Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My First Foray into Mushrooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclaimer done. Enjoy mushrooming!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pen y Fan Whimberries

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

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

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

Saturday, July 2, 2011

New Bee-Extracting Method

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

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

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

Old Bee Video

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

Thursday 11 June 2009

Monday, June 27, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bees again!

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Honey Harvest

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

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

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

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

^ Uncapping

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

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

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Giving Birth to a New Queen

Shaking the Swarm into a Box

Chasing the Swarm

Sorry that it's the wrong way up, I will try and rectify this at some point!

Bees, on the day they went Beserk


Yesterday we went to see how the bees are getting on. We have one mating nuc that seems to be working, and spotted 4 new queens. At the moment they don't seem to be laying, but we're giving them a bit more time to get mated. All but one of the colonies are looking pretty strong!

Just as we were finishing up, however, I spotted a cluster of bees in the hedge. It was a pretty big cluster! Obviously a swarm. So we shook them into a spare box and now have another good sized hive! They'd begun to build comb in the hedge, and quite a bit of it, so had obviously been there a while. It's possible they're even the swarm we lost last time!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bees gone Bonkers...

Yesterday was my first time beekeeping this season! My Dad has been a couple of times before this and is crazily making up frames and boxes at the moment as we are still converting to One Size Boxes, and it turns out we need much more equipment than we thought we did, and here is why!

^ The apiary as it was!

We went to visit a couple of hives we have in our new apiary. Dad had already seen them and one of them he knew was doing really well. They filled a national broodbox, 2 OSB's and a super (and no queen excluder - don't need to use one when you're using OSB's). We were checking on our honey harvest when we spotted a maturing queen cell. We went through the whole hive, and found 27 queen cells in it, with around 14 on one frame alone. 27 in one hive!!

^ A queen cell

They were clearly on the brink of swarming, and with that number of cells could have swarmed in casts, and we don't want to lose most of our bees and honey, so we had to act quickly! Some cells were already emerged... We tried breaking one or two cells to kill the developing queens, but instead it turned out that the queens were pretty much ready to hatch and were fully formed and wriggly! We caught them in cages, luckily, while we decided what to do.

We began splitting the hive off, effectively doing an artificial swarm on a big scale. But we didn't have all the equipment with us, so Dad drove off to go and pick some up.

Meanwhile, I was enjoying the sunshine when the buzzing got louder. I looked behind me and there was a cloud of bees - they were swarming right before my eyes! They drifted slowly down the length of the hedge, 2 - 3 metres in the air. I was running frantically after them - I had no equipment and there wasn't much I could do anyway, but I was trying to make sure I knew where they went so we could catch them when Dad came back. It was an amazing experience, as several times I was right in the heart of the swarm! Unfortunately though they flew over the hedge and away after a while, and despite my graceful attempt at crawling through the hedge, we had to abandon that one.

However, when we got back to the hive the population size was still huge! We carried on with our splits, giving birth to a couple of other queens, and eventually we had everyone split off and with a few queen cells each and some stores. We went from having 2 hives in that apiary to having 9 there in one afternoon (including a little mating hive)! And they're all fairly decent sized!

We thought we'd done alright - pretty much averted disaster. But there was one nuc that was concerning - the one with 14 cells on one frame. We couldn't take out a few queens because we'd run out of cages. So Dad went back today with Pabi Bach to make a queen bank (the cells in little springy cages used for queen rearing and breeding) and to capture a few of the queens to put in further mating nucs. So fortunately, that nuc now has fewer queens, and we have lots of queens developing/getting ready to mate. We have offered them out to other beekeepers, to give them away. They're virgins but they clearly come from a hard-working, vigorous (and fairly docile) bloodline!

^ Frames of stores and some caged queens waiting for new homes to arrive!

It's been very exciting this weekend, and despite the fact that the last time I went beekeeping I ended up throwing up and unable to stand or breathe I'm no longer afraid. I didn't get stung but I was surrounded by clouds of bees with my veil unzipped...yes, I am reckless, but you only live once, and I do love my bees!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Permaculture Magazine and Flowers & Birds, etc.

Thanks Crafty Green Poet for your kind comment on the last post.

Just been reading Rebecca Hosking's blog on the Permaculture magazine site (here). Very interesting article on holly. Lots of holly around where my mum lives in Wales, and we have a big shrub in the front garden, and it's nice to know that there are some brilliant uses for such a common plant that I once thought was only for decoration (and wildbird food - they love the berries, particularly the blackbirds). The Permaculture magazine site (here) is full of inspiring stuff. Check it out!

Also been reading the magazine, and considering whether to buy Sepp Holzer's new book about his permaculture practice. He's a self-taught expert, absolutely inspiring guy. But I have no money, and want to invest in a LegMaster (probably not terribly eco-friendly, but at least it doesn't plug in and waste leccy, like so much gym equipment), so it will have to wait. Holzer's hugul beds - big sloping raised beds full of organic matter - are a really interesting idea, and one that when (in a million years) I have my dream permaculture smallholding I will definitely try. Highly recommend Permaculture mag - always something interesting, and full of really inspiring articles by inspiring people, who are practising permaculture in all different ways and on all scales. Reading the magazine is like connecting with like-minded people and sharing good ideas and exciting news. Every issue brings a smile to my face and renews my optimism for the Big Scary Future.

