Beekeeping in Iceland

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Image by John Maund

I watched our bees fly home on a mild autumn day with the treasures of their colourful forage bulging out of pollen baskets, and wondered when they would start to huddle up to survive the forecast of a long, harsh winter. I couldn’t imagine then that a colony would flourish in a place where autumn cooled to 0–3°C during the day and dropped to below zero at night.

The following week John and I flew to Reykjavik in Iceland for the first year anniversary of when we met expecting to see glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes and, of course, the Northern Lights. We had packed thermals, knitted jumpers, hats, scarves, gloves and waterproofs to prepare for wind, rain and snow, although we soon found that the weather report changed from hour to hour and, as the locals said, ‘If you stand still for five minutes you will have all-new weather’.

We had a full itinerary to explore the eclectic city of Reykjavik and discover the strange and fantastical country of Iceland. We hoped also to find time to meet an Icelandic beekeeper, Hjalmar Jonsson, who had contacted Emily through her blog and, after hearing that John and I were visiting Iceland, had generously offered to show his hives and take us around Reykjavik. When I emailed to arrange to meet on Tuesday, he replied that we were lucky to arrive early in the week as ‘strong wind from the Northern Pole was on his way’.

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Image by John Maund

Iceland was not the first country I thought of when thinking about bees and beekeeping, but Hjalmar is part of a growing beekeeping community in Reykjavik and neighbouring towns. After meeting at the Grand Hotel, he told us a bit about beekeeping in Iceland as he drove us to see his hives. The honeybees in Iceland are Italian and usually imported from Sweden or Norway where they are bred. We were told the colonies have little or no disease or problems with varroa due to their isolation. The main challenge the bees face is not the snow and cold but wind and rain. Hjalmar uses polystyrene Langstroth hives to help keep the bees warm and we later saw that these were firmly strapped down and lined up against a wind barrier of trees and bracken.

This year the summer in Iceland was wet with prolonged spells of rain and a poor honey harvest for Hjalmar, who has two hives, and his neighbour, who has six or maybe more! But Hjalmar was content to have two strong colonies to overwinter and had even set aside two jars of honey for myself and Emily. A very valuable and generous gift!

The day was full of cold bright sunshine with a sharp bite in the air as we walked along the path to take our first view of Icelandic bees. We could have been looking at a row of hives in London, it was all so familiar. We took a few photos and Hjalmar said ‘Now let’s take a closer look.’

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Image by John Maund

A deserted Warre hive stood empty to the side and in which Hjalmar said the bees had only built two boxes before giving up. He thought the Warre hive might not have been warm enough to keep the colonies going. There was an observation panel at the back revealing the beautiful emptied nest of natural honeycomb inside. I thought how much fun it would be to observe the hives this way in winter, although our bees would likely propolise the window to stop us from being nosy.

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Natural honeycomb built by bees inside a Warre hive.

We walked back towards the Langstroth hives where Hjalmar pointed to a piece of honeycomb lying outside the entrance, he thought it was drone comb. ‘This is when it is hard for us males, John,’ he said. ‘To see when we are no longer needed by nature.’ He was referring, of course, to the end of summer when the males (drones) are evicted from the nest by the females (workers) – a gripe of many male beekeepers. I sensed bonding was occurring.

Unconcerned by the fate of their brothers, a few workers were flying in and out of the entrance, perhaps on cleansing flights or to stretch their wings on a clear day. I asked Hjalmar if his bees were good natured and he nodded, ‘Except one time when I opened the hive too early in the year. They weren’t ready for me’.

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Image by John Maund

Leaving the bees to enjoy their winter break, we took a stroll along the path to a salmon river – an oasis of calm outside the city populated by dog walkers, ramblers, birds, and salmon. Birdwatching is another passion of Hjalmar’s along with a growing interest in photography and blogging. And he was very pleased to show us the untouched beauty of his country as we drove to see a vast mirror-like lake – Iceland is a land of incredible natural beauty.

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Image by John Maund

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Image by John Maund

Another surprise was waiting – a visit to a farm in the suburbs where the farmer has been keeping bees and growing apple trees, which, like many trees, are scarce in Iceland.

