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”.

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Spring clean washout

Plans for an outdoor spring clean were a washout today. It started to rain as I left the house to meet Emily at the apiary, and it fell heavier still as we lifted the roofs off our hives to check the fondant underneath.

Patience’s bees had eaten almost all of their pollen cake and were enthusiastically polishing off the crumbs. The colony had also eaten into the second block of fondant, although it looked like they wouldn’t need the third block after all. I removed this and covered the hole that was left behind with some tin foil. (If you remember in November last year, I used John Chapple’s trick of layering blocks of fondant one on top of the other with a hole between each block for the bees to crawl through.)

Why did our bees need so much fondant? We didn’t take off honey from the hives last year, because the bees had barely made enough to eat themselves during a challenging season. But in November it appeared that they had eaten through most of their stores. The fondant was left on top as a failsafe when I closed up the hives in November knowing that there was a chance I might not visit the apiary again till March.

Hope’s colony was still happily overwintering in the polynuc with a full complement of bees covering every frame. But the nuc felt light and low on stores, and workers were frantically flying in and out even though it was raining.

Emily and I stood and chatted in the rain as we rolled up fondant balls to give to Hope’s colony. We tried our hardest not to disturb, or squash, the bees as we put the sugar between the top bars and in the feeder compartment. However, a small party of workers flew out expressing their displeasure with a loud, high-pitched buzz. They soon settled down once they discovered the indoor picnic we had given them.

I love watching bee tongues slurping. They are so complicated yet so simple – basically the proboscis is made of two tubes that suck up nectar, honey, water or sugar (and occasionally sweet tea at our apiary) with a pumping action. (Please excuse the blurry close-up – it was taken with my mobile as it was too wet to bring out my DSLR.)

The weather forecast for Monday and Tuesday is sunshine and clouds. I saw some wet wildflowers growing along the roadside on my way home. Hopefully, they will dry out overnight for the bees to collect nectar this week. The rain had also ruined plans to clean out the pond, although the fish didn’t seem to mind.

Lucky

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It has been trying hard to snow. The grey sky sends down light showers of snowflakes that dissolve as they reach the ground. Nothing settles.

My husband and I had a loss over Christmas and New Year. In some ways it has made me grateful for January, which is often a good time of the year to stay indoors and away from the rest of the world. But the cold is often bitterest when spring is around the corner and then I will have to go outside again. The bees will be starting up, the pond will need cleaning, and the birds have already begun to nest.

I was pottering in the kitchen the other day when for some reason I remembered that something had been missing. A butterfly nursery had sat on the kitchen work surface late last summer. I never had the opportunity to raise butterflies when I was younger and had thought why not now?

The caterpillars had arrived in a small cardboard box through the post in August. There were five caterpillars in a plastic cup with a layer of food at the bottom. The instructions were quite simple: keep the caterpillars at a temperature of 21–23°C and wrap the cup in a blanket at night to stay warm. All being well, the caterpillars should become chrysalides within 7–14 days. A two-week wait.

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I kept my cup of caterpillars in a warm spot near a sunny window during the day. At night the cup was wrapped in a woolly scarf and placed in a small basket. Everything worked as it should. The caterpillars ate their food, got fatter and dutifully climbed to the top of the cup. They hung from the lid in a J-shape, shed their exoskeletons and hardened into chrysalides.

After three days the chrysalides were no longer moving. It was time to move them to the hatching habitat – a larger netted enclosure where the butterflies would spend their first few days. While I was moving them into their new home, I took a photo of the delicate golden-tipped chrysalides. This one wins the prize for caterpillar beauty pageant.

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The transformation didn’t take very long and one morning I found that my painted lady butterflies had emerged overnight. I fed them sugar water and fruit and allowed them to settle for a day before releasing them into the garden.

It was a hot sunny day when the butterflies flew away. That was just over six months ago and we had had a loss around that time too. All the butterflies were eager to stretch their wings and explore the buddleia I had planted in the garden. All but one butterfly remained. This butterfly’s wing had been broken when it had emerged from its chrysalis and it would never fly.

The instructions said that if a butterfly was damaged it was best to put it in a spot in the garden and let nature do the rest. I felt sorry for the butterfly – it wasn’t its fault that it couldn’t fly and surely it deserved a bit more life. So I put it back inside the habitat and returned it to the kitchen work surface.

