Friday, May 30, 2008

Bumble Bee Action Shots

Here are some pics that I took of one of the pretty orange bumblebees we get in Brittany getting to work on the sage bush.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

New Manoevres...


Have just got back from going beekeeping, where we did all sorts of manoevres that we've never done before!

To start with my dad went and picked up a virgin queen from a beekeeping chum, who had pulled the queen out of her cell a little while ago. He brought it back in a cage with two workers, but didn't want to keep the workers with the queen in case their presence encouraged attack from our colony. So we did something completely new to us: we moved the queen into another (worker-free) cage. To do this we set up somthing like those containers that scientists handles radioactive materials or whatever with - a box with places where you can sticks your arms, so you can work with fiddly tweezers etc. without exposing yourself to ionising particles (except that ours was a bit less hi-tech and involved a plastic bag, some rubber gloves, and fiddling about with bees instead of radioactive isotopes).

With our queen in her very own little cage we set up the mechanism that would allow us to dangle her between two frames inside the hive. Again, it was an incredibly hi-tech solution, involving a paperclip and a match stick.

We then drove off to the apiary, all of a flutter and terribly excited. We opened up the hive and slid her down between two frames, where she was held up with the matchstick. We then mucked about with supers for a bit and then we came home.
It's very interesting though. I reckon that there were more bees than there were when we went to check last week, and they were definitely their usual grumpy selves again, rather than the calm, docile, exempliary specimens they had become when they were queenless. Also, they had almost filled up their first super, when last week they were only working on two of the frames!
This raises two questions:

1. Do they have a new queen?

2. If they do have a new queen, which queen will they choose to sting to death?

3. What sort of honey is it that they are collecting, now that the oil seed rape has finished?

(OK, so that was three questions). Hmmm, interesting........

Garden Disasters

I have just enjoyed 5 days on holiday in France with the family. It was lovely. We went on a few walks, ate lots of French bread and watched the entire first series of All Creatures Great And Small.

A beautiful Breton beach

When we first arrived, however, we were treated to an unpleasant shock. Everything was overgrown and messy; a tree had fallen over at the bottom of the garden, narrowly avoiding my young oak tree; and the veg patch was a disgrace.

Hardly any sweetcorn or sunflowers had survived; and the potatoes, onions, shallots and garlic were overrun with weeds. In fact, the weeds were taller than the onions and shallots, meaning that lots of them had died, either by rotting in the ground or from being too shady. The ones that were alive were either yellow or pathetically small. We did so much weeding in fact that by the end of the holiday, the compost bin wouldn't even close.

There were slugs and snails EVERYWHERE. Literally every leaf we turned up on the rhubarb was playing host to at least five of the devils, and they'd clearly been on the tatties and sunflowers too. Everything was munched to bits.
We started a clear up operation on our first day (squishing slugs in a heavy downpour with a non-waterproof waterproof coat on is not much fun), and finished it on our last. I didn't take a before picture, as it was just too upsetting a sight, but here is an after. We planted all the spare brassicas etc. as well.

I am not a huge organic fanatic (pay more for something that is cheaper to produce than the stuff they spray with NPK? You're having a laugh, surely!!) but I do prefer to not spray with foul eutrophication-inducing pesticides unless absolutely necessary. I have had great success with an organic slug solution called Slug Off, but the situation was so bad that I am afraid that I had to employ the use of little blue Antilimasse pellets. The pictures show what they do to slugs...they sort of melt them...eurgh. Before and after: Antilimasse melts a slug...

Most of the brassicas and all the chillis and runner beans have been planted behind our rabbit-proof rusty wire & willow withy contraption, but I am afraid that the others will just have to hold on for as long as possible.

In the end though, we got the garden looking alright again, and the fallen willow was chopped up and placed on our building bonfire.

However, we arrived back and this morning I discovered -


I have done some research and I now know that:

1. Aphids can cause leaves to shrivel, black powdery mould, white dusty stuff around the base of the plant (old insect skins or something...not v pleasant) etc etc...all the symptoms fit.

2. They must be caught early (yeech...I hope I am not too late!)

3. They can hollow out the stems of plants, and attack new growth. Therefore, they can actually kill the infested plants (oh! what a horrid thought!)

