A year in the bee garden – November

A few lingering butterflies rested their wings on the ivy flowers in November, but they were too fleeting to catch with my camera.

November is a good month to plan next year’s garden by taking note of which plants have thrived best in which parts of the garden, and which have attracted the most insect visitors.

My bee garden calendar is slowly coming together, starting with spring flowers and spring-flowering shrubs (snowdrops, crocuses, bluebells, cotoneaster, hebe, smoke tree), long-lasting summer flowers (salvia, scabiosa, toadflax) and late summer to autumn blooms (snowberry, sedum). All of these plants seem to grow well in our heavy clay soil.

November is also a month of surprises.

Our fatsia has flowered for the first time to the delight of honeybees, bumble bees, hoverflies, and to me.

The mornings are getting frosty. Even the frogs are no longer bothering to pop up and watch John when he is gardening.

Soon the bee garden will sleep for winter.

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A year in the bee garden – October

Summer came back in October – word had reached her of the ‘backwinter‘. The bees made the most of the ‘backsummer’. The hive entrance was too busy to put on mouseguards as foragers flew home with baskets of yellow pollen.

However, a quick inspection showed that nectar was out of stock. I filled the syrup feeders, and filled them five times again in October, and the bees drank up every last drop.

Since then I have been unable to visit the apiary and my husband John, my mum Ronnie, and Ealing beekeeper Thomas have put on mouseguards and fondant for winter.

In the garden, the salvia was pleasing a few late bumble bee queens, the orange buddleia was still blooming for the carder bees, and the spiders were trying to catch the last honeybees visiting the snowberry.

October is a good time for a garden tidy-up before the ground gets too wet or hard. John and I finished the weeding started in September, while John laid plastic sheeting and gravel over the most stubborn areas of weed, and I mulched the flower beds with soft bark chippings and fallen leaves.

Gravelling and mulching may sound very unfriendly to bees, and other wildlife, but I’ve found that many bee-friendly plants will grow happily in-between and that slowing down the growth of weeds (without using chemicals) leaves more time for other wildlife-friendly activities. Such as emergency bee rescues.

John found a carder bee frozen still on the garden hose. I made her a warm nest for the night from rolled-up corrugated cardboard and put her in the shed. The next morning she had sugar water for breakfast before flying off.

Our ivy had only begun to flower at the end of October, but fewer bees were visiting. Who will be left to enjoy it?

A year in the bee garden – September

The honeybees built the comb with bright yellow beeswax this summer and filled cells with vibrant orange-yellow pollen. Emily and I imagined that our bees had been visiting sunflowers.

The weeks have since flown by and Emily has now moved to Cornwall. After almost seven years of keeping bees together, I shall miss my hive-partner-in-crime very much, but I will continue to follow Emily’s adventures in beeland as she discovers the bees and wildlife of the west country.

Meanwhile back in London, the sunflowers are in full bloom in our garden.

The sunflowers were a gift from the garden of John’s aunt and uncle, Jo and Brian, who live in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. We had visited them earlier in the summer for the Hay-on-Wye Festival and came home not only with books but sunflower seedlings and a rowan tree sapling.

Today I caught a carder bee on the sunflower – her face full of pollen.

Summer has turned into autumn and the bees are busy foraging for every last drop of nectar and dusting of pollen that the garden has to offer.

The gardener’s year, I think like the beekeeper’s year, begins in September. The honeybees clear out the nest by throwing out the drones and the queen lays fewer eggs as the brood nest becomes smaller with more space instead for winter stores. In the garden, it is a good time of year to clear out weeds and prune back overgrown plants to make space for what you will grow next summer.

This was the first weekend that I have had free from work for a couple of months, and the sun has been shining. I made a start in the garden by pulling up the weeds around the apple tree and working the soil into a fine crumble ready to scatter the toadflax seeds.

A toadflax meadow had sprung up between the gravel this summer, but the flowers were now fading and the seed pods beginning to burst open. I moved as many of the toadflax as I could from the gravel to the apple tree bed and into large containers to let the seeds fall where I want the flowers to grow next year.

The apple tree bed is prone to weeds, but toadflax seedlings are easy to recognise (see above) with their narrow spiral of pale-green leaves and are less likely to be weeded out by mistake.

The carder bees buzzed around me as I moved the toadflax that was still flowering to the containers and then inspected my work to make sure it matched their standards.

I uncovered some slugs and snails, and moved them to another patch of weeds that I plan on tackling next weekend. They can munch on these in the meantime.

While I was moving this snail, I noticed that she had a little hitchhiker on her back. Mum and baby are now happily eating up my bindweed, I hope.

That done, I left the garden to go indoors. It wasn’t long before John called me outside again. He had been mowing the lawn and spotted a rare visitor perched on the roof.

We stood on the decking to take photos of the heron who looked unimpressed with the cage around the fish pond.

And then he was off!

Everything ends and starts again in autumn. As Emily and I move on to our new adventures – from bees in Cornwall to wildlife gardens in Ickenham – I hope that we will always be inspired by the natural world around us and that our paths will one day cross again beside the hives.

