The backwinter

In Finland a cold snap in spring is called ‘backwinter’, because winter has come back. Yet it was only a few weeks ago in April that everything was coming to life in the garden.

As this is my first year as a Maund, I took a photo of these delicate white blooms on a shrubby bush on Maundy Thursday, which fell on Thursday 13 April. In the Christian calendar Maundy Thursday marks the beginning of the three-day period before Easter, while in many Pagan beliefs it was Green Thursday and celebrated the return of nature in spring. Until not so very long ago, and perhaps it happens still, it was traditional for country churches to decorate the altar with white-and-green flowers for Maundy Thursday.

But on the first of May the unopened buds were stubbornly refusing to wake up and everything was cold and still in the garden once more. In London winter coats have made a comeback. I was tempted to pick a bunch of the white flowers for a vase in the kitchen window, before they all fell off, but then remembered that there is a wealth of folklore warning us not to pick white blossoms and bring them indoors, unless you also want to invite misfortune.

My mason bees have not yet emerged from their cocoons and now I fear they won’t. Even if they do awake, our apple blossom has fallen and the dandelions have gone to seed puffs. All that remains of spring is the memory of glorious yellow lions on the lawn shaking their manes at the sun, pretty cowslips gathering in hedgerows and bright orange marmalade flies hovering on leaves (both the marmalade fly and the cowslips below taken on a visit to the old cathedral city of Wells in April).

The tiniest flowers in the garden, escapees from the wild, appear to be the hardiest like this Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), I think, growing around the apple tree. If it is a Herb Robert, then it’s also known as dragon’s blood. Well, just look at those splendid red claws.

In the pond the frogs have returned, but they too were fooled by the warmer temperatures in spring and spawned too early. The frog spawn became frothy with the black eggs turning white as temperatures dropped, and it has now all dissolved away. So it seems we will have no tadpoles either this year. At least the frogs have the fish for company.

And the occasional eyes-in-the-sky to stare at.

At the apiary the queens are coming. It seems that the bees do sometimes read my blog. Last bank holiday Monday, I found five queen cells (three unsealed) in Hope’s hive (Hope was still inside the hive) and all were on an old brood frame that needed to be swapped for a new frame. I took out the queen cells to give to Patience’s hive (who are so ill-tempered they are most likely queenless) and gave Hope’s hive another new brood frame (well, two actually) to play with. As there were no other queen cells (that I could see) in Hope’s hive, and the bees had two new frames to work and a cold week ahead, I thought it was safe to close up and wait till Saturday to inspect again. Not so.

Yesterday, we found out that the bees had not been told about backwinter and they had been very busy. During the beginner session at the apiary, around three or four frames (maybe more but it was difficult to keep count during the class) had queen cells – some sealed and some unsealed – and this time the queen could not be found. Instead, we did a split of the hive by removing a frame of queen cells and putting these with some frames of brood, bees and stores in the polynuc. After the past year of failed queens, I’m not going to complain about having too many queens this year!

In Patience’s hive the queen cells were still intact and being nursed, it seemed, by the workers. So we have three hives waiting for new queens to emerge. Quite exciting!

After the beginners had left the apiary, Jochen and I went with John Chapple to look at his hives, which are all doing well after their shook swarms, with the exception of one that might be headed by a drone layer or else entirely queenless. John had brought a few empty queen cells for show-and-tell earlier and Kathy had talked about dealing with queen cells, splits and culls.

For me, the queen cell shown above was a rare glimpse into the secret life of the honeybee queen. It had been found perfectly intact and before the workers could efficiently take it down to make use of the wax. You can see where the virgin queen had carefully ‘taken off the lid’ as she emerged from her cell into the complete darkness of the hive. As I held the cell in my hand, I wondered whether she was the first of her sisters to emerge and whether she would stay to rule the hive or fly off in a swarm. But even when still inside their cells, the ‘unborn’ queens sometimes ‘quack’ to make the others aware of their presence and of the deadly duals that may follow if they cross each other’s path after emergence.

As a beekeeper I can only wait-and-see which queens will emerge first in our hives – and keep my fingers crossed for a ‘backspring’ to welcome them.

From one secret dark place of the earth to another – mysterious glowing eggs seen in the caves at Cheddar Gorge in April. I’ll leave you to contemplate this strange mystery, while the bees are left to theirs.

Springing to life

Spring is such an exciting time of year with everything springing to life. I picked the dandelions off the lawn yesterday, before John mowed, to save them for a salve. There are plenty of dandelions left in the flower beds for the bees and other pollinators.

