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 beekeeper’s notes for June: secrets inside the hive

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“Quick! Take the egg!” whispered the worker to her younger sister. “Hide the new princess in the upper chamber where the queen won’t find her!” The young worker gently picked up the precious egg in her mandibles and ran as fast as she could past the queen’s retinue, and up the stairs where her majesty couldn’t follow. Higher and higher she climbed till she stopped with exhaustion beneath a special cell. The smells of nectar in the loftiest chamber were overwhelming and the scent of the queen seemed far away. 

The young worker placed the egg carefully inside the secret cell already prepared to receive the new princess. The egg would be safe from the queen who would be unable to get through the nectary gates and tear down the hidden queen cell.

The longest day of the year had passed on the summer solstice last Sunday. At the apiary talk had turned to the honey crop and how much could be harvested this year. Emily and I had put two supers on Queen Melissa’s hive, which were filling up nicely. “Let’s check the super frames to see which can be taken,” I said going through the top super. Around the fifth frame in, I found her. A tiny, coiled, pearly larva in a silky white bed of royal jelly at the bottom of a damaged queen cell. Emily and I stared at her curiously wondering how the queen larva had got into the top super. The queen excluder was above the brood chamber and, we hoped, the queen had not gotten past to start laying in the supers.

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The queen cell looked partly torn away and whether that had happened when I pulled out the tightly fitted super frame or by a worker tearing down the cell, we could not tell. We marked the frame and carefully put it back for a further investigation of the hive.

I didn’t find any brood or further queen cells in the supers, but I did find several collections of pollen-packed cells, which is unusual. It seemed the workers were preparing to raise a special brood in the top super, and though the workers can move eggs, nectar and pollen around the hive this seemed a long way to carry an egg from the brood chamber. “Perhaps they heard us saying that we wanted to try queen rearing,” I joked to Emily.

A beginner beekeeper, Mark, was watching our discovery with interest and asked why the workers would hide the queen cell. “To keep it a secret from us,” I said, “Or more likely the queen who would tear it down.”

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Then it was time to go through the brood nest. Here there were only stores and brood, but no queen cells. Emily spotted the queen as I held up a frame, so I caged and marked her with a pink marking pen from Pat.

We closed up the hive. With only one queen cell hidden in the super, and now appearing partly damaged, this seemed a case of attempted supersedure rather than swarm. Emily and I have always let our bees get on with supersedure in the past, the workers know best when to replace a queen. Melissa and her hive were left to their royal secrets until next week.

In the artificially swarmed colony the still unnamed queen was also found and marked by Emily. Two queens now wear pretty pink crowns thanks to Pat’s pink queen-marking pen from Thornes. I wish they would make a glitter pen too.

Emily is mentoring new beekeepers for the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) and had already checked Queen Pepper’s hive with Mark. This left us time for tea and cake (Polish cake from Clare and home-made ginger cake from Emily) and a casual visit to Den’s hive.

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Den was puzzled about why his bees were making waves of honeycomb above the frames. This was ‘bee space‘, we explained. There was a gap, more than 8mm, between the top bars and the top of the box. The bees would fill up any gap bigger than 8-9mm with honeycomb. The importance of bee space demonstrated and lessons were almost done for the day.

From the apiary to the garden there were fewer butterflies than bees, and I was hoping to attract more winged visitors to our flower beds. A butterfly supper of brown mashed banana on a plate and sugar syrup in a jar was prepared. These were simple to make and, I thought, an ideal activity if you’re entertaining young nieces…

How to make a butterfly supper

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You will need: 

  • Plastic plate
  • String
  • Over-ripe brown banana
  • Decorative flowers

1. Pierce four holes in the plastic plate to pull through the string and tie handles on either side.

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2. Stick on plastic flowers to make the plate look pretty for butterflies.

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3. Mash a brown banana that butterflies love.

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How to make a butterfly sugar feeder

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You will need: 

  • Jam jar
  • String
  • Sugar syrup

1. Mix one part sugar to four parts water to make sugar syrup.

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2. Pierce a hole in the jam jar lid and poke through a brightly coloured kitchen cloth.

3. Pour the sugar syrup in the jar and screw on the lid so the cloth can absorb the syrup.

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4. Secure with garden string and/or elastic bands to hang upside down.

The butterfly feeding stations were hung up high in the flowering bush that is busy with bees. We’ve had no customers yet, but I’m hopeful.