We were warmly greeted by the farmer’s daughter who was keen to show her father’s hives. ‘We make mistakes and we are learning all the time.’ They were learning fast and their happy, healthy bees suggested they didn’t make many mistakes. Two rows of Langstroth hives were situated under a wind shelter with bees contentedly floating around jars of sugar syrup warming in the sun outside the entrances.

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Image by John Maund

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Image by John Maund

There were even thermostats on the roofs, so while we were shivering in 2–3°C outside, I could see that the bees were a snug 22°C inside.

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Image by John Maund

Having grown up on a farm in Hereford, John was keen to look around and we were treated to more Icelandic hospitality with a tour of the greenhouse apple orchard and egg factory. We even left with organic apples in our pockets to eat later.

Iceland is a relaxed country to put it mildly, and Icelanders have a quiet, dry humour that I was only just beginning to appreciate. So when Hjalmar told us we were going to see the president of Iceland, I thought he was joking. He was, sort of.

It is possible to drive up to the President of Iceland’s house, which is white, in Bessastaðir, Álftanes, a town in Reykjavík. The residence is surrounded by mountains and sea and overlooks a view of the city. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and his very popular First Lady Dorrit Moussaieffare are said to sometimes enjoy strolls with visitors in the grounds. You can read more about it on this blogger’s visit. Amazing. It gave me a real sense of the closeness and ease of the Icelandic community, which I liked very much.

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I took this one. Behind the church is the house of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland, in Bessastaðir, Álftanes, a town in Reykjavík.

After all that bee-ing and sightseeing, it was time for a trip to the oldest coffee house in Reykjavik. If you ever visit, you must go there. Mokka-Kaffi opened in 1958 from its beginnings as a place for artists to meet and today is famous for its hot chocolate. Hjalmar nodded towards a man sitting by the window sketching into a notebook.

As our day was drawing to an end, Hjalmar drove us to the harbour ‘and to take photos’. Hjalmar is practising photography for his blog, which I hope to post a link on these pages soon. The city looked even more picturesque from the other side of the harbour with the sea sparkling across the bay.

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Image by John Maund

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My lovely boyfriend John and official photographer for the day!

John and I had been overwhelmed by the Icelandic hospitality and generosity we had received that day and as Hjalmar dropped us off at the Aurora Borealis museum, I said that we hoped to see him in London next year to visit our hives.

We have kept in touch since and as Hjalmar said, we were very lucky with our visit to Iceland. This was only part one of our holiday, part two including bubbling hot springs, rumbling mountains, waterfalls and glaciers was yet to come…

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Image by John Maund

Further reading

I suspect the farm Hjalmar took us to visit was the same as featured in BeeCraft magazine: ‘Beekeeping in the land of fire and ice’.

You can read more about Icelandic beekeeping on the association website.

A great blog/website with a personal view of all you need to know about a trip to Iceland

Beautiful Hereford

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As autumn suddenly arrived last week bringing fog, rain, chill winds and giant house spiders, I reflected on one of the best summers in recent years. The sun shone on May’s bank holidays, a heat wave followed in July, and my winter coat and boots were kept in the wardrobe from early June to late August.

This summer I also rediscovered my own country with two visits to beautiful Hereford, the hometown of my boyfriend John. Herefordshire and The Wye Valley are sometimes called ‘the undiscovered country’ with scenic rural views of quiet farms, wooded hills, and tranquil rivers. The historic cathedral city of Hereford is peaceful and picturesque and provides pleasant walks along the River Wye. ‘Herefordshire Cathedral,’ John told me ‘is home to the 13th Century Mappa Mundi – the largest medieval map of the world.’

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We were lucky with the weather in May and had sunny days to explore the English countryside.

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John grew up on a beautiful farm in Hereford and in late August we enjoyed the warm days of harvest, walking through fields of maize corn and picking ripe plums from trees.

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Wherever I go bees are never far! A walk through Queenswood Country Park and Arboretum revealed a ‘Bees in the trees trail’ that we tried to follow…

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While a visit to a country fair and falconry display at Oakchurch unexpectedly fulfilled a life-long dream… an encounter with my favourite bird – the owl! John captured all the action.

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The last days of summer passed almost unnoticed as we walked The Rhea, spied on sheep and herded cattle.

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And as we drove back to London, the first day of autumn ended with a spectacular sunset.

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Next week: autumn bees, mushrooms and raspberry cake at the apiary (although you may first read a preview on Emily’s blog!)