I love these golden flowers that open like bright stars to greet the sun or which sometimes seem to resemble a fluffy lion’s mane. How can they be called weeds? Folklorists suggest that dandelions were once a ‘shepherd’s clock’ because they open at sunrise and close at sunset. As the dandelions in the garden were all wide open, I took it as an indication that it would be a good day for beekeeping.

At the apiary both mine and Emily’s hives were flying well. I arrived to get started before the crowds – the Grand National was on later and I didn’t want to miss the start. First, a look inside Hope’s hive.

Emily had moved this colony from the polynuc to a full-sized hive last weekend and I wanted to see how they were doing (also, congratulations Emily for winning the Walton’s blog award!). As you can see they are doing very well, almost bursting from the seams, in fact. It is such a different picture for this colony than for this time last spring where they had come out of winter very weak. I’m convinced that the insulation provided in the past year, and that spending the winter in a polynuc (thanks Thomas Bickerdike), has saved this colony from dying out.

Hope’s bees have really got back on their feet – well done girls! – and were buzzing very loudly and contentedly, it was a deep vibrating sound and not high pitched. They had taken down most of the honey from the beautiful honeycomb sculptures in the roof, which I removed without much fuss, and the workers in the brood box were drawing out fresh golden comb on the new frames.

I found Hope on the third frame in and caged her just in case I found queen cells further along. I didn’t find queen cells but took the opportunity, while the queen was caged, to take out two old brood frames, shaking off the bees, and to put in two new frames. We’re taking a frame-by-frame approach to the comb change for the hive this year. Because the bees have only just got back on their feet, a full shook swarm seems a bit harsh. They have been moved to a clean hive and only three old frames remain which we can swop out as they continue to build up.

Emily arrived as I was closing up and writing the hive records. As you can see, the bees are still trying to eat their homework.

Next, Emily looked inside Patience’s hive as a small group of visitors arrived and I busied myself with getting our hive equipment ready for a comb change for this colony, either at or after Easter. I could hear lots of questions being asked and all seemed to be going well.

Patience’s colony had been left to overwinter inside a brood box and a super with insulated frames and a ‘winter blanket’ around the hive. The queen had been laying in the super (as is probably to be expected when the queen excluder has been left off overwinter), but it was largely drone brood and could even be an advantage for the upcoming comb change.

The varroa mite tends to be more attracted to drone brood because drones have a longer period of gestation inside their cells – they emerge around day 22 to 24, unlike workers who emerge around day 21, or the queen who emerges around day 16. This is probably because the queen and workers have a lot more work to do inside the hive and are in more of a hurry to get started!

Where a lot of drone brood has been laid in the super, we might be carrying out effective chemical-free varroa control by getting rid of these frames during a comb change. We might use a decapping fork to decap the drone brood and see whether there are mites inside the cells before they are discarded.

While there were a lot of bees inside Patience’s hive, there was little brood, no eggs and no sight of the queen. But it is early days yet and the bees were well behaved and keeping busy. As usual, they probably have a much better idea of what is going on inside the hive than we do. So, we may give the colony and its queen a couple more weeks to pick up before making a decision about whether they need to be requeened or combined with Hope’s colony – the latter option only providing that they are healthy with low levels of disease.

As we were closing up, a worker bee managed to sting through my thin marigold gloves. I had a bad reaction to a sting several years ago – my first honeybee sting, in fact, and this was only my second – that had seen a short trip to A&E for some swelling and nausea. I put on some clove oil as my hand started to burn, which had an almost immediate effect on the pain, and went to sit down in the cool shade of the apiary benches. One of the apiary visitors also gave me an antihistamine.

Luckily, an hour or so passed and I felt fine. John picked me up and I was home in time to watch the Grand National. John had put a bet on for my horse, One for Arthur, which won by the way!

With the first smoker of the year having been lit, the bees looking in a much better position than they did last spring, and the dandelions marinating in olive oil in the sunshine, it had not been a bad day’s beekeeping.

Meantime, Emily, Tom and I have been nominated again for best beekeeping blogs by WhatShed. Ealing beekeeping blogs are really doing very well this year!

I plan on making some simple dandelion salves with the marinated oil and beeswax for hands and chapped skin after gardening. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Dandelions have so many uses and were once considered a very useful herb in folk medicine and cooking. I wonder when we stopped noticing the usefulness of ‘weeds’? As Culpeper wrote in his Complete Herbal in the 17th century, the French and Dutch seemed to commonly use dandelions in spring, and to which he concluded with his usual tact that “foreign physicians are not so selfish as ours are, but more communicative of the virtues of plants to people”.