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Lucky – I didn’t know whether the butterfly was a male or female, let’s say it was a male – lived for about five weeks in the habitat. I bought some pot plants for him to climb on and hide within the foliage, and fed sugar water and fruit each day. His favourite treat was a fresh cluster of orange-ball buddleia from which he would meticulously suck up the nectar of every single flower. On occasion he was content to sit on my hand and lick up the sugar syrup.

On a warm day I put the habitat outside by the myrtle tree and lavender bush. Lucky would come out from within the foliage almost immediately and climb to the top of a plant. He then sat there quietly and watched the world go by.

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All this effort for a little butterfly might seem quite strange to some people, but it was nice to have something to nurture. I felt quite sorry when one day Lucky sat at the bottom of his habitat and didn’t move again. In some ways he didn’t have a very lucky start in life, but I hope he was luckier than most broken-winged butterflies.

In a couple of months the garden will start to blossom. I wonder if last year’s butterflies laid any eggs beneath the ivy leaves and whether we will see more painted ladies flying about.

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How we kept the bees warm

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On a bright cold day in November even a bee wouldn’t say no to a hot water bottle and a warm blanket. Patience’s hive showed their appreciation by sending out a small welcome party as I wrapped them up in a polystyrene ‘blanket’ with a hot water bottle resting on the crownboard under the roof.

Honeybees do a good job of keeping themselves warm in winter – if conditions are right within the colony and outside the hive – by drawing on honey stores for fuel and vibrating their wing muscles to maintain an inner nest temperature of around 33–35°C. Sometimes conditions aren’t right, and a colony that has eaten all its reserves, is unable to forage for more, and can’t keep warm inside an empty hive may succumb to the cold.

So how did Patience’s colony arrive at needing a hot water bottle and a blanket? (By the way, you won’t find this way of keeping the bees warm in any beekeeping book.) At the end of August I had left the bees in the good hands of Thomas Bickerdike, of Beekeeping afloat, and John Chapple while I went off to get married. Tom went above and beyond bee-sitting duties by moving our weakest colony to a polynuc, and fitting insulated brood frames at either ends of the nest in the larger colony before closing up the hives for winter. Tom reported both colonies to be queen-right and, with Patience ruling one hive, Emily and I named the queen of the polynuc ‘Hope’, because she was their last hope to survive till spring; as you may have read in my earlier posts.

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On my way to meet Emily for coffee last month, I stopped off at the apiary to fit the mouseguards and noticed that Patience’s hive was unusually quiet. Hope’s bees were flying to and from the polynuc with pollen and the entrances of the other hives at the apiary were busy too. This stillness outside Patience’s hive wasn’t typical of this particular colony, which is lively even in winter.

There are no ‘rules’ in beekeeping only guidance to help you decide what’s right to do for each colony on any given day. I decided to open up and look inside the hive. The super was half empty and a handful of bees looked like they were slowly freezing on the comb. I took out some super frames to look down into the brood nest where the bees were hardly moving at all. I quickly closed up. Inside the polynuc, Hope’s bees were happily climbing over the frames – I’ve never been a fan of polystyrene hives but it was clearly doing a good job of keeping this small colony warm. (You might notice a lot of bricks on top of the polynuc – these were to make sure it didn’t fly away when gale-force winds were predicted last month; although I really need to order some proper hive straps!)

When I joined Emily in Ealing, I reported my findings and we met up the following Sunday to open up the hive and move the bees into one box. Before the weekend, I went back to the apiary with radiator foil to wrap around the hive and a hot water bottle to put under the roof while I worked. It sounds strange, but it was the only thing I could think of to get some warmth back into the hive. Before I closed up, I saw a few bees starting to move around again on the top bars through the hole in the crownboard.

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On Sunday, Emily and I suited up, lit a smoker, and opened up the hive. It was bright and sunny but cold, so we needed to work fast. The colony was making use of frames in both the super and the brood, and we couldn’t get them into one box without shaking and more manipulation than we were willing to do on a winter’s day. Instead, we insulated the empty super frames with radiator foil and placed them at either ends of the super as were the insulated frames in the brood box beneath; as Emily mentions on her blog. A few bees started to fly in and out, and we were happy to see them looking livelier. (I’m not in the habit of trying to make bees more active in winter, but nor is the deathly stillness seen inside the hive the week before quite right.)

