Chocolate volcano-ring cake for the beekeepers

As regular readers of my blog will know, the Ealing and District Beekeepers Association is really a tea-and-cake association. Everyone turns up on a Saturday afternoon for a bit of cake at the apiary table washed down by a very good cup of tea. Occasionally, there is some beekeeping too. Yesterday I baked a chocolate bundt cake that disappeared very quickly. It is easy to make.

Ingredients:

  • 200g (7oz) butter
  • 200g (7oz) caster sugar
  • 300g (10.5oz) self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 4 medium eggs (beaten)
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 100ml (4oz) semi-skimmed milk
  • 3 dsp assorted chocolate sprinkles
  • icing sugar
  • 22cm (8–9in) bundt tin
  • large mixing bowl
  • wooden spoon

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (338°F) and grease the bundt tin with butter and a light dusting of flour. Also whip the eggs and put to one side.

2. Mix the butter and sugar in the large mixing bowl until the mixture is golden and creamy

TIP: I use a wooden spoon for all my mixing.

3. Gradually fold in the whisked eggs.

TIP: a teaspoonful of flour added each time helps to stop the mixture from curdling.

4. Fold in the flour and baking powder, then fold in about half (50ml / 2oz ) of the milk until the mixture is soft and easy to stir.

5. Stir in the cocoa powder and chocolate sprinkles, then keep adding a drop of milk until the mixture is soft and dropping again.

TIP: I find that I never need to use all of the milk.

6. Pour the mixture into the bundt tin and smooth it around the tin using the back of the wooden spoon.

7. Bake the mixture in the oven at 160–170°C for about 30–40 minutes.

TIP: the cooking time depends on your oven and how much time it takes to prepare your mixture. (Yesterday I got distracted by a woodpecker visiting the garden.)

TIP: insert a skewer to test that the cake is cooked (if it comes out clean).

8. Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes then turn out on a wire rack and leave to cool for 20 minutes before dusting with icing sugar.

It wasn’t my intention, but when I first started experimenting I found that baking in a bundt tin sometimes makes the cake mixture crack as it rises. (This can be fixed by reducing the temperature of the oven.) However, I liked the effect. The ‘crater’ makes the ‘hole’ in the ring-shaped cake look like a volcano’s caldera – inspiring the name chocolate volcano-ring cake!

Stan cut the cake at the apiary using a hive tool and I took one slice for me and one slice to crumble for the robin. It was a busy day in bee-world. Tom was giving a beginner session on queen-rearing, John was taking off the honey from his hives, and Emily and I had our own queens to visit. You can read about that in my next post.

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A beekeeper’s notes for September

spider dangling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beekeeper’s notes for July

“It was clever of you to buy a house with a honey extraction room,” said Emily. The garage had been fixed up and painted white by Len, my dad, a few weeks ago. I’m not sure this was exactly what he had in mind – there was some talk between him and John about a dartboard – but the newly decorated tool shed worked perfectly well as a honey extraction room.

The supers were placed on the floor and the frames decapped on a work bench. In the corner of the room a new manual steel extractor, kindly gifted by the lovely people at DK Publishing (more on that in another post), spun out the honey beautifully.

Tom had generously helped Emily and I to take the supers off of the hives, and drove us from the apiary to my house. He had patiently waited as we single-handedly picked off each and every bee still straggling the frames.

The rhombus board had done a good job of clearing the supers, but there were around 50 bees in each super. “I love how you two do beekeeping,” Tom joked, because our method of taking away the supers was so painfully slow! I worried that my house was further than the three or four miles estimated for a forager bee to fly from the hive. It was sad to think of ‘lost bees’ trying to find their way home from my garden. A feather lent by Tom helped speed up the process.

After lunch at home we made short work of extracting three supers of honey in the factory set up in the garage, with John also taking a turn at spinning. First Emily’s super from Andromeda’s hive at the allotment was spun out to reveal dark, deeply floral-scented honey. Then we cleaned out the extractor to spin the next batch from Melissa’s hive – a beautiful rich gold, fruity honey with hints of blackberry and lime. Finally we spun out Pepper’s honey which was again darker and smelt of forests.

Three different types of honey from three differently tempered hives. It was a good job the garage doors were closed because a determined wasp headbutted the back window desperate to get inside. We had to see her off a couple of times.

That done, I poured us some old fashioned still lemonade and we had a walk around the garden. I was happy to show Emily the bees at the bottom of the garden and, of course, the fish. The masons and leafcutters are no longer flying about, but I did find a small sweat bee to show Emily on one of the creepers. The air may feel like autumn is coming, but the nectar flow is attracting bees of every size and shape to feed off the Passion flowers, jasmine and primroses.

Later that evening we drove Emily home and got treated to a curry by Drew for all our hard work.

The honey has sat in my kitchen for a week to allow air bubbles to settle to the surface. It is less clean than last year’s crop and will need filtering before jarring.

