Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's hot!

The weather here is now VERY summery, in fact it is hot! However, this means that our cobbled-together solar wax extractor is doing its job!

Here's a new picture from new beekeeper Paul taken during our inspection at the weekend. The bee with the red blobs on her back legs (find the middle, then go left and down a bit) has been collecting propylis! Propylis is tree sap which the bees collect and use like glue, to fill in gaps etc in the hive. They use the same part of the body that they use to collect pollen but with propylis other bees have to clean it off and take it away to be used...it's too sticky for the bee to clean off herself! Summer is the only time of the year when bees can collect propylis so they'll be working hard and cementing up hive bits and bobs right now.

Friday, June 26, 2009

So here is Flo's new business card.
I've got a similar one.
Now we are all set to start selling our honey and wax products!

Exciting Stuff

Don't worry, I'm not in a ranting mood today, you're safe. Thanks for your comments Beegirl and June though, I'm glad you're enjoying the blog!

Instead I want to show you how my garden is coming along - I've been neglecting it a bit for the last fortnight or so but it seems to be getting on fine without me!

Above: first flower buds on the loofa!

Above: first pods on the dwarf beans! And the peas are podding too.

Above: flower buds on one of the cucumbers - the other plant has flowers open already, but this plant is literally dripping with flower buds, it's completely covered. So both cucumbers look like they're doing well...

Above: the squashes are flowering, and the first fruit has set! In the past my squashes have always produced lots of leaves and one or two fruit, but they've been very disappointing in size, and have usually gone mushy before I get round to harvesting them. I've done my research this year though, and have thus cut back on the number of plants and varieties, given them lovely rich soil enriched with comfrey leaves and put them in a nice sunny spot. Fingers crossed!

Above: I just love allium buds, they're even prettier than the flowers!

The main problem now is aphids in the greenhouse. I've planted chives in there but things are still getting attacked. They were on the peppers, and after giving up on the amazing power of chives, I used the bug gun. Now, however, they have moved on to my aubergines! I need to act quickly, but I appear to have damaged my rotator cuff (shoulder - my dad is prone to the same injury) so typing this blog let alone gardening feels like a huge painful effort right now. It'll have to wait till the weekend when I have my minions to help me! We did sow some marigolds this year (supposed to repel just about every bug you can think of, but not as good as chives!) but they've been a complete disaster.

Above: just look what aphids have done to this pepper! Luckily the new leaves are coming through nice and healthy, and the plant will recover.

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.

And let me show you my latest craft project. Beadweaving used to be my thing, before I ran out of the special thread and sort of gave up on it, but I have now rediscovered it...and this time I'm just using normal sewing thread - it seams to work fine! (I know, that was really terrible, but I couldn't stop myself). The pattern is one I just scketched out on some graph paper. I really love all those Native American crafts - I just love the use of pattern and they're made so skillfully it's unreal.

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.

We put a load of really old black comb in there and just look at the result! The purest golden-yellow beeswax! When you compare it to some beeswax bought from Thornes (on the left) you'll notice the huge difference in colour - but then again, home produced stuff is always better! I can't wait to use it in my homemade cosmetics...I just need a bit more of it before I can start experimenting!

And I leave you with a portrait of our house guardian, a small clay gremlin Mum made at pottery one time. Despite the creepy yellow eyes he's quite cute ^^.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Foulbrood Inspection

As you'll have read in the last couple of entries, both American Foul Brood and European foul brood were found in our area recently. It was a local bee farmer who has apiaries all over the place and who moves his hives around a lot that first contracted (or first noticed) the diseases. Both diseases are notifiable, i.e. it's an offence not to report them, and can devestate colonies. In fact if your hive is found to have American Foul Brood there is nothing to be done and the hive - boxes, combs, and bees - must be burned.

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

New video

The video of us collecting that wild colony is now on the video blog at http://alittleisland-tv.blogspot.com/. Take a look!

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.

