A beekeeper gets married

022

Married a month. Time flies past faster than a bee. In parts of Britain and Europe, it was tradition to announce an engagement to the bees. The hives were decorated in red or white ribbons, and given a slice of wedding cake.[1] In Hungary, brides baked cakes for the groom during a full moon.[1]

The day before our wedding, I baked John’s favourite fairy cakes with raisin sponge. That night my mum and I made bridal bouquets with red ribbons to match the bridesmaids’ dresses.

010b

It was a small wedding party of our parents and sisters, and their families, but we wanted it to be special. The wedding breakfast was laid out on the kitchen table with honey favours – a gift from Queen Melissa’s hive last year. Honey has been part of marriage ceremonies for centuries. In the days of the Vikings, newly weds drunk mead and ate honey cakes.[1]

010a

010c

Almost everything was homemade – and homegrown. The garden provided the dried flowers for the confetti with a drop of lavender oil in each pot. My something borrowed was a sprig for the bouquet from our little myrtle tree. And yes, there were a lot of leftover honey pots put to use.

016e

016c

016d

The sun shone on the morning of our wedding. My mum had worked hard on the lace for my wedding dress and I had bought a white parasol in case the October weather changed its mind. While John got his family and the bridesmaids to the church from our house, the mother-of-the-bride was busily organising the bride, the father-of-the-bride and stepfather-of-the-bride. I guess she had her hands full!

001

We got married at St Giles’ Church in Ickenham by Reverend Felicity Davies. Everything was perfect. My dad Len gave me away. The sun shone through the stained glass windows of the 600-year-old church as we said our vows. Our nieces Lauren and Maisie were our bridesmaids, with Lottie as flower girl, and our nephew Zachary was our page boy. Our sisters Amie and Abby were witnesses.

The marriage ceremony was themed in autumn colours and a celebration of nature’s harvest – from the hives of London to John’s family’s farm in Hereford. We sang All things bright and beautiful, Who put the colours in the rainbow?, and Morning has broken.

002

003

004

John’s dad Roger did a fantastic job as best man – looking after our rings and saying a reading with my mother. He later did a surprise speech at the reception to wish us well in our married life.

The sun shone brighter when we stepped outside and the church bells rang. My stepdad Bryan and John’s parents Roger and Marilyn did a wonderful job of the wedding photography. The scent of lavender filled the cool autumn air as the confetti was thrown and we made our way to the car.

006

008

010

At home, the bridesmaids wanted to feed the fish in the pond, which was a good opportunity to tell them (the fish) I got married, I suppose. Luckily, Ealing beekeeper Thomas Bickerdike was taking care of telling the bees.

John opened a bottle of champagne, which was a gift from my last place of work at The Royal Society, and we had a toast from two glass goblets, which had been a gift from my grandmother Antonie. The fairy cakes were mostly eaten or distributed by the bridesmaids who worked up an appetite from their bridesmaid duties. I imagine carrying my dress was quite heavy work.

013

015

010d

017

That done, we made our way to The Old Orchard in Harefield for a meal in the family room overlooking the lake and woodlands. It had been a magical day and perfect for us. We would both do it all over again.

016

On behalf of myself and John, I’d like to say a huge thanks to our parents, sisters and their partners Jerome and Mark – and, of course, the bridesmaids, page boy and flower girl – for making our day so special. We’re also grateful to all the cards, gifts and well wishes that we received from family, friends and neighbours.

All that remains to be done is for John and I to introduce ourselves to the bees as Mr and Mrs Maund to ensure our marriage life is lucky.[1] I may need to bake some more raisin sponge cakes before I tell John about that.

References
1. Collins Beekeeper’s Bible: Bees, honey, recipes and other home uses. Various authors. Collins. London, 2004. ISBN: 978-0007279890.

 

Telling the bees

telling-the-bees

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.

My family and other animals

mario3

Spring sprang into an unsettled summer of muggy days, flash rainstorms and sunny spells at the start of the month. As the weeks had flown past in May, it felt like one step forward and two steps back for our bees. A few sunny days brought the excitement of seeing them draw fresh comb, then the weather turned and hopes of swapping new frames for old were washed out.

I couldn’t blame the bees. The HiveAlive treatment I had given them for suspected nosema had certainly perked up the colonies. They were flying like fury, bringing home bucket-loads of pollen, and were no longer sluggish as they busied themselves inside the hives. The problem was that they had come out of winter too weak and couldn’t quite manage to get the same foothold on the season as some of the stronger colonies at the apiary. It was just bad luck.

