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

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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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A beekeeper’s notes for June: secrets inside the hive

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“Quick! Take the egg!” whispered the worker to her younger sister. “Hide the new princess in the upper chamber where the queen won’t find her!” The young worker gently picked up the precious egg in her mandibles and ran as fast as she could past the queen’s retinue, and up the stairs where her majesty couldn’t follow. Higher and higher she climbed till she stopped with exhaustion beneath a special cell. The smells of nectar in the loftiest chamber were overwhelming and the scent of the queen seemed far away. 

The young worker placed the egg carefully inside the secret cell already prepared to receive the new princess. The egg would be safe from the queen who would be unable to get through the nectary gates and tear down the hidden queen cell.

The longest day of the year had passed on the summer solstice last Sunday. At the apiary talk had turned to the honey crop and how much could be harvested this year. Emily and I had put two supers on Queen Melissa’s hive, which were filling up nicely. “Let’s check the super frames to see which can be taken,” I said going through the top super. Around the fifth frame in, I found her. A tiny, coiled, pearly larva in a silky white bed of royal jelly at the bottom of a damaged queen cell. Emily and I stared at her curiously wondering how the queen larva had got into the top super. The queen excluder was above the brood chamber and, we hoped, the queen had not gotten past to start laying in the supers.

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The queen cell looked partly torn away and whether that had happened when I pulled out the tightly fitted super frame or by a worker tearing down the cell, we could not tell. We marked the frame and carefully put it back for a further investigation of the hive.

I didn’t find any brood or further queen cells in the supers, but I did find several collections of pollen-packed cells, which is unusual. It seemed the workers were preparing to raise a special brood in the top super, and though the workers can move eggs, nectar and pollen around the hive this seemed a long way to carry an egg from the brood chamber. “Perhaps they heard us saying that we wanted to try queen rearing,” I joked to Emily.

A beginner beekeeper, Mark, was watching our discovery with interest and asked why the workers would hide the queen cell. “To keep it a secret from us,” I said, “Or more likely the queen who would tear it down.”

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Then it was time to go through the brood nest. Here there were only stores and brood, but no queen cells. Emily spotted the queen as I held up a frame, so I caged and marked her with a pink marking pen from Pat.

We closed up the hive. With only one queen cell hidden in the super, and now appearing partly damaged, this seemed a case of attempted supersedure rather than swarm. Emily and I have always let our bees get on with supersedure in the past, the workers know best when to replace a queen. Melissa and her hive were left to their royal secrets until next week.

In the artificially swarmed colony the still unnamed queen was also found and marked by Emily. Two queens now wear pretty pink crowns thanks to Pat’s pink queen-marking pen from Thornes. I wish they would make a glitter pen too.

Emily is mentoring new beekeepers for the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) and had already checked Queen Pepper’s hive with Mark. This left us time for tea and cake (Polish cake from Clare and home-made ginger cake from Emily) and a casual visit to Den’s hive.

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Den was puzzled about why his bees were making waves of honeycomb above the frames. This was ‘bee space‘, we explained. There was a gap, more than 8mm, between the top bars and the top of the box. The bees would fill up any gap bigger than 8-9mm with honeycomb. The importance of bee space demonstrated and lessons were almost done for the day.

From the apiary to the garden there were fewer butterflies than bees, and I was hoping to attract more winged visitors to our flower beds. A butterfly supper of brown mashed banana on a plate and sugar syrup in a jar was prepared. These were simple to make and, I thought, an ideal activity if you’re entertaining young nieces…

How to make a butterfly supper

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You will need: 

  • Plastic plate
  • String
  • Over-ripe brown banana
  • Decorative flowers

1. Pierce four holes in the plastic plate to pull through the string and tie handles on either side.

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2. Stick on plastic flowers to make the plate look pretty for butterflies.

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3. Mash a brown banana that butterflies love.

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How to make a butterfly sugar feeder

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You will need: 

  • Jam jar
  • String
  • Sugar syrup

1. Mix one part sugar to four parts water to make sugar syrup.

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2. Pierce a hole in the jam jar lid and poke through a brightly coloured kitchen cloth.

3. Pour the sugar syrup in the jar and screw on the lid so the cloth can absorb the syrup.

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4. Secure with garden string and/or elastic bands to hang upside down.

The butterfly feeding stations were hung up high in the flowering bush that is busy with bees. We’ve had no customers yet, but I’m hopeful.

So the bees don’t feel neglected in the garden, my niece had a bright idea a couple of weekends ago. She asked me to pick one of each flower to put on a saucer. We then drizzled the flowers in honey. “This is a bee bed,” she said proudly putting her creation on the flower bed wall. “For tired bees.”