Bees & Beaurocracy

Recently American Foul Brood has been found in our area and now we are keeping a careful eye to see if it arrives at our association's apiary. In the meantime, I am praying that it doesn't.

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


We've now eaten the first homegrown courgette of the year - totally without the bitterness that you get with shop bought ones. Delicious!

Things are really going in the garden now. The cucumbers are absolutely covered in flower buds; the first Gardeners' Delight tomatoes have set; the dwarf borlotti beans are now in flower (the ones in the post before last are runner bean Hestia - sorry about the mistake, I must have been operating on autopilot); bees are buzzing, birds are singing...in fact, we have wood pigeons nesting on our North facing wall, collared doves living in the nook behind our satellite dish and now blackbirds raising their second clutch on our front wall!

Above: gardener's delight toms just set.
Above: Borlotto Lingua di Fuoco (dawrf) flower - what a pretty pink.
Above: I just loved the way this butterhead lettuce glowed in the sunshine the other day.

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.

Today I made a lemon pudding according to Sara Buenfeld's recipe in this months Good Food mag...unfortunately for my figure it's worked a treat and is delicious! (http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/11258/luscious-lemon-pudding-with-summer-berries)

Yesterday afternoon was spent at Geoff Galliver's house. He's the secretary of our beekeepers' association and a very experienced beekeeper. Dad and I will be taking our Basic exam this year (bet you didn't know beekeepers sat exams!) and fortunately after talking it over with Geoff it sounds like we're already pretty up on it all. Just one or two things to check, but most of it is stuff that every beekeeper knows. But I haven't done it yet so we'll see how things go.

Here's a pic of the honey we collected from that wild colony - luckily, we haven't had to melt it! We have filtered it but I think it's still saleable...not as good as ours, which is beautifully floral, but this stuff has a smoother, deeper flavour and beautiful ruby colour.

This weekend we're busy socialising but I'm hoping we'll still be able to go canoeing (elderflowers!) and to transfer one of our nucs into a full sized hive...I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bees, bees and more bees

This weekend has been seriously bee-y. On Thursday we got a call about a swarm, and it turned out to be an entire wild colony living in someone's cavity wall! It was a big operation to move it. Below are a couple of pictures, and you can see a video of some of the action on our video blog at http://alittleisland-tv.blogspot.com/ (or at least I hope you can...it is taking an age to upload. I'll be 102 before the time it gets there by the looks of it!).

Despite Dad's finger being stung so many times that it swelled up like a golf ball (he even had to take his wedding ring off for the first time in 20 years...my mum didn't seem to mind but I think he found it a bit odd) it was a successful operation - we took all their honey as well, and it fills up our 5 gallon brewing bucket. We may not be able to sell it as we might have to melt it out of the wild comb, but it will still make good feed for the bees in winter, Christmas presents, honey for our own toast etc.

Yesterday we inspected the hives at our main apiary. We had left a stack of empty boxes there and amazingly when we went back this week there were bees living in there! A swarm had settled! And it didn't look as if it had come from any of our hives. Anyway, they obviously came down from the top, as the queen was laying in one of the spare supers we'd left there, but we marked her and moved her down into the brood box and now she'll be off to a flying start. We donated the brood in the super frames to our triple nuc colonies who appear to be struggling. But a new generation of house bees will get them going.

The good news is that one of our queenless hive has requeened - she looks healthy and fertile, and it's so satisfying when you can breed your own queens. We did buy 5 new queens this year, but next year I'm hoping that we'll use our own stock for a while. We've been quite successful at it this year and we've got enough new blood in now that we should be able to breed them ourselves for a while.

Our main honey-producing hive was looking swarmy, so we did an artificial swarm. Luckily however they're such a strong colony that I doubt our honey harvest will be effected much. We still aren't doing as well as we'd like this year on the honey front, but now we know about the importance of VENTILATION in a hive if next year is nice I expect we'll do much better.