The cut comb was easy to put into trays – a happy accident thanks to a super frame not returned to Pepper’s hive one week.

Yesterday a month’s rain fell in one day and I got home to find the fish pond almost overflowing. The fish were inquisitively peering over the edges. I thought it best not to satisfy their curiosity and removed a bucket of water to lower the water level. It continued to rain all night.

This morning felt fresher but still unsettled. John drove me to the apiary to return the wet supers for Melissa’s and Pepper’s bees to clean up. The wasps were out and a few robber bees, so we had a quick look inside, put the supers on, and closed up.

Emily had seen Melissa (our best queen for hiding) last weekend, and all seemed fine with the other two colonies. At this time of year, when the wasps and robbers come, I find it’s better to keep the hives closed and less stressed by skirmishes. Emily put entrance reducers on to help the guard bees better defend the colonies, and I started the Apiguard treatment on Melissa’s hive.

Jonesy was inspecting his neighbouring hives. “Can you smell banana?” He asked.

“Isn’t that the smell of the alarm pheromone?” said Emily.

“Do you smell banana a lot?” I asked.

“All the time,” said Jonesy.

That done and we all finished up for tea and cake. Alan had started a bonfire to burn up some rubbish. Jochen arrived to tell us about a swarm he collected with Bill at Harrow Beekeepers.

The weather had made the bees irritable this weekend and even the gathering of beekeepers was modest. I left the apiary as Alan’s bonfire started to roar higher and the skies darkened with clouds.

When summers turn out to be this good for the bees, I wish that I could keep hives full time. The BBC recently had a great feature on learning to be a bee farmer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-33663048

With plenty still to come in bee land, I left the apiary to return in August.

Sorry if the formatting of my post is off. I’ve been without a computer for over a month, getting online is a little challenging but another set of beekeeper’s notes are done.

A beeswax-and-lavender butter and a pear-and-black-grape delight

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The frost fairies left their sparkle on cars and rooftops every morning this week. On Saturday there was plenty of crisp sunshine to continue winter checks on the bees.

Afterwards I went home to warm up in the kitchen. It’s been so chilly that my skin was feeling chapped and dry. I’m also trying to be healthier, which means eating as much fruit as I do cake. So I made a couple of recipes that are fun and easy to do: a comforting beeswax-and-lavender butter for winter skin, and a delicious poached pear with black grapes and honey for cake-filled beekeepers.

Beeswax-and-lavender butter
Lavender is an old friend. I have used the herb and the essential oil since I was a teenager for homemade lotions and potions. My grandmother would make buckets of lavender water from the bushes in our garden. She taught me to pick the lavender when the bees were feeding, because they knew when the plant was at its best.

bumble and honeybee on lavender

Lavender is one of the most popularly used oils in aromatherapy, it is well balanced and remarkably versatile in its actions. There are several different types and I tend to use that known as true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). You can read more about living with lavender in my essential oil profile, from folklore to chemistry, here.

Lavender stands out in skin care for its moisturising and healing properties for almost all skin types from dry and oily to problem and sensitive. I love using this butter in my bathroom after a shower to deeply nourish dry skin and to relieve aching muscles. I also find the fragrance is calming and uplifting.

When I make aromatherapy recipes I do so instinctively, because they are familiar to me. A cup of olive oil, five or six teaspoons of beeswax, two or three teaspoons of distilled water or herbal tea, and drops of essential oil until it smells right… That’s not very helpful though, this time I’ve measured the recipe as I made it.

Ingredients
• 30g beeswax
• 100ml olive oil
• 3 tsp distilled water
• 15–25 drops of lavender essential oil

Method
1. Put the beeswax and oil in a heat-resistant glass bowl. Then place the bowl in a saucepan of shallow water. This is a make-do Bain Marie method.

oilbeeswaxmix

2. Slowly melt the beeswax in the oil over a low heat as you stir.

3. Once the beeswax is melted into the oil, remove the bowl from the heat. The oil-and-wax mixture will take some time to start to set, stir steadily and be patient.

4. Stir until the mixture feels it is ‘trying to resist’, then add distilled water a drop at a time, using a hand whisk to blend in completely.

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5. Pour into a jar before the butter starts to cool and stiffen. Add the drops of lavender essential oil and use a chopstick to stir in.

6. Leave to cool before placing the lid on the jar to avoid condensation gathering under the lid and on the surface of the butter.

7. Label the jar including the date. The beeswax-and-lavender butter should be stored in a cool dry place out of direct sunlight.

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The beeswax-and-lavender butter usually lasts a week in my cupboard, it is a winter treat. Only a very small amount is needed to rub on parts of your body, or a tiny dab as a rich moisturiser for hands and feet. I make smaller quantities of recipes with added water, because, without preservatives, the water attracts bacteria and makes homemade cosmetics go off faster. I also prefer my cosmetics to have a subtle delicate fragrance and find 15 drops of lavender oil is enough, but you can add up to 25 drops.

