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.

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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.

 

The season of the bee

The season of the bee is upon us and it was good to be back in the thick of it at the apiary yesterday. Thomas Bickerdike was running the beginners’ session on Saturday afternoon as efficiently as a bee. His workers and drones were organised into two groups to take turns at looking inside the hives and learning about other practical aspects of the craft.

Emily was showing the first group one of our hives – Hope’s colony – so I went to watch the beginners watch the bees. It is always fun to see hive life again through new eyes.

Our oldest hive of six years now is booming. Bees were bursting out of the brood box and every frame was almost full of brood and stores. It was a delight to see after their challenging season last year struggling to build up after a mild, damp winter and multiple queen failures. But they had persevered. “How many queens have you had?” asked a beginner. “Lots,” I said. Queen Hope appeared on cue. She is the tenth queen in a line of eight generations of queens, of the same line, since Emily and I have started to share the hive in 2011. I’ve made a family tree from the record that has been kept for our queens (below) which may be clearer to look at than the table.

As Hope isn’t marked – she first made her appearance to Thomas who looked after the hive from September to October last year while Emily and I were both away, and this was only the third or fourth proper hive inspection of the year, I think – I got out my queen marking kit for Emily to demonstrate caging and marking a queen for the beginners; although Hope’s workers did protest, Emily managed to mark the queen.

With the queen put safely back inside the hive, it was the turn of the next group to look at Dinesh’s hive, which is also doing well. It looks like it may be a good year for the bees at Ealing apiary. The session was soon over, and some of the beginners had floated off to watch John Chapple inspect last week’s shook-swarmed hive while others opted for tea and cake. Emily and I watched John going through the frames – he is always a pleasure to watch working with the bees – and then also decided to get a cup of tea. Emily and Kathy had both baked this weekend so there was a good choice of Saturday afternoon cake and biscuits.

Thomas was teaching the beginners how to make a frame – using our pack of super frames as you can see above. At the end of his workshop there were seven very neatly made super frames ready to put into a super for Hope’s hive. The colony is getting bigger, however, in the end we left the super off until next weekend. The weather forecast for the week ahead is supposedly colder – with icy winds arriving from Iceland – and we still need to swap out three old frames for new in the brood nest. We want the bees to fill these before moving up into a super.

Of course, a super might also slow down the bees from starting preparations to swarm – or it might simply create a cold empty space above the colony depending on the accuracy of the weather forecast for the week ahead – but then again, we might need the workers to make us some spare queens for our other colony which may be queenless.

As the day got cooler, I lit up the smoker to inspect our second hive. There was still no sight of the queen, Patience, or any sign that she was there – no eggs or young larvae, and the worker bees being less patient than usual. There are a few things that we can do:

• shake the bees into one box and keep them warm and fed in the hope that this might stimulate the queen to lay and show herself, while also putting in another test frame of eggs this time from Hope’s hive;

• or simply combine the colony with Hope’s after a thorough frame-by-frame inspection to make sure that Patience isn’t hiding in there somewhere.

We settled on thinking about it for another week – the situation is unlikely to get better or worse in the meantime – and to carry out our plans next weekend when the apiary is less busy. Perhaps Hope’s hive will conveniently produce some queen cells between now and next Saturday – and even more conveniently on one of the remaining three brood frames that we need to swap out for new frames (wouldn’t that be nice!). We could then use these to either test or re-queen Patience’s hive, while exercising swarm control on Hope’s hive. (If only things always worked out that well!)

The smoker had gone out and it was time to leave. As you can see, I have a beautiful new basket to carry my beekeeping kit – a present from my friends Prakash and Beata. The sun came out hot from behind the clouds as I walked home and enjoyed spotting the honeybees and bumble bees foraging along the path.

We’ve had some really sunny days in April and although the month is likely to end on a cold snap, here are some beautiful photos for you to enjoy of Easter weekend in Hereford and of a walk on the Malvern Hills. The familiar sight of the golden fields of oilseed rape will provide a bounty of forage for the bees.

Edit 1 May 2017: The bees read my blog, so it seems. I found five queen cells (three unsealed) in Hope’s hive yesterday afternoon (Hope is still inside the hive) and all were on an old frame that needed to be swapped for a new frame anyway. So I took out the queen cells to give to Patience’s hive (who are so ill-tempered now they are most likely queenless) and gave Hope’s hive another new brood frame (well, two actually) to play with.

Lucky

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It has been trying hard to snow. The grey sky sends down light showers of snowflakes that dissolve as they reach the ground. Nothing settles.

