Sunday, March 21, 2010

Compost & Other Such Things

Yesterday we were cleaning out the animals, when it became clear the compost heap needed to be emptied a bit. There followed a fair bit of digging and removing half of the compost in readyness to put it on the raised beds next weekend. Last year we had a bit of a problem because the heap was smelly, a sure sign that we were getting the mixture a bit wrong. However I was reallly happy to find that now it has rotted down to the most beautiful loamy mixture and doesn't smell at all. It's beautiful, and absolutely crawling with life! Hopefully the grass snake will be back this year...

Recipe for excellent compost
copious quantities of each of the following:
- vegetable peelings etc
- paper, cardboard, and straw/wood shavings from cleaning out the animals
- animal droppings
- dead leaves
- worms, woodlice, etc, who should come of their own accord

allow to mix and stew. Serve on raised beds, dug in or as a mulch, and therein plant vegetables, fruits, flowers... Delicious!

The animals very much enjoyed the ordered chaos of rearranging the compost...particularly the ducks, who were slurping up every worm they could get their hands on.

And the good news is that despite a couple of days of wet weather spring is definitely here! The daffodils are finally out, having been late for St. David's Day :( ...there are nearly always bees in the park near my college collecting stunningly bright orange crocus pollen... and best of all, this week saw the first clumps of frog spawn!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Beekeeping Talk

I've just got back from a talk by a bee farmer, our association's first event of the year. It was fantastic to see everyone again after such a long, hard winter, and the talk raised a few really interesting points. The bee farmer who spoke to us runs about 300 hives and this year has had less than 10% losses, with just over 10% losses last year. He revealed some hints and tips and snippets of interesting information to us.

  • Main identified reasons behind colony losses - starvation was top, with poor management, weather, failed queens, mites etc. behind. CCD and pesticides were last.
  • The temperature of feed and its placement in relationship to the cluster is very important, which may explain why some of our hives starved to death even with a hive heavy with sugar and honey.
  • Treat for varroa early in the autumn, even as early as August. If you treat later, you may reduce the numbers of mites but any viruses will have had time to build up, and won't be affected by any chemicals you stick in.
  • Thymol is a naturally occurring chemical (i.e. in thyme) that is used in treatments such as Apiguard. Ian recommended treating with it, saying that he knew one successful farmer who uses it as his only treatment against varroa and nosema. Ian suggested putting it in the feed, and I wonder weather treating hives with it, e.g. sealing them with linseed oil with thymol mixed in, would help also? And would lots of thyme forage be beneficial too?
  • Mesh floors should ideally be able to close (something I had no idea about), to prevent treatments and feed etc. just leaking away. Ian also mentioned how bees survive in old oil drums at 100 degree temperatures in Africa and are able to ventilate for themselves. I was interested to note that the hives he brought along had solid floors with small cirlces of mesh put in, much like a crown board - perhaps to get the best of both worlds.
  • I was glad to know that it's not just me that finds Eglu's Beehaus laughable! The Beehaus is based on the Dartington long hive, and interestingly these are said to swarm more often. It's interesting to note that in the wild bees tend to prefer to go vertically, so perhaps horizontal hives aren't necessarily the answer. However this could also explain why they are perfect for beekeeping in Africa, where the bees are migratory anyway.
  • The bee farmer requeens around every 2 years. Apparently a New Zealand lecturer says that he finds one of the effects of varroa is that it shortens a queen's lifespan, in the sense that when she's a year old she behaves/is in the condition more like a 2 year old queen, when she's 2 years old she seems more like a 3 year old queen, etc.
  • The importance of changing brood combs was stressed. I am determined to finally build a solar wax extractor now! I didn't know that apparently in some EU countries it is now a legal requirement to change brood combs every year. This sounds like a lot of cuffuffle but a simple rotation of frames (made even more straightforward by adding new boxes to the bottom of the hive - as in Warre beekeeping - rather than the top) makes this easier than it sounds.
  • The amunt of interesting research to be found on the internet was also stressed. I'll be investigating this from now and will let you know about any interesting finds!
  • Bees should be fed little and often. Keep checking your hives, even in winter - around Christmas maybe and as the spring starts to arrive. You can always check my hefting, without opening the hives up. Runny syrup can be fed even in early spring.
  • Poly hives - I assume he meant the double-skinned plastic hives - seem to be growing in popularity. Apparently Denmark has the lowest incidence of brood diseases in Europe and they keep bees almost exclusively in poly hives. Ian recommended household bleach, caustic soda or even the stuff they used to disinfect wellies etc. during the foot and mouth outbreaks for cleaning the hives, as unfortunately they can't be scorched. They build up quicker in the spring, but Ian finds that the queen start laying a little later for some reason.
  • Records can be kept by screwing a jam jar to each hive and keeping records in there. The hive can become a wooden record by colour-coding frames, being meticulous in marking queens, etc. Mark the queens when you first see them, don't (as we usually do) forget your pen and have to come back and do it later!
  • The convenience of using a nail gun for constructing hives and frames!