I always add a safety note to my recipes with essential oils (leaning towards over-caution when giving a recipe online) and here it is advised not to use the lavender oil in the first three months of pregnancy, and thereafter at a lower dilution of essential oil (perhaps 10 drops) with advice from your GP or midwife.

Pear-and-black-grape delight
This recipe is really easy. Core a pear and replace the cored flesh with chopped grapes and runny honey. Steam lightly for 20 minutes and enjoy a healthy dessert or snack. I’ve used medjool dates instead of black grapes for this recipe in the past, which is yummy.

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I was disappointed this weekend to miss Harrow Beekeepers wax workshop, particularly as I’ve kept beeswax in my kitchen cupboard to make homemade products for years. Harrow runs many excellent courses, which I hope to go to in future.

Something else I learned this week that’s quite interesting, shared here as an aside, is the difference between frost and frozen dew. This is frost – it is feathery and white in appearance with crystal formations, while frozen dew looks like droplets of frozen water. How does this happen?

Dew is formed at ‘dewpoint’ when the ground is cold and the moisture in the air goes from gas to liquid. If it is cold enough, the liquid dew freezes to become a solid – frozen dew. Frost occurs at ‘frost point’ when it is below freezing and the moisture in the air goes from gas to solid. You probably already know this, but I found it fascinating.

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Nature magic or nature science? Both are beautiful.

Winter studies: The poison honey

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© Dr Henry Oakeley

“In the summer, in the College garden, the woolly foxglove, Digitalis lanata, is visited by little bees which become stuporose and lie upside down in the flowers, seeming unable to fly away when disturbed.” –Dr Henry Oakeley, Garden Fellow at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) Medicinal Garden.

I became fascinated with the idea of ‘poisonous honey’ when I worked at the College. Watching bees foraging on the intoxicating inhabitants of the physicians’ Medicinal Garden, my imagination ran wild with thoughts of insects tempted by sinister sweetness, putrid pollen and foul fruit. What seductively dark nectar would the bees return to the hive to convert into undesirable honey? When I asked Henry, he told me the story of the bees in the woolly foxgloves and he kindly sent two beautiful photographs taken in the College garden.

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© Dr Henry Oakeley | Poison honey and a whodunnit bee too, how exciting! Anthophora or Anthidium manicatum? See Mark’s comments below.

The colour and flavour of honey comes from the variety of nectar sources visited by the bees. From spring mint and summer blackberry to autumn woods and bitter ivy, the taste and smell of honey can evoke intense reactions, not always good. The strong flavour of privet honey, for example, is described as ‘objectionable’ in Collins Beekeeper’s Bible, while Ted Hooper in A Guide to Bees & Honey confesses: “I cannot say I have ever found much wrong with it”. But whether you like ivy, heather or rapeseed, ‘unpalatable’ honey is a matter of personal taste.

What, then, of honey with truly ‘undesirable’ qualities from the nectar that is gathered, being harmful to bees or humans, or both? In this post, I’m going to look at the possible toxicity of honey from the nectar or pollen of plants rather than artificial contamination.

“Just when you thought that honey was always a wonderful health food,” says Henry, pointing me in the direction of rhododendron – a common culprit of toxic honey that can be harmful to bees and humans. According to Wikipedia, a chemical group of toxins called grayanotoxins found in rhododendrons and other plants of the family Ericaceae may, very rarely, cause a poisonous reaction of ‘honey intoxication’ or ‘rhododendron poisoning’.

Rhododendron and clouds in Japan

Image: Rhododendron and vast clouds in Japan | 松岡明芳 via CC BY-SA 3.0.

Xenophon and his Greek army retreated ill from Persia in 399BC as a result of ‘toxic honey’ and Pompey’s soldiers fell foul of ‘maddening honey’ in the Third Mithridatic War in 65BC. These historical accounts name varieties of rhododendron honey as causing a “feeling of drunkeness, to vomiting and purging, and madness that lasted for days” (Collins). A botanist’s tale of poison honey is given by Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885–1958), during his travels in northern Burma towards Tibet. He recounts symptoms similar to acute alcohol poisoning, suffered along with his travelling companions, after eating honey produced in the rhododendron season. The local Tibetans ate the honey without ill effects (Collins).

Piers Moore Ede vividly describes sipping the ‘wondrous toxic honey’ of rhododendron flowers collected by the honey hunters of Nepal: “It resembled drunkenness at first, but then became visual, like a magic mushroom trip I remembered from university. Painted dots were dripping across my irises like technicolor rain. My body felt light and tingly, filled with warm rushes and heat-bursts. It was wild and strangely wonderful” (Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness).

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Image: Rhododendron forest on Manaslu circuit, Nepal | Spencer Weart via CC BY-SA 3.0.