Telling the bees

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It’s a custom to tell the bees when you get married. I whispered my wedding plans at the entrance of the hive as the bees flew to-and-fro in summer. Autumn shone in all her glory as John and I got married last month at St Giles’ Church in Ickenham. Ealing beekeeper Thomas Bickerdike did the honours of telling the bees. While I didn’t get to share a piece of wedding cake with the colonies, Tom did a great job of decorating the hives and there is always plenty of cake to go around at the apiary.

A beekeeper’s notes for December

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Winter hasn’t come for the bees. They were enjoying the mild weather today bringing home lots of pollen. A drone sat comfortably on a hive roof looking well fed and a young-looking worker was resting on the side of the hive boxes. Else was over-the-moon about the unseasonably warm weather, which brought back memories of Christmas in Australia. She produced a box of deliciously festive cup cakes to cheer up the British beekeepers complaining about the prospect of a sunny Christmas.

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The cakes were baked by Else’s friend and were scrumptious with raisin-and-spice sponge and frosted-chocolate icing.

The unseasonably warm weather meant it was unlikely that the hives would be treated with oxalic acid today. The bees hadn’t slowed down for Christmas. “One hive is heavier now than when I put on the fondant in October,” said Andy. He had treated his hives last month during a brief cold snap on a day when the bees were less likely to be active and protest about being disturbed.

Oxalic acid is usually given as a midwinter treatment when the days are frosty and there is little or no brood inside the hive. It’s most effective when applied during broodless periods, or as close to broodless as you can get, because the varroa have fewer places to hide. The fixed points on the beekeeping calendar are turning as the seasons become uncertain, however. Perhaps it’s best to say the bees can be treated with oxalic acid when the weather is wintry and conditions inside the hive are right, rather than in the winter. That’s assuming you treat your hives to oxalic acid.

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After tea and cake, Emily and I checked that our three hives still had enough stores. Pepper’s and Melissa’s hives were a generous weight when hefted and Peppermint’s hive had also pulled off the trick of getting heavier since putting on the fondant. The hive entrances were as busy as a mild spring day and the weight of the hives suggest the bees might be finding nectar as well as pollen to fill up the boxes.

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Melissa’s bees has tucked into their fondant despite having two supers of honey at the end of autumn. These bees do like their sugar.

That done, we got the bees ready for Christmas with tinsel and festive decorations. The apiary needed a little sparkle if the frost wasn’t coming this year.

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Beekeepers take note for December – it’s the tinsel that gets the bees through winter.

A beekeeper’s notes for November

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In November the leaves fall from the trees and the drones fall from the hive. The trees are preparing to rest for winter as their leaves drop to the ground, and the bees are getting ready to close the hive factory as the drones are thrown outdoors.

Autumn and winter are good times of the year for consolidation. The beekeeper can take stock of the hives and colonies, clear up apiaries, clean up equipment, disturb a few spiders, and plan ahead for the next season.

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The ebb and flow of the seasons are not constant, however, and the points on the beekeeping calendar can move each year. The autumn syrup may be poured a month earlier in August for late summer rains. The mouseguard might be pinned to the entrance a month later in November for the workers still bringing home baskets of pollen. Wasps may be seen gliding around the creepers beside the hive, and drones found sitting on the roof as late as December.

This sometimes makes the question “What does a beekeeper do in winter?” a difficult one to answer.  This is because a beekeepers’ checklist is only a guide to the beekeeping year and not a set of rules.

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My step-nephew Sam films what beekeepers do in winter at the apiary, while Andy Pedley tells a visitor what the bees do in winter.

Emily put on the mouseguards at the hive entrances when she noticed that fewer bees were carrying home pollen. The hives were wrapped around in chicken wire as a precaution against possible woodpeckers watching from the bare branches overhead. We tackled the task of removing the syrup from Peppermint’s hive and replacing the feed with fondant, despite a crowd of protesting workers, because the days had become cold and short.

Winter also comes to London despite talk about our city’s microclimate and of bees making queens to swarm on a warm October’s day, which, of course, might happen. But if it’s true the season can sometimes be mild, overall there are fewer days when either bees or beekeepers feel like going outside. On those days both bees and humans are glad of a well-stocked cupboard, an insulated roof, and a secured entrance.

