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.

Springing to life

Spring is such an exciting time of year with everything springing to life. I picked the dandelions off the lawn yesterday, before John mowed, to save them for a salve. There are plenty of dandelions left in the flower beds for the bees and other pollinators.

I love these golden flowers that open like bright stars to greet the sun or which sometimes seem to resemble a fluffy lion’s mane. How can they be called weeds? Folklorists suggest that dandelions were once a ‘shepherd’s clock’ because they open at sunrise and close at sunset. As the dandelions in the garden were all wide open, I took it as an indication that it would be a good day for beekeeping.

At the apiary both mine and Emily’s hives were flying well. I arrived to get started before the crowds – the Grand National was on later and I didn’t want to miss the start. First, a look inside Hope’s hive.

Emily had moved this colony from the polynuc to a full-sized hive last weekend and I wanted to see how they were doing (also, congratulations Emily for winning the Walton’s blog award!). As you can see they are doing very well, almost bursting from the seams, in fact. It is such a different picture for this colony than for this time last spring where they had come out of winter very weak. I’m convinced that the insulation provided in the past year, and that spending the winter in a polynuc (thanks Thomas Bickerdike), has saved this colony from dying out.

Hope’s bees have really got back on their feet – well done girls! – and were buzzing very loudly and contentedly, it was a deep vibrating sound and not high pitched. They had taken down most of the honey from the beautiful honeycomb sculptures in the roof, which I removed without much fuss, and the workers in the brood box were drawing out fresh golden comb on the new frames.

I found Hope on the third frame in and caged her just in case I found queen cells further along. I didn’t find queen cells but took the opportunity, while the queen was caged, to take out two old brood frames, shaking off the bees, and to put in two new frames. We’re taking a frame-by-frame approach to the comb change for the hive this year. Because the bees have only just got back on their feet, a full shook swarm seems a bit harsh. They have been moved to a clean hive and only three old frames remain which we can swop out as they continue to build up.

Emily arrived as I was closing up and writing the hive records. As you can see, the bees are still trying to eat their homework.

Next, Emily looked inside Patience’s hive as a small group of visitors arrived and I busied myself with getting our hive equipment ready for a comb change for this colony, either at or after Easter. I could hear lots of questions being asked and all seemed to be going well.

Patience’s colony had been left to overwinter inside a brood box and a super with insulated frames and a ‘winter blanket’ around the hive. The queen had been laying in the super (as is probably to be expected when the queen excluder has been left off overwinter), but it was largely drone brood and could even be an advantage for the upcoming comb change.

The varroa mite tends to be more attracted to drone brood because drones have a longer period of gestation inside their cells – they emerge around day 22 to 24, unlike workers who emerge around day 21, or the queen who emerges around day 16. This is probably because the queen and workers have a lot more work to do inside the hive and are in more of a hurry to get started!

Where a lot of drone brood has been laid in the super, we might be carrying out effective chemical-free varroa control by getting rid of these frames during a comb change. We might use a decapping fork to decap the drone brood and see whether there are mites inside the cells before they are discarded.

While there were a lot of bees inside Patience’s hive, there was little brood, no eggs and no sight of the queen. But it is early days yet and the bees were well behaved and keeping busy. As usual, they probably have a much better idea of what is going on inside the hive than we do. So, we may give the colony and its queen a couple more weeks to pick up before making a decision about whether they need to be requeened or combined with Hope’s colony – the latter option only providing that they are healthy with low levels of disease.

As we were closing up, a worker bee managed to sting through my thin marigold gloves. I had a bad reaction to a sting several years ago – my first honeybee sting, in fact, and this was only my second – that had seen a short trip to A&E for some swelling and nausea. I put on some clove oil as my hand started to burn, which had an almost immediate effect on the pain, and went to sit down in the cool shade of the apiary benches. One of the apiary visitors also gave me an antihistamine.

Luckily, an hour or so passed and I felt fine. John picked me up and I was home in time to watch the Grand National. John had put a bet on for my horse, One for Arthur, which won by the way!

With the first smoker of the year having been lit, the bees looking in a much better position than they did last spring, and the dandelions marinating in olive oil in the sunshine, it had not been a bad day’s beekeeping.

Meantime, Emily, Tom and I have been nominated again for best beekeeping blogs by WhatShed. Ealing beekeeping blogs are really doing very well this year!

I plan on making some simple dandelion salves with the marinated oil and beeswax for hands and chapped skin after gardening. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Dandelions have so many uses and were once considered a very useful herb in folk medicine and cooking. I wonder when we stopped noticing the usefulness of ‘weeds’? As Culpeper wrote in his Complete Herbal in the 17th century, the French and Dutch seemed to commonly use dandelions in spring, and to which he concluded with his usual tact that “foreign physicians are not so selfish as ours are, but more communicative of the virtues of plants to people”.

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

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.

Nature magic: twilight for the bees and a mystery object at the apiary

00 Dreamy hives

I arrived at dusk at the apiary after the last bee had floated home. It was my regular mid-week visit to bring sugar syrup since shook swarming the hives. Strangely, the apiary takes on a life of its own in the twilight hours. The place is silent of beekeepers clamouring over tea and cake and beginners enquiringly asking questions, and the air is empty of humming honeybees. The hives sit quietly in rows, nettles and bluebells sway gently in the soft glow, and trees secretly rustle. I think this is a time for nature magic.

01 Overgrown apiary

As you can see the path to the apiary is now overgrown – nature has taken over and the bluebells have arrived early. There are lots of wildflowers for the neighbouring shrill carder bees who have been frequent visitors. However, something else was waiting inside that gave me a start. What is this mystery object standing in the gloom in the middle of the apiary? What have the elder beekeepers been up to now?

02 Mystery object mating nuc

I took a picture and tweeted it. Replies soon came back suggesting it was a mating nuc or bait hive, or perhaps bumblebee nesting box. Whatever it is, I may now have to wait till after Easter to find out.

The daylight was fading fast so I lifted the roof from Myrtle’s hive and saw half the syrup in the feeder had been taken down. This is our nicest, and slowest, colony, so I was pleased. I emptied out the remaining syrup – homemade sugar syrup grows mould – and cleaned the feeder – because I’m an obsessive cleaner – placing it back on the crownboard filled with ambrosia. Ambrosia is a special mix of syrup that lasts longer and contains other nutrients for the hive. The bees love it, and the hive raised its hum as workers rushed up to drink.

03 Ambrosia bees

There is plenty of nectar and pollen about, of course, and our bees are probably strong enough to forage to feed themselves. I like to keep feeding, particularly after a comb change, until the hive has fully built up again. The feeders filled with sugar syrup in the roof are for a rainy day – if our girls don’t want it then they won’t take it.

04 Ambrosia bees close up

I fed Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives next. These colonies had taken down all the syrup and were hungrily licking their tongues around the bottom of the feeder for more. I’ve been worried about Chamomile’s hive since her colony tested positive for nosema and we found unhealthy looking larvae in there on Saturday. Cold weather at the weekend delayed the comb change, and though we’re eager to get this hive onto clean frames, Chamomile has had to wait.

Beekeeping done, at the end of my evening visits I enjoy walking around the apiary to check all is well with the other hives and to Instagram pictures of the other residents. Flowers looks so pretty at dusk.

05 Apiary white flowers

06 Bluebells

07 Cherry blossom

A small mouse peeked out from between the flowers and looked up curiously, but I wasn’t quick enough to take a picture before she ran away. The bees were tucked up and well fed for Easter, and it was time to leave.

Happy Easter to humans and Hymenopterans alike!

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…

snowdrop 1

Snowdrop

“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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