My husband and I had a loss over Christmas and New Year. In some ways it has made me grateful for January, which is often a good time of the year to stay indoors and away from the rest of the world. But the cold is often bitterest when spring is around the corner and then I will have to go outside again. The bees will be starting up, the pond will need cleaning, and the birds have already begun to nest.

I was pottering in the kitchen the other day when for some reason I remembered that something had been missing. A butterfly nursery had sat on the kitchen work surface late last summer. I never had the opportunity to raise butterflies when I was younger and had thought why not now?

The caterpillars had arrived in a small cardboard box through the post in August. There were five caterpillars in a plastic cup with a layer of food at the bottom. The instructions were quite simple: keep the caterpillars at a temperature of 21–23°C and wrap the cup in a blanket at night to stay warm. All being well, the caterpillars should become chrysalides within 7–14 days. A two-week wait.

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I kept my cup of caterpillars in a warm spot near a sunny window during the day. At night the cup was wrapped in a woolly scarf and placed in a small basket. Everything worked as it should. The caterpillars ate their food, got fatter and dutifully climbed to the top of the cup. They hung from the lid in a J-shape, shed their exoskeletons and hardened into chrysalides.

After three days the chrysalides were no longer moving. It was time to move them to the hatching habitat – a larger netted enclosure where the butterflies would spend their first few days. While I was moving them into their new home, I took a photo of the delicate golden-tipped chrysalides. This one wins the prize for caterpillar beauty pageant.

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The transformation didn’t take very long and one morning I found that my painted lady butterflies had emerged overnight. I fed them sugar water and fruit and allowed them to settle for a day before releasing them into the garden.

It was a hot sunny day when the butterflies flew away. That was just over six months ago and we had had a loss around that time too. All the butterflies were eager to stretch their wings and explore the buddleia I had planted in the garden. All but one butterfly remained. This butterfly’s wing had been broken when it had emerged from its chrysalis and it would never fly.

The instructions said that if a butterfly was damaged it was best to put it in a spot in the garden and let nature do the rest. I felt sorry for the butterfly – it wasn’t its fault that it couldn’t fly and surely it deserved a bit more life. So I put it back inside the habitat and returned it to the kitchen work surface.

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Lucky – I didn’t know whether the butterfly was a male or female, let’s say it was a male – lived for about five weeks in the habitat. I bought some pot plants for him to climb on and hide within the foliage, and fed sugar water and fruit each day. His favourite treat was a fresh cluster of orange-ball buddleia from which he would meticulously suck up the nectar of every single flower. On occasion he was content to sit on my hand and lick up the sugar syrup.

On a warm day I put the habitat outside by the myrtle tree and lavender bush. Lucky would come out from within the foliage almost immediately and climb to the top of a plant. He then sat there quietly and watched the world go by.

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All this effort for a little butterfly might seem quite strange to some people, but it was nice to have something to nurture. I felt quite sorry when one day Lucky sat at the bottom of his habitat and didn’t move again. In some ways he didn’t have a very lucky start in life, but I hope he was luckier than most broken-winged butterflies.

In a couple of months the garden will start to blossom. I wonder if last year’s butterflies laid any eggs beneath the ivy leaves and whether we will see more painted ladies flying about.

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The frog children

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Earlier in summer the weather was lovely for ducks, and also frogs. While the pitter-patter of raindrops on the hive roof kept my bees indoors, the tadpoles enjoyed every splish and splosh in their buckets.

The tadpoles turned out to be the surprise success of the summer. After a busy frog had filled up the goldfish pond with frogspawn in spring, it was moved to buckets to keep the spawn safe during the annual pond clean. A few weeks later, the buckets were teeming with tadpoles and John was worrying about a plague of frogs of biblical proportions on the lawn. “What are you going to do with them all?” he asked, and I replied, “Don’t worry, apparently only a very small number will survive.”

They all survived. I don’t know whether this was due to daily feeds of lettuce and chicken, or diligent water changes every other day (tadpoles are ravenous and mucky creatures). Perhaps it is just a good year for frogs? Anyway, the tadpoles got bigger and they got legs. A trip to the charity store for bric ‘o brac (much cheaper than aquatic store accessories) and the tadpoles also got some new furniture to make their lives more interesting. A tadpole tea party.

Alice tank

One day a froglet hopped out while I was doing a water change. I was so surprised that I simply stared at it and it stared back at me. Then it hopped back into the water.

It was around about this time that I had been clearing up the garden and had rediscovered a disused frog pond under a pile of paving stones. With my dad’s help, we cleaned it up that afternoon and scooped up the tadpoles and froglets into their new home.

