Bring Out yer Dead ….! (25 November 2018)

dead bee hiveEven knowing in advance that it’s going to happen as part of the normal seasonal cycle, that heap of dead bees piling up beneath the hive entrance is still a shock – particularly when first encountered on a cold, blustery November day, with no bees visible flying and the hive ominously silent – even more so when it happens to the two hives, side by side!  Fortunately I’ve been prepared ahead, with a good grounding of knowledge from the beekeeping course that I did before getting stuck into the actual practical action.  three_types_of_bees

While a honeybee colony in summer comprises anything up to 60,000 bees (the one female queen with many thousands of female workers and just a few hundred male drones, raised purely for mating purposes) their overall number reduces dramatically during autumn, as the male drones are all booted out (being no longer needed).  The short-lived female workers also continue to die (as they normally do), and whereas the housekeeper-bees would normally dump their deceased siblings further away from home they now instead drop them quickly outside the front door – on account of the colder weather making flight-runs that extra bit more hazardous.  Hence the rapidly accumulating corpse pile!  The queen also now takes a temporary break from egg-laying duties, meaning the usual relay of new-bees-replacing-old is interrupted – result being a sudden reduction in colony size, with those that remain hunkering down to form a tight ‘cluster’ deep in the hive centre; venturing out only if temperature and weather conditions are just right.  46764753_557474141384996_280025369413681152_nHence the eerie silence and seemingly lifeless hive, on this particularly cold, damp and windy November afternoon.

Knowing all of this in theory, it was still a worrying sight, and one that necessitated a quick lift of the lid (twice over!) for a reassuring peak inside.

What a relief to see ‘the girls’ still going quietly about their busy-bee-ness!

No getting away from it, the coming winter months are a potentially disastrous time, with a very real risk of colony collapse due to insufficient food, fluctuations in temperature and/or disease – all of which could mean starting over again with a new lot of bees in spring.  Hopefully it won’t come to that, as I’ll be keeping up with ongoing checks every 2-3 weeks, taking remedial action, feeding sugar supplements if and when needed … aiming to support them through.  sennen two hives.jpgThere are however noticeable differences in these two colonies here on the one site at Sennen, impacting the odds of winter survival.

The first colony, which I acquired back in June as part of a ‘job lot’ of hives and equipment, came with the preexisting challenge of a health issue that I appear to have overcome through careful management, and yet the colony itself has remained quite small – largely, I believe, as a result of their repeated insistence on raising new queens (which may have then swarmed), queen beemeaning they’ve never quite recovered in number and now face winter with the additional challenge of fewer bees to do the necessary work.  On the plus side, they do have plentiful food stores, and appear happy and healthy.  These repeat attempts at queen replacement indicate a possible ongoing problem (the bees themselves trying to fix it by genetic supercedure) and so, if they do survive overwinter I may give them a helping hand by replacing the existing queen with a new one, which I’ll source from a local breeder specialising in native Cornish Black bees.
46837061_354469262030313_7079979220650164224_nI will, however, see how they go, and decide at the time.  The second colony on this same site (acquired quite late in the season, from an amateur beekeeper friend) arrived strong and plentiful, and continues that way now; filling their hive-space more fully than their next-door neighbours.  But again, we will see.  Anything could happen – good or not-so-good – in the coming few months.  And this is before I factor in the many fluctuating variables of hive no 3, situated separately at Crowlascrowlas hive on palletThis colony poses it’s own set of challenges, being located in a higher, more exposed position; Cornish winds and heavy rains whipping inland from the open sea.  Last checked a fortnight ago, these are also doing well.  But who knows what I may find when I next go to check them again?  If nothing else, the beekeeping ‘journey’ is one of surprises.  An eternal learning curve …

 

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WWI Centenary – How Honey Bees Helped Win the War (11 November 2018)

Well, it’s a fairly sombre mood everywhere today.  46101245_329676591143028_3143993309953785856_n (1)How could it not be with the past four years build-up to WWI centenary commemorations reaching their culmination on this, the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.   My own direct connection to WWI (The ‘War to End All Wars’ – yeah, right.) is via my grandfather, William Frederick Wiseman, who I never met (he died three years before I was born) but know enough about to understand the horrors endured as a young soldier, injured and taken POW.  It disappoints me that, in amongst the hype of ‘lest we forget’ and ‘never again’ , very little attention is being given to those who, while they may have survived bodily intact, were utterly blown apart emotionally and mentally; this devastation showing not so much physically but more in behaviour and personality;  shellshock (now more accurately understood as PTSD) being a definite consequence for my grandfather, echoing down through future generations.