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100th post: Fire mountains of Lanzarote

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Just a four-hour flight away from London lies Lanzarote and the promise of guaranteed sunshine that is too good to resist when the British winter has overstayed its welcome.

Lanzarote is the most easterly of the Canary Islands emerging about 15 million years ago after the break-up of the continental plates of Africa and America. The island was born through fiery volcanic activity and its most recent eruptions in the 18th and 19th centuries left behind a ravaged ‘Martian’ landscape of lava fields and dramatic rock formations.

A speck on the map in the Atlantic Ocean situated off the northwest coast of Africa, Lanzarote is the fourth largest of the Canary Islands, although locals say it is possible to drive from one end to the other in two hours. But who would want to do that when there is so much to see?

This is my 100th post and what better way to mark a blogging milestone than a visit to a volcano!

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The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago and each one blends Spanish influences with its own unique identity. Lanzarote is said to be the most visually striking – a scorched earth of volcanic ash, crumbling rocks, craters and caverns, and lava coastlines – perfect for artistic travel photography!

We stayed at one of the larger resorts at Puerto del Carmen. After a day spent at the poolside, we ventured out to explore the island’s famous Timanfaya National Park, which was established in 1974 to protect the volcanic landscape.

The Grand Tour started with a dromedary ride across the weird lunar desert. (The dromedary is the one-humped or Arabian camel and it gets the hump if you call it a camel, apparently. The term ‘camel’ usually means the two-humped Bactrian camel.)

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As our dromedary caravan set off we passed the point of no return – the devil’s sign. The devil is the symbol of Timanfaya where he still lives, of course. Devilish signs are found throughout Lanzarote because early settlers thought the volcanic eruptions were caused by a demon.

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Lanzarote is currently declared a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO and large regions of this adventure island are only accessible by coach. So after a fun ride on the dromedaries we took the Ruta de los Volcanes (Route of the Volcanoes) by coach to experience the Montanas del Fuego (Mountains of Fire) up close.

At Islote de Hilario, where the ground was warm beneath our feet, we witnessed ground tests of the volcano. Our guide told us to stand in a circle as hot gravel was dug up and poured into our hands. A burning brush thrust into a pit in the ground and water thrown into holes ejecting turbulently upwards was more evidence of geothermal activity.

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There was even a cooking demonstration at El Diablo restaurant where chickens and vegetable kebabs were slowly roasted over geothermal heat on a cast-iron grill. The restaurant was designed by celebrated artist and architect César Manrique (24 April 1919–25 September 1992) who was born in Arrecife, Lanzarote. His artistic influence is seen across the island.

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And while we couldn’t wander freely around the volcanoes, we were given short breaks to take in the hauntingly beautiful scenery. Here are a few pictures of me and John, a far more intrepid traveller, exploring the semi-active volcano of Timanfaya and the choppy coastline of Los Hervideros.

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As our coach continued to snake around the sleeping fire mountain of Timanfaya, we were treated to a movie-style commentary of Lanzarote ‘on location’. The island has provided the backdrop for a number of films, including One Million Years BC, Enemy Mine, Krull, Clash of the Titans (2010 remake) and Doctor Who: Planet of Fire.

I love this picture taken from inside the coach because the tint of the glass creates a ‘technicolor’ old Hollywood movie effect. I could imagine Raquel Welch running over the hill in her famous cave-girl bikini chased by a plasticine dinosaur.

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We winded through the famous wine region of La Gería where vineyards grow out of volcanic lapilli – little stones that fell out of the air and coated the ground during the volcanic eruptions. Single vines are grown in individual pits protected from the wind by low curved stone walls. This agricultural technique makes an attractive feature across the mountains and the vines are among the few plants to be seen other than cacti and hardy lichens.

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Our visit included a free wine tasting and more opportunity to indulge in arty photography!

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After a quick stop at Lanzarote’s famous cactus garden, Jardin de Cactus, which is home to the world’s spiniest plants and the most out-of-place windmill, our tour finished at Jameos del Agua – an underground volcanic passage formed at the foot of the volcano Monte de la Corona.

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Jameos del Agua is a place of incredible natural beauty enhanced by the artistic touches of César Manrique. The cave system is part of a volcanic tube where local people once hid from marauding pirates and I could imagine this as a scene out of Pirates of the Caribbean.