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Every autumn and winter, Emily and I will ask each other “Shall I bring more syrup?”, “Have you got pins for the mouseguard?”, and “Do you think the fondant can go on?”, and each week our plans change as frequently as the weather. We both know that between the two of us the bees will be ready for winter as and when they need to be. We both watch the days and the bees, and tick off items from our checklist when it feels right to do so.

A beekeeper’s notes for November often turn to thoughts of what we have and haven’t done, none of which matters now, and then to dreams of the bees returning in spring.

From Tintern to Tintagel

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It was a dark and foggy autumn day when we set off from the farm in Hereford. We were driving through Wales on our way to Cornwall. Our route took us past the ruins of Tintern Abbey rising above the wreaths of cold mist.

Tintern Abbey, or Abaty Tyndyrn in Welsh, seemed as unreal as its pictures in a book of poems. Yet there it stood, founded in 1131 near Tintern village in Monmouthshire on the Welsh bank of the River Wye. I looked at the remains and imagined the music that once filled the monastery now replaced by roosting crows.

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The skies brightened as we passed through the border to England and headed to the Cornish coast. St Ives didn’t offer sunshine, but it did provide peaceful seaside views and a tasty Cornish pasty.

The next day we were on the road again to Land’s End. It was our three-year anniversary. The sun came out and the sky was brilliant blue along the winding cliff roads. It had been almost 10 years since I last visited Cornwall and to me it hadn’t changed a bit.

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At the end of the country John took me past the famous signpost to a quiet spot overlooking the sea. Here he asked me to marry him and I said yes. That done in a manner that suited us, we were engaged.

A short walk along the cliff path took us to a small farm where we met a cat called Felix the Mighty and his human friend Edward, who I thought might be a pirate. Felix has the honourable title of first and last cat of Britain because he lives at Land’s End where planes fly over to and from the British Isles.

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Edward told us a story about memory and time travel, which I won’t share with you here because it is his story. To say thank you, I shared our secret with Felix and I was rewarded with a semi-precious stone from the mighty cat’s treasure box. John was not so lucky. Edward told him the points along the coastline of Land’s End where a proposal must be done and to take me there immediately.

And so we walked further up the cliffs where John proposed twice more – in all, three times for the three years we have been together.

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The sun was starting to fade as we drove to the charming village of Marazion. We parked for a late afternoon stroll across the Giant’s causeway to St Michael’s Mount – we had till 6pm before the tide returned. “Keep an eye on the sea,” said a local as we went across. “Because God and tide are two different things.”

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The castle at the top of the mount is almost 900-years-old and belongs to the St Aubyn family, who have lived there since the 17th century. According to Cornish legend, a giant’s stone heart is trapped within the mount.

The island village itself is all cobbled streets and cottages surrounding the castle’s subtropical gardens. When the tide is out, the beach is the children’s playground and when the tide is in they have the sea all to themselves.

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Our journey through Cornwall, or Kernow in Cornish, continued from St Ives to Newquay to visit The Eden Project. John drove off the map to discover more of the rugged Cornish coastline like Perranporth. Here the blustery week had turned out perfectly for kite-flyers and dog-walkers.

The surfers’ paradise of Newquay offered us a brief moment to catch our breath before taking off again to explore Eden.

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Another surprise was waiting at The Eden Project – bees! These three colourful bee hives are part of a project to conserve the British black bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) in Cornwall and the UK.

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The Eden Project is home to artificial biodomes housing a captive rainforest and a Mediterranean habitat with thousands of plants collected from all around the world.

As a beekeeper, the giant bee resting in the flower beds and the hexagonal-celled biodomes made me feel quite at home. Of course, there was lots more to see.

Inside the rainforest we found exotic flowers, curious birds, waterfalls and a baobab tree offering welcome refreshment for the humidity.

From Eden to King Arthur’s country, the remains of Tintagel castle waited on the last day of our holiday.

It was a steep climb up the stone steps to the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. The ruined Medieval fortification is split in two by rocks and sea, which make views of Tintagel simply breathtaking.

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Even more exciting than the castle was the discovery of the Tintagel Honey Shop owned by very charming beekeeper. A whirlwind shopping trip and a couple of jars of honey later, we were due back in Hereford for tea time, I had tasted some delicious local honeys and had a nice chat about bees.

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From Tintern Abbey to St Ives, we’d travelled to the end of the country, seen a giant’s castle and explored King Arthur’s land. I said farewell to Cornwall and a thank you to John for our surprise engagement holiday. That done, we drove back to Hereford racing hot air balloons along the way.