An incident of poisoning reported in honeybee colonies on Colonsay Island off west-coast Scotland in 1995, referenced in Yates Beekeeping Study Notes (Modules 1, 2 & 3). “The bees had died out completely in 2–3 days after starting to collect nectar from Rhododendron blossoms (Rhododendron thomsonii) caused by the poison andromedotoxin or acetylandromedol.” Ted Hooper writes on the case of Colonsay Island’s bees: The West of Scotland College of Agriculture Study showed that the poison andromedotoxin was involved”.

It sounds like rhododendrons are not a desirable source of forage for bees! However, to put the risk of honey poisoning from rhododendron, or any other toxic plant, into perspective, I asked John Robertson of The Poison Garden website: “Put simply, something has to go wrong for toxic honey to be produced and then it has to go wrong again for it to cause human poisoning.” OK, so what can go wrong?

“The first thing that has to go wrong is to have a lack of species diversity. Generally, bees visit so many different plants that they don’t get a concentration of any particular toxin. This can go wrong, as in the west of Scotland, where Rhododendrons are almost the only thing in flower early in the spring. But, nectar from Rhododendron is toxic enough to kill the bees so they tend not to return it to the hive. Experienced beekeepers know not to let their bees out at this time of year. I haven’t seen any reports of poisoning from honey made from Rhododendrons.” John writes more on The poison garden blog, entry for Tuesday 27 September 2011.

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Image: Coriaria arborea | Rudolph89 via CC BY-SA 3.0.

Both John and Henry brought my attention to honey from the tutu tree (Coriaria arborea) in New Zealand, which could cause harm to humans, but this is due to the unusual way in which the honey is produced by insects. John says:

“Bees collecting nectar directly from the plant do not produce poisonous honey. But, a vine hopper insect also feeds on the nectar of the plant and excretes a sweet ‘honeydew’ containing a high concentration of plant toxins. Especially in times of drought, bees may gather this honeydew rather than nectar from the plants. Because this is a well-known problem, however, there have been no instances of poisoning from commercially produced honey since 1974. When four people were taken ill in 2008, the source was traced to honey produced by an amateur who was not aware of the problem. Another instance of the flaw in the belief that the more ‘natural’ something is the better it is for you.” Read more on The poison garden blog, entry for Thursday 30 June 2011.

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Image: Drone fly (Eristalis tenax) – not a bee! – on ragwort flowers | Francis Franklin via CC BY-SA 3.0.

Rhododendron is not the only mischievous plant in the garden. Yates lists common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) in its section on unpalatable honey as “an injurious weed in the Weeds Act 1959, is poisonous to cattle and horses causing damage to the liver with pyrrolizidine alkaloids“. However, bees work the blossom for nectar and pollen with no ill effects to produce a bright yellow honey with an unpleasant smell.

What other mutinous plants, then, produce nectar and pollen that is harmful to the bee?

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Image: Ranunculus macro | Laura Brolis via CC BY-SA 3.0.

The innocent-looking buttercup that pops-up in spring has bitter tasting leaves from a toxin called protoanemonin present in the sap. In 1944 in Switzerland, spring dwindling, or ‘May disease’, occurred after bees brought home pollen from the Ranunculaceae family (buttercup): “Nurse bees appeared at hive entrances trembling and unable to fly, excitedly moving on the landing board, losing control of their legs, rotating violently on their backs, becoming paralysed and dying. The leaves of most species of buttercup are poisonous and avoided by livestock” (Yates).

As the reference to this case is old, I dug deeper for something more recent. I found a study in the journal Functional Ecology, published by Wiley-Blackwell, which showed the contradictory effects of buttercup pollen and viper’s bugloss pollen in two closely-related species of mason bees: “While the larvae of Osmia cornuta were able to develop on viper’s bugloss pollen, more than 90% died within days on buttercup pollen. Amazingly, the situation was exactly the opposite with the larvae of Osmia bicornis” (Science Daily press release). The researchers suggested that some flowering plants used chemical defenses to prevent all their pollen being used by the bees to feed their larvae, rather than to pollinate the flower.

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Image: Abies alba Schleus Berg | Thomas Dreger, Suhl via CC BY-SA 3.0.

In 1951 another account of bee poisoning was reported in Switzerland, this time from the silver fir (Abies alba), which is a source of honeydew toxic to bees. “Thousands of returning foragers, with a waxy black appearance, were reported dying outside hives.” It was thought that sap-sucking insects feeding on the silver fir had converted the plant sap into sugars toxic to the bees (Yates). I was unable to find a more recently reported incident of silver fir honeydew poisoning in bees, although I came across a website that said silver fir honeydew honey is an “excellent table honey that goes well with cheese”. Is Abies alba still foraged for honey? If anyone has further information, I’d be interested to know.

In California, the pretty blossom of the buckeye chestnut tree (Aesculus californica) wickedly beckons bees to feed from its nectar and pollen: “The bees become black and shiny, trembling and paralysed. Non-laying queens, dying brood and infertile eggs have also been reported. As this species covers 14 million acres in North America its effects on honeybees are well known to local beekeepers” (Yates). You can read more about the buckeye chestnut tree and the honeybee in this interesting article by the University of California’s Bug Squad.