Feeling totally overwhelmed and utterly exhausted with it all today, I’ve turned my attentions elsewhere, and was delighted when this little snippet of social history popped up on Facebook. 12189531_925628147491682_1327214555852960287_n OK, so on closer inspection it turns out to be the wrong era; WWII as opposed to WWI; and of American origin, rather than UK.  But I’m fairly certain similar principles apply both sides of ‘the pond, with agricultural practices remaining largely unchanged across the decades.  Turns out honeybees played a vital role in national defence; not only in the production of food and seed but also in the manufacture and maintenance of military equipment – with 350 or more uses for beeswax in the navy and army (including waterproofing canvas tents, belts, cables and pulleys, also the metal casings of bullets) and 150+ applications in the pharmaceutical field.   I love the direct window into the past these old documents offer;  DO NOT OPEN validated by the claim of a hive void of ‘honey for human use’ – stocked only with ‘bee feed’.  With a wartime shortage of sugar and fruit on ration, the prospect of a sneaky sweet treat must’ve been a very real temptation; no doubt leading to surreptitious raids, under cover of darkness.  Also the instruction: ‘Hunters – Please Do Not Shoot’.  Can you imagine; some local poacher or gung-ho toff – even a group of naive local lads – firing bullets into a beehive … ?! The underlying sentiment, however; help win the war – protect bees; is as valid now as it was then; only now on environmental grounds more than military – yet still with that same foundation of fact; that no bees means no pollination … With disastrous consequences for everyone.

 

Making Chutney (8 November 2018)

44069125_726517754375909_1589381810712739840_nOk, so I tried to come up with a clever and witty title for this one – and failed.  Chutney.  Not a word that lends itself easily to rhyme or humour, but a classic addition to the traditional Ploughman’s Lunch; a go-to accompaniment to cold meats and cheese, and an ideal way to preserve allotment fruit and veg.  And OH so typically English, right?  Well, yeah-but-no-but.  As a savoury preserve made from fruit and veg simmered with sugar, vinegar and spices, chutney has it’s origins in British Colonialism.   Yup; as with so many aspects of this small island’s insular culture (think tea, marmalade, and Chicken Tikka Masala) chutney is an idea adapted from elsewhere; the sugar and spices a legacy of British Empire expansion, and the word itself rooted in the Hindi  चटनी chaṭnī, meaning ‘to lick’.  IMG_20170717_130359[1]I am not sure I’d want to be ‘licking’ chutney up all on it’s own, but it’s definitely a good thing to have stashed in the cupboard; a great way to use up allotment gluts, and something I’ve been experimenting with in recent years.   Turns out chutney is easy to make, once you know the basics.  Endless ingredient combinations are possible, meaning that no two batches need ever turn out the same (although they can if you want them to: just write it down so you can roll out your own signature recipe, time after time).  Stored in super-clean, tightly-sealed jars, chutney will keep for aaaaages (years and years) and – bonus – gets better with age.

I’ve no idea where I first found my recipe – or, more accurately, the recipe/s on which my own is based.  Certainly it would have involved some internet clicking, flicking through variois books, a few pages pulled from magazines.  And then some experimenting with ingredients, proportions and cooking times.  Wherever it began I now have my own tried and tested preference, which I adapt to whatever ingredients I have available to use.   My two most recent variants have involved a small mountain of apples given to me by a friend, together with my own surplus of tomatoes and chillies; the second batch including Hallowe’en pumpkin innards.   Two afternoons steaming up the kitchen in a sugar-vinegar-spice ‘aromatherapy’ session = a shelf now laden with jars packed with produce that I’d otherwise struggle to find a use for.  Chutney is not, however, the place for old or passed-its-best produce.  Ingredients need to be fresh, with any bruises, blemishes and rotten bits removed. Good ingredients = good chutney.

Ingredients & equipment:  the whole point with making chutney is that you can vary it, according to whatever ingredients you have and how you want the end result to come out tasting.  The basic (but endlessly flexible) rule is: vegetables & fruit, sugar, vinegar and spices.  See below for proportions (weights and measurements).

Fruit & Vegetables:  layer the flavours and textures; aim to balance savoury/sweet.  Onions are essential, for flavour and texture (unless of course you really dislike onions).  Garlic; not essential, but chuck it in if you want.  Apples, and other sweet fruit (which we tend to think of as ‘veg’) such as tomatoes, pumpkins and squash.  Maybe also a smaller amount of dried fruit – dates, sultanas, apricots, even figs or prunes, to add flavour and colour.  Then a more savoury layer; corgette, maybe some roots (carrots, sweet potato, parsnips, turnips, swede, even beetroot).   Some people use up green beans in chutney.  I’ve never tried.  But that’s just me.  Avoid starchy veg, such as potatoes, as these generally don’t work in chutney – and plus they do not need preserving in this way, because they keep well enough on their own.  Nor would I use green leaves, such as kale or cabbage; that would just be weird.  Chop everything the same size; small chunks or slices, so it all cooks down at the same rate.  The classic shop-bought Big Brand ‘pickle’ (you know the one) contains rutabaga (otherwise known as swede), carrots, onions, cauliflower and courgette, together with apples, dates, tomato paste and gherkins – coloured with caramel and thickened with cornstarch (neither of which you need in your own homemade).