4. Some sorts overwinter on woody plants and then move over onto non-woody plants during the summer...(I suppose I shouldn't have planted them in the bed under the woody viburnum)

5. They can be treated in a variety of ways, including rotenone (aka Derris Dust), various insecticides, biological controls such as ladybirds, and by planting garlic and onions near susceptible plants.

So far I have sprinkled Derris Dust on some of the plants and sprayed the rest with an insecticide (my organic ideals go down the pan when faced with disaster, it seems). Tomorrow I may see if I can buy ladybirds in the local garden centre or I might try spraying with a foul garlicky concoction...or I may interplant with chives, as my Grandad's book on companion planting (the source of all knowledge and wisdom) remarks that chives are never attacked by anuthing, and actually moans on about how nobody seems to notice this.
I am so worried though. My little celeries! My little plants! I have nurtured them and tended them, and they are like my babies!!! If anything bad happens to them I don't know what I'll do! Collapse and weep in a corner for the next few months probably. I just hope I succeeded in getting into all the nooks and crannies where the aphids hide...

Oh well. I must not give up hope. And at least I know for next year to interplant with onions and garlic and to keep them away from woody shrubs, and everything else seems to be going OK (except for the broad beans, beetroot and garlic, which were flattened in a deluge last night): the peas are reaching for the sky and my tomatillo is taller than my mother!

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Witch Chickens Of Hampshire

Bad news: Hilda has joined Cleo gone broody again. Which means that two out of three of our hens will be producing no eggs until they come to their senses and snap out of it.

It is very annoying when they get broody. Obviously it is a natural part of being a chicken, but as we have no room for hundreds of little chicks and too many fussy neighbours for a cockerel it is rather pointless.

We actually gave Hilda some fertilised eggs to sit on once, donated by a chicken-keeping friend, but given the chance of actually fulfilling the purpose of going broody, she was an awful mother. She kept leaving them to get cold. Thus no little chicks grew inside; they just went off.

Broodies are also horribly grumpy animals. They go round attacking anything that moves (ducks, rabbits, humans, for example) if you disturb them, and if you lift them out of the nest box they make a very affronted "brrrrriiiiiiii!" noise. We have tried all sorts of methods: just leaving them to it, lifting them out of the nest box every time they go in, locking them out altogether (although this means that poor old sensible Nod can't go in and lay)...but nothing works. We're going to have to make a broody coop and do the thing properly.

Sometimes when both Cleo and Hilda are broody and Noddy needs to lay an egg, we find them all crammed into the two nestboxes. Here is a pic.

Noddy never goes broody. I feel quite sorry for her as today she keeps hanging round the ducks as if she's saying, "can I play with you today?" Poor chook.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The one that got away...

Damn it!!

Just a few minutes ago a swarm of bees flew over the house. It was a large swarm. It was like a big black cloud, moving at a tremendous speed and buzzing like mad. We looked in the garden, alerted the neighbours, ran up the road (twice) and approached various strangers with what must have seemed a very odd question, "have you by any chance seen a swarm of bees just go by?"

If we had caught them, they could have become our fourth colony, or been united with the third one to make it stronger. There was always the chance that they had a disease, but that's a risk you take when a swarm comes along.

I got myself all excited and now I feel...mopey, deflated, and bereaved.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Beekeeping and the Smallholder and Garden Show 2008

Yesterday we went to check on the bees. We'd left it long enough that the two hives without queens should have hatched out a couple of emergency queens, the queens should have gone on their mating flight, and they should have been starting to lay new bees. However, neither of them had queens. The queen larva in the new hive had died inside the cell (see pic) and the other one...well, there was no brood at all. We gave each hive another frame full of brood and eggs from our one productive hive, and so they have another chance now (this is also good becuase the productive one is the only hive of nice docile bees - if it works we will have three hives of nice docile bees!). If they still don't manage to create new queens, the ones we ordered from a local queen breeder will have arrived by then anyway. So all is not lost.

The good-tempered and productive hive has already filled one super (so heavy that I can't lift it on my own!!) and is onto its second. If the weather perks up again and stays good (touch wood), it may be a 3-super would certainly make up for the problems we have been having with the other two hives!