Then there is the mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), native to eastern US, introduced to Europe as an ornamental plant, and toxic to bees, humans and livestock due to the presence of andromedotoxin which could accumulate in the honey (Yates). However, the honey is reportedly so bitter that it’s unlikely to be eaten and cause poisoning (Wikipedia).

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All in all, it seems you’re more likely to come across a ‘poison honey’ in an episode of Poirot than find it on your breakfast table. John comments that the taste and texture of ‘bad’ honey, such as from common ragwort which “is waxy and unpleasant”, is probably enough to prevent anyone from eating too much of it. That, then, puts the lid on a fascinating topic.

With thanks to
A huge thanks to Dr Henry Oakeley and John Robertson for generously sharing their vast knowledge of plant lore for this post. If you’re interested in reading more about poison gardens or exotic plants, check out the links in the reading list below.

EDIT 19.01.15: And if you enjoyed reading my post, thank you. I’ll be making some edits to the information given here in due course in light of further information.

Further reading
A tour of the medicinal garden of the Royal College of Physicians by Dr Henry Oakeley, published by RCP
A year in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians by Dr Henry Oakeley, published by RCP
Rhododendron yakushimanum ‘Grumpy’ from RCP Medicinal Garden online plant database by Dr Henry Oakeley
The Poison Garden website posts by John Robertson from Thursday 30 June 2011 and Tuesday 27 September 2011
Toxic honey entry in Wikipedia
Collins Beekeeper’s Bible by Philip Et Al Mccabe, published by HarperCollins
A Guide to Bees & Honey by Ted Hooper MBE, published by Northern Bee Books
Yates Beekeeping Study Notes (Modules 1, 2 & 3) by JD & BD Yates, published by BBNO | (Yates recommends further details on undesirable nectars can be found in Honey Bee Pests, Predators and Diseases by RA Morse and R Nowogrodski, published by Cornell University)
Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness by Piers Moore Ede, published by Bloomsbury
Claudio Sedivy, Andreas Müller, Silvia Dorn. Closely related pollen generalist bees differ in their ability to develop on the same pollen diet: evidence for physiological adaptations to digest pollen. Functional Ecology, 2011; DOI:10.1111/j.1365-2435.2010.01828.x | sourced via Science Daily press release.
• University of California’s post on buckeye chestnut tree and the honeybee from the Bug Squad
Mad honey poisoning‐related asystole from US National Library of Medicine | National Institutes of Health
• Emily Scott of Adventuresinbeeland’s Blog has written a brilliant post on 1st Honey bee products and forage revision post: a list of floral sources of unpalatable honey;

Further winter studies for bees can be found in my blog index.

The London Honey Show 2014

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Autumn brings lots of good things like misty mornings, crispy days, bonfires and fireworks – and the annual honey shows.

The London Honey Show at the Lancaster Hotel celebrates the end of one beekeeping season and the start of the next.

For a small fee of £1, donated to Bees for Development, you’ll enter a room filled with bee paraphernalia – honey, mead, honey beer, honey cakes, bee art, wax candles, wax flowers, cook books, bee books, cosmetics, jewellery, exotic hives… and lots of beekeepers, quite a few from Ealing.

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What I enjoy most about The London Honey Show are the talks. They are not too long or too many to stop you from walking around and sampling the stalls, but they leave you sparkling with bee knowledge. It’s like the Ted Talks of beekeeping, so here’s a bonus post for this week on the three speakers.

Products of the hive and what to do with them by urban beekeeper Judy Earl gave us new ideas for old ingredients: honey, propolis and beeswax. A beekeeper for 10 years, Judy has spent hours experimenting in her kitchen. Skipping over pollen and royal jelly (she had rarely met a beekeeper in the UK who uses these) Judy explored medicinal, cosmetic, decorative, culinary, and other uses of the hive.

While New Zealand’s Manuka honey is widely acclaimed for its antimicrobial properties, propolis has long been a medicinal component used for skin ointments and tinctures for sore throats. “Although reading some sources would seem to make propolis a cure-all,” said Judy.

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From honey-and-slippery-elm tablets to beeswax-and-chili plasters, Judy has tried every remedy including a garlic-and-beeswax chest rub which was so pungent the judges refused to try it at the national honey shows.

There are a wide range of do-it-yourself cosmetics from soaps and yoghurt-and-honey face masks to lipsticks and mascaras. “The easiest to make is lip balm,” said Judy, which can be blended with other lovely ingredients such as avocado oil. “Be sure to use the cleaner white wax cappings when making products for the lips and face.”

Foods like honey and mead are just the beginning we discovered as Judy described delicious recipes for flavoured vodkas and honey liqueurs. She gave an easy shopping list for blackberry vinegar made with 600ml white wine vinegar, 450g sugar, 450g blackberries, and 225g honey.