So the bees don’t feel neglected in the garden, my niece had a bright idea a couple of weekends ago. She asked me to pick one of each flower to put on a saucer. We then drizzled the flowers in honey. “This is a bee bed,” she said proudly putting her creation on the flower bed wall. “For tired bees.”

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edit: my story of the worker moving the egg is anecdotal (see comments below) and pure guesswork as I can’t know for certain how a suitable egg got into the super for the bees to try and make a queen. Moving eggs is one theory I’ve heard over the years, laying workers is a possibility though these eggs would become drone not queens, or a small queen able to slip through the excluder after all or even a second queen in the hive still unseen…

This is our garden

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This is our garden. The trees are rustling and the plants are awakening. We don’t know any of them yet.

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The fountain sprinkles in a pond where brightly coloured fish swim. We are keepers of fish now.

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The sun shines through the windows of the kitchen bringing warmth and light to our new home.

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Today is moving day. John and I are moving to our new house. The journey to get here at the start of the year was longer than we thought it would be, but we finally arrived. With the help and love of our families. Our very first house.

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Dreams do come true.

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.

Summer’s end

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The moments of sunshine appear in and out of showers in these end of summer days, as I notice the bees nipping in and out of the fading flowers for every last dusting of pollen.

With the cooling of the summer’s warmth, is it my imagination that the bees’ furry coat becomes fuller?

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We spent the last week of summer visiting John’s family in Hereford where the round bales of hay were being rolled in the fields and the trees were showing the first tinges of autumn.

I’ve always liked the autumn and winter months, perhaps because I was born in the winter. At the same time there is also a feeling of sadness as summer ends.

My grandad used to call it ‘the ebb time’. I feel the retreating evening warmth in the buzzing of the bees and watching them eagerly gathering every last flowerful of nectar from the Japanese anemones in the garden.

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This year it’s different because I see the summer sunshine in my bees’ honey. I can appreciate the hard work of summer’s end and enjoy the beginning of autumn as we take the harvest and prepare the hives for the winter.

In Hereford I saw the richness of the harvest in the fruits of the fields as we picked blackberries, plums and apples for pie and crumble.

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The cows were watching as we filled up tubs with fat juicy blackberries from the hedgerows. They (the cows) were inquisitive, said John’s mum. So was The Gruffalo, the magnificent new bull, but he got fresh hay, not blackberries, for supper and enjoyed his nose being scratched.

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After the bank holiday’s rain had passed, we drove ‘abroad’ to Wales to view the impressive Victorian dams set in the beautiful Elan Valley in Rhayader. The country is always changing in Wales. It’s stunning.

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A visit to the Elan Valley “never fails to delight and inspire” says the information at the visitor centre. I could imagine that living here would inspire creativity to flow from every pore.

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There is a feeling of spending time in nature that I can only describe as contentment.

We met a friend of mine for lunch by Hereford cathedral and he put into words exactly what I felt. In London there is everything to do and no time to do it. Here, there is a lot to do and more time to do it. While being on holiday puts everything in a romantic light, I could easily imagine swapping city life for living in the country.

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On the farm John’s dad brought home a bunch of hops and asked if I knew what they were. I didn’t.

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He also found a dead grass snake in the corn field to bring back for show-and-tell. We laid him to rest behind a tree in the garden.

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The last day of summer was the best day with deep blue skies and golden sunshine. I sat on the back of the bike as John cycled from the cottage to the farm house, listening to the birds and bees and watching the cats preen lazily in the yards.

We enjoyed a full roast dinner before saying our goodbyes and driving back to London. John took the very scenic route through Gloucester and Burford in the Cotswolds, and we eventually arrived home just before sunset. Our small London flat smelt of the honey that had been slowly dripping from frames hanging over a container for a week. Patience and perseverance has paid off, I may be able to return wet supers with drawn comb to the hive to give the bees a head start in spring.

Autumn is now here and as the sun rises lower in the skies so the afternoon shadows stretch longer and further, and the days grow shorter. My kitchen is overflowing with summer’s bounty of apples, plums and honey ready to make honeyed fruit crumbles and pies. Winter is coming so I’ll leave this memory of a playful calf frolicking at summer’s end.

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury and the secret garden behind the waterfall

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury

‘Bee Shelter’ pointed the road sign with a pictogram of a church, leading tantalisingly off the motorway. I had seen the sign every time we drove through Gloucestershire to Hereford, and this time sighed ‘I wish we could see the Bee Shelter’. The van slowed and turned into a slip road. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. John replied ‘To find the Bee Shelter.’