Not satisfied leaving the bees with insulated frames inside the hive, I returned again during the week with beehive insulation bought from the BBKA shop. I again left a hot water bottle under the roof as I placed the insulation around the hive. The bees were now occasionally flying in and out at a rate that I’ve come to expect of this colony, at this time of year, and they had already eaten a small hole in the fondant. Not surprising given they had nearly eaten all their reserves in the super, but I could see them moving around normally again, for winter bees. They were alive at least!

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I cut a hole at the top of the fondant to place another block on top – a trick that John Chapple taught us – which I find is a less messy way of swapping an empty fondant packet for a new block of fondant later on in winter.

With plenty of food above the crownboard, insulated frames inside both boxes, three hot water bottles, and a snug blanket around the hive, there’s still no guarantee the colony will survive till spring, but at least Emily and I know we’ve done all that we can. These must be the most pampered bees in London, but with only two colonies Emily and I can afford to spoil them – and we think they’re worth spoiling!

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A beekeeper gets married

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Telling the bees

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

In the garden

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I swapped blogging for gardening this year. The summer took a long time to arrive and I kept busy keeping my bees alive and nursing tubs of tadpoles as prolific as algal bloom. But as the rain streamed down the windows I realised there’s nothing worse than a beekeeper stuck indoors than a would-be gardener.

The weather finally broke with heatwave after heatwave pouring into the garden and both the ivy and bamboo threatening to grow across the lawn. At the apiary the bees briefly promised a good season until an unlucky setback with several missing or failed queens. With more waiting to be done around the hives, I got stuck into the garden.

It can take several years to get a garden how you like it, but my dad, John and I made a good start this summer. We got rid of the bamboo roots and all and cleared the jungle of creepers at the back to create a new plot. It’s still a work in progress.

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My dad helped to make a new bee house, which you can see in the background, but the mason bees chose to nest in the garden sheds this year. This meant we couldn’t get new sheds and instead tidied up the old ones. A place for a beekeeper to hang her smoker.

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The walled flower bed got some new friends. A pot of geraniums from John’s aunt, a clump of chamomile, and a neglected lavender from my dad’s front garden. The best spot was reserved for my myrtle tree, which finally found a home in our garden this year.

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After the frogs had hopped off into the sunset, there was an explosion of blanket weed in the goldfish pond. I got tired of pulling it out in clumps, then I read that snails might be helpful. I bought four pond snails in spite of warnings that they were unlikely to control the problem alone and that the goldfish might attack them. A few weeks later the pond was almost clear of blanket weed, the snails were enjoying a well-earned break on the floating water lilies, and the goldfish weren’t bothered at all.

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In July the garden came alive with all sorts of exciting visitors. A dragonfly on the prowl.

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An amazing array of flies like this sparkly specimen.

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And a magnificent sun fly, I think?

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The flying ants made an impressive display on the decking, gathering to swarm behind my back while I was none the wiser pruning the ivy. I turned around just as the queens took off and watched them fly away. It was rather a privilege.

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Something I really wanted to make a start on this year was planting a bee-friendly garden. The left side of the garden had several bee-pleasers like jasmine, sedum and cotoneaster.

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But the right side of the garden was surprisingly lacking. I spent a day pulling weeds and sieving the earth, before the fun could begin choosing a bed of new herbs like verbena, salvia, echinacea, and this pretty scabiosa.

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It was the garden birds that really stole the show this year and I discovered a new passion for birdwatching. A family of sparrows provided endless entertainment from the kitchen window.

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Of course, the sparrows were seen off by the robin when he wanted his mealworms.

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When the small birds were finished feeding, the larger birds swooped in. A standoff between a pigeon and a collared dove.

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And a more sinister-looking guest, the jackdaw.

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But the most fun was at bath time.

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And that’s where I’ll leave the garden, for now.

The past month I’ve been unable to go to the apiary. Thomas Bickerdike and John Chapple have kindly taken care of mine and Emily’s bees, and I’m very grateful to them. Emily had a reunion with the bees last Saturday too, which must have cheered them up greatly!

Meanwhile autumn is setting in and so are the final preparations for mine and John’s wedding. This won’t leave much time for blogging, [EDIT] so my stories about the bees, and some butterflies, must wait till after I get hitched. Till then.