Smallholder & Garden Festival, Royal Welsh Showground, Builth Wells, Saturday 17 May 2008

On Friday night we drove up to Wales and stayed in the shoebox, and then on Saturday we went to the Smallholder & Garden Festival at the Royal Welsh Showground.

It was such good fun. The place was absolutely heaving, and there were all small producers there selling their produce, and smallholders had brought their animals along to show, and their were demonstrations of sheep shearing, spinning, weaving, blacksmithing, etc. A really interesting day. Below are some pics.

The angora goats were the first thing we visited. Poppy loves goats and wants to get some (not in my garden!) and has even been on a goat keeping course at the local farm, where she learned to worm them, vaccinate them, trim their hooves, etc. But hadn't managed to convince me until Saturday.
The angoras seemed very good natured, and although they had obviously been pampered for the show, I was surprised to find that they were not as smelly as I have always believed goats to be. The memories of the foul-smelling neglected billy goat that used to live down by the canal evaporated. Apparently you shear angoras twice a year, which was a very persuasive factor. Just think how much mohair I would have to knit with! So angoras are in, when we finally get somewhere big enough to keep them.

Next we looked at some llamas and alpacas. I have a very soft spot for alpacas. They make my heart melt into a gooey mess. They are beautiful. And their fibre is exquisite. I finally managed to convince the more sceptical of my family ("so what do you do with them? are they for meat or do you just knit them?") that alpacas are graceful, beautiful, friendly, and that their beautiful fibre is worth the effort of keeping them. I have not told them the price of your average alpaca however. Better drop that bombshell when our plans are underway.

I am not so keen on the llamas though. Whereas alpacas are small and if you needed to you could easily overpower and restrain them, llamas are tall and their ears are frighteningly large (I don't know why their ears frighten me, but they look somehow unnatural). Also the farm used to have two, but they had to get rid of them when they nearly killed someone. So llamas are a no. But alpacas are a yes! Next was more goats. Yes more of them. The kids are very sweet but I am not won over by the Anglo-Nubians that Poppy is so fond of. Again it is the ears. They are just too big to be allowed. However, the Father Being tried some goats cheese and liked it, and liked the Boer goats. I may not manage to get away with only woolly goats. I may have to tolerate dairy and meat goats too. Oh well. The pigs were spectacular!!! They were all just lolling around in their pens fast asleep. Then when judging started we hopped over to the ring and watched two boars running at them and their owners frantically running after them, whacking them with walking sticks and blocking their way with white boards that said Natwest on them. I have never been to this sort of agricultural show. It was most interesting, and at times quite amusing too.

There was also a competition for sows. They were much calmer but seemed to need to relieve themselves more often. They were beautiful pigs of all breeds, including a mangalitza. I wonder if you can knit mangalitza hair?

Above: two Gloucester Old Spots. Below: the Mangalitza
We visited the poultry section too. There was everything from pigeons to bantams to owls there. There were loads of ducklings who, if head did not overrule heart on such occasions, I would have loved to have taken home. All of them. The lot. But common sense prevailed.
The poultry section was the only bit that disappointed me really. Although lots of the birds seemed healthy, there were also lots who looked very ill and uncared for. There were two silver laced partridge wyandotte hens for sale who had the worst case of scaly leg I've ever seen - and scaly leg is very damaging if you let it take hold, as your hens can lose toes. I am no great animal rights activist but I was totally shocked by the state of some of the birds. Chickens, ducks etc are not hard to keep. There is no excuse for letting animals suffer like that. I hope they found good homes

We also walked around shedloads of sheep, who were all so beautiful! My mother fell for some badger faced Welsh Mountain (no pic I'm afraid) although I was upset to see none of my favourite Gotland sheep there. I suppose they are not a native breed though, and so quite rightfully Llandwenogs, Welsh Mountains etc. had pride of place. We watched a shearing demonstration and it was very interesting - almost like a ballet.

After a bit more walking around, a quick visit to the remnants of the green building exhibition we went to a few months ago, a lamb burger and a Crickhowellian apple juice, we went home. The next day consisted of a visit to the art gallery in the Crickhowell info centre (I LOVE it there!) and a walk along the Usk. It is so beautiful, is Wales. The English don't know what they're missing.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

All those eggs...

Today it is wet and miserable. And it has been so wonderful, sunny and warm recently! No wonder us Brits are always moaning about our climate; even in summer you are never sure what you are going to get.