“But it’s an odd sort of year,” said my dad as he listened to me talk about the bees. “I don’t see much flying about.” He didn’t know then that it was all about to change.

While Emily has been on maternity leave, my family has taken turns as hive partners. My German cousin Mario was the first to put on a bee suit and be introduced to the bees. He was surprised after thinking that he had only come to visit us for lunch, but he took to beekeeping very well.

mario1

mario2

It was a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon and as rain was forecast for Saturday, it seemed best to get the inspections done before the weekend. Peppermint’s colony was trying hard to expand as chains of wax builders clung together. I swapped out a couple of dummy boards for new frames and fed the hive syrup to make sure they kept going between then and the next inspection.

Melissa’s colony had stalled and with the weather forecast suggesting temperatures would fall the following week, I decided to move them to a nuc to keep them warm. “Will they know where to go?” asked Mario. I explained that the nuc would be moved to the position of the old hive, and then did just that. The crowd of bees that had gathered outside quickly moved inside. Mario was amazed.

My dad, who has cleverly avoided seeing a single bee on every visit to the apiary, saw much more than he bargained for when he took over hive partner duties for the next inspection. “I’ll do the smoker,” he said and he meant it. Never has a smoker been lit so professionally or kept burning so well throughout two hive inspections.

Dadbees

Melissa’s colony, our best bees which Emily and I have kept for almost five years through the same line of queens, were struggling and I knew why. The workers were old and tired. I may have kept them alive with feed and insulation, but now the weather was improving the colony needed a new supply of younger workers.

That’s when John Chapple came to our rescue. He kindly said that Emily and I could have a frame of brood from one of Alan Kime’s hives being kept at the apiary. With dad puffing away, I took a frame covered in capped brood with bees just emerging and, after checking the frame didn’t hold the queen or any queen cells, transferred it to the nuc.

It seemed to do the trick. When dad and I returned for his second beekeeping lesson, the bees had emerged on the new frame and were busy filling it again even as strings of wax builders were drawing out the next frame. It was hopeful but further rain was forecast that could slow down their progress again. Melissa’s colony were still feeding on fondant because of an unwillingness to take down any syrup so far this year. Fondant would keep the colony alive while trapped inside the nuc on rainy days, but it wouldn’t help them continue to build new comb and rear new brood.

Luckily dad had brought his toolbox and drilled a second feeder hole in the crownboard, which meant I could leave the bees both syrup in a mini rapid feeder and their beloved fondant in case they refused the syrup. This seemed to be exactly what the bees had wanted. I returned a few days later to find the feeder drained of syrup for the first time this year, while the hole in the fondant had doubled. The traffic outside the nuc entrance showed that this colony was busier than it had been for some time. I refilled the feeder and left them to carry on.

nucbees

bee returns home

When my mum took a turn at beekeeping duties, she was thrilled to spot the queen when I opened up the nuc. Although she seemed much more interested in beekeeper selfies…

mumbees

Last week I rushed to the apiary in a race against the summer storms. The first rumble of thunder didn’t come until a few hours after the inspections, but Peppermint’s colony was already grumpy. I spotted the queen, eggs and could see that the bees were now occupying six frames and starting to draw out the seventh. I also found a queen cell on the third frame. It was empty and I didn’t find anymore, however, I sighed because the urge to swarm before the colony was strong enough to be split could set back their progress. One step forward, two steps back. I closed up and hoped that it was supersedure the bees had in mind.

Melissa’s nuc bees had a similar story. The workers were less irritable but there was no sign of the queen and I found a single queen cell on the second frame. It wasn’t the best-looking queen cell, perhaps even an emergency cell, and in fact looked similar to the slightly squashed queen cells that Emily and I had found about two years ago when Melissa’s mother, Myrtle, had mysteriously disappeared. It was a disappointment after working so hard to help our best bees recover after winter. It seemed their fate lay in one small stunted queen cell. I closed up and left a note in the roof to make sure the colony wouldn’t be disturbed by beginners on a Saturday while the new queen emerged and mated. Fingers crossed she’ll beat the odds and successfully take over the hive just as Melissa did two years ago. 

So that’s where I left the bees, waiting for the summer storms to pass.

thundersmoke

stormbees

Meanwhile in the garden I had discovered that keeping tadpoles can be as much work as keeping bees. The problem was that I had been woefully unprepared for the frogspawn that was fished out of the pond into tubs to actually survive and survive so well. The tadpoles are thriving. I feed them once a day with a mixture of lettuce, raw meat and fish pellets. And I change their water every other day because the tubs don’t have a filter.