Life in the garden

The selfish ivy had taken everything out of the soil for itself. As I dug up the echinacea, verbena and thyme to replant in pots, I realised that few but the most stubborn plants would grow in this unfriendly earth. Further along the walled bed, two small trees had littered the soil with fallen leaves and not even the Japanese anemone nor the lemon balm would venture any further into the shade.

Then I had an idea. Bees, butterflies and other garden visitors need water as well as food. If I couldn’t grow any flowers for wildlife to eat, then I would give it a place to drink instead.

A cinnabar moth resting on a cool leaf. Non-flowering foliage is as important as the flowers in the garden, because it provides a place for wildlife to hide, shelter and rest.

A quick search around the house and garden and I found everything that I needed to create two mini-wildlife ponds.

Tip: The garden is a great place to find new uses for old things. I also feel that we rely too much on recycling. The next time you think about buying garden accessories have a look around the home or second-hand shops first. A bucket with a broken handle could make a frog pond, a cracked flower pot for a toad house, chipped cups for bird feeders and old serving forks and spoons can be used as stakes for plants.

An empty plastic container and a stained washing-up bowl – both in the queue for a trip to Harefield’s recycling skip – were just the right sizes for my mini ponds. I dug a hole in the earth for each and buried the bowls up to the rims to make it easy for hedgehogs to stop by and dip in for a drink.

The ivy is home to many creatures in our garden, including spiders who usually walk out on their webs when I disturb them doing the gardening.

Next, I poured gravel into the bottom and made a pile of stone ‘steps’ for frogs, toads or newts to climb in and out. Larger stones and broken paving slabs surrounded the edges. That done, I filled up the ponds with tap water – and some dechlorinator (it hasn’t rained enough lately to collect rainwater in buckets) – and added duckweed and hornwort from the larger fish and frog ponds.

Tip: Duckweed and hornwort can quickly grow and become a nuisance. I find it easy to manage by removing a handful now and then as compost for the garden or to put into the bird bath and rain buckets. The plants seem to keep the still water clear and to deter mosquito larvae as well.

Finally, a few pieces of crockery filled with pebbles made watering holes for thirsty insects. Here are the results:

It wasn’t long before the frogs, and the snails, found the new garden ponds.

A walk in the garden at night revealed that a lot of wildlife comes out after the dark like this trail of snails climbing over the plant labels to the pond.

Although some still prefer our more established frog pond.

We have a lot of slugs in the garden too, but, as you might guess, we don’t use slug-and-snail pellets. Any slugs that I find on the Japanese anemone, which is their favourite thing, are put on the compost bins where they can eat to their hearts’ content.

The mini-wildlife ponds are also the perfect place for baby snails but overall life in the garden sorts itself out, and the frogs seem to keep the slug and snail population in balance.

As you might imagine, our garden is also pesticide-free and weedkiller-free. In fact, I was once told by a gardener, when asking about how to control the bamboo and bindweed last year, that the bees don’t mind Roundup. I didn’t believe him and I’m glad to say that we found another gardener willing to dig out the bamboo (an expert job because its roots were entwined around the roots of the smoke tree) rather than poison it. Meanwhile, John and I weeded out the bindweed and covered the area using garden sheeting and gravel.

We’ll never be rid of either (bindweed seeds, for example, can live in the soil for many years), but we manage both quite well by physical methods – digging, hoeing and weeding.

The old bamboo grove is now used as a bird-feeding station. Here, the birds can feast on fat balls and splash about in the bath and make as much mess as they want on the rhizome-riddled earth. The area is sheltered by the smoke tree and bushes to allow small birds to make a quick exit if the sparrowhawk flies past.

As a thank you, the birds have left us some beautiful flowers this year from other gardens, such as this love-in-a-mist. Birds are very good gardeners.

Life is always very busy in the garden.

After the bamboo was cut down, several thistles sprung up in its place. John and I kept the largest thistle next to the fence for the sweat bees. It has been a popular breakfast bar.

On the gravel patch, I planned to plant mini-wildflower meadows in pots but the garden had other ideas. This summer’s surprise is the butterfly-and-caterpillar habitat that has sprung up in the form of a toadflax meadow.

The carder bees also buzz around the purple flowers all day long – toadflax is a rewarding plant for wildlife.

While my mason bees that I ordered earlier in spring fell victim to the backwinter and an army of ants, a single local mason bee found the insect hotel when the weather warmed up again. She worked very hard for almost a month to fill as many tubes as possible with her eggs and food for her larvae.

The mason bee was too busy to keep up with her housework this year and often left piles of yellow pollen outside her front door.

Sometimes she had a lie-in on a Sunday morning.

I last saw our mason bee resting on the fence, her exhausted and bedraggled body fit to drop, and then she was gone. A fortnight later, I realised that she wasn’t coming back and that three of the tubes were only partly finished. So I completed her work by making mud plugs myself and hoped for the best for next spring.

The leafcutters moved in next and have been busy filling up the remaining tubes.

Another resident has been watching their progress with interest.

As far as I can tell, he has not caused any mischief and so has not been evicted.