The underground lagoon is also home to a unique species of blind albino crabs, which can be seen everywhere in the black water like tiny white stars.

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The Grand Tour done, we hired a pedalo-style bike to explore the long beaches of Puerto del Carmen and discovered the flavours of the old town. There is a lot more to Lanzarote than volcanoes, there is also sun, sea and sand, spas, shops, bars, restaurants and a night life that was quite well hidden out-of-season!

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© John Maund

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© John Maund

I hope you’ve enjoyed my 100th post. And while it’s back to bees next time, here’s a little video of Lanzarote holiday memories.

This post is dedicated to my grandmother Antoiné Dees who was a talented photographer and adventurous traveller. I only hope that I can follow half as far in her footsteps.

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An Ealing beekeeper at Thanksgiving in Wake Forest, North Carolina

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The last of autumn’s leaves fell as my plane departed London Heathrow leaving behind grey skies and rain. Sunshine and blue skies awaited my arrival at Raleigh Durham.

Welcome to fall in North Carolina where forests splash the landscape with dramatic oranges and reds, and dazzling mirror-like lakes reflect the vibrant colours of turning trees.

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Last month I was invited to Thanksgiving by good friends, Alison and Rick, who live in Wake Forest in Wake County, located north of Raleigh, the state capital of North Carolina. Wake Forest is a beautiful, historic town surrounded by forests, woods, meadows and lakes. The climate is subtropical with hot, humid summers, mild winters (relatively) and boasting temperatures of around 20°C in spring and autumn. I felt that the days were warm and the nights were frosty; my friends ‘reckoned’ it was ‘so cold it was gonna snow’.

I was lucky to stay at Ali and Rick’s beautiful home and to explore the surrounding woods and forests. I set myself the challenge of keeping my camera on manual mode for the entire trip to capture the incredible range of colours, textures and lights of North Carolina.

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As well as its human inhabitants, Wake Forest is home to many forest animals including squirrels, deer, coyotes and a wide variety of birds; the mountainous region of North Carolina even has bears! The red cardinal, the official state bird, was a frequent visitor to the bird table. I found that forest wildlife was less bold than London’s urban wildlife and rather shy of having their picture taken!

I was also excited to see red squirrels, which I’ve never seen in London!

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The clearings in the woods behind the house, where we took the dogs for walks, were heavily populated by stripy, stingy insects that Ali called ‘bees’.

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… but closer inspection revealed that they were wasps. I wasn’t entirely sure, but one photo tweeted later confirmed that they were yellow jackets, the common name in North America for a predatory and temperamental wasp. Poor bees, falsely accused!

We also came across lots of lovely pine cones in the woods, perfect fuel for beekeeping smokers.

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While I didn’t spot a bee, it wasn’t long until I met a beekeeper.

A meeting of beekeepers

Ali suggested a visit to the North Carolina State Farmers Market where I spotted the beekeeper’s stall almost immediately!

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Here I met Berry the Beeman, a crop pollinator and beekeeper of Bee Blessed Pure Honey. Berry teaches children about bees and was happy to share stories about his hives. He likes to keep some Carniolan colonies, because they are gentle in nature, and he often gets Kona queens from Hawaii, because they breed fast and are, apparently, very big bees! (He may have been pulling my leg.) My hive partner, Emily, and I prefer big queen bees because they are much easier to spot on the frame!

Berry invited Ali and me to sample his honey crop. The clary sage honey was mildly floral and delicately textured, while the basswood was powerful and tangy with complex layers. ‘As you know, no two honeys should taste the same,’ said Berry, who told us that clary sage and clover have replaced the tobacco fields as major forage for honeybees in North Carolina. I would like to have tasted tobacco honey!

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The Beeman, who reminded me of Ealing’s beekeepers, would have been at home sitting at the apiary table drinking tea and eating cake on a Saturday afternoon, so I told him a little bit about our association. When I mentioned that John Chapple, a mentor to many new beekeepers, often tastes interesting and exotic varieties of honeys on his travels, Berry said he should try the basswood honey; Ali excitedly threw in ‘He is the queen’s beekeeper!’

I bought three jars of honey for John, Andy and Pat, who always help Emily, me and others with our hives; you can see what they thought in the epilogue to this post. Berry’s stall was very popular, so after buying my honey and asking for a photo we moved on to look at the Christmas trees.