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Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier? The frog pond is like a deep well with earth, sludge and stones at the bottom which naturally seem to soak up the tadpole waste so the water stays cleaner. The tadpoles seemed to prefer the deeper, darker depths too, and the froglets were soon climbing out to explore their caves.

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I had read that froglets like to eat insects and rest in damp places out of the water. So I splashed out this time and bought them a frog house to sit by the pond and a solar lantern to attract insects at night. I did actually spy a couple of froglets sitting outside the frog house one evening and looking, I fancied, in the direction of the flickering light.

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Summer rain misted into warmer hazy summer days. I bought some more pond plants for the froglets and tadpoles, and occasionally scooped up some debris on the surface and topped up the pond with rain water. The tadpoles no longer needed feeding with the mosquito larvae and extra vegetation in the water, and the froglets spent hotter days floating on the elodea.

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Sometimes a froglet would come and say hello while I was gardening.

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I always put them back in the pond, but they soon hopped out again to return to their favourite spot in the long grass at the end of the walled bed. The spot that I wouldn’t let John or my dad mow down.

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In the shady part of the garden where only the Japanese anemone and the lemon balm will grow, I made a small frog cafe from the old bric ‘o brac that was leftover from the tadpole buckets.

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I found a froglet clambering out of the buried ceramic jug cave just once…

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…for they seemed to prefer the slug-ridden holes in the crumbling brick wall. Build a home for nature and it will come in if it feels like it.

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Eventually all the froglets did hop away. At least, I’m fairly certain that most of them made it safely out of our garden without being eaten by birds or mowed down by humans. Only one froglet now remains, I think, and I sometimes see him, or her, hopping around the long grass when I go out to look at our late summer blooms. My niece Lauren has named the froglet Hoppy.

While I’ll never know what happened to all the froglets, I hope that I gave them a good start in life. And when the solar lantern flickers on after dark and the frog pond appears to come magically to life, I like to think there are a few more frogs hopping happily around Ickenham.

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The name ‘frog children’ was inspired by a beekeeper in Iran, @reza__beekeeper, who I follow on Instagram.

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.

April showers bring May flowers

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Ups and downs in beekeeping are about as surprising as the rain in April. After Pepper’s colony had been lost to winter in February, Emily and I delayed the comb change in March due to the cold weather and dwindling sizes of our two surviving hives.

It was a puzzle. These small colonies were just too big for a nuc and yet too weak to keep themselves warm in a regular hive. They needed something inbetween. I had bought a roll of foil insulation that you might use for insulating lofts, which I cut into squares with a pen knife and wrapped around the dummy boards and old empty brood frames to keep both nests warmer. The bees weren’t taking their syrup in the chilly weather either. I left the winter fondant under the roof with more insulation, closed up and hoped for the best.

Andy Pedley took a photo of my insulated dummy board. The other beekeepers were somewhat impressed by my use of odds and sods, at last my induction as a beekeeper was complete.

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Meanwhile, regular readers of mine and Emily’s blogs will know that my hive partner has gone on maternity leave to look after a very special little drone. Congratulations to Emily and Drew on the arrival of their wonderful baby boy Thomas who you can read all about on Emily’s blog!

I haven’t told the bees yet, but here’s what they did next.

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On the odd bright day in April when I opened up the hive it was like inspecting winter colonies. The bees were clustered over two or three frames with some patchy brood. They were being kept alive through warmth and food, but their situation wasn’t improving much. I managed to reduce Melissa’s colony into one box when visiting the apiary with Jonesy on a Sunday. The colony had nested in the super over winter because it was the warmest spot at the top of the hive beneath the fondant, but they had left behind a couple of frames of bees in the brood box below.

I removed the old brood box and put the super holding the nest on the floor with a new brood box and frames above shaking in the rest of the bees. The forecast was fairly warm for the week ahead and I hoped the bees would be encouraged to move onto the fresh comb, but a week later they had not touched it. It become cold and rainy again, and I abandoned the attempted Bailey comb change.

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I could hardly blame the bees. When the nights dropped to 1-4•C and daytime temperatures peaked at 9-12•C, it was a lot to ask these small colonies to keep the hive warm, and draw new comb, and forage for new stores, and rear brood.

It was barely warm enough for some humans to want to go outdoors, but I managed to encourage my dad to the apiary to help clean-up some hive equipment. He enjoyed it once there. He does like to blowtorch stuff.

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And seemed a bit disappointed when the job was done.