Today we inspected the bees at the association apiary with Jane and Paul, two new beekeepers that Dad's mentoring. Jane collected a swarm 3 weeks ago and they're now covering 4 frames - not bad! We marked the queen today, although she was hard to spot because the bees were abnormally long in the abdomen - Jane's workers are about as long as our queens! Paul is still waiting for bees but his hive is all assembled and ready to go, along with a very snazzy alighting board of a type I hadn't seen before. So I'll be looking those up sometime.

We got a call from the Dave, whose garden the wqild colony is now in. They have already stung a neighbour, but no one seemed that bothered and I think Dave and Vicky are too excited about having bees at the bottom of the garden to worry about things like that! The bees were quite active when we turned up but they're just finding their way around a new place. Eventually they'll settle down. They were doing beautiful circular flights tough. I'll see if I can get it on camera to show you.

Another batch of elderflower wine is now on the go, 75% of my tomato plants are now in the ground and are beginning to flower and even set fruit; I planted chives amongst my celery a while ago to ward off aphids and I think it's working, though I may have to put more chives in; and we finished off the weekend with the perfect barbecue, topped off with homegrown salad, homemade garlic bread, rude bananas and chicken & lamb kebabs with a marinade that included pollen! Our first barbecue of the year and it was probably the best one I can remember. A good summer so far.

Friday, June 12, 2009

First Fruits

Today I picked some of the first fruits from our garden - the first gooseberries, white and black currants and some strawbs. We've been picking the strwabs for about a week now but there are still loads more to come. Our ones don't have that perfect balance of sharp and sweet that you get with the best strawberries, but they have such a flowery honey taste - they're just so fragrant, I can't believe that strawberries can actually taste like honey!

So far my phormium fruit net appears to be working! I don't think the blackbirds have had any yet so it's looking good. The strawberries are doing so well this year because although they're in the ground (lots of people prefer to grow them in containers) Poppy, whose plants they are, has tied them so that the plants are raised well above the ground. This stops all the creepy crawlies getting to them first and I think it helps them to ripen too.

The rest of the garden is looking good too. I'm fairly late planting out my tomatoes - the first couple of fruits have set now, with more flowers on the way, although the plants are pretty pot bound so I need to get a move on. The rest though is looking promising - the loofa has gone beserk, we're harvesting the first batch of turnips now, the peas are flowering and out the front...the sweetcorn is making good progress (it literally doubled in size with the rain last week), I've got the first couple of courgettes getting bigger every day and the beans are beginning to climb and even to flower!
Above: dwarf Lingua di Fuoco borlotti bean flowers.
Above: Dwarf beans (French & runner), sweetcorn and climbing beans (French, Italian & runner) growing with a couple of sunflowers, ppurple elder, foxgloves, snapdragons and other pretty things.

Above: First courgette!

The comfrey has more or less finished flowering now so I'll be chopping that back and making nice things with it - everything from liquid manure to luxurious hand cream with any luck! There is still plenty of stuff in flower though; take a look.

Over the past fortnight we've been doing a bit more alcohol too. We racked off our Damson Jam Wine - it's lovely, almost like a liqueur! Because it was made from jam however the sediment included solids that looked like this (below). This is what happens when your wine has pectin in it. When you make jam you need pectin to set the jam to the right consistency; in winemaking you try and kill the pectin off with an enzyme called pectolase. It looks like we didn't put in quite enough pectolase, but it was easy to rack the liquid off and we'll see what the wine's like when it's matured!

We also made some elderflower champagne a couple of weeks ago, and racked it off into demijohns earlier this week. We used Hugh F-W's recipe from River Cottage Spring...smells great, but at the moment it just tastes like sugar water. It's bubbling away now though so the magic will be happening. We'll be going out in the canoe this weekend (great for reaching all the wildfood that you can't reach from the bank!) and picking another batch, as well as looking out for other goodies...on a very small strecth of canal we can pick blackberries, hazelnuts, watermint and even wild raspberries...