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From dipped and moulded beeswax candles, the hive has a cornucopia of practical and decorative uses. Mixing 100g beeswax and 250ml turpentine is the “easiest thing” to make beeswax polish, while “wax crayons is quite a labour of love”. Judy showed the nice things we could do with decorative wax confectionary and flowers. Her take-home message: “Anything that comes out of your hive can be used, don’t burn it use it!”

Saving our bumble bees by Professor Dave Goulson, author of A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow, pointed out that honeybees are nice but they’re not everything. “There are around 26 species of bumble bees in the UK, the numbers keep changing, and around 220 species worldwide,” said Dave, a bit miffed.

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A plate of different bumble bee species from Collins Beekeeper’s Bible.

As an academic at Sussex University, Dave has spent around 30 years studying bumble bees, although his first foray at age seven into bumble bee conservation didn’t start well:

“On one occasion, after a heavy summer rainstorm, I found a number of bedraggled bumblebees clinging to my buddleia, and decided to dry them out. Unfortunately for the bees I was, perhaps, a bit too young to have a good grasp of the practicalities. With hindsight, finding my mum’s hairdryer and giving them a gentle blow-dry might have been the most sensible option. Instead, I laid the torpid bees on the hotplate of the electric cooker, covered them in a layer of tissue paper, and turned the hot plate on to low. Being young I got bored of waiting for them to warm up and wandered off to feed my vicious little gerbils. Sadly, my attention did not return to the bees until I noticed the smoke. The tissue paper had caught fire and the poor bees had been frazzled. I felt terrible. My first foray into bumblebee conservation was a catastrophic disaster.”
A sting in the tale, Dave Goulson

Luckily it got better.

Bumble bee colonies are annual, said Dave. They start again each year with late summer queens who have mated and leave their nests to bury in the ground over winter. In spring, hungry bumble bee queens emerge to feast on flowers and search for an uninhabited mouse or vole nest in a lawn. Then satisfied, the bumble bee queen lays her eggs and sits on them like a bird, pressing her stomach and shivering to keep them warm.

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Another fascinating fact about bumble bees is that these furry insects are like us – warm blooded. Bumble bees are thought to have originated 30 million years ago in the eastern parts of the Himalayas, where around 60 different species of bumbles still live. But being big furry insects adapted to live in colder climes, bumble bees have enormous energy requirements. “A bumble bee beats its wings 200 times per second to stay up in the air.” To maintain body warmth and function they must eat a lot and often. “A bumble bee with a full stomach has 40 minutes before starving to death.”

While Dave promised the talk wouldn’t be all gloom and doom, he couldn’t tell us these bumble bee delights without sharing a cautionary note for the future. Bumble bees are important pollinators, “While your honeybees are shivering inside in early spring, bumbles are out and about pollinating tomatoes. Honeybees are rubbish at pollinating tomatoes,” Dave told the room full of beekeepers. “Tomatoes require buzz pollination which honeybees haven’t worked out how to do, but bumble bees have.” In fact, every tomato that we eat in the UK has been pollinated by a bumble bee, which could mean fewer generous helpings of tomato sauce if these insects decline.

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Three British species of bumble bee have become extinct in the past 100 years and many other species are declining. Why? Changes to farming, exposure to foreign diseases and pesticides like neonicotinoids are all contributing factors, Dave explained. “About a quarter of British bumble bees suffer from an Asian honeybee disease, nosema ceranae, which is very sad.”

We were shown a table of agrochemical applications on an oilseed rape field in Sussex, which had 20 different types of chemicals thrown on a single crop. Wild bees, honeybees and other pollinators are bombarded by different pressures, toxins and loss of natural habitat. We need to learn how to look after them better.

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How fast are bumble bees declining? That’s hard to say, Dave admitted, because we have an idea of honeybee losses from the number of hives, but bumble bee nests are small holes in the ground that are difficult to find. This is where the army are called in to help! A specially trained sniffer dog, Toby, sniffed out nest holes so that researchers could set up cameras and learn interesting things about bumble bees.

One thing they learnt is that great tits are a predator of bumble bees. We watched a clip of grainy footage as a great tit sat outside a bumble bee nest waiting to pick off the workers. From the piles of bodies, Dave’s team found out that each bird had a favourite way of eating its snacks: biting the thorax and chewing on the wing muscles, or chopping off the bottom and scooping out the innards.

Badgers are also a predator of bumble bees, digging up their nests to eat, particularly during hot dry summers.

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A picture of pretty bee art to offset the doom and gloom. A lovely project by Hallfield School Year 3.