The tadpoles stay with us may be brief, but I’ve tried to make it as pleasant as possible. As the larger tadpoles start to grow legs they need structures on which to rest closer to the water’s surface. This is where a few pieces of bric o’ brac came in handy, and were much cheaper than rock and pond accessories from aquatic suppliers.

toadstall tank

Alice tank

A tadpole tea party! Frog mum, or dad, watched from the water iris in the fish pond as I gave the tadpoles their new toys. I hope she or he approves!

frog mum

The day Lolly met the bees

IMG_9727

The sun was bright at the apiary when they arrived. Most of the beekeepers had floated home as sleepily as drones. I ran to meet them as small feet in sparkly pink boots pattered down the overgrown path.

The visitors were my sister Amie and her five-year-old daughter Lauren (Lolly). They had come to meet the bees. “Come and meet my hive partner, Emily,” I said, as Lolly looked around curiously. She is very shy in new company so introductions were brief.

IMG_9710

Lolly wore fur-trimmed, pink-glitter Frozen boots for her ‘bee wellies’ and was pleased that I had picked out a matching pink bee suit. These are probably the sparkliest bee-boots that I’ve ever seen.

Emily, Tom and Jochen went on ahead to check Ken’s hive, while my sister and niece put on their bee suits and gloves. That done, we were ready to venture into bee land.

IMG_9711

My sister Amie is suspicious of stripy, stingy flying things, so it was brave of her to visit. She admitted “I was thinking in the car on the way: ‘Oh dear, oh dear – bees!'”

Lolly stood in the apiary clearing quietly taking in all the hives. “This is where the bees live,” I said. “Let’s go see my bees.” We walked to Queen Melissa’s hive and stood watching lots of honeybees flying to-and-fro.

“What’s that?!” asked Amie, as something buzzed past her veil.
“A bee,” I said.
Lolly stared at the hive.

I lit the smoker and put it on the roof. “The smoke makes the bees calm in case they’re naughty,” I explained to reassure them both. “But these bees are very good.”

Their eyes widened as I pulled out a frame of bees from the super box. The bees were busy working on the honeycomb. I pointed out the cells of glistening nectar collected from flowers and the white-capped patches of honey.

IMG_9723

IMG_9713

Thanks Emily, for this surprise picture of us all on my phone!

I showed Amie and Lolly the crownboard to introduce the workers crawling across. “These are girl bees, because they have smaller bottoms than the boys,” I said, “The boy bees are mostly thrown outdoors by their sisters at this time of year.” Lolly nodded at the joke, because sometimes she has to throw her little brother Zac out of her bedroom.

IMG_9712

Next we looked inside the nest. I lifted the super to one side and prised apart the queen excluder using my hive tool. “The bees make everything really sticky with propolis, which is a tree sap,” I told Lolly, “The propolis helps to keep the hive clean and warm.”

The queen excluder now removed, I explained that we were looking at the bees’ nest inside the brood box. “This is where Queen Melissa lives with her bees.”

IMG_9725

Lolly stepped a little closer as Amie brushed a bee off her back. I pulled out a brood frame of glittering nectar. “What are these bees?” I asked. “Girl bees,” answered Lolly. The bees were as good as gold. Their gentle humming meant they were happy.

Emily gave the brood nest a quick puff of smoke as I pulled out a frame from the middle of the hive. Things got more interesting.

IMG_9715

Lolly stepped closer as I told her what was happening on the honeycomb. “Here the worker bees are keeping the baby bees warm in their cells until they are ready to hatch. It’s probably warmer inside the hive than your home.” I brushed a few workers aside to reveal the biscuit-coloured brood cells. Then a few bees walked past with bright-coloured blobs on their legs. “The bees are carrying pollen home from flowers like you see in your garden.” I pointed at the cells with gold-and-orange pollen inside. “The bees will head butt the pollen into the cells and use it to make bee bread to eat.”

I put the frame back inside the hive and asked Lolly what she thought of the bees. “Good!” she said with a big smile. She was even happy to hold a frame of bees by herself.

IMG_9724

The humming was getting slightly louder as I told Amie and Lolly to listen to the difference. “The bees are ready for their bedtime.” Emily and I closed the hive. “Do you want to give the bees their dinner?” Lolly nodded. She helped me pour the autumn syrup into the feeder. I gave her a ball of beeswax scraped off the crownboard to take to school for show-and-tell.

IMG_9726

Emily and I had checked the hives of queens Pepper and Peppermint earlier in the afternoon. Here’s pink-spotted Pepper walking across the frame. There seems to be a lot more pink at the apiary since Emily and I started keeping bees.