I don't suppose the bees will be out today very much. If at all.

Oh well. There is always a bright side i.e. with all the rain we don't have to water everything so much today.

We currently have 21 eggs, both chicken and duck, waiting to be used in our kitchen (the picture shows a mere fraction of their numbers). What with two ducks who lay like clockwork and one broody, two sporadically laying unreliable hens, you'd think we would be prepared for a glut. But we are not. So this afternoon we shall be baking numerous cakes, and making ice cream and lemon curd (lemon curd!!) and after all that will still be having omelette for supper. But it is always nice to enjoy the fruits of one's labours (not that we do much more than muck them out every once in a while, cover their legs with Vaseline when they get scaly leg and throw food at themthe rest of the time).

Today, despite the dreary weather, we have been planting. We have planted some of the vast number of nicotiana we have grown this year, as well as the rest of the tomatoes and some brassicas: mostly cabbage and broccoli, with some sprouts still left to grow on a bit before they go in. I planted so many seeds this year, thinking that not all of them would germinate, that we may not have to buy any greens for the coming year. In fact, by this time next year we will probably be sick of them.

Here is some of the stuff still waiting to go in. We had better pull our fingers out quick!

Everything that we have actually got planted in though is doing really well! Here are some pictures.

Our greenhouse, donated by some neighbours this year (the entire frame was just lifted over our garden wall. It is now occupied by a morose tortoise and a grumpy toad) is pretty much full to the brim. We planted tomatoes Moneymaker and Marmande in there, as well as a tomatillo plant (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall uses them in chutney, so we thought we'd try it...not that our cupboards aren't already full of the stuff), cucumbers and lots of aubergines. The pathetic excuses for chilli peppers and the basil are yet to go in.

The salad bed, consisting of some cut and come again spicy oriental leaves, our second and third crops of radishes, two rows of gem lettuces, lots of weeds, and more stuff waiting to be planted out. The lettuces are my pride and joy at the moment, as we are having salad every evening for the first time ever. I planted them really thickly and now as I thin them out I just snap the roots off and use the baby leaves in salads. They're really juicy, crisp and tender, and a real treat.

My peas have rocketed. I have put pea sticks and string in but it is not enough. I cannot keep up with them. There are two varieties in there: Calibra and Oregon Sugar Pod.

Broad Beans The Sutton. These were very slow to germinate and are still looking a bit weedy, although they probably don't like the shadier patch I organised for them on the crop rotation this year. They are interplanted with marigolds which, according to my Granddad's book on companion planting (the fountain of all wisdom) will keep the black fly off.

This bed is savoy cabbages and celery, with more stuff waiting to go in.

This bed is onion, garlic and shallots that were left over from our garden in France, along with some spectacular French beetroot. Our neighbour in France, Mme Georgette (also the fountain of all wisdom) grows beetroots like nothing you've ever seen. They are the size of small planets and full of flavour. Eat too many and your pee goes reddish orange. So that's what we're aiming for.

This bed is now planted up with brassicas, but beforehand it was our storage bed.

And here are some pictures of our animals.

Badly behaved chickens in the rabbit run.

So that is all that has happened since the last post. At the weekend we are running away to Wales to go to the smallholders' show at Builth Wells. Should be interesting.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Beekeeping update

The picture shows a strange contraption that Dad and I built last year. It is a Langstroth nucleus topped by a piece of wood with a hole in the middle to try and encourage the bees to move into the National 14"x12" brood box we wanted them in. Because it was so top heavy we had to support it with legs. They eventually moved up and once all the brood in the nuc had hatched out, we took the nuc away and the hive started looking a bit more normal.

This hive has always been really strong but at the moment it is without a queen. There are two capped queen cells in there at the moment however, and we will be checking in about a week and a half to see if one of them hatched out and we have a new queen. Hopefully by that time she will have been mated and will be laying. She should also kill the other queen, although if she is a rubbish layer we may give the other queen a helping hand in usurping her.

Both queens are the offspring of the inch-long horror that we had before, but who mysteriously disappeared. She was quite old so could have died, or she may have swarmed very early, which would explain why the hive is still strong; there would have been fewer older bees to go with her as the season had only just started. It is always possible of course that being relatively new to beekeeping we accidentally squashed her. This isn't a problem though becuase she was so horrible that squashing her would have been quite satisfying, accidentally or no. A calm, happy new Hawaiian cross queen will be arriving at the beginning of June.

