Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My First Foray into Mushrooms

Where I walk the dog every day at the moment there is a large alder tree, and one day I spotted that it had a beautiful fungus growing on it. It seemed to have come up over night - unlikely, although I can't believe I missed it because it is so bright! I did some research and found out that it is Chicken of the Woods, aka the Sulphur Polypore, or Laetiporus sulphureus.

Apparently this is an unmistakable mushroom,even for the completely unexperienced mushroom-forager, like me. All the signs were right - the fact it was growing on a deciduous tree, its colouring (including the waves of colour around the edges), the shape and size, its suede-like surface and meaty, fibrous texture, the fact that instead of gills, it has small pores, and the time of year.

Not for nothing is it called Chicken of the Woods. It is edible, apparently very pleasant (although it is better to eat the younger parts of the fungus, as the older parts can be crumbly and dry). When I peeled off a few younger lobes I was surprised by how much its inner texture resembled cooked chicken. Anyway, I brought a small amount home to try, as apparently, although edible, it doesn't agree with everyone, and it is better to try a small amount first.

Anyway, Mammabert sauteed it in olive oil, with garlic, and made sure that it was well cooked. She didn't really want to try it, but she did. She said it wasn't unpleasant but I don't think I will manage to persuade her to sample it again. I loved it however. It was mild-flavoured, perhaps with a slight citrussy tang, and its meaty texture reminded me of Quorn. I don't eat Quorn because a) if I don't want to eat meat, it seems odd to eat something that is produced to almost exactly resemble meat in appearance and texture, and b) it uses battery eggs, and c) I don't really like it. But I really liked this Chicken of the Woods. Like natural Quorn, but nicer, with a lovely woody smell when raw.

Anyway, that was my first ever wild mushroom experience, and I haven't died yet. I did a lot of research, both on the internet and in books, before I even touched the mushroom. I recommend getting a book on Mushrooms - I've been using the Collins Gem Mushrooms, and Collins Complete Guide to British Mushrooms and Toadstools. The first one is a pocket guide with clear guidelines as to what is edible and what isn't. The Collins Complete doesn't tell you anything about whether a mushroom is edible/poisonous, but has really good descriptions and photographs to help you identify. The River Cottage handbook on mushrooms is also good, although I find the fact that it is split into two sections - one each for edible and poisonous mushrooms - a bit daft, as if your average person sees a mushroom, they have no idea which category it fits into. The Collins guides are more accessible in that the fungi are grouped according to family and appearance.

Anyway, that was my first wild mushroom foraging experience! I found it really good fun, but please don't use this blog as the only identifier for Chicken of the Woods. Get a good book or two, research on the internet, and even ask someone you know who is an experienced mushroomer. I'm a novice, so don't take my word for it on its own.

Disclaimer done. Enjoy mushrooming!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pen y Fan Whimberries

Mamabert lives in Wales now and I am down for the summer. Today we went to Pen y Fan to admire the scenery and also to indulge in a seasonal treat - whimberries. Today was our first time ever picking whimberries and now I feel properly Welsh ;)

Whimberries (aka whortleberries, in England, also bilberries, blaeberries, wild blueberries...the list goes on) are small and blue and taste kind of like blackcurrants but without being so sour and bitter. They grow on a scrubby little bush up on the mountains among the grasses and the heather. The juice turns your fingers (and your tongue!) a lovely purple.

Here are our whimberriesin what was going to be a traditional whimberry and apple tart (in Wales a tart is always a tart, even when it's a pie, or so I am told), but that turned out to have all kinds of fruit in it...it was delicious and the whimberries were little balloons of sweetness.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

New Bee-Extracting Method

The last post was apicture of us taking a wild colony from a barn wall cavity. It would have been a much easier experience if we had had our new piece of equipment which we tried out earlier this week!

We'd heard about people using a hoover to literally suck up bees before, but had never tried it. So when Dad got a call about a swarm in the roof of someone's 200-year-old originally-tiled bay window, he hopped onto the internet and knocked up this contraption out of a brewing bucket!

We took it round to the swarm on Wednesday and it worked really well. We found that using the lowest suck worked perfectly - it sucked the bees up without hurting them. In the end we couldn't get the whole colony - inside the roof was a maze of nooks and crannies and even home to an old wasp nest - but it's nice to know that the bee hoover works and we have thought about how to make better use of it next time. But for a first attempt - it worked really well!

Old Bee Video

This is how we collected the original wall hive, who is now at Dave & Vicky's with its descendants.

Thursday 11 June 2009


Monday, June 27, 2011


June has been quite an unsettled month here in terms of weather - we've had scorching heat and very cold downpours! So it hasn't been the best month for the bees, especially as it is the June gap, but our hives are all doing well fortunately.