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

We were called out to a swarm yesterday and it turned out to be an entire wild colony living inside the cavity wall of a farm shed. So we have a major operation on our hands tonight. It's really important that we get this colony - a) it's nice for us to have more bees (and to get them for free) and b) wild colonies in the UK are very rare now, due to varroa, and they almost invariably die out over winter. So we need to save these honey bees and take them somewhere safe and warm.
There have been a lot of bee thefts in our area of late - a few up in Shropshire, I think, but most of them down here in Hampshire. So we're keeping the location of our apiary sites under our hats! The really sad thing about it is that it's definitely a beekeeper doing it - you can't steal bees without knowing how to move them safely! There are two theories: as bees are very expensive now, they may just be stealing them to make a bit of money, or, even sadder, it may be a bee farmer who has lost so much stock that they don't know what else to do.
Our bees are looking OK at the moment, apart from some new nucs we made up and gave new Carnolean queens. They were fairly small to begin with but a few are even smaller now. The queens have been released now though so soon their populations should start building up. We had to rescue one queen though when she was more or less abandoned by her colony and left to freeze to death. She's living on top of the stove at the moment with some workers to keep her warm, and this weekend we'll find a home for her, ASAP!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Legal Drug Cultivation

This evening Dad and I went up to see some old neighbours who moved into a new house with a bigger garden, and have very kindly offered it to us for veg cultivation and apiary! Vicky was asking us if we knew what the weed invading her new area of wildflower meadow was so we brought some back to look it up.

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!

Phormium Fruit Net

We have a garden full of Phormium tenax (New Zealand flax). It's a plant with flat, broad, spiky leaves and my mum loves it, so a while ago when one of our neighbours was getting rid of 5 small phormium plants Mum couldn't say no. It grows fairly large - we have a mature one that takes up about 1m x 1m x 1m, but it's worth the space coz it's so blooming useful!

I think I've already mentioned in an earlier post that I used Phormium fibres to train our espalier apple trees. Well, this week I've gone one step further and made my own Phormium fruit net.

Phormium is such a useful plant, I think everyone should try and grow a bit! I've used it for string, I've woven place mats out of it, and now I've made a fruit net...and the Maori of its native New Zealand traditionally use Phormium to weave stunning ceremonial cloaks. It's all done by hand - no loom - and it's so intricate and delicate...if you look it up on the internet you'll be astounded at the stuff they can do with it!

In our south-facing front garden we have a cluster of fruit bushes - a red currant, white currant, black currant and gooseberry. They're planted very tightly but so far are doing well. The problem is that last year Mr and Mrs Blackbird beat me to it and I only managed a handful of blackcurrants. Well, this year we have several baby blackbirds too and so this year action must be taken.

Last year we used a plastic net. It was bright green, and broke where you didn't want it to and stayed strong when it would have been more helpful for it to be easy to break. It was also completely useless at keeping Willow out of my celery. It is just the sort of stuff that I hate to see go into the environment. So, while I'm deciding how to dispose of it, I'm opting for a more natural sort of net this year.

To begin with, I cut quite a few phormium leaves at the point where they become stiff, pithy and traingular, rather than flat. I then slit them in half - they're very easy to split along their length, but you need sharp scissors to cut across the fibres! I then split each half into smaller strips - a maximum of about 4mm across.

Next I tied them together using a simple double knot until I had lengths that were approx. 2 armspans long. I made lots of lengths like these.

I then used my bean poles as a frame, tying a long strand horizontally at each end of the frame. I then tied more lengths onto this base length at regular-ish intervals, again with a simple double knot.

I had an odd number of vertical strands.

I then tied the strands loosely into pairs, leaving gaps to give the net and open structure. Of course, as I had an odd number, when I got to the other end I had one left over. I simply tied it onto the strand next to it and worked my way back along the row, so that this time the strand I had started with was the one left over.

I carried on working until I got fed up! And now the net is over the fruit bushes. It might be a bit small but I'm hoping it will act as a deterent in any case.

This is by no means the quickest option, but it only took me an afternoon and in my view an afternoon of tying knots is a lesser evil than that horrible green plastic stuff that will take millenia to rot down. So I'm happy :-) .

Just got to see if it works now!