IMG_9716

The bees seemed content with their visitors, my sister Amie was glad of her veil, and Lolly was amused by the whole adventure. The neighbouring bagpipe player had also come out to play for the bees, which she thought was funny. It was time to go home for dinner and tell baby brother Zac all about the bees and the bagpipes.

IMG_9714

If you enjoyed reading about Lolly’s visit, you might like The day my mum met the bees.

The Watch

IMG_5656-0.JPG

A moving sunrise to sunset vigil at the Cenotaph in London on 23 October launched the 2014 Poppy Appeal. ‘The Watch’ was inspired by the repatriation of the Unknown Warrior in 1920 where Guards of the Watch kept vigil by the coffin.

I support the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal each year, because I believe it’s important to remember the brave soldiers who fought in past and present wars for the freedom to live as we choose. I pin my poppy brooch with pride when I remember the stories of my grandparents.

This story about my grandfather, Kenneth Spooner, was retold by my mother. It reminds me what a rascal he was!

IMG_5658-0.JPG

The night before my grandfather went overseas to Europe, he left camp to visit a friend (a girlfriend, perhaps). As he was late getting back, the police called at his parents’ house in Norwood Green in London. Luckily, Ken returned to camp just as the trucks were leaving. His senior officer was furious and said: “I will deal with you Spooner, when we get back.” My grandfather never saw him again.

They crossed over to Europe at night, though not at the Normandy beaches, Ken said he was landed further along nearer to Belgium. It was pitch dark, except for the explosions, and my grandad’s troop had to climb across several rafts tied together to get to shore. Once on the beach, they were told to fight their way to the ‘green light’ in the distance. Ken couldn’t remember anything after that, except all the confusion and running across the sand with explosions all around him.

IMG_5661-0.JPG

His next memory was driving an armoured car through the forest, which he volunteered to drive so that he would always have a place to sleep. Ken’s troop had the task of flushing out any remaining pockets of German aircraft.

From his memories and nightmares, my mum thinks this must have been my grandad’s most frightening experience during his service. So it reminds me of his great courage.

IMG_5660-0.JPG

Eventually Ken came to Hamburg which he said was flattened by bombs, and the German children came to their camp to get food and shoes. That was how he eventually met my grandmother, which is, of course, another story.

I will never forget what an inspiration my grandparents were and I hope they would be proud that I wear my poppy today.

IMG_5657-0.JPG

Nanny Africa

01 Nanny Africa

On this day in 1927 Antonie Ursula Dees was born. Photographer, traveller and explorer, Antonie was an enigma to all who knew her. To me, she was grandmother. Antonie was a restless spirit, but she found her heart in Cape Town, South Africa, where she spent many years. In later life, she returned to Germany and lived in Dannenberg until she died on 9 May 2013.

My grandfather called her ‘The African Connection’, which I think she liked. When Nelson Mandela died last week, I reflected how strange it was that another life passing can make the grief well for a loss not yet felt. Mandela inspired a nation and his story caught the world. My grandmother was my African connection and my inspiration. This is her story.

Antonie was born in Pritzwalk, a village in what was then East Germany. Her parents, Franziska and Rudolf, had five children – Antonie, her two sisters Inge and Ilse, and two brothers Heinz and Rudolf. ‘When we were little my father would wake us early,’ I remember my grandmother telling me how they would ‘rub down in snow and go for a run before breakfast’.

02 Nanny Africa

My great grandmother Franziska with Antonie as a baby and her two brothers Heinz and Rudolf.

03 Nanny Africa_Antonie aged 17 photography student

My grandmother was a beauty. Here she is aged 17.

Before the start of World War II, the family moved to Hamburg and when the war began Antonie recalled how everything changed. ‘We had to watch in the playground at school as the old Deutschland flag was lowered and the new Nazi flag raised up the mast.’ Antonie and her sisters also quickly learned to choose their friends with care. ‘A Nazi youth caught Inge talking to a Mexican boy and warned her not to speak to him again. We were afraid because families disappeared overnight.’

When Antonie’s father, my great grandfather, refused to let his children join the Hitler Youth, he was sent to the front line in France where he was killed by a British bomb. In later years, my grandmother and her siblings traced their father to an unmarked mass grave in France.

05 Nanny Africa_Antonie c1934

Antonie Dees, photographic student in war-torn Hamburg c1934.

09 Nanny Africa_sculpture of Antonie

My grandmother knew a sculptor who made this bust of her. It was destroyed by British soldiers after the war.