All in all a really interesting lecture with plenty of food for thought...I'm planning to try out lots of new ideas this year and certainly I'll be looking into some of the suggestions here. We're planning our spring inspection for March 20th or the first weekend of April, weather permitting. Until then I think we'll go and heft the hives and see if we need to boil up any syrup already!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Spring Has Sprung!

The first snowdrops appeared about a month ago. In the last week or so the primroses have come up, and just this week the crocuses, which have been pushing up little buds for a while now, came into full bloom. Recently the weather has been almost summery. In the evenings when I walk back from college now the wildlife is still out and about, people are walking their dogs, there are bulbs everywhere in the parks, with great swathes of yellow and purple everywhere you look, and the kids are even playing outside well into the evenings now. Apart from the wind, which is still a little nippy, it feels like August. Everything is coming alive! Here's a look at what we've been up to recently.

^ I don't know what this evergreeen shrub is called, but the bees love it and when it's in flower it smells wonderful.

^ Hellebores

^ The garden today.

^ First Celandines
^ Cardoons sprouting up from the ground.

^ A forgotten Brussels sprout plant left over from 2 years ago!

^ Snowdrops

^ Some plants are already in full flower

^ Snowdrops again!

^ Crocuses emerging through a jungle of strawberry plants

^ First primroses!

^ Yellow crocuses amongst the wall flowers

^ Purple crocus buds

Below: Birds' nests from last year: in the climbing hydrangea (blackbird); behind the satelite dish (collared dove); an a nest from an unknown bird that fell out of the hazel tree, beautifully constructed.

Dad's Velvety Aubergines

Not exactly seasonal or eco-friendly but a great vegetarian option and perfect for evenings that are still a little chilly.

1 aubergine, cut into medium sized chunks
3 fresh tomatoes
fenugreek and coriander seeds
1 clove garlic
a little vegetable oil
salt and pepper
Fry all the ingredients together until the tomatoes have cooked down to a delicious pulp. The aubergines will still be raw and spongey, but turn of the heat and place a lid over the pan. Allow to sit for as long as possible, allowing the aubergines to steam. Reheat when you're ready to eat. The aubergines will be really velvety and melt-in-the-mouth, absolutely delicious!

NB: You can make the recipe spicier by adding chilli or cayenne. Allspice is also a nice addition.

I have been continuing with my ever-growing reading list. I recently finished Regeneration by Pat Barker, a really good read. I loved the style of the writing - simple and subtle but absolutely sublime - and the depiction of the suffering endured by both officers, infantry troops and the people who had to care for them during WW1 was incredibly moving, especially as I recently went on a college trip to the Battlefields and saw the enormous cemeteries left over from the war for myself. I'm not enjoying First Casualty by Ben Elton as much however. Although still an interesting storyline, the writing style feels clunky and crude when I compare it to Pat Barker's work. I also have a new, eco-related addition to my reading list: Whole Earth Discipline by eco-pioneer Stewart Brand. I haven't started it yet but I'm excited about reading this book as it looks like it's going to make me rethink some of my ideas about green-ness. I like the fact that it is centred on treating the Earth as a whole though, rather than just sorting out a few problems here or there. Should be interesting...I'll let you know how I get on!
Dad has visited the bees to see how they have been getting on. We are now down to 3 hives, which is fairly disappointing. Some of the hives seem to have emptied before the weather got too cold, others have clearly diwed out over the winter, and oddly didn't eat any of the vast quantities of honey and sugar we fed back to them. This is interesting though as it presents us with a number of opportunities. The first one is to learn more - I want to become a better beekeeper so that I know how to take better care of these fascinating animals who so kindly allow me to try and nurture them. The second is that we're planning to try out a number of different methods this year. We'll be giving some hives the Warre treatment - i.e. letting them make the choices for themselves - and treating others as we would normally. And thirdly, it's interesting to note that all the hives that survived are our grumpiest bees which we have captured from the wild...I wonder if this says anything about the genetically-engineered artificially produced blood lines that one buys from queen breeders or has imported from Hawaii? Dad has ordered a few more queens to arrive this year, and we're already on the swarm list. But I wonder whether angry, swarming, wild bees are better able to survive than cushy calm bees that are made by humans for humans...
And finally, I have been planning a project for when I leave college (and that will probably end up taking over my whole life for the next 50 years...hope so!). My plan is to research and experience permaculture and sustainable practice from across the world - the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australasia... in order for me to learn more about the ecosystems of the Earth and how to work with them. The idea is to make my way around the world (or as much of it as I can afford) using the most efficient transport possible, working on aid projects and learning from people who really care about working with the planet rather than against it. I intend to record my travels on the blog and maybe when I've learned from the world's best I'll be able to pass my knowledge on in other ways too. I'm beginning to look up possible places to visit but if anyone has any suggestions of places I can go or people I could contact, please leave a comment! I'll be writing more about this as the year goes on, and I hope you''ll find it as exciting as I am finding it already!
Thanks for all your comments and support through the blog - now that things are happening out there in the garden hopefully i'll have more to blog about! ^^