So it seems bumble bees face a lot of challenges, what can we do to help? Dave outlined an action plan:

• Make people aware about the plight of bumble bees, not just honeybees
• Working with children – kids love beasties so keep them engaged and interested about insects
• Join a citizen science scheme, there are lots in the UK finding out how bees are doing
• Promote wildlife friendly gardens using traditional cottage plants not intensively bred flowers – “You may as well have plastic plants than hideous bedding” said Dave
• Badger councils to stop mowing verges of roads and roundabouts to leave them for wild flowers, bees, hoverflies and butterflies.

Go to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust for lots more information about bumble bees, including how to identify them, and follow Dave Goulson on Twitter @DaveGoulson.

A short Q&A followed Dave’s talk. I asked what is his favourite bumble bee? “Shrill carder,” said Dave “It makes a shrill sound up in the air.”

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Our grocery shopping would look very different without pollinators.

Dave reminded us that three-quarters of life on earth is made up of insects and that life would be very different without them. These small creatures not only pollinate our world but fulfil many important tasks like recycling, waste disposal and are part of the food chain of larger animals.

However, Dave’s talk did have a sting in its tail, “All bees have a common ancestor around 120 million years ago – wasps that lived in the age of dinosaurs.” These wasp ancestors kept burrows in the ground filled with paralysed insects. It’s thought that they began to collect pollen, and eventually collected more and more pollen and fewer paralysed insects until they became vegetarian wasps – or bees.

The final talk on Spoonfuls of Honey by food writer Hattie Ellis was a warm hug on a cold dark autumnal evening. Though Emily, Jonesy and I had all sampled the honey beer, mead and cocktails, so we were feeling particularly warm already.

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Hattie took us on a sensual culinary journey of cooking with honey, illustrated by using small amounts of honey to make simple food wonderful. Her colourful descriptions of mango honey from Jamaica and quince honey from Kew filling a whole room with fragrance made my imagination run wild. This was a great talk for a beekeeper and an aromatherapist. “How do you evolve a language of the flavour of honey?” asked Hattie. You cook with it. A sumptuous display of delicious dishes ensued from borage or orange blossom honey spooned over buttery Madeleines to chestnut honey drizzled over chocolate ice cream.

“Honey’s best friends are things the bees like,” said Hattie, “Like apricots with thyme, and elderflowers fritters.” Her talk was driving me crazy! “Cheese and honey are a marriage made in heaven,” she continued to describe dipping walnut bread and honey in baked Camembert.

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For the carnivores there was also honey-glazed lamb and sweetened tamarind ribs. Hattie recommended using cheaper honeys to cook and saving speciality honeys to drizzle. The fructose in honey tastes sweeter than the sucrose in sugar, so less can be used if baking, say, a Drambuie-soaked fruit cake.

Take care to use a lower temperature when cooking with honey, warned Hattie, as it burns more easily.

As we salivated over a picture of a fig-and-honey tart, Hattie led us from sweet to savoury dishes like leeks scattered with toasted bread crumbs and pollen, and pollen-flavoured shortbreads. It was too much.

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Hattie finished with a rather sexy description of how to savour the taste of honey slowly on the tongue – it would make a bee blush.

You can read more about Spoonfuls of Honey on Hattie’s website.

The night ended with announcements for best honeys and Beekeeper of the Year. We didn’t win the honey prize, so instead floated between stalls like aimless drones before flying home. I can’t wait till next year’s London Honey Show!

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How to extract honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor

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“We lost almost an entire crop to rapeseed one year,” said Patrice. We were talking about the really thick honey that Emily and I had been unable to spin out in an extractor. “There is most likely rapeseed in the honey.” Patrice had seen rapeseed growing in the area local to the apiary, she thought it was probably spread around by birds who ate the seeds and left their droppings elsewhere.

Three years ago on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, Emily and I took six frames of honey off the same hive and got in a cab to my dad’s house to extract it straightaway. The honey wouldn’t spin out and instead we made cut comb honey in mini jars.

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The following spring we visited the Chelsea Physic Garden’s honey tasting session and brought a pot of honey for expert honey taster and beekeeper Peter James. He took one spoonful and gave us a definitive answer, “Rapeseed”.

Could our thick honey be from rapeseed flowers? It has some of the same qualities being too viscous to extract by spinning the comb, a light golden colour and a mild floral flavour with a slight tangy aftertaste. However, rapeseed honey granulates very quickly, sometimes setting in the honeycomb even when still on the hive, and our honey, like that of three years ago, is a smooth gel-like liquid that hasn’t granulated. Rapeseed honey is also said to be gritty with a cabbagey or peppery aftertaste, which doesn’t fit the description of our honey either.

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Fields of oilseed rape in Herefordshire by Jonathan Billinger via CC BY-SA 2.0

There are other types of forage that can produce viscous honey, but none of these have quite the right characteristics to fit the pieces of the puzzle. For example, hawthorn honey can be thick and difficult to extract, and granulates very slowly over time, but it also tends to be darker in colour and richer in flavour than our honey.