It didn’t take us long to find the church of St Mary the Virgin at Hartpury, home to the Bee Shelter, and to learn there was a centuries-old tradition of beekeeping in these parts.

John parked outside and we got out to look around. There was no one else here other than sheep grazing in fields, birds warbling in trees, and bees humming in the air.

Bee Shelter sign

A sign outside the church told us that the Bee Shelter at Hartpury was rescued, repaired and rebuilt inside the church. John was intrigued and I was excited, so we pulled open the gate and went inside. St Mary’s is like a little window in time, we were both struck by its beauty and serenity. We walked along the winding path and past the source of humming – a cloud of busy dark-coloured insects so small and fast, I thought they were flies.

This way to bee shelter

There was a long stone structure up ahead that looked promising and my excitement grew as we approached. Two familiar-looking straw baskets were housed within – bee skeps! This was the Bee Shelter of Hartpury.

John stopped beneath the blossom tree to take pictures, while I ran my hands over the skeps and imagined what they must have felt and sounded like when bees lived inside.

blossom tree next to bee shelter

Here we found out more about the Bee Shelter and of beekeeping at Hartpury. The Bee Shelter is described by the International Bee Research Association as “an unique historic monument” – in fact, there are no similar structures known anywhere else in the world.

It was built in the mid-19th century by Paul Tuffley, stone mason, quarry master and beekeeper, using Cotswold stone. His exact intent is not known, but one theory suggests the Bee Shelter was for his ornamental garden in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. The structure showcases the skill of his stone masonry with gabled wall plinths, Doric columns and a ridge-crest roof. In 1852, the Bee Shelter was threatened with destruction after Tuffley’s house was repossessed by his mortgage. “It was saved by volunteers from the Gloucestershire Beekeeping Association, who dismantled it and, with the encouragement of the Principal of Hartpury Agricultural College, reassembled in the College grounds.” By the end of the 19th century, the ornamental stonework had begun to erode and the structure was saved for a second time by the Hartpury Historic Land and Buildings Trust. Restored, the Bee Shelter now “rests in peace” at St Mary’s, where it faces in the same direction (north) as its original home at Nailsworth.

Hartpury church

There is long tradition of beekeeping in Hartpury: “The Domesday Book states that Gloucester annually paid 12 sesters (23lbs) of honey to King Edward, and in 1260 it is recorded that tenants from the manor of Hartpury, owned by Gloucester Abbey, held land in return for payments of honey”. Honey and beeswax too have a close connection with the church. In ancient times, it was believed honey had a heavenly origin.

The bee shelter

I was particularly interested to find out more about the skeps used by beekeepers before the invention of the modern hive. They were traditionally made of wicker or straw and housed a smaller colony of bees than today’s wooden hives. “Contrary to current practice, a skep beekeeper encouraged swarming. He looked for swarms leaving his skeps, caught any he could and put these in an empty skep. By the end of the summer he might have two or three times as many occupied skeps as in the spring. The honey was harvested by destroying, usually over burning sulphur, a number of the colonies in the autumn, when the nectar flow diminished. These would generally have been the heaviest colonies and also any small ones than might not survive the winter. The intermediate colonies were overwintered in their skeps.”

By this time we were really running late for arriving at John’s family farm in Hereford. So we reluctantly left this peaceful place to go back to the van.

Bee boles

On our way out I stopped to look more closely at the strangely humming flies and suddenly realised they were bees! Hundreds of hundreds of tiny fuzzy black bees darting in and out of small bored holes in the ground. They moved too fast to get a good look or picture, though John got this short video:

What are these ground-dwelling and friendly bees, I wonder, masons, carpenters? They didn’t seem bothered by our curiosity – the mystery bees of Hartpury.

That was Good Friday at the start of our Easter weekend, and there was another surprise in store…

Hampton maze

On Bank Holiday Monday, John took me to the real Hampton Court in Hereford, to explore the pretty gardens and lose our way in the maze. We split up to see who would solve the maze first. I did, and then climbed the tower at the centre to wave John over. The view at the top was amazing, but there was something secret beneath.