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edit: my story of the worker moving the egg is anecdotal (see comments below) and pure guesswork as I can’t know for certain how a suitable egg got into the super for the bees to try and make a queen. Moving eggs is one theory I’ve heard over the years, laying workers is a possibility though these eggs would become drone not queens, or a small queen able to slip through the excluder after all or even a second queen in the hive still unseen…

Lock the gate before the horses

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There was nothing to be done for the beginner’s hive. Overhead a dim sky cast a heavy gloom on the apiary and the air felt warm and close. The bees were bearded under the hive floor and Tom suspected a queen was in the cluster waiting to fly off with the swarm. “He had three queen cells in the hive last week, all sealed.” I recalled. “I suggested an artificial swarm but…” Tom, Emily and I stood in front of the hive that was once headed by Queen Chili. The colony was no longer ours, having been sold to the beginner a month ago, so we couldn’t open up and see what was happening inside. The cluster looked quite small – a cast off perhaps and the old queen flown off?

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Emily had already inspected Pepper’s hive and the artificial swarm, and she confirmed that both colonies were fine. Tom was about to open Ken’s hive to check the bees. The colony had improved in strength and temper. The brood box was almost full and the bees were placid despite the humid weather.

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“Have you seen Albert’s new bees?” asked Tom. Emily and I walked over to the polynuc and watched as the apiary’s most recent arrivals flew in and out of their new home. The colony was a swarm collection.

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The only sign of Queen Melissa in our longest-standing colony were eggs in cells that I could barely see in the clouded daylight, and bees that were behaving contentedly queen-right. The nest had an average count of brood and stores, but with two supers above maybe the bees were focusing on the nectar flow rather than brood rearing.

The varroa board count for June was around 25 mites for Pepper’s and Melissa’s colonies (above 30 mites may be cause for concern) and, as I would expect, a lower mite drop for the artificially swarmed colony which has yet to build up as much brood. “You’re very good monitoring the mite drop each month,” said Tom. It certainly helps get a better picture of the natural peaks in the varroa cycle throughout the year.

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The afternoon was still and quiet. The Ealing Beekeepers were away at the association’s summer barbeque. Tom was heading off to inspect his hives at the bee hut in Perivale Wood and invited us along. It’s been a year since I was last at Perivale Wood and Andy Pedley greeted us at the gates. The bale hut was coming along nicely and people were picnicking in the field.

“Watch out for the horses!” The woodland’s community, the Selborne Society, had recently bought four new horses as part of its century-long management plan to keep the surrounding fields grazed. “They’re a bit skittish,” explained Andy, “Make sure you give them a wide berth and close the gates behind you.”

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We arrived at the bee hut without disturbing any grazing horses and put on our bee suits. The bee hut is a large shed with four hives inside and entrances on the outside for the bees to come and go.

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From swarming bees to swarming ants, Tom revealed a nest of ants as he lifted the first hive roof. Flying ants taking off and worker ants carrying cocooned eggs showed the full life cycle of this other order of Hymenoptera. I would have liked to remove the ant colony from the roof of my hive, but like a true naturalist Tom had observed the ants’ behaviour in previous years and was not concerned that anything needed to be done. “Last year they flew off once the flying ants had all come out.” The ants were just passing through then, like an airport terminal, and there was no need to interfere, just yet, with an event that had probably occurred in these woodland hives for years.

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It was a very calm inspection with no bees flying around our veils in the bee hut. The apiary environment is different even for mine and Emily’s gentle bees. Tom explained that the bees flying in and out of the hive entrance were probably less aware of us, because we were inside the hut doing the inspection while their outside environment appeared unchanged with no beekeepers standing about.

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The three of us took the scenic route back to Perivale Wood’s decorative iron-wrought gates. Andy was talking to Elsa when we rejoined him. “There was a fly survey of the woods and they identified over 100 different species of flies,” said Andy, pleased to report the findings of the woodland’s diverse ecosystem. “That explains all the flies in my kitchen!” said Elsa, who lives closeby.

At home there are fewer flies in our kitchen since the fish pond was cleaned by aquatic expert Luke during the week. The fish had enjoyed their holiday home while the pool was cleared of an accumulation of sludge and the fountain fixed. They are now happier than ever swimming around the new lilies and playing beneath the water spray.

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A walk around our garden completed a day spent outdoors and my sense of wellbeing was remarkably restored after a busy chaotic week in the city. Birds sang, mason bees hung out of nesting tubes, and bumblebees dangled their legs in front of beguiling foxgloves. The clammy, drizzly start to the day had turned out, in fact, to be a perfect Saturday for a beekeeper.

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Beauty and the beast

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The pleasure of seeing my first bumblebee of the year was blighted by the plague. She looked as beautiful as I felt beastly. A giant black fuzzy bumble haphazardly zig-zagging up the street towards Piccadilly Circus as city workers and tourists dodged out of her way. I had struggled into work feeling very sick, but was glad to have seen her.

I’m taking an unfortunate blogging break this week due to a particularly nasty infection that has totally wiped me out. Sorry to everyone whose posts I’ve not caught up on this past week, I’ll be back soon.

For now, please enjoy a pretty bumblebee frolicking in pollen on top of a purple echinacea flower. I took this photograph in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians in summer 2012.

EDIT 28 February 2015: Thanks all for your get well wishes below. How ridiculous that a bad cold turned out to be bronchitis – it seems a bit excessive! I’m taking a break for another week to get fully well and catch up with everyone else’s news before getting back to my own. Please stay warm and healthy!