I’ve considered another option, though it doesn’t bear much thinking about. Bees can move honey from the brood box into the supers if they want to make more room in the nest. We stopped feeding our bees sugar syrup a week or so before the supers went on the hive, and the bees started to draw out and fill the supers quickly after. Was there some sugar syrup in the honey we had harvested and could that have made it more difficult to extract? I later discussed this possibility with Emily and she thought this wasn’t likely either.

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The only way to know for sure what is in our honey is to send it off to be tested, which is what I plan to do. The answer may surprise us and be either none of the above or all of the above. We’ll have to wait and see.

Still, there was the job of extracting honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor used for years and generously gifted by retired beekeeper Professor Robert Allen – thank you Bob. This is how I have done it.

Honey processing began in my small kitchen after work one evening. I quickly de-capped the frames in the supers using a hot knife. The wax cappings were caught neatly in a bucket to be used at a later date.

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That done, I hung the frames in a plastic container about the same size as a super and with plenty of room for the honey to drip into the bottom.

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John put the container on the work surface above the washing machine/tumble dryer, which is frequently used because I’m a clean freak. Here, the frames of honey have hung for three weeks, slowly dripping in the warmth of the kitchen with the subtle vibrations of the washer–dryer underneath.

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I’ve encouraged the honey to dribble out using a small (sterilised) metal key to stir each cell, working across every frame as diligently as a bee.

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Yes, I actually stirred every cell on the comb. I now have some idea of what it means to work as hard as a bee!

It may sound slightly mad, but the good thing about this method is that I’ve not crushed and strained the honeycomb to get the honey out; though it has left about a quarter of the honey in the comb, it has also left the comb intact. This means I can return wet supers to the hive for the bees to lick out the remaining honey and to repair the honeycomb with insect precision. We may not get as much honey as we thought, but we will still get plenty between us and I don’t begrudge giving some back to our hardworking bees. The drawn comb on the frames will also give Melissa’s colony a head start for next year.

When John dropped me off at the apiary this afternoon there was a small crowd of people talking about honey and wax. (We’re all bonkers.) Everyone has lots of plans of what they are going to do with their harvest. It has been a good summer for beekeeping and autumn will bring honey shows, cooking with honey, and recipes for wax cosmetics, polishes and candles.

After having a cup of tea we suited up to inspect the hives. Emily inspected Pepper’s hive without a smoker, although being allergic to stings I prefer to get the smoker going in case it’s needed, and I find Pepper’s bees quite feisty. The situation was good in this hive with a colony of healthy bees and brood, building up enough stores for winter.

Another visitor to the apiary turned up to watch the inspections.

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I’m told this is the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) by Mark Patterson of London Beekeepers. The lookalike hornet fly was very curious about us. He, or she, was perhaps a little too friendly, flying after Jonesy to say hello and making him stumble backwards in surprise. The extraordinary looking insect stayed around for a while, then flew off to find something more interesting somewhere else.

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Friendly hornet mimic hoverfly retreats to Emily’s glove after one of Pepper’s workers had headbutted her off the hive.

Unfortunately there were also wasps flying around the hives, and when I opened Melissa’s hive to find lots of dead bees inside Emily wondered if a wasp had got in and a battle had ensued. Aside from this, all was well here and Emily spotted the queen. The brood nest is getting smaller as the bees prepare for their winter cluster, and I counted about five brood frames (in addition to some uncapped super frames I was returning) for their winter stores.

How much honey does a hive need for winter? Sources vary between 35-60lbs and one frame is about 5lbs of honey. The amount of stores needed also depends on the size of the colony, how active they are during winter, and how fast they eat. I was counting the frames of stores while going through the hives and it looks like they’ll have plenty for winter.

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Spot the black bee in the centre of the frame? Emily thought she might be a robber bee, because robber bees are often blackened from having their hairs nipped off.

I inspected Chili’s hive next and the situation was much the same with a declining brood nest and a build up of stores. We watched our pink-spotted queen climb across a frame looking for cells to lay a few more eggs before winter arrives.

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Emily inspected Chamomile’s hive which has a large brood nest and quite a lot of stores. Chamomile appears to have mellowed in her second year and she is an excellent layer, though there are signs of disease in the hive. I do hope they survive the winter.

We are now halfway through the Apiguard treatment, and put a second tray on each hive. The bees are clearing the Apiguard with varying degrees of success. Melissa’s bees cleared the entire tray, while Chili’s bees have been less hygienic removing only half the treatment.

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There was a high number of varroa mites on all the varroa boards, worrying but also a good sign that the Apiguard is working. All the colonies at the apiary have thrived this year, and with larger and more active colonies it’s to be expected that varroa numbers would also rise.

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Another spot the … beautiful bright orange pollen amid the nasty red varroa mites on the varroa board.

That done, we cleared up our equipment and said goodbye to the bees as the light began to get dusky. Reflections of a good year’s beekeeping were comforting, despite knowing that we’ll soon say farewell to the bees for their winter slumber.