Climbing down the narrow stone spiral staircase, we went into a long dark tunnel and emerged in a pocket of bright sunlight to find a beautiful secret garden beneath the maze and behind a waterfall…

Secret garden

Waterfall

Behind the waterfall

This was like magic! We had so much fun discovering sunken paths, hidden flower beds and stepping stones across overgrown brooks…

Secret brook

Secret steps

Sunken garden

What of our hives this spring? Visits continue to keep check of syrup and insulation in the roof (late April was chilly) and of early queen cells (unlike skep beekeepers, we don’t encourage swarming), but the bees must wait in May, which is the month of hen parties and weddings of beekeepers and beekeepers’ daughters. For now, here’s a happy honeybee foraging nectar and pollen off the cherry blossoms on the farm in Hereford.

Honeybee in blossom

A study of autumn colours and lights in Regent’s Park

The sun is playful in October. It races across the sky low and bright catching fire to vibrant colours, then hides behind mists and raindrops teasing the day with soft light and vivid tones.

Autumn is a fleeting time of year and so I have enjoyed lunch time walks in Regent’s Park, which has been the perfect canvas for the tantalising display of colour and light.

The days started with golden sunshine, leaves on fire and sparkling fountains…

Gloomy clouds arrived bringing overcast light and saturated autumn colours…

Then the mists fell upon wet leaves capturing spectacular hues, waterfalls and reflections…

Light played with raindrops in the dying rose garden and mists wreathed fading flowers…

I hope you are enjoying autumn as much as I have been!

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Related links

If you would like to visit or find out more about Regent’s Park, visit the website of the royal parks.

Autumn colour: The science of nature’s spectacle is a great video from the BBC that explains how the ‘elements have conspired to give us a particularly spectacular display of autumn colour’.

Check out this post of beautiful fall photos by Donna: Autumn Kalaidescope.

A taste of honey at the Chelsea Physic Garden

The delicious Tangerine Dream Café at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

When the Chelsea Physic Garden held an afternoon of honey tasting, Emily and me went to represent the honey-eating skills of Ealing’s beekeepers.

The afternoon began with a talk about honey from Peter James, or Peter the Beekeeper, who traced the trail of honey from the earliest rock paintings to the modern-day industry largely in Europe, South America and Africa. Honey has been valued for food and medicine throughout history, and more recent research suggests that manuka honey is useful against the superbug, MRSA.

Peter explored the alchemy of honey production from the insect’s manipulation of a flower to the transformation of nectar into honey inside the hive. As it turns out, there is as much to say about honey as there is about bees. When honey crystallises each sugar crystal is as unique as a snowflake. ‘A fantastic array of shapes,’ commented Peter. ‘It’s a different world in every jar.’

Last summer I spotted this honeybee foraging with a hoverfly on echinacea in the RCP medicinal garden. She was moving very slowly and seemed to be at the end of her lifespan.

We paused to stop at a slide of a honeybee foraging on a flower. ‘Look closer and you’ll see that her wings are frayed and falling apart,’ said Peter. Honeybees have limited flying miles and spend them carrying nectar and pollen back to the hive. ‘She will work, work, work until she drops down dead,’ said Peter dramatically.

Bees also use their wings to fan the nectar inside cells to evaporate its water content. When the water level is low enough the newly made honey is capped off by the bees and ready for beekeepers to harvest. The water viscosity of honey must be 20% or less because honey is hydroscopic, meaning that it attracts water. If you leave the lid off a jar of honey it will draw water from the air, and honey with high water viscosity could ferment. ‘That’s how mead was discovered, someone left the lid off the jar,’ mused Peter. Did bees introduce us to alcohol too? It’s a nice thought. Peter passed around a refractor with a drop of honey so that we could all look at the viscosity.

Then it was time to taste the honey.

'Mutiny on the Bounty' honey from the Pitcairn Islands tasted dark and interesting.

The first honey pot was a delicate acacia the colour of white gold and elegantly floral. Peter asked us to describe our taste experience and it was interesting how much this varied from ‘like flowers’ to ‘woody’, and even ‘Inoffensive, it didn’t taste of honey’.

Next we tried a honey harvested from the lavender fields of France. It smelt and tasted like lavender, but it was also buttery and mellow with citrusy notes.

Two honeys from the Chelsea Physic Garden crop showed what a difference a season makes: the spring honey was full of mint and the summer honey was bursting with ripe fruit. Chelsea’s bees have a rich diet thanks to the botanical garden’s trees and flowers.

My favourite was ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ honey from the Pitcairn Islands, which was dark in colour and complex in flavour. Its taste created a vivid image of tropical rainforests followed by layers of sweet sensations from woody, minty, caramel and toffee.

