Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
Above: first pods on the dwarf beans! And the peas are podding too.
And let me share with you this beautiful picture of one of our apiaries - it's part of a 360 degree pic and we haven't quite got it matched up right, but it still shows what a pretty spot our bees live in.
Recently we've also been harvesting some of our beeswax using a solar extractor. But this isn't any solar extractor, oh no! This is a special homemade cobbled-together one, made from 2 OSBs, a cooling rack, a collander and an old sheet of glass. It's quite a sight, especially as it's right outside our front door.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
This morning our communal apiary was inspected by a Bee Inspector. Only Dad and I, our neighbour who is new to beekeeping, the Inspector and our association secretary turned up. We started off going through Jayne's hive - everything OK. We then moved on to the nucs and hive that Dad and I keep in the communal apiary and we came across a few hitches - one of our nucs was a frame short, so they'd built a lot of brace comb; one nuc had some chalkbrood (easily sorted by keeping them on mesh floors and making sure the hive is well ventilated); another nuc is queenless (well, a while ago they hatched out a new queen but she didn't get mated). There was one heart stopping moment when the Inspector found a dead larvae in one hive, but fortunately it didn't "rope" like AFB does, and as the cappings looked healthy and there was no other sign of disease we were given the all clear.
Jayne then left but Dad and I stayed on to help out and learn from the experts as the Inspector and our secretary went through the other hives in the apiary. It was fairly nosy of us, but it was a good opportunity to see how other people manage their bees. Here and there we saw queen cells that needed knocking down; someone had put their frames together wrongly; another hive swarmed right in front of our eyes! I'd never seen anything like it before - the bees clustered on the front of the hive to start with, before flying around in a huge cloud all over the field, and eventually they moved upwards and clustered on a branch - too high up to catch, but hopefully they'll relocate and populate one of the new beekeepers' hives - I know one or two of them are desperate to get on with keeping real live bees!
There was one colony with a heavy chalkbrood infestation but otherwise every hive seemed healthy - I worry a bit that if your bees swarm and you don't know about it, you aren't checking them regularly enough, but fortunately there were very few problems. That is, until we had worked our way down to the last few hives.
Up until now the Inspector had been complimenting us on the temperaments of everyone's bees and the condition of the equipment. The boxes were shocking. Old, black...they just looked unhygenic and unloved. One of them was just a atsack of empty boxes but it was open to the bees and being robbed out. We also found a whopping great hornet inside - we definitely don't want to encourage those! Our secretary chopped it in half with his hive tool and the front half ran off into the grass.
The other two boxes, apparently all owned by the same person (who was conveniently anonymous) were just as bad, if not worse. The bees were really angry, the angriest in the apiary. The coverboards were NAILED DOWN (so presumably they haven't checked for disease etc. once in who knows how long); everything was propolysed up and was so old the propolys was black; the entrance had been nailed up on one of them too and so the bees were getting in through holes at each corner. There was no QX in one of them and not enough frames, so there was just wild comb everywhere...in short, it was absolute chaos. There was no way for the Inspector to inspect them properly. Evetually he managed to take a sample and test it for EFB - luckily (and it was 100% luck - the care of the beekeeper was non existent and had nothing to do with the fortunate outcome) it was negative. Personally I would have torched the lot then and there.
Above: knackered old box full of wild comb - absolutely impossible to inspect in any detail.So. At the end of the inspection, we know that we're currently in the clear with regards to fouldbrood. But it looks like our secretary will be implementing some new rules - not being able to identify the owner of each hive really hampered the inspection. And the last three hives! Urgh, I feel another rant coming on.
What I think is where a lot of people fall down - and this goes for small scale beekeepers like the owner of those appalling hives at our apiary and for the bee farmers in America who are always moaning about "CCD" - is that we often see bees as different from other animals. We don't see them as pets, we don't see them as livestock. We often see them as a separate thing, because they're not cuddly (though I would argue that they're still cute). True, they're not fully domesticated, and so they're slightly different to the cows, sheep and chickens we keep (though I would argue here that Exmoor ponies etc. are not fully domesticated yet they are treated with the utmost respect and enthusiasm by the people who monitor and care for them). But to me, the beekeeper has the same responsibility to his bees as the farmer or smallholder has to his pigs and poultry. They're livestock. We keep them to make useful products - and whether the animal produces milk or meat or wool or honey, we still have the same duty of care. All these animals need safe, waterproof places to shelter; they need food and water; they need to be kept in social groups; and they need to be looked after so they don't get ill. So many beekeepers fail to provide one or more of these basic things, whether that's through letting the bees starve during the June gap (something which yes, even I have been guilty of, but I like to think that I've learned from that now) or keeping them in the crappiest old woodworm-ridden rotting boxes that aren't even fit for firewood. To me, if you repeatedly abuse or neglect the animals you're supposed to be looking after, and take no steps to improve your practice and knowledge and alter your behaviour, the RSPCA can come along and prosecute you. And I think this should apply to bees too. End of rant.