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

Thanksgiving was an amazing affair – I have never seen so much food even at Christmas! Traditionally a harvest festival, Thanksgiving is now celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in America; being English this was my first Thanksgiving Dinner. Rick is an excellent cook who made sure that I got the best experience of this American holiday. Turkey, bacon, stuffing, mashed potato, sweet potato and marshmallows, squash, cous cous, jello, green bean casserole, three kinds of dessert… they would have to roll me back on the plane to England!

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All that eating, drinking and being thankful was followed by more forest trails to walk off the Girl Scout cookies Thin Mints.

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My last two days in North Carolina were spent exploring historic Wake Forest downtown where it seems that the British had been before.

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As everyone knows, an Ealing beekeeper is 80% tea and 20% cake so a cuppa in The Olde English Tea Room was obligatory. It was lovely inside – like a cosy tea room in the West Country, except that the cucumber sandwiches and lavender tea were much nicer! The atmosphere was warm and friendly, I love those southern accents!

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The antebellum southern architecture of downtown was reminiscent of sprawling plantation properties and ranch-style houses with beautiful wood panelling, gabled roofs and huge balconies. I also liked the random planting of ornamental cabbages in flower beds – very accommodating for friendly neighbourhood insect pollinators. Local councils in London could take note!

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Rain clouds loomed on the morning before my flight back to London and provided the perfect photographic backdrop for my tour of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Cobalt blue skies and bright sunshine are beautiful, but not always the best conditions for taking photos. Overcast conditions provide interesting contrasts and hues.

The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary was established in 1950 on the campus of Wake Forest University. The campus and college buildings have an older history dating back to the 1800s, and tours of the picturesque grounds are available on Tuesday and Friday mornings. I am always fascinated to find out the history, culture and architecture of the places that I visit. My tour was led by Josh who told me all about the tobacco fields that once grew in Wake Forest, the migration of the original college to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the inception of the seminary, which has an impressive international programme. I was rather envious of his travels.

Like everywhere in Wake Forest, the seminary was very friendly and, after my tour, I was free to explore the grounds and take photos of the elegant buildings, pretty gardens and a gnarly, twisted, old tree that I found particularly interesting!

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All too soon it was time to say farewell to Wake Forest and to the new friends that I had made there. The warmth of days was matched only by the southern hospitality and the charm of the people of North Carolina. I look forward to when I can return.

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A huge thank you to Ali and Rick who welcomed me into their home and to their friends, Lydia, Heather, Carol, Jen and Mickey who made me feel like part of the family.

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Epilogue

Back in Blighty, I am no longer worried about crossing the road, but everything looks smaller. Gazing out of my window at the Royal College of Physicians, the trees in Regent’s Park look like saplings compared to the tall pines and oaks of Wake Forest. It is also so cold that it has actually snowed.

At the apiary everyone was interested to hear about my trip to the States over a pot of tea and Emily’s homemade chocolate cake. I gave John, Andy and Pat their Bee Blessed Pure Honey, and John and Pat wasted no time tucking in.

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(L-R) Who needs spoons? Pat and John tuck in to alfalfa and basswood honeys from Berry the Beeman, North Carolina.

My Facebook album of Thanksgiving in Wake Forest, North Carolina, is available to view here.

Related links

Wake Forest, North Carolina

North Carolina State Farmers Market

Bee Blessed Pure Honey.

Berry the Beeman

The Olde English Tea Room

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

On the trail of honey and dust in Rome

When Rosemary, a lovely beekeeper at our apiary, gave me a book about the true story of a man who discovers the wonders of bees and honey on a farm in Italy, I packed it in my flight bag for a trip to Rome. I should have sub-titled this post: ‘A beekeeper in Rome’, because it is the story of my Roman holiday and the book that accompanied my travels.

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness by Piers Moore Ede begins as Piers, a young British environmentalist writer, is seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident in San Francisco and loses sense of his life’s purpose. He goes to recuperate on a farm owned by a beekeeper in Italy and rediscovers his passion for life with the help of Gunther and his bees.

Hillside views seen from the Colleseum. The opening chapters of Honey and Dust set in rural Italy were exciting in-flight reading on my way to Rome.