Last but not least, Peter let us sample a tiny jar of South American honey foraged from Yucatan trees. It was almost black and treacly with a strong exotic flavour a bit like rum. Someone said ‘aggressive’.

Home-made honey cake drizzled in honey with crème fraîche.

The day was getting on and usually by three o’clock on a Saturday Ealing beekeepers are full of tea and cake. Emily and me were starting to feel a bit fidgety, but luckily Peter must have known we were coming because he had arranged a great spread of tea and honey cake with crème fraîche.

It was an afternoon well spent and though the first event of its kind, Peter said the Chelsea Physic Garden was planning to hold more honey tastings. All that honey and cake had warmed-up our appetites, so Emily and me rushed off to the garden’s Tangerine Dream Café to enjoy a spinach and cheese tart with lentil, olive and pomegranate salad.

The Chelsea Physic Garden is a great place to visit and even in winter there are interesting things to see, like these four trees in a row…

A tree full of grapefruit. It smelt lovely.

A tree made of cork. It felt spongy and warm.

And late afternoon sunshine melting snow from branches.

Last year I wrote a blog on: ‘How to extract honey‘, and you can read more about our honey exploits in ‘Hunny time‘ and ‘Bringing home the honey‘ on Emily’s blog.

BBC Gardeners’ Question Time and why we should take lavender to Mars

BBC Radio 4 Gardeners' Question Time – a panel of horticultural experts answer gardening questions with wit and wisdom

What do unruly rubber plants, sulking evergreens and intergalactic colonisation by plants have in common? They were all questions to a panel of horticultural experts on BBC Radio 4 Gardeners’ Question Time. The show was recorded beside Regent’s Park on Monday 23 January and featured practical advice about gardening served with inspiring ideas and sparkling banter.

Triffids, peashooters and quail eggs

I went to the show with Emily, although first we enjoyed the host’s drinks and canapés. After sampling a quail egg, Emily was left to ponder how you go about eating more of these delicious mini foods. Filled with quail eggs, stuffed green olives and cheese straws, we made our way to the recording in the Wolfson Theatre.

Tiny quail eggs – I am constantly plotting and scheming how to eat more

The programme was presented by Eric Robson with a group of gardening experts, Chris Beardshaw, Bob Flowerdew and Christine Walkden. The panel answered a variety of questions from what to do about a rubber plant that was growing like a hooligan (some clever pruning) to how to grow a vertical garden (involving a peashooter).

My favourite question was ‘What plant would you take to another planet?’ As an aromatherapist and beekeeper, I have often thought a packet of garden seeds and a nuc of bees essential to terraforming another world. If I could choose only one plant it would be lavender, because it is the most versatile herb and essential oil, and bees love it.

Lavender is also a friendly plant and least likely to mutate into a triffid.

Absconding bees

From alien plants to disappearing bees, there was a sad discovery at the apiary this Saturday. A hive belonging to one of the beekeepers was found mostly empty with little dead bodies frozen on the comb. It looked like the colony had succumbed to varroa as the mite count had risen sharply in January.

The gentle and hard-working Italian bees were very active during a mild autumn and winter at our apiary, but this may have contributed to the rise in varroa among the winter bees

This is a common problem for winter bees who are more susceptible to varroa. As the colony grew smaller they would have been unable to keep each other warm and the remaining stragglers probably froze to death. We also found newly hatched bees dead in the cells because there were no nurse bees to feed them. There was plenty of uneaten honey leftover that could be harvested for marmalade and mead.

However, in a strange turn of events another beekeeper reported that his colony had almost doubled in size and, unlike his black bees, the new bees were light coloured. So we suspect that many of the golden Italian bees from the dying colony had absconded and bribed their way with honey into a new home. It was nice to think that the collapsed hive was enjoying a second life.

Did these light-coloured Italian bees find a secret second life in the hive across the path?

Listen to BBC Gardeners’ Question Time from Regent’s Park

Eric Robson chairs a programme of BBC Gardener’s Question Time from the Royal College of Physicians beside Regent’s Park, London, with Chris Beardshaw, Bob Flowerdew and Christine Walkden on the panel.

BBC Radio 4 Gardeners’ Question Time 
Friday 3 February, 15.00
Sunday 5 February, 14.00

To find out more about BBC Gardeners’ Question Time visit the website.

Read more about how to live with lavender (not on Mars).

Beebase have lots of advice for beekeepers on how to manage varroa.