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The queens hid away in April with no sight of new eggs being laid. It was only the workers bringing home pollen and calmly carrying on with their tasks inside the hives which gave me any reason to believe that the colonies were still queen-right. The brood and bees that were there were largely workers, not drones, which also gave me hope that neither the queens had become drone layers nor the workers started laying.

May

The queens surprised me for May Day. It was the first time this year that Melissa had been spotted as Jonesy pointed over my shoulder at the queen poking her bottom in a cell. Peppermint too was seen walking steadily across the comb and I hadn’t seen her since March.

Melissa is somewhere to be spotted in this photo taken by Jonesy, towards the right of the frame there is a faint pink dot revealing the queen. Despite my joy in seeing her, I didn’t keep her out for long. “Put her back before she gets shy,” said Jonesy.

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The days and nights were getting warmer. When opportunity allowed I transferred the frames of brood from both Melissa’s and Peppermint’s colonies into clean brood boxes, standing on clean floors with a clean crownboard and roof above. As the bees were still only occupying three or four frames in the nest, I filled the gaps with insulated dummy boards. I’m pretty sure that the extra insulation in our hives has been vital in keeping them alive this far.

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A normal comb change wasn’t going to happen this year, the colonies just weren’t up for it. Instead, I would swop the insulated dummy boards and old brood frames for new foundation as the nests, hopefully, expanded in May and June. I feel it is going to be a year of slow progress for our bees.

Peppermint’s ladies had made quite a fuss when I moved them. I had caged the queen on the comb so I knew where she was during the transfer and her workers were not happy about that. “It would be much easier if you could just put up a sign with an arrow saying ‘This way’,” said Pat who happened to be walking past me. I agreed.

If April showers bring May flowers then I hope the bees will be as bountiful as the forage. Just to be safe, I will keep their syrup topped up and the nests insulated till both hives fully recover.

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Pat kindly gave me a bottle of Hive Alive to add to the syrup. I had noticed a few spots of dysentery on the old brood boxes and thought the bees needed a tonic to boost their health.

The apiary was also starting to spring back to life with some hives small and weak like ours and others already booming with bees. John Chapple brought over some drone comb culled from a colony for varroa control. I felt sorry for the drones but good husbandry can be helpful to the overall health of the hive.

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John Chapple and Alan Gibbs have been kindly caretaking some new arrivals at the apiary. These beautiful emerald hives used to belong to Alan Kime who sadly passed away, but thanks to the hard work of John and Alan his bee legacy has continued. I sometimes watch their activity at the entrance after inspecting my hives and they are very nice bees.

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In the garden

At home in the garden I was having more luck with mason bees than honeybees. A reward for patience came in April when I saw the first mason bee emerge from his cocoon.

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Since then almost all the masons have chewed a hole through their mud-capped tubes and are busy foraging plants at the bottom of the garden. I caught this loved-up couple on a dandelion.

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I took advantage of the sunshine last week to tackle the plot at the back and divided the land between humans and bees: half vegetable patch and half wild flower meadow. I left the dandelions and forget-me-nots for the bees and butterflies; John thinks I’m crazy ‘weeding’ around the weeds. 

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The new insect mansion is also taking shape thanks to my dad’s donation of three wooden pallets and some bricks. I hope to have it finished next week in time for the mason bees to start making their new homes.

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My other life as a backyard birder has attracted a sparrowhawk to the garden. I was surprised to see him one day from the kitchen window. He sat conspicuously next to the feeders and the sparrows watched him from a safe distance.

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From the birds and the bees to pond life, we lost our oldest fish Richard coming out of winter.

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I don’t know much about ponds, yet, but think Richard died of swim bladder brought on by old age. I found him floating on his side and after looking up advice on goldfish forums, gently lifted him out to try an Epsom salt bath for five minutes. He didn’t struggle and the bath made no difference. I put the poor fish in a shallow glass dish and placed him on a shelf in the pond to die peacefully. The other goldfish came over to have a look, but couldn’t disturb him too much in his glass bed. I told them visiting hours were six to nine. He was dead by morning and buried by John beneath a bush.

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A few days later I cleaned the pond pump, pulled out some weed, and gave the fish a water change. Two frogs had found the pond over winter and provided a frogspawn buffet for the fish. I scooped out half the spawn into buckets to give the tadpoles a chance. You can see the fish were rather curious about where the tadpoles had gone.

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The frogspawn has since hatched and I now have two tubs of tadpoles sitting by the pond.

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I’ve fed them crumbled fish pellets and lettuce leaves, which they love, along with half water changes each week and they seem to be thriving. It looks like I may end up having more frogs than bees this summer.

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