Friday, June 19, 2009
I've just found out that both AFB and EFB have been confirmed within 3 miles of our association apiary. Our regional bee inspector will be having a look on Wednesday. This weekend we will be inspecting as usual, but being particularly on the look out for signs of any kind of disease, and we will be scrupulously hygenic. I'll be blow-torching my hive tool often, using disposable gloves, disinfecting between hives and changing gloves between apiaries. Our suits are freshly laundered, and we might even wash them between apiaries. Any waste wax, dead bees, anything waste, will be going in the bin - we do this usually, but inevitably the occasional speck of wax escapes. Not this weekend. No signs of foul brood last time we checked, but who knows how fast these diseases spread.
AFB is a bee disease caused by a bacterium and it affects the bee babies, the brood. The brood are turned to brown goo - literally. If you uncap a cell in an AFB-infected hive, you'll see something similar to the contents of your nose when you've got a bad cold, but brown. Because the brood dies colonies cannot replenish their populations and so they collapse.
AFB is deadly, and even worse, there is no treatment. We are just checking our hives regularly and being extremely hygiene-conscious, because if an apiary is found to have AFB the bees must be shut in their hive and the whole lot burned: hives, combs, even the ground underneath the hive, and yes, the bees.
AFB is a notifiable disease, ie. if you find it in your hives you are legally obliged to report it. The apiary cannot be used for years afterwards as the bacteria can live on in the soil. European foul brood is similar but not quite as dire; if it's caught early enough, it can be treated. But unfortunately the stuff found just a few miles away from us is the untreatable AFB.
This leads me to the subject of this post: bees and beaurocracy. As a beekeeper I find it frustrating sometimes the number of hurdles there are to jump through. If you want to sell your honey, the label must conform to exacting standards. The weight written on the label must be at least 4mm high with one space between the "numerical value" and the unit. You must have the country of origin written on the label separate from the beekeeper's contact address. You must have a batch code and best before date (best before date on honey? honey is antibacterial, antiseptic, anti this and anti that - why it needs all this hoohah I don't know) etc etc etc. Fortunately there aren't as many regulations as this in other areas of beekeeping, but there are still methods of best practice etc. often set out by old men stuck in their ways, and often I don't agree with them.
However, now that we're threatened with AFB, I've come to realise just how important this beaurocracy is. In our association this year I believe there is a new member who has been keeping bees for a while but has only joined this year. I am sure there are many beekeepers across the country who are still going it alone. They may not even be members of the national BBKA, let alone a local or regional association.
And for me, this is a problem. In being unconnected to other beekeepers through some kind of association, these beekeepers risk having to deal with their problems alone. If one of their hives catches AFB, who do they tell? Everything I know about notifiable diseases has come from my association. Without an association, beekeepers need to keep up to date by themselves. And in a busy world, I'm guessing that lots of us don't have the time to do that. So if they don't know who to phone up about AFB, or even what it is, how do we know that there aren't hives across the UK cultivating this and other serious bee diseases? And vice versa; if members of an association find foulbrood in their area, how would an independent beekeeper find out about this so they could take steps to protect their hives?
Recently in an article I read in a beekeeping magazine, someone had written about the huge fluctuations in the quality of beekeeping courses. The writer mentioned a course he had heard of that didn't even mention varroa in passing. This concerns me too. Beekeeping is growing in popularity, and we need to be able to support new beekeepers. They need to know about all the problems the bees face at the moment in detail, so that we are protected, and so are they. If a course doesn't even mention varroa, which we kow how to treat and has now been in the UK for about a decade, then what else doesn't it mention? Chalkbrood, sack brood, foul brood, nosema, small hive beetle, Asian hornets? I really believe that there needs to be some kind of system to ensure that these courses deliver up to date information and offer sound scientific advice.
Then there are those who don't even take courses; I'm one of them, and so is one of our neighbours who has started beekeeping this year. Luckily, my Dad was serious about beekeeping and took a course, and he taught me. We're now mentoring our neighbour, and we still ask the more experienced beekeepers of our association questions fairly regularly. But unless you have this kind of close mentorship, how are you going to know about bee health, and who will you go to when you hit a problem?
Another factor to consider is the exam system. This year I'm sitting my BASIC exam, as are Dad and some new beekeepers. When Dad and I attended a practical session with some of the new beekeepers, it was clear that they hadn't handled real live bees much in the past. Of course everyone needs time to learn, and I'm just soo happy that our association is growing in size every day! But I was really surprised that they felt ready to take the exam. I think the exam system needs to be a bit more controlled, even a bit more beaurocratic. I think that the BASIC should be something that people are encouraged to achieve, but that it represents a tangible level of expertise and experience - "the candidate will have kept bees for at least 1 year" as an entrance criterium would help with this. I don't like to see people doing a course and rushing to gain a qualification for the sake of doing a qualification; what's wrong with getting to know bees, to really understand how they behave and how to handle them, and to prove the extent of your knowledge only when you can back the theory up with real experience? Courses need to be more practical, and should, in my view, encourage new beekeepers to continue learning for at least 1 whole beekeeping year.