Antonie was a photographic student growing up in war-torn Hamburg. She remembered night-time raids and women with babies running to the River Elbe to dowse the flames. Hamburg was demolished by the time the war was over and the British troops arrived. ‘My older brother Heinz made friends with a British RAF soldier who gave him food to feed the family. Then one day Heinz brought the soldier home.’ The British soldier was Kenneth Spooner, my grandfather. Antonie and Kenneth fell in love and he asked her to return to England as his bride. My grandmother was one of many young German women who sailed to England on a war brides’ ship. ‘They had boats in front to break the ice as we travelled across the North Sea.’

07 Nanny Africa_My handsome grandad somewhere in Africa

My handsome grandad somewhere in Africa during World War II.

08 Nanny Africa_Rifle toting grandfather in post-war Hamburg

British soldier Kenneth Spooner stationed in post-war Hamburg.

I can remember my grandmother tell of her amazement when she arrived in England. ‘There were apples, oranges and bananas that we had not seen for years.’ Antonie said that the British people were very welcoming and she soon felt at home in England.
Kenneth and Antonie had two children, Kenneth and Veronica – my mother.

10 Nanny Africa Kenneth and Antonie with Kenneth and Veronica in January 1951 - London W13

Kenneth and Antonie Spooner with Kenneth and Veronica in January 1951, London W13.

11 Nanny Africa_Kenneth and Veronica (aged 10 & 6) Ealing c1957

Kenneth and Veronica, my uncle and mother (aged 10 and 6) in Ealing c1957.

Sadly their marriage was not to last and after it ended Antonie opened a studio in West Drayton called CameraCraft.

By my mother’s accounts, nanny was a trailblazer in her day. Antonie was the first woman to take the photography course, and pass her exams, at Ealing Polytechnic and Harrow College. Highlights of her career included aerial photography in a Hughes 300 helicopter, travelling to Austria and Switzerland to make films, shooting actress Una Stubbs for Women’s Magazine, and training an apprentice for renowned British photographer David Bailey.

12 Nanny Africa_Mrs Dees Great experience

Reaching the height of her profession, Antonie was featured in a newspaper article ‘Mrs. Dees Great Experience’. The article reported ‘she accomplished something few women have’ on her experience of going up in a helicopter to take photographs for a local authority. The reporter wrote: ‘Mrs. Dees feels she can photograph practically anything. She has photographed wounds in hospitals; vehicles jammed under bridges, the Lord and Lady Mayor of London, and many other events.’

She loved to travel and explore faraway places. Cape Town, South Africa, was far from London being on the other side of the world. Antonie was enraptured with the country and its people so she decided to live there. And that was that. Without much in the way of permission, my free-spirited grandmother in her early fifties left her home and flew to South Africa to start a new life. She quickly made many friends and had many adventures. Here are some photos from her albums.

19 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA 20 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA 21 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

23 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

Antonie got a job as the first woman working for the Boiler Maker Union where she changed the oil in large tanks to pay her way. She eventually settled in a small flat in Cape Town at the foot of Table Mountain and overshadowed by the Lion’s Head. Her experience in photography allowed her to get a job at the South African Government library archives where she completed a huge project to microfilm all of the newspapers of the last century by the time she retired.

17 Nanny Africa_working for SA library

My grandmother at her work for the South African Government library archives. Her maxim ‘We don’t just talk about it. We do it’.

16 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

Antonie never lost her passion for photography. She liked to take photos of everything she saw.

14 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

View of Lion’s Head mountain, Cape Town, South Africa.

I remember infrequent visits by my grandmother from Cape Town to London. She was a mysterious and glamorous figure in my life growing up, and on one of her visits she brought back an owl ivory necklace for me, ‘her little wise owl’. We loved her stories of travels and safaris and would miss her so much when she returned to South Africa. My mother took my sister and I to visit Antonie for a month in Cape Town, and we all understood why she fell in love with Africa.

18 Nanny Africa_Windy memories in South Africa

Windy memories in South Africa with my mother and younger sister. My grandmother is behind the lens.

Some years after Apartheid ended, and now retired, my grandmother returned to her roots in Germany. She lived the remainder of her life in Dannenberg.

Antonie Ursula Dees, our African Connection or Nanny Africa as my sister and I called her, passed away on 9 May 2013. Her life burned very brightly and she will always be my inspiration. Farewell nanny.

04 Nanny Africa_young Antonie

Thank you to my mother, Veronica Ilse Howard, for the photographs from my grandmother’s albums for this post.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.