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.

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A beekeeper gets married

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Telling the bees

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

From Tintern to Tintagel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LINKS

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

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

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

A beekeeper’s notes for February

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On Saturday 14th February I saw the white snowdrops in flower and the purple crocuses opening. Winter aconite and catkins of the hazel and the willow will also blossom bringing the year’s first forage for bees.

Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for their monthly meeting. I stood outside the entrance of the hives and noticed not a single bee took to the wing. The stillness made all other movements sharper.

I watched a red-breasted robin hopping in the thorny foliage and breathed as a magpie swooped down to pick a twig to build her nest.

I found a spider crawling on the fondant under the roof of a hive and two slugs sliding in the dead leaves beneath the floor of another.

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Alan Gibbs arrived just as I had put under varroa boards to check this month’s mite drop. He had come with his spade on this cold, rainy day to lay more paving stones in the communal area. Betty Gibbs was sensibly waiting in the car outside the apiary, reading a book.

We then looked at the fondant under the roofs. I had brought more in case it was needed, but Alan said they had “quite enough”.

A chilly February can be a time of uncertainty for beekeepers with thoughts of wakeful bees kept inside the hive as the winter larder runs bare. I gave each hive a heft for weight of stores. In particular Melissa’s and Pepper’s were very heavy, while Chili’s and Chamomile’s were lighter. Nothing to do but observe, February is also a time to rest and wait as everything unfolds.

With that, I said goodbye to Alan and the bees, and waved to Betty on my way out. John too was sensibly waiting for me in a warm car. There were flowers, cards and chocolates sitting at home.

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This is a short and sweet post like the month.

Emily and I have decided to use paper records for our hives again. Our blogs provide an online diary of beekeeping, and I’ve found electronic records or apps sometimes difficult to access or just fiddly to use on my phone during a hive inspection. Also, it seems better to keep records under the hive roofs at the apiary, in case other beekeepers need to read them.

Here’s a start on preparing our hive record sheets for the season ahead, based on others we have used and ideas for monthly reminders. Let me know in your comments if there’s anything you would include, I’d be interested to know how to improve them:

Hive records 2015 pdf
Hive records 2015 Word doc

And a note on something less practical and more frilly… Sometimes there is snow in February, which makes me remember my favourite passage from The Snow Queen, A Tale is Seven Stories, by Hans Christian Andersen.

In the second story about a little boy and a little girl, Kay and Gerda sit by frozen windows to watch the snowstorm. They lay heated copper farthings on the windowpane to make a peep-hole to look outside…


”Look! The white bees are swarming,” said the old grandmother. “Have they a queen bee, too?” asked the little boy, for he knew that there was a queen among the real bees. “Yes, indeed they have,” said the grandmother. “She flies where the swarm is thickest. She is biggest of them all, and she never remains on the ground. She always flies up again to the sky. Many a winter’s night she flies through the streets and peeps in at the windows, and then the ice freezes on the panes into wonderful patterns like flowers.”

“Oh yes, we have seen that,” said both children, and then they knew it was true.

“Can the Snow Queen come in here?” asked the little girl.

“Just let her come,” said the boy, “and I will put her on the stove, where she will melt.”

But the grandmother smoothed his hair and told him more stories.

In the evening when little Kay was at home and half undressed, he crept up on to the chair by the window, and peeped out of the little hole. A few snowflakes were falling, and one of these, the biggest, remained on the edge of the window-box. It grew bigger and bigger, till it became the figure of a woman, dressed in the finest white gauze, which appeared to be made of millions of starry flakes. She was delicately lovely, but all ice, glittering, dazzling ice. Still she was alive, her eyes shone like two bright stars, but there was no rest or peace in them. She nodded to the window and waved her hand. The little boy was frightened and jumped down off the chair, and then he fancied that a big bird flew past the window.

The next day was bright and frosty, and then came the thaw—and after that the spring.”

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A beekeeper’s notes
A beekeeper’s notes for January

A Christmas gift from the bees

It has been a fantastic year of beekeeping. To celebrate I’ve made a book to say thank you to everyone for reading my blog. I’ve enjoyed sharing the ups and downs, queens and swarms, honey and drones, with you all. This is a gift from the bees.

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The industrious honeybee has inspired people for centuries, while the treasures of the hive bring sweetness in honey and light in candles. What is life like through the compound eyes of the bee? This little book of bee magic journeys through the honeybee year, from season to season.

You can download the ebook for free on Blurb books here to read on iBooks for iPhone and iPads. Or send an email using the form below and I will send you a copy of the ebook. I’ll wait a week to receive everyone’s requests before sending copies.

This is my first ebook, I hope you have as much fun flipping through the pages as I did making them. Let me know what you think, because I’m planning more ebooks with all funds raised donated to a charity Bees for Development.

Snowdrop – the flower of promise

snowdrop 2In myth the snowdrop symbolises a promise – to break winter’s spell and bring back spring. When these tiny harbingers arrived at the apiary last weekend, they brought as much delight to us as they must bring to the bees.

But another week of howling winds and raging rains, and I wondered if this tiny flower was not working its magic. I’ve always been fond of flower folklore and remembered a book that I picked up in a second-hand bookstore in Cornwall, Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants by Charles M Skinner.

So I revisited the passage on snowdrops and a couple of pictures taken at the apiary when it had snowed. Here it is, a little snowdrop magic for Sunday…

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“When the first winter lay white upon the earth, Eve sorely missed the beautiful things of the fields. An angel who pitied her seized a flake of the driving snow and, breathing on it, bade it live, for her delight. It fell to the earth a flower, which Eve caught to her breast with gladness, for not only did it break the spell of winter, but it carried assurance of divine mercy. Hence the flower means consolation and promise. In another legend, Kerma, finding her lover dead, plucked a snowdrop and placed it on his wounds. It did not rouse him, but at the touch his flesh changed to snowdrops, hence the flower is also an emblem of death. Even now in rural England the flower is in ill repute, and it is unlucky to carry the first spray of the season into the house, while it is downright indelicate for a person to give it to one of another sex, since it implies a wish to see the recipient dead. This galanthus nivalis is variously known in England, France, Italy, and Switzerland as virgin flower, snow piercer, winter gallant, firstling, blackbird flower, little snow bell, little white bell, baby bell, spring whiteness, and white violet.”

While not being superstitious, I’m glad the legend discourages bringing snowdrops into the house as they are much more valuable for the bees. And with snowdrops blowing in the fresh February air, let’s hope their promise comes true soon.

Edit: Snowdrops spotted today on Olympic walk from Mile End to Embankment, finally opening…

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