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.

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 stocking filler from the bees

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Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the UK. For a moment the Earth tilts furthest away from the sun in the northern hemisphere, before it turns back towards the light.

My pagan friends celebrate the winter solstice, Yule, by lighting candles to mark the sun’s rebirth. While it is a long time till spring from this point on we can all welcome back the lengthening of days.

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I’m not pagan, well maybe a tiny bit…

In beekeeping traditions the darkest day of winter is a point of stillness inside the hive. The queen has stopped laying and the workers cluster around her in a broodless nest. A perfect time to give the bees a solstice stocking filler of warmed oxalic acid in syrup.

Yesterday was bright, cold and dry at the apiary. The beekeepers were feeling festive as they ate mince pies and drank home-brewed beer. Everyone was soon very merry!

Andy Pedley was amused that I had decorated our hives a few weeks ago with pine cones and berries to look Christmassy, he tweeted:

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There also had been exciting news from Andy during the week, he wrote: “This might justify a special email?” He and John Chapple had been interviewed for Alan Titchmarsh’s The Queen’s Garden, which airs on Christmas Day at 3.10pm on ITV. Wow, beekeeping royalty to follow the Queen’s speech. I can’t wait till Christmas! (You can see John Chapple looking like Father Christmas in his red coat and white beard above.)

Elsa helped us to warm the oxalic acid that we were giving to the bees by standing the bottles in an upturned lid of a teapot. As we marvelled at her practicality, she said in her gentle Australian accent, “I wasn’t a Girl Scout, but I was raised in the bush”.

The sun was dropping fast through the trees and the mince pies had all been eaten. It was time to give the bees their stocking filler.

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I’ve blogged about giving the bees oxalic acid before, this year two beginners gave it to the hives. They will make excellent beekeepers. The oxalic acid is meant to burn the mouths and feet of varroa mites feeding on adult bees, so they drop off. It is given in midwinter when the colony is thought to be almost broodless and the varroa mites have fewer places to hide.

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Some beekeepers now check their hives for brood a few days before giving the oxalic acid following last year’s findings by Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI), which caused something of a stir among beekeepers. The research suggests any time between 10th December and Christmas is a good time for oxalic acid treatment and that you check for sealed brood, and destroy it, around two days before. I hadn’t forgotten the advice but we didn’t do this. I could tell by looking at the way the bees were moving around and over the frames that there is likely to be sealed brood inside the hives. Perhaps it is a knock-on effect of a longer brooding season due to a milder autumn and winter? What effect that will have on the oxalic acid treatment, I don’t know.

Even so, all’s looking well inside the four hives. Chili’s bees were playful, Melissa’s bees were peaceful, Chamomile’s were curious (a good sign) and Pepper’s were spirited!

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Merry Christmas lovely bees!

This is my last post of the year as I take a break for Christmas. So, as an aromatherapy beekeeper, I’ll leave you with a picture of the apiary on the darkest day in winter and a stocking filler from the bees – a home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm that you can make quite easily. The recipe is in the Postnotes below, along with more details about The Queen’s Garden.

All that remains to be said is a Very Happy Christmas bees, humans and everyone!

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See you all in the New Year xx

Postnotes

Home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm

Ingredients:

  • 40 ml olive oil
  • 10 g beeswax
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 10 drops lavender essential oil

Method:

  1. Heat the oil gently in a saucepan over a low heat.
  2. Add the beeswax, stirring till completely melted.
  3. Mix in the honey then pour into a warmed bowl.
  4. Add the lavender essential oil and stir quickly before the balm starts to set.
  5. Pour the warm balm into small pots and leave to set, then lid and label your honey-and-lavender lip balm.

Of course, the lip balm is meant as a gift – you can’t sell home-made cosmetics without special safety requirements. As an added precaution too, skip the lavender oil if you are pregnant. Aromatherapy texts differ on which essential oils to use in pregnancy and at which stage of pregnancy, and the proper advice is actually a lot more involved than this. I’m not going into that now, so skip the lavender to be on the safe side – the balm really is as nice just as honey and beeswax.

The recipe is also posted on the Ealing and District Beekeepers’ website which I run, as a news item along with a link to the recent Bee Craft live episode on using hive products.

The Queen’s Garden
Don’t forget to watch The Queen’s Garden on Christmas Day! Elsa is sure from a preview that you’ll at least see John Chapple, the Queen’s Beekeeper, pull a frame from a hive!

The Queen’s Garden
Thursday 25th December at 3:10pm on ITV
Queen’s Garden, Episode 1: The first of two programmes in which Alan Titchmarsh gets exclusive access to the royal gardens at Buckingham Palace for a whole year. He watches the garden change over the four seasons and reveals its hidden treasures that have evolved over five centuries. In the first part, he arrives along with 8,000 others to attend the Queen’s summer garden party, but unlike the other guests, he has a different itinerary. He begins by venturing into the garden’s wilder spaces where nature has been left to rule. He meets the Queen’s bee keeper John Chapple, delves into the history of the garden and finds its oldest tree. Late summer is the ideal time to visit the rose garden with its 18th-century summer house. Later, as Christmas arrives, Alan helps royal florist Sharon Gaddes-Croasdale bring in plants to decorate the palace.

Download a free ebook stocking filler here, a Christmas gift from me and the bees.

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