The garden is looking lovely, I will post pics tomorrow. Birds singing at the tops of their voices - pigeons getting jiggy with it on our roof, and sparrows nesting under the eaves for another year. Things are in flower - forget-me-nots, violets, lilacs, the viburnums have just finished, aubretia, dandelions (NOT a weed, NEVER a weed! Tortoise fodder!), currant bushes, primroses, citrus bushes just forming litte creamy-white buds...and every apple tree we own (around 13, I think) is just popping its magenta buds to reveal beautiful snowy white blossoms. I predict a bumper crop this year.

Pabi Bach and I went for a walk today along a canal, too. Lovely weather. On our way there we saw a whole bank absolutely covered in cowslips, and along the canal the banks were studded with primroses and violets. I absolutely love these spring flowers.

Interestingly the blossom has all been late this year. It means that we've all been having to keep on surviving the winter for a bit longer, but there are up-sides. For example, the bees are well and truly buzzing now, especially with today's warm weather, and the blossom being a bit late has meant that they get all the benefit of it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sunny but cold...

...but I have seen bumblebees, and yesterday even honeybees, all over the garden. They like the celandines, wild hellebores and crocuses, which are flowering at the moment. It's so nice to know that they are able to get out and start collecting.
This year we are leaving our spring inspection untl April, at the earliest! Our plan is to leave the bees alone much more this year. Dad has recently read Tim Rowe's 'The Rose Hive Method'. We have already switched over completely to OSB's (aka the Rose hive), but now we are going to adopt a bit more of his method, it seems. I haven't read it yet, but I have read a bit on the internet ages ago, when we first switched, and I know that Rowe's colonies are huge and never have to be fed on sugar. It obviously works for him, and it made sense to my dad, so we're going to try it! Watch this space!

The frogs' mating season seems to have finished. A long line of clumps of frogspawn spans the shallow end of the pond. All the goldfish are now dead too, so hopefully we will have a bumper frog crop this year too!

Yesterday we spent half an hour in the garden training our espalier apple trees. I have a feeling this might be the wrong time of year to do it, but they're such strong little trees, and doing so well - absolutely covered in buds - that I can't imagine it will do them any harm. They are beautiful, even when they aren't in leaf! And some are already meeting each other in the middle. And below them the primroses are in full flower....

Friday, February 25, 2011

Another sure sign of spring...

Pabi Bach took these pictures this evening. The frogs have been singing very loudly tonight...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

More Spring Stuff including Bees

The viburnum bush that I photographed for the last post is now well and truly in flower. It's one of my favourite plants because it flowers so early and really heralds the end of winter. Also it has the most beautiful smell in the world, and is very pretty. And I love the fact that the blossom comes out before the leaves do! Here it is as it was when I photographed it earlier today.

Apart from this and the other little spring things I couldn't help but stick in above, the bees are being prepped for another year. I haven't been to see them yet, but Dad has. There have been a couple of warm sunny days recently when other people we know have seen their bees flying, but we haven't been to see ours on a warm sunny day yet. Therefore we haven't opened them up yet - still way too cold - but Dad has checked on all 3 hives. One is looking very fragile, and he says that it probably won't make it as it is so weak. He still fed it though, so they have a chance. The other two however - a nuc and a full OSB - are thriving!! Apparently they have wintered very well and are still very populous colonies! All three hives have had some runny syrup and some commercial pollen patty, and hopefully these will give them a really strong start to the season.

We have also splashed out on a new style of feeder that we think might work (we haven't yet found one that suits both bees and humans!) and a queen rearing kit....so it promises to be an exciting year.

But even more exciting is the fact that a while ago we went to a meeting with some other members of our beekeeping assoc to discuss natural beekeeping. It's really interesting to contrast different beekeeping methods, and some members of our association are even using Warre hives now. I'm very interested in all this. I reckon that the bees have been around for 6 million years doing fine, and it's only been the last century or so that they've started having real problems, i.e. with human intervention and our delightful inventions of pesticides, the rise of monocultures, etc. Coincidence? Probably not.

It was a really enjoyable little meeting, although I was quite surprised by the air of rebellion - it felt almost as if we were meeting in an underground bunker discussing a very embarrassing problem or a secret outlawed religion, which would be frowned on by senior beekeepers who practice traditional beekeeping! I learned such a lot though. We were discussing how Warre and OSB hives work, and comparing them to more traditional hives and methods of beekeeping, as well as the importance of temperature and air flow in a hive, and colony balance (worker:drone ratio, e.g). But what most interested me was the fact that different plants give bees different pollens and carbohydrates. This seems like common sense, but I had never thought of it before. So bees need a varied diet, just like us humans. No wonder beekeepers in America who do the almond crop are having so much trouble with supposed-CCD - their colonies are just not getting the right nutrition.

More evidence to support my suspicion of monocultures. Everywhere I look, particularly at this time of year, there is evidence that nature doesn't support monocultures. Everything is mixed up, and as permaculturists would argue, although it looks like a mess to us, it isn't to nature. Time maybe to start planning my horticultural purchases/indulgences for this year. I still haven't got my Nepalese raspberry... ;)