One sunny afternoon, Piers and Gunther take a walk, through a copse of trees, to a thicket of rosemary bushes, to where Gunther keeps his beehives. The gentle Italian bees are busy foraging nectar from the heavy-scented rosemary, ‘Rosmarino. Strong honey’. Gunther cuts a wedge of honeycomb from one of the hives to share with Piers:

‘That was my first taste of honey straight from a hive. We stood there in the clearing, with the afternoon sun warm upon our faces, honey running down our fingers, and let the sweetness wash over our tongues. The honey, indeed, had a strong taste of rosemary, and to see the spiny green bushes right beside us, and then to taste the result here and now, was by no means any great scientific discovery, but it felt strangely wonderful – like an insight into the order of things.’

It is a magical moment for the reader too, and I knew then that I would love this book. By the time our plane landed in Rome, I had joined Piers in the Middle East as he began his quest to find and taste the world’s most wondrous honeys.

A beekeeper in Rome

Rome is an amazing city. The ancient world sits comfortably with the modern world. It has style and glamour alongside history and tradition. The coffee is amazing too.

Rome – The Eternal City.

The story of the ages is told on every street. Here is the Colleseum.

The Papal Swiss Guard at Vatican City is the only Swiss Guard that still exists.

Ah, Roma! Romance in Rome as we come across an Italian TV crew filming a love story.

I like tea not coffee. Italian coffee is delicious!

Sitting with my friends in a cafe overlooking the Colleseum, I reflected how my journey was similar to Piers: exploring a vibrant and beautiful world which in parts has vanished.

A disappearing world

Honey flowed like rivers in ancient times. The Romans were Master Beekeepers with a particular fondness for thyme honey. Virgil and Pliny expounded the health-giving virtues of this golden nectar, and wrote detailed descriptions of beekeeping and the qualities of bees. However, Virgil thought queen bees were kings and warned of finding king cells in hives. The art of beekeeping declined in Ancient Rome with the fall of the Roman Empire.

Piers’ first stop on his tour of the world of apiculture is Beirut, but sadly he encounters varroa early in his journey. Wadih Yazbek, the son of a famous Lebanese beekeeper, explains that the honey-gathering traditions of the mountains was a practice of happier times:

‘It is not just us, the people, who have suffered in this last century. The land itself has taken many savage blows. And the wild bees, in consequence, have grown quiet. Of course, we beekeepers make sure that the bees survive – but in the wild, in caves and trees, they no longer make their homes as they used to. The varroa mite has hit us badly here.’

Piers’ realisation that the honeybees of the wild and domesticated hives are disappearing as colony after colony is ravaged by varroa makes his quest to find honey even sweeter. I finished reading the chapters in the Middle East as our first day in Rome came to an end, sitting in the beautiful gardens of Villa Borghese and enjoying very good Italian ice cream.

Villa Borghese is the second largest public park in Rome with beautiful landscaped gardens and an enchanting lake.

The Temple of Asclepius, the god of medicine, stands in the centre of the lake.

There are hidden fountains…

… and secret terrapin pools.

Vatican – the city of angels and demons

The next day we visited the Vatican – a city in a city – and I heard rumour that the pope keeps his own hives. While I didn’t see a bee, the Vatican experience can only be described as pure sensory overload. You need a guide, and a day, to see the Vatican.

Once inside, I used an entire 8GB memory card on my SLR and it was worth every shot. The highlight was Michaelangelo’s breathtaking Sistine Chapel, which is – indescribable. However, filming is forbidden inside the Sistine Chapel to protect the incandescent artwork, and because the Vatican owns the copyright. I wonder what Michaelangelo would have thought of that?

Inside the Vatican – a hall of gold and light.

Art so beautiful and breathtaking.

Gods and goddesses…

Angels…

… and demons.

Afterwards, we sat quietly inside a family-run restaurant and digested all that we had seen and heard. As a storm threatened to break the sunshine, we were invited to stay past closing time to share a complementary bowl of cherries and limoncello.

I took a peek inside my book to see what Piers was doing in Nepal. What struck me as I read Honey and Dust was the easy connections that Piers made with everyone he met. Whether visiting noisy war-torn capitals or the rooftop of the world, people warm to the young writer and invite him into their homes to share a unique insight into their hidden lives.

Out of the storm – we are welcomed into a family restaurant.