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LINKS

You can follow the adventures of Felix the Mighty, the first and last cat of Britain, on his Facebook Page.

All about Cornwall
St Ives
Land’s End
St Michael’s Mount
Perranporth
Newquay
The Eden Project
Tintagel
Tintern Abbey

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I will have a lot to tell the bees next Saturday! My next post will be about beekeeping notes for November with a flurry of snow.

A beekeeper’s notes for October: Autumn is icumin in

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Autumn had arrived almost unnoticed at the bottom of the garden. The crimson vine creeping over the sheds was set ablaze in oranges and reds in the morning sun. The mason bees and leafcutters were still asleep behind closed doors of mud and leaves. I cleared away the overgrown foliage to warm the bee houses in the sunshine and to remove easy routes for spiders and their webs.

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Unlike our solitary bees fast asleep in their comfy homes, the honeybees were bringing back pollen to the hives faster than the foraging squirrels scampering between trees in London parks. Thomas Bickerdike had organised an apiary tidy-up the weekend before and some beekeeping treasures had been unearthed.

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A well-loved smoker and kit box were not the most unusual finds, it seemed. John Chapple’s concerns about witchcraft at Ealing apiary may be warranted, but I promise this cauldron doesn’t belong to Emily or myself.

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It was the second Saturday of the month, which meant Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for a workshop and the apiary was free for witches to get up to mischief. As I had forgotten my wand – I mean my hive tool – I had no choice but to wait for my coven partner – I mean my hive partner Emily – to arrive.

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Two weeks previously it looked like Melissa’s hive was getting top heavy. The first super above the brood box was full and the bees were meandering about the second super thinking about filling the comb, but the brood box was lighter in stores around the nest than I would have liked. There may not be a particular reason why the bees have filled up the supers rather than packing honey around the brood – in fact, it’s a characteristic of this colony – but I wanted to close up the nest with dummy boards. This would help to keep the colony warmer as the nights were getting chillier, and, as I had found in the past, might even encourage our wayward bees to build outwards rather than upwards.

The bees were one step ahead of me. Emily and I opened up Melissa’s hive, along with new beekeeper Bertrand, to find that not only had the workers almost filled the second super but the empty brood frames had stores too. Well done girls!

This particular hive loves to build brace comb at every opportunity, regardless of what space is available elsewhere, and had packed a few rolling hills of oozing honey between the top and bottom super frames. Emily scraped off the delicious honeycomb with her hive tool for Bertrand to taste honey fresh from the hive. A taste of autumn.

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The brace comb was not the only mischief that Melissa’s bees had been up to – I also spotted a play cup at the bottom of a brood frame. We couldn’t see an egg or larvae inside and from the shape it looked unlikely to be drawn out into a queen cell. But I have a feeling that Melissa may lose her crown next year.

Peppermint’s hive is much stronger after August rains had left this small colony quite weak. Pepper’s colony had fastidiously packed down propolis and pollen for winter. Bertrand spotted our queen walking calmly across the comb. The super above Pepper’s hive remains empty though the brood box is well stacked with stores. However, some workers were nursing the comb, so Emily and I decided to give them till the end of the month to fill the super before taking away empty frames for safe storage against wax moth.

That done, it was time to go home and decide what to do with all the apples picked with John’s mum on the farm in Hereford last weekend…

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More autumn activities soaking the cooking apples in water with a pinch of salt to get rid of lingering bugs (sorry bugs) and wrapping the apples in newspaper to store in the garage before I have time to freeze them or bake pie and crumble.

Summer may have passed the baton to autumn, but we were lucky to have pale blue skies on the drive from London to Hereford and to wake up to beautiful morning mists.

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And even a drizzly day couldn’t dampen the beauty of turning leaves and pretty villages like Ludlow. Here’s what we got up to in Hereford even before breakfast!

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A visit to the picturesque town of Ludlow to look around the impressive church. You should be warned that behind small church doors are usually a lot of steep steps going up.

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Two hundred steps up. I’m taking a break by the bells. But it was worth the view at the top of the church tower.

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Here’s my handsome boyfriend John and his lovely parents Roger and Marilyn enjoying a windy day overlooking Ludlow.

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We enjoyed a walk around the parish gardens and market place shops before heading back to the farm for brunch.

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Autumn may be icumin in, but there’s still lots to see and do! My next post will be at the end of the month bringing beekeepers’ notes for October. Till then, enjoy the changing of the season.

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