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.

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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.

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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…

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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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A break in the clouds

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After a perilous week of tube strikes in London and crocodile scares in Bristol, yesterday was a reminder that this is the most perilous time of year for honeybees.

The apiary was unexpectedly a buzz with beekeepers due to a change in the association’s calendar that had postponed the scout hut meeting till next weekend. There were two types of cakes on the table and I was advised to have a slice of each so as not to offend anyone. But it was too blustery for even the hardiest of Ealing beekeepers to stay for cake. John Chapple was the first to leave, wearing his festive Christmas-pudding style woollen hat.

The wind was getting stronger, so Emily and I went to quickly check the weight of the hives and fondant in the roof before we both were blown away. ‘There are purple crocuses out already, and snowdrops!’ Emily said excitedly, ‘Spring really is coming!’

Here are the purple crocuses that Emily was so excited about.

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What a difference a week makes though. Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives were about the same weight, but Chamomile’s was much lighter. All three hives have plenty of fondant in the roof, so there is little that we can do except watch and wait.

This time of year is a waiting game for beekeepers. After over-wintering, the colony will soon be in need of new stores and new bees to forage. The winter bee reaching the end of her life must find the reserves to nurse and rear the first of a new generation of summer bees. How will she manage it? Ted Hooper explains in Guide to Bees & Honey how the lives of workers are extended, sometimes as long as six months, to carry the colony through winter and to start again in spring:

‘The winter bee is a rather different animal from the summer worker, the difference being brought about by feeding and lack of work. In the late August and early September the workers feed very heavily upon pollen, and this brings their hypopharyngeal glands back into the plump form of the young nursing bee. At the same time, a considerable amount of fat, protein and a storage carbohydrate called glycogen, or animal starch, is stored in the fat body. This fat body is an organ composed of a sheet of large storage cells spread along the inside of the dorsal part of the abdomen. It is present in all honeybees, but is considerably enlarged in the winter worker. It provides an internal store of food, which is probably used to start brood rearing in the spring. These physical changes in the worker occur when it is not involved in rearing brood; in fact its lifespan appears to be inversely proportional to the amount of brood food produced and fed to larvae.’

Of course, after all that, the workers will still need good weather and a plentiful flow of nectar to start the season. The apiary’s snowdrops felt like a small ray of hope amid news of storms and floods.

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Snowdrops instil a child-like and spring-like feeling in everyone. My mum has a lovely memory of these pretty flowers from when she was six years’ old: ‘When I was six, I thought I was going to hospital to be a nurse, instead they took my tonsils. Afterwards my mum took me home, and she’d put a vase of snowdrops by my bed.’

Hopefully the apiary’s bees will appreciate the snowdrops lying beside the hives as much, during a break in the clouds.

Links of interest:

The Chelsea Physic Garden’s snowdrop theatre opened this weekend and I can highly recommend a visit. There are snowdrops, tours and, of course, delicious afternoon tea and cake in the Tangerine Dream Café. Emily and I visited for a honey tasting a couple of years back, and really enjoyed the Garden.

Blogs to read:

If only British beekeeper Ted Hooper MBE (1918–2010) were alive to share his experience and words of wisdom through blogging. Well, I’ve found the next best thing – Professor Simon Leather, entomologist and blogger! His blog Don’t Forget the Roundabouts shares stories and teaches on things of entomological interest, urban ecology and conservation, and there’s quite a bit about aphids. I really like his recent post: It’s a Wonderful Life – an Inordinate Fondness for Insects. You can also follow on Twitter @EntoProf.

 

Turning over a new leaf

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Autumn is a season of consolidation and resolution in many traditions. For me, it is a time to reflect on the year that has passed, to consolidate losses and gains, and to make room for something new. I have a lot of energy in autumn and prefer autumn cleaning to spring cleaning and autumnal resolutions to new year resolutions.

The thing that inspires me about autumn is that ‘back to school’ feeling, which I never lost, and the opportunity to give birth to new ideas and to learn, study and gather information. It is about resetting the clock and planting seeds for the future.

Taking time-out is a big priority going forward. After a busy year, I’ve learned it’s OK not to do everything all the time and that taking time-out to catch-up is much more productive. That’s a lesson I’m putting into action on my blog by posting fortnightly and spending the week inbetween to read the blogs I follow, or go for a walk with my camera, or blend my aromatherapy oils.

Another leaf I’m turning over is to be more prepared. Having a sudden proliferation of bees took me by surprise in spring. Next season I’m going to be ready. That starts with consolidating this year’s bees.

This afternoon at the apiary I cleaned up. I scraped wax off crownboards, cleared roofs of old paper and debris, rearranged hive boxes, filled feeders with sugar syrup, wiped varroa boards and stuffed leaves into entrances to prevent robbing.

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Our tidied autumn bees from far left: Queen Myrtle’s hive on a double brood and one super, with heavy stores; Queen Chili’s hive on one brood, light on stores; and Queen Chamomile’s hive on double brood, modest stores. The bees have done better than last year but will still need feeding, insulation and generally ‘keeping’ over winter.

The bees consolidated, I then took time-out to stroll around the apiary and take pictures of mushrooms, or are they toadstalls?

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By the time I returned to the apiary table, the crowd was getting restless… and hungry. ‘I hope that’s cake you’ve got in that bag,’ said John Chapple. I was sorry to disappoint him. Elsa had made tea and I enjoyed time spent just sitting and listening to everyone chatter, before coming home to write this post.

Happy autumn everyone!

Next post: 5 October ‘Street lights’

Upcoming posts in 2013:
26 October 2013
9 November 2013
23 November 2013
7 December 2013
21 December 2013