uk/

BeeBristol is a not-for-profit project that works tirelessly to help make Bristol the most welcoming city for pollinators: http://www.beebristol.org/. They do this by working in partnership with local organisations, volunteers and community groups, and by planting wildflower meadows, which create habitat and forage. They also manage beehives across Bristol, whilst supporting all pollinators by engaging with the public at events, festivals, school visits and through art installations.

Taylors of Harrogate http://taylorstea.co.uk/

More links to bee-friendly activities:

Visit Bee kind http://www.beekind.bumblebeeconservation.org to score how bee-friendly your garden is and find out how to make it even friendlier for insect pollinators.

Bumblebee Conservation Trust bee walks http://www.beewalk.org.uk to learn how to identify and monitor your local bee population.

A beekeeper’s notes for September

spider dangling

The spiders spin their crafty webs between the autumn sedum in September. Thousands of tiny pink star-like flowers open to welcome honeybees in their dozens to drink from a forest of nectar.

The bees trip over themselves to visit every single flower. They fly carelessly close to silken strands where garden spiders dangle beneath the leaves waiting to pounce. The bees’ tantalising electrical charge in the air attracts the webbing even closer to their wings.

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I think the variety of sedum in our garden is autumn joy? The large clump of ungainly leaves growing out from the bottom of the decking had looked suspiciously like a weed to untrained gardeners’ eyes. “I’ll dig it out for you,” my dad said, eager to clear away overgrown foliage from our garden. “No” I replied, “We’re waiting to see what everything turns into this year.”

The green clusters have slowly exploded into bright pink blooms over the past couple of weeks. “Is there a nest of bees in the garden?” John and dad both had asked me. “No, just the autumn sedum,” I replied.

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I was tempted to brush away the spiders’ webs to protect the foraging bees. But who am I to interfere and deprive a spider of her dinner? The sedum looks well established and it’s likely this dance between spiders and bees has been going on for decades in our garden. So far I’ve counted only one mummified bee in a web, the spiders are hardly winning.

The nectar flow is usually considered to be over by many beekeepers come late summer to early autumn. However, as I watch the bees in the garden few appear to be pollen collectors. Their baskets are empty as they search for every place on the flower beds to drink. This gives me hope that autumn forage will bring both more nectar and pollen to the hives, if the bees can withstand the chilly drop in temperatures.

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This hardy warm-blooded bumblebee in a garden centre seemed less bothered by the cool day than the cold-blooded honeybees.

At the apiary table beekeepers were taking a pause for tea, and honey fudge bought by Emily from her holiday. “This looks far too posh to eat,” complained John Chapple. “I think you should wrap it in Christmas paper,” agreed Stan. Emily cut the fudge into cubes for the beekeepers to (reluctantly) eat.

Talk was on about this year’s National Honey Show with Jonesy being persuaded to take part. I shared a tip passed-on by Dev from last year’s honey judges. To get out more air bubbles, spread cling film on the surface of the honey and leave (perhaps 20 minutes) then peel off…

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… air bubbles cling to the film and lift off. I’m not sure of the physics behind it, but it works. Clearer honey!

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Our three hives have ended the summer queen right. With the honey crop off and the Apiguard treatment finished, we’re checking the bees are bedding down properly for winter. To prove the point, Melissa’s colony had stuck down the hive roof hard with lots of propolis.

Peppermint’s hive was low on nectar stores (we hadn’t harvested from this artificially swarmed colony) although packed-full of bright orange pollen. There were also piles of beautiful orange pollen dropped at the bottom of the hive. Be more careful with your shopping, ladies! Going through the frames it was clear this hive would need autumn feeding to meet their quota of 20–30 lb of honey to survive winter. The bees were well behaved despite the low amounts of stores and brood in the nest, which would usually make a colony quite grumpy.

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In Melissa’s and Pepper’s hives the August wash-out had made the bees tuck into their put-away stores and left the returned wet supers unfilled. A reminder of how quickly things can change in bee land. Emily and I may decide this month whether or not these supers now need to be taken off for safer storage against wax moth. There’s no hurry, we’ll wait and see if the forecast Indian summer makes any difference.

We didn’t spot the queens this weekend, but the bees were behaving as good as gold so their majesties must be at home. I wondered if it might also be the effect of Jochen standing nearby. This German beekeeper seems to have a calming influence on our bees.

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Emily holds up a brood frame from Melissa’s colony. The hive had completed a Bailey comb change in the spring, yet how quickly the golden honeycomb turns brown after one summer of brood. It makes me think of how many bees have emerged from each cell leaving behind a cocoon.

The summer holidays felt like a distant memory as we talked about getting ready for winter. Autumn is always a reminder of how fast time flies.

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Two bees chat about their summer holidays while sticking propolis to the hive roof.

A beekeeper’s notes for August

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The beekeeping year has begun. Inside the hive the bees are preparing for winter. The queen lays fewer eggs, drones cower as their sisters evict them from the colony, and gaps in the nest are stuck fast by sticky red-brown propolis.

Foragers leave the hive early in the morning and return in the fading evening light. Their bodies are sprinkled with pollen and abdomens heavily laden with nectar. The queen and her workers are getting ready to begin all over again in spring, but first they must cosy themselves in a snug winter nest filled with the final drops of the season’s honey.