The ants made up for their earlier destruction of my mason bee cocoons by allowing me to watch this year’s queens fly away to start new nests. They didn’t fly very far it seemed and probably we will have more ant nests on the lawn again.

The honeybees returned after the June gap for their annual crop of a flowering shrub around the fir tree. As a beekeeper, I have an interest in planting a garden that is pleasing to bees. This summer, the salvia and scabiosa have been the clear winners, probably because they have flourished and grown rapidly in the sun. The honeybees have also discovered the lemon balm which is in flower and a few bumble bees have opted for the more traditional choice of our lavender bush.

The scabiosa has been busy entertaining bee and hoverfly visitors all day long. This carder bee can’t wait to get in on the action.

I’m also delighted that our myrtle tree is in flower for the first time since it was planted in the garden, although it has not yet produced enough flowers to delight the pollinators.

Of course, it’s not all about the birds and the bees. On occasion, we have human visitors too.

My mum and stepdad enjoying Sunday lunch in the garden yesterday.

They provide something interesting for the fish to look at.

Life in the garden is precarious and it can all change as quickly as it came. Already the plants seem too far ahead of the season and the blackberries are beginning to ripen over the fence. I have found a new hobby in collecting my own seeds and cuttings to grow more of the plants and flowers that the wildlife in our garden loves most. Bluebell bulbs can be divided and planted under the smoke tree in autumn, seeds are being collected from the salvia and seedheads from the scabiosa to provide more forage for next year’s bees, and the toadflax and rose campion ‘alba’ are being encouraged to sprout everywhere for next year’s butterflies.

This week on BBC begins The British Garden: Life and Death on Your Lawn looking at how well British gardens support wildlife. From the frog ponds in the shady flower beds to the compost bins and piles of logs and leaves, I like to think that our garden supports a lot of wildlife and that there is still much more to discover beyond our back door.

 

The 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.

In the garden

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I swapped blogging for gardening this year. The summer took a long time to arrive and I kept busy keeping my bees alive and nursing tubs of tadpoles as prolific as algal bloom. But as the rain streamed down the windows I realised there’s nothing worse than a beekeeper stuck indoors than a would-be gardener.

The weather finally broke with heatwave after heatwave pouring into the garden and both the ivy and bamboo threatening to grow across the lawn. At the apiary the bees briefly promised a good season until an unlucky setback with several missing or failed queens. With more waiting to be done around the hives, I got stuck into the garden.

It can take several years to get a garden how you like it, but my dad, John and I made a good start this summer. We got rid of the bamboo roots and all and cleared the jungle of creepers at the back to create a new plot. It’s still a work in progress.

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My dad helped to make a new bee house, which you can see in the background, but the mason bees chose to nest in the garden sheds this year. This meant we couldn’t get new sheds and instead tidied up the old ones. A place for a beekeeper to hang her smoker.

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The walled flower bed got some new friends. A pot of geraniums from John’s aunt, a clump of chamomile, and a neglected lavender from my dad’s front garden. The best spot was reserved for my myrtle tree, which finally found a home in our garden this year.

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After the frogs had hopped off into the sunset, there was an explosion of blanket weed in the goldfish pond. I got tired of pulling it out in clumps, then I read that snails might be helpful. I bought four pond snails in spite of warnings that they were unlikely to control the problem alone and that the goldfish might attack them. A few weeks later the pond was almost clear of blanket weed, the snails were enjoying a well-earned break on the floating water lilies, and the goldfish weren’t bothered at all.

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In July the garden came alive with all sorts of exciting visitors. A dragonfly on the prowl.

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An amazing array of flies like this sparkly specimen.

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And a magnificent sun fly, I think?

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The flying ants made an impressive display on the decking, gathering to swarm behind my back while I was none the wiser pruning the ivy. I turned around just as the queens took off and watched them fly away. It was rather a privilege.

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Something I really wanted to make a start on this year was planting a bee-friendly garden. The left side of the garden had several bee-pleasers like jasmine, sedum and cotoneaster.

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But the right side of the garden was surprisingly lacking. I spent a day pulling weeds and sieving the earth, before the fun could begin choosing a bed of new herbs like verbena, salvia, echinacea, and this pretty scabiosa.

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It was the garden birds that really stole the show this year and I discovered a new passion for birdwatching. A family of sparrows provided endless entertainment from the kitchen window.

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Of course, the sparrows were seen off by the robin when he wanted his mealworms.

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When the small birds were finished feeding, the larger birds swooped in. A standoff between a pigeon and a collared dove.

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And a more sinister-looking guest, the jackdaw.

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But the most fun was at bath time.

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And that’s where I’ll leave the garden, for now.

The past month I’ve been unable to go to the apiary. Thomas Bickerdike and John Chapple have kindly taken care of mine and Emily’s bees, and I’m very grateful to them. Emily had a reunion with the bees last Saturday too, which must have cheered them up greatly!

Meanwhile autumn is setting in and so are the final preparations for mine and John’s wedding. This won’t leave much time for blogging, [EDIT] so my stories about the bees, and some butterflies, must wait till after I get hitched. Till then.

The frog children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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