Naturally, well-rounded courses and association membership cost time and money, but I would argue that so does beekeeping; if you're able to keep bees, then you're definitely able to do it properly and go down the necessary routes to make sure that you are keeping your own and others' bees safe. Bee health really is a serious issue. Despite what celebrity farmer Jimmy Doherty would have you believe in a recent article in Country Smallholding mag ("the bee health situation isn't really that serious", or words to that effect) bees are crucial to the world's ecosystems. There's a saying amongst beekeepers that if the bees die out, we would follow them within four years. And whether this is just an old wives tale or not, myself, I definitely don't want to find out.
So, if you read this blog and think that all our beekeeping antics sound fun, then good for you! It's really fantastic that so many people are getting interested, as we've got a real opportunity now to save the bees. But please, do it properly:
- Look things up in books (try your local library) or on the internet.
- Find out where your nearest association is, and go along to an open day - lots of associations have them, or similar events, and will be over the moon if you turn up and say you're interested in starting to keep bees.
- Take a course to find out more (there are even distance learning courses you can do!) but subscribe to a beekeeping magazine such as Beecraft to expand your knowledge of the bees. Subscriptions only cost a few quid a year.
- Make sure your course has a practical element - you don't know whether you're going to be able to cope with having angry bees flying at you until you've experienced it!
- Join the most local association you can - we pay for membership to our local one and are automatically members of the regional and national associations. If you can affford it, you could even join more than one local association. We're on a county border, so this could be particularly helpful if you're in a similar situation.
- Go to apiary meetings, honey shows, open days etc. to find out more about beekeeping and to meet more of the beekeeping community.
- And befriend an experienced beekeeper(s) who can offer advice and support.
And if beekeeping isn't for you, but you still want to save the honey bee, there are some really simple things you can do to help. Find out more about honey bees at some of the addresses below. Grow bee-friendly plants in your garden, balcony or window box. Buy local honey, and talk to the beekeepers who produce it - ask them about the health of their hives, what they think is going on with varroa, CCD, etc. You can still be part of the beekeeping community even if you aren't a beekeeper.
For more info on bee diseases, joining associations, etc. see the links below. I hope this rant has been helpful and motivating. I don't want to put anyone off keeping bees - I have never done anything so fun, fascinating and relaxing as beekeeping. I think it really does keep me sane! But when my bees are threatened, I want to be able to trust other beekeepers to look after their bees with the same level of dedication I show to mine. This doesn't have to mean more beaurocracy - beekeeping can and should remain a relaxing, accessible hobby - but I do think standards need to be kept high. And that calls for a more integrated, connected system.
http://www.britishbee.org.uk/ - The British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA). Loads of info on what it's all about, exams, where to find courses near you, etc etc.
http://www.defra.gov.uk/ - DEFRA - the government body responsible for all things countryside.
https://secure.csl.gov.uk/beebase/ - National Bee Unit - DEFRA'S bee bit.
http://www.bee-craft.com/ - one of the best beekeeping mags
http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/newhome.html - Dave Cushman's site all about beekeeping, with a section dedicated to New Beekeepers, and just about every aspect of bees and beekeeping imaginable.
A good book to start out with is "Guide to Bees and Honey" by Ted Hooper - a must have.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Above: the greenhouse. Cucumbers and the loofa at the back, aubergines in pots waiting to be planted out down the left, peppers and okra with seed trays of Italian beans down the right.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Friday, June 12, 2009
Elderflower wine. See Hugh F-W's recipe at this link here: http://www.channel4.com/food/recipes/chefs/hugh-fearnley-whittingstall/elderflower-champagne-recipe_p_1.html
Friday, June 5, 2009
It's sort of thistle-like, with some fine hairs, serated edges and almost dandylion shaped leaves...and it turns out that it is a type of wild lettuce, lactuca serriola, which apparently has some of the same properties as opium! I tried some and it was alright - a bit bitter but more or less edible. I'm not sure I'll be consuming it in any great quantity any time soon but if I end up deciding to "expand my mind" I'll know where to go!
(I think I'd better slip in a small disclaimer here as we live in a mad world: if you do something stupid or pick the wrong plant and poison yourself as a result of reading this blog, it's your own bloody fault and nothing to do with me!).
Dave and Vicky's garden is amazing. They obviously love gardening but as Dave has MS it is of course difficult. But it's so cool that they've offered to share their garden with us and I can't wait to get going. People are beginning to operate schemes like this up and down the country, and teamed up with the increase in demand for allotments it looks like more and more people will be rebuilding their communities through growing their own. Exciting times!