There was a third capped queen cell in that hive, but we took that out with a couple of other frames of brood and stores and lots of young bees and put them in a new hive. They are still alive but of course are quite a weak colony. We are planning on getting ourselves a swarm and then if the swarm is healthy we may unite the two colonies.

Our first hive is a hive of activity (excuse the bad joke) and is already onto its 2nd super. The weather has been fantastic round here recently so plenty of nectar is being collected! We're really hoping for a good honey crop this year...fingers crossed.

We have also recently built two nucleus hives that we will probably create towards the end of the season. We recently heard about a method of using a nuc to create a huge wax crop. Apparently you feed the bees on sugar, which allows them to make more wax at a faster rate, and when the comb has been drawn you take the frames away and put new ones in. Later in the season you allow them to collect their stores etc. This sounds interesting so maybe we will try it next year.

We are also thinking of building a top bar hive, which is a type of hive that is more like what the bees' natural habitat would be ie hollow logs, etc. This is supposed to take a little bit of stress of their shoulders, which is beneficial, as living with varroa and all the nasty nosemas and small hive beetles that are coming our way mjst be pretty hard work! It also means spending less money on foundation, as the bees do all the work, and apparently you can command a high price for top bar cut comb (see pic) - Dad read somewhere that by leaving the comb in its natural shape with the top bar still attached, people can sell them for £25 a pop. Hmm..........

We visited the apiary (see pic below) at the weekend to show an interested friend what beekeeping involved and the bees were behaving really oddly. It was a boiling hot day and perhaps a bit sticky, but not really thundery, but they were still so ANGRY. There were actually bees patrolling at the entrance to the apiary. As soon as we got out of the car they were buzzing around us. I didn't think anything of it, as I thought they must have been foraging along the hedgerows, but as soon as my sister walked into the field she was attacked. She is scared of bees if she hasn't got a smock on so she went and sat in the car. Meanwhile the rest of us walked up the 100m or so to our hives. Dad and our friend were safe in their smocks but while I was standing a little way away I was attacked. I had to leap over the stream into the woodland on the opposite bank and run around trying to disorientate them. When that didn't work I kept still and held my breath becuase bees don't like CO2. They went away for a bit but for the rest of the afternoon I spent my time leaping from bank to bank. Eventually I got stung and ran back to the car (running becuase I didn't want to get caught trespassing, yeech). When I got to the car Poppy wouldn't let me in becuase she thought I would let the bees that were keeping her under seige in too. Eventually she let me slide in although I wished I hadn't. It was baking and she wouldn't let me open the window. That was the first time that anyone's bees at the apiary had behaved like that...I wonder what caused it.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Welcome to A Little Island, my blog which details my family's numerous exploits into living a more sustainable and self-sufficient, more in-touch-with-nature lifestyle. We aren't farmers, we aren't efficient and practical and all-knowing, we don't have a huge back garden. We just like doing what we can, making small changes that cumulatively would make a huge difference, and having fun!

Perhaps I should start with some introductions. My name is Flo. I live with my parents and younger sister in the south of England, where we keep chickens, ducks and bees, grow some of our own vegetables, and generally have lots of fun. We are a private family, and notoriously grumpy and not very sociable. Sometimes I wish we were a little island, away from grey guardians, beaurocrats, conservatives and boring city people whose only ideals are having the ugliest and most polluting car they can't afford. However, we all get along fine and enjoy frightening all our neat, respectable neighbours with casual threats of keeping pigs in our front garden. It is a very Conservative area around here, and playfully ruffling feathers comes naturally when you are the only hippies in a sea of materialistic toffs.

We aren't all that bad though. And our friends are very accepting, supportive and helpful, which makes life easier. They never complain.

We have a large house in a small country village (although it becomes more built up and full of city people every day) with two medium sized gardens, front and back. The back garden is my paradise, our very own little island where we can lead the lifestyle we want away from the rest of the world. Most of the time you can hardly hear the motorway.