Of course, this seasonal activity varies with location, climate, available forage, and the situation within individual hives, but traditionally this is the picture of the start of the beekeeping calendar. On a recent holiday to the countryside, I saw plenty of bees (honeybees, bumbles and solitaries) out and about. On our return, the garden was buzzing with honeybees drinking from a bush with clustered dark-pink flowers like the last of the summer wine.

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In my kitchen, the honey crop has been settling since Emily and I did the hard work of extracting a few weeks ago. In past years, our bees have made honey that was difficult to spin out in the extractor, but which didn’t take much filtering. This year the honey spun out fine, but it has required more time to settle, strain and filter.

For a few days, our harvest sat in storage containers to let air bubbles and lighter particles float to the top, and larger debris sink to the bottom till the froth, or ‘marmalade’, could be scooped off. When it was ready, I cleared the kitchen table and got out the buckets, muslin cloth and string to start filtering.

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We had extracted the supers in three batches – the third batch being from Emily’s allotment hive – because it’s nice to bottle the honeys separately according to their unique taste and fragrance. Pepper’s crop smells of dark forests and Melissa’s harvest has an aroma of berries-and-lime.

The honey from Pepper’s and Melissa’s hives was first strained using fine muslin tied around two buckets with string. A wire mesh strainer also filtered out the honey that had pooled around the wax cappings.

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With two buckets full, the air bubbles were still rising. I left the honey to settle for a second time, before scooping off the froth again, and filtering into jars to be bottled. I always use mini jars to make the honey harvest spread further, and keep it stored in a cool kitchen cupboard.

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Most honeys crystallise over time as networks of crystals eventually form from the heavy concentrations of dissolved glucose suspended in the solution, though this process can vary from a few days to several years. I have one jar of Myrtle’s honey left from last year that still hasn’t crystallised.

Honey extraction, filtering and bottling is a lot of work for the hobbyist beekeeper, and even more work for the commercial beekeeper. For that reason, the leftover wax cappings and other gubbins have been set aside in mini buckets to clean up on a rainy day.

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My kitchen surfaces and equipment were scrupulously cleaned, and I was careful to not to contaminate the buckets, jugs and jars with any drops of water. As Andy Pedley told me once, “Water is the enemy of honey.” However, if I were to sell honey, then I’d need to be more fastidious about the whole operation from straining and filtering, to filling each bottle to the exact amount stated on the label. My family and friends might appreciate a jar of my honey, a true taste of home, but it wouldn’t win any prizes at the national honey shows!

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For the full legislation of the preparation and sale of honey, you can read the updated The Honey (England) Regulations 2015 on the government’s website.

The clean-up afterwards is almost as much work. Hot soapy water and towels to wash down and wipe clean sticky work surfaces, tables and equipment at least three times, but it was worth it!

At the apiary, the beekeeper is also preparing the hives for winter, and there are many things to think about. Is the queen laying well enough to take the colony through winter and to build up again in spring? Does a smaller, weaker hive need to be united with another colony to make a stronger hive for overwintering, with the provision there is no disease? Is the colony healthy and does treatment need to be given for varroa? Does the colony have sufficient stores or does it need feeding syrup before the end of autumn? Is the hive equipment in good order with gaps in the wood sealed and mended, entrances reduced against robbers and pests, and guard against woodpeckers and mice ready to put on? Are the supers staying on the hive or do they need to be cleared and removed for safe storage against wax moth?

Yes, quite a lot to consider, but most importantly is thinking about how to enjoy the last couple of months spent with the bees. Here’s Melissa’s hive with Emily removing the second tray of Apiguard after the workers tried to stick it to the top bars with propolis.

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After a long session of afternoon tea with the Ealing beekeepers, the smoker was lit, with some tips from Pat, and Emily and I were off to inspect our two remaining hives. The beginners had already checked Pepper’s hive, spotted the queen, and found a very high number of varroa mites (almost 600) on the board. This may be due to Apiguard treatment, but it is still disappointingly high. The only positive is that it is better to have varroa mites dropped onto the monitoring board, as a result of varroacide treatments, than in the hive.

Peppermint’s colony was calm and well behaved. These busy bees are rearing new brood like summer is here to stay, and the queen was spotted walking nicely across the comb. The hive is rather low on stores. We didn’t take any honey off of this hive, but it may benefit from autumn feeding after the Apiguard treatment. The mite drop so far is around 100, a lower number is to be expected from a newer artificially swarmed colony.

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Melissa’s colony is strong and well, and the queen was found with her head in the comb searching for suitable cells to lay her eggs. Signs of unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the queen by the workers remain. It looks like Melissa will lead this hive into next spring.

We spotted workers with yellow-splashed faces, perhaps from head-butting pollen into cells or from a flower they had visited (sorry for the blurry photo above, fortunately Emily’s finger is pointing to a worker with yellow warpaint). The white-striped Himalayan balsam foragers were also making their way through the colony.

We closed the hives with records written and plans discussed for the start of the season ahead.

Autumn mists have been falling on roofs and tree tops early in the morning this August. Yet, autumn is my favourite time of year, and in many traditions it is a time to clear out the old and to make space for new things. I can’t feel too sorry for the end of summer, only excitement for the inspiration that autumn will bring.

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