Limoncello and cherries! A risky combination.

That evening we climbed the turrets of Castel Sant’Angelo, went for tapas and enjoyed drinks in a restaurant opposite the Pantheon. I went to bed exhausted, and not sure if I was excited to wake for Rome or Piers’ trek with Nepalese honey hunters through dense forests.

The Pantheon by moonlight.

Italian wine best enjoyed on a warm evening in Rome.

Falling in love with Rome 

On Sunday morning we stumbled across mass at the Pantheon on our way to the Fountain de Trevi. The Pantheon is one of the best preserved buildings of Ancient Rome. The rotunda uses an intricate honeycombed structure of hidden chambers to strengthen its walls.

I stood at the entrance of the Pantheon watching as thousands of rose petals were poured through the oculi of the dome and tumbled down the shafts of sunlight.

The Pantheon was built to honour all the gods of Ancient Rome.

Rose petals falling from the oculi during mass.

The breathtaking Fountain de Trevi.

After tossing a coin in the waters of the Fountain de Trevi to make a wish, we separated to take our own mini adventures before meeting for lunch at the Campo de’ Fiori, or the Square of Flowers.

Picturesque streets.

Pastoral scenes.

Wall flowers.

City views.

People-watching.

I arrived before my friends and sat in the shade enjoying Sicilian lemonade with a spot of people-watching and reading.

Intrepid travellers

Piers was doing some people-watching of his own, sitting with laughing Nepalese children as intrepid honey hunters scaled a mountainside. The passage was the most absorbing in the book. It was incredible to imagine that this is how beekeepers in faraway parts of the world collect honey. Piers’ own life and brush with death is brought into perspective:

‘At times I could barely watch. The margin for error was simply too small. Every man here had his life in the balance, and yet the seeming levity with which they worked made it seem as if they didn’t care. It brought my own small encounter with mortality into the sharpest focus. Did these men fear death so little because of its constant proximity in their lives? And why do we, in the developed world, fear death so much? It also highlighted, as clearly as anything could, just how far man will go for the sensation of sweetness on his tongue. Quite simply, they were prepared to risk their lives for it.’

Once collected, wild Nepalese honey presents a further risk from the deadly rhododendron flowers that the bees forage in spring. Piers waits for the honey hunters to taste-test their hard-won nectar before sipping the ‘wondrous toxic honey’ with traces of poisonous pollen. He soon feels the effects:

‘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.’

The relentless afternoon heat in Rome made my friends and me feel a little dazed, so we took Sunday afternoon at a slower pace and wandered past the Spanish Steps. As a Londoner I appreciated a city that was bustling but also relaxed. Italians seem to take life at their own pace and there is always time for coffee and cake.

Egyptian obelisk at Campo de’ Fiori (the British didn’t take this one).

Roman soldiers.

The Spanish Steps.

My Bulgarian friend Dani, mistaken for the mysterious ‘Russian lady’, charms the local police for a photo. If you arrest us, can we stay?

Return to the dust world

I finished reading Honey and Dust before our flight back to London, following Piers’ spiritual journey through Sri Lanka and India. In-flight entertainment was offered by re-reading the passages that describe the secret life inside the hive:

‘It all starts with nectar,* a sweet, sticky substance produced by flowers, and loved, above all, by bees. Probing inside the flower, the bee sucks up this sugary substance and stores it in a ‘honey sac’ – essentially a second stomach. Flitting from flower to flower until the honey sac is full, the bee then returns to the hive…  One jar of honey is also the result of about 80,000 trips between flower and hive, the result of about 55,000 miles of flight, and the nectar from around 2 million flowers.’

Back home in London, I missed Rome but I was left with wonderful memories and Honey and Dust would forever be indelibly entwined with my trip.

The Vatican in light and shadow.

As a beekeeper, I found Nepal to be the real beating heart of the book, which brought to life the ancient practices of our craft carefully preserved by forest tribes who are themselves fading from the roar of encroaching civilisation.

Honey and Dust is an enchanting read that I highly recommend to beekeepers and to anyone who is interested bees and honey, but with a word of warning that once tasted you will become addicted to the sweet world of the bee.

A final word on Rome – you will love it.

Related links

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness
Piers Moore Ede
Published by Bloomsbury, London: 2006
ISBN 0-7475-7967-9