This post is a catch-up session about our latest antics and a celebration of the English countryside in summer :)

To start with I should mention a fantastic microscopy workshop that my beekeeper's association organised at the beginning of the month. It was a really excellent day and we were led through the processes of identifying acarine and nosema by our regional bee inspector and two experts from the National Bee Unit - long way to come! It was a fantastic day. I learned to dissect bees in order to check for acarine - a delicate operation that involved removing the head, front legs and 'collar' of a dead bea to reveal its trachea. I managed to get a couple of good dissections and although I'm not sure how often I will have to use this skill I learned such a lot about the anatomy of the honey bee and the beauty of its construction. We also mashed bees up to release their stomach juices, from which we could detect nosema. Using the compound microscopes for this let us see not only the nosema but also some beautiful pollens! I think I was able to tell the very subtle difference between nosema apis and nosema ceranae at one point, although of course it could have been my imagination. Either way, a fascinating exploration of the honey bee and I learned s much about good disease management also. I now have a taste for microscopy, and have ordered a couple of books on the subject...who knows, maybe one day I'll get my microscopy certificate?

Aside from the bees, the countryside has been absolutely stunning this year. Below are some pictures of a poppy field and a field of what I think is flax, both near our apiary site and both absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful, the photographs hardly doing them justice.

A quick flit to the garden centre revealed some beautiful (and edible!) fuschias.

And finally, I took the dog on one of my favourite walks and was absolutely struck by the beauty of nature that day. The poor dog felt somewhat neglected as I looked around me carefully, trying to look at the landscape from a Permaculture perspective. I could see that the hedgerows and edges of the woodland are naturally scalloped, a design feature that permaculturists often use on borders, and I was amazed that nature just does it naturally! Also the beauty of the chalk stream we visited was amazing. It was alive with tiny shrimp-like creatures and amazingly near to the water the forget-me-nots were still in flower, even when they have finished everywhere else! They made a very picturesque tangle with the watermint. The field around us was alive with insects and other life: a spider who had build her web in a curl in an iris leaf; dusty-brown butterflies and all different species of bees feeding off the drifts of clover; flies and hoverflies in unbelievable colours; slugs and snails in an array of shades from speckly green to dark, shiny black; mole hills; ladybirds - native ones! - feeding off clusters of aphids on the thistles; grasshoppers of every shape and size; an ant colony who had colonised an old mole hill; and every type of grass and ground-cover imagineable. The complexity of this eco-system was just stunning and what's more, it was so beautiful and tranquil.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bees again!

When we were harvesting our honey, eventually our little extractor broke and so we borrowed our association's big elecctric extractor, and got the rest of our honey. We now have 4 gallons waiting to be bottled! The frames went back to the bees - we weren't very prompt and apparently they were quite grumpy for a day or two! They're full again now though, and have new boxes to fill with brood and stores and are getting on quite happily.

We went to the other apiary today, the one where we haven't harvested any honey but where earlier in the month we did a huge split, had all those queen cells etc. We had 4 busy nucs where all the news queens have mated and are laying! The nucs have all now been moved into full sized hives (OSB's). They were big and strong enough and now have plenty to keep them occupied.

As for the other hives, we have 2, including the big swarm we caught, that are requeening themselves. One is completely lacking in anything looking remotely like a queen, but still has a large population, so we will unite them with another colony. The rest are all doing splendidly, and one of them was so full that we had to give them an extra box today.

There's some lovely forage for them in their new apiary. Lots of clovers and wildflowers, and a huge field of beans and one with what looks like it might be phacelia just coming into flower.

Altogether a successful beekeeping session, lovely to know that our homemade queens are up and running! Definitely the most successful requeening - natural or otherwise - that we have ever managed!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Honey Harvest

There is nothing better than enjoying honey made by your own bees!

We started our honey harvest yesterday! Dad has already harvested 9 frames from another hive, but yesterday we went up to harvest from the Four Winds bees, which are the ones that you can see living in a barn wall on the video blog (changing this soon, for the moment you can see it here).

One hive was queenless, so we gave it a frame of new eggs from the other so that they can make an emergency queen. Apparently there are lots of hives going queenless at the moment, possibly due to the very cold winter we've just had. However, we were still able to harvest a whole box from that hive, and two boxes from the other! (We don't use a super and broodbox system; we use One Size Boxes, hence why I say 'box'). Both hives have huge populations and are quite lively without being aggressive - very very lovely bees, and very hard working. The photos below show Dad and the bees' very devoted landlords/uncle+aunt Dave and Vicky having a look.

So, we have harvested 36 frames full of honey, and each box of 12 frames has so far given us a gallon of honey! We still have one box left to extract, and then when we press the honey out of the cappings using our cider press we may get a little more! But at the moment we have 2 gallons already, from one hive alone!

^ Uncapping

This is quite an early harvest, because the bees have been collecting from Oil Seed Rape, which is a spring crop and the honey of which crystalises very quickly - therefore, we have harvested early to make sure that we can actually get it out of the comb. It's a pale, light honey, not the floweriest flavour but pleasant enough and lovely and sweet.

So at the moment we are just spinning out the honey in our old extractor that is gradually falling to bits. Hopefully though we will sell enough honey this year to be able to buy a brand new electric extractor! That's the plan. And for the moment the old one is doing the job!