We have three Partridge Wyandotte hens (yes, we named them: Noddy, Cleopatra and Hilda) who are getting on a bit now but still provide hours of entertainment. They aren't particularly reliable layers, especially as Cleopatra and Hilda are always going broody, and they're a bit old now to be very nice eating (also we are too attached to them to eat them) but they are loyal company and very funny to watch.

We also have two Cherry Valley ducks, purchased from the Warawee Duck Farm (home of Stumpy) for my sister's birthday, called Bindhi and Buttons (named after browsing a book on vegetables). They are pets, and we raised them from day olds. They really did become members of the family, as we had to keep them company, make sure they were warm, feed them, give them baths to splash was like living with too fast growing babies! One of the benefits of pampering them like this is that now they are adults they are very tame; they won't fall asleep on our shoulders like they used to, but they always come and nibble our fingers etc. The chickens bully them a little bit but recently they have been becoming braver. Once Bindhi even jumped on top of a chicken. So it is no longer war in our garden.

We also keep two pet rabbits, Ebony and Willow. Despite having been chopped, Willow is still a hormonal pain in the neck, and is my mother's nemesis, as she digs up everything within site. I still have not forgiven her from trampling all over my peas, grrr (although luckily she hadn't realised at that point that they were good to eat - a narrow escape!).

Our garden is also full of wildlife. We have a sparrow family that nests in our house and inhabits our hawthorn hedge, as well as jackdaws and wood pigeons who are always trying to steal some chicken feed....the ducks always chase them away though!

My Dad went on a beekeeping course last year and since May Day 2007 we have been a beekeeping family. Last year was an appalling year for bees but we still got our first, though very small, honey crop. This year is looking much better though (touch wood) as one of our 3 hives has already filled a super, and is now onto its second. Our angry hive (and I mean ANGRY) are in the process of requeening themselves. Her majesty, who was an inch long and a right nasty piece of work) appears to have died, so now we are waiting for one of her charming angry offspring to fill her place. But fear not, a lovely new Hawaiian cross queen will be arruiving to replace her in June. Our third hive is only recently created and is still finding its feet at the moment.

We are lucky to have a small house in Brittany, bought with my Grandad's inheritance, which has a much bigger garden than we have here. We visit it often and grow our potatoes, onions etc there, where there is more room. It isn't enough stuff to feed us for a year or anything (we get through a LOT of potatoes!) but it is all about making small differences and having fun with us. We have also planted a fruit orchard, which we enjoy in the summer and autumn. My favourite thing we grow there are the quinces, although for the last two years they haven't produced anything...

And here at home we have seven raised beds and a greenhouse (inhabited by a tortoise and a toad), where we grow the rest of our stuff. We are constantly on the look out for stray chickens, etc. but mostly the garden is a peaceful place. This is the second year we have had the raised beds and already our success rate has quadrupled. Our front garden is ornamental but still productive, with espalier apple trees, runner beans, tomatoes, herbs, etc. We have a pond which is currently full of wriggling tadpoles and hungry fish.

Our other thing is trying to be eco friendly. On some counts we fail miserably (2 cars, 2nd homes, computers, leaving the telly on stand by etc.) but on others we score very highly (we use only low engery light bulbs, make our own compost, buy local produce from local shops, etc.) but we are making changes all the time. I am planning on buying my father a grey water diverter for his birthday this year, which I know he will appreciate.

Our other fun thing is a shoebox in Wales that my Grandma helped us buy. It isn't very eco, driving up the motorway once a month, but my family comes from Wales and so the hiraeth calls...and any good cymres never ignores the hiraeth. I am attempting to learn Welsh by myself (had my first conversation last year - v. nervwracking but fantastic!) and so far I am doing quite well.

To tell you a little more about myself, I not only love gardening etc, but I also love studying archaeology. I dropped out of college after I had a nervous breakdown, but now that I am myself again I am continuing my studies in archaeology by online learning with the College on the Net. I'm loving it so far and it's so nice to be learning again. I also love everything to do with I may have to post some stuff on that on here as well.

So, there is a (rather long) introduction for you. On this blog I will be posting updates on what's happening in the garden, etc, writing what's been going on with the bees, and everything else that's been happening on our very own little island. Perhaps people will find it of interest, perhaps not, but it is just nice to detail our way of life and what we have been doing recently.