Sugar: always some sort of brown, for flavour and colour.  Chutney made with white sugar would come out pale and uninteresting, and more than a tad strange.

Vinegar: very much a personal preference.  I avoid malt – it may be cheap, but it is harsh, and overpowering – and stick instead to wine or cider vinegar, with sometimes a small amount of balsamic substituted in the total.  But this is your chutney; your choice.

Spices: again personal preference.  Whatever works with the fruit and veg combo.  Final taste can be tweaked with dry spices added towards the end.  And remember, the taste will mature over time, as the chutney is stored; melding and deepening the flavours.

PROPORTIONS (weights and measurements): recipe can be scaled up, according to how much fruit and veg you have to use up – and the size of your pan.  Smaller batches are best, for both taste and ease.   So long as you keep the proportions in balance, it shouldn’t go wrong:

Fruit and veg 1kg total in combination.  For example, 300g each of onion, apples, tomatoes, with 100g  dried fruit of your choice (data, sultanas, even figs or prunes).  Play around with what you have available, and what you like to eat.  If using fresh chillies (as opposed to dried), include these in the fruit & veg total weight.  Then, for every 1kg of fruit/veg mix you will need 167g sugar and 330ml vinegar, with spices according to taste; no exact weights, just play around and find your own way.   

And if those odd numbers are confusing, try 600g fruit/veg, 100g sugar, and 200ml vinegar – again multiplying up, for larger batches.

You will need a large heavy-based pan, suitable for simmering over a slow heat for a long time, large enough to hold a LOT of ingredients, with room to stir – and to do this, a long-handled large wooden spoon (metal spoons scraping pans = not such a great idea).  Supreme+9L+Stock+PotAnd of course, glass jars.  With twist-top metal vinegar-proof lids.  You can re-use jars.  And you can sometimes re-use lids; the key point is they must be vinegar-proof, not smell of whatever they’ve been used for previously, and with the plastic inner seal sufficiently intact to close properly again; the idea is to keep air out (from the finished product) to prevent the growth of bacteria and/or mould, thus enabling long-term storage.  New lids cost mere pennies, and are worth investing in; rather than make do with less-than-perfect old ones.  The jars will need sterilising.  The easiest way is to wash them, then heat in the oven (more of this later).  Or put them in the dishwasher on hottest setting.  They must be absolutely clean and completely dry before the chutney goes in.

Method:

  1. 45681263_1208445632666165_5193659962550648832_n.jpgWash and rinse your jars, and also if they need it, the lids.  Put jars into oven ready to sterilise – keep the oven at this point switched off.  (or sterilise in dishwasher, whichever you prefer).  The lids also need to be be completely clean and totally dry.  Do not, however, attempt to sterilise them in the oven at the same time as the jars; this will only melt the plastic seal, rendering them useless.
  2. 44067920_503453543462071_8120555092442087424_nChop up all fruit and veg; everything in even size pieces; chunks or slices, as you prefer.  it will look like a LOT, and you may doubt it is all going to fit into those jars.  But it will.  The total mass will reduce to about a third of what you begin with.  (On this basis, you can estimate roughly how many jars you are going to need.  Always prepare a few more jars than you think you need – just in case).
  3. Add everything together into pan.
  4. Heat gently, stirring occasionally, so that the sugar dissolves and it eventually all comes up to the boil.  You can add a lid to speed this up.  Then reduce the heat right down and simmer slowly for as long as it takes – with lid now off.  44057807_2012935425412281_2698632976912089088_nThe slower the better, in my experience.  The chutney with progress through a series of stages, from pan full of individually recognisable pieces, separating out into a two-layer sweet-vinegar soup; half-cooked chunks below with liquid floating above; which will then reduce and converge into a thick gloop, increasingly recognisable as ‘chutney’.  44032544_1929219380446991_8682875897579044864_n If you want a finer texture, or if some of the harder veg are not breaking down, you can help things along with a potato masher.  Or not.  Choice is yours.  You’ll know it’s done when it reaches the ‘mud geyser’ stage; surplus liquid all evaporated off, total ingredients melded into a mush, through which the heat will rise to erupt in gentle (or not so gentle!) pops and plops, splattering out of the pan.  44093804_1898406860208411_2643371831737712640_nTo be absolutely sure, run the wooden spoon through, and if the line it creates remains visible for a brief moment (as opposed to flattening out to disappear immediately) then you are there.  The whole process can take anything up to four hours – so be prepared to read a book, listen to the radio, or write a novel while you wait – checking progress regularly along the way, obviously.  This last stage is when it can all go suddenly wrong, as the lack of liquid means the mix can at this point catch and burn.  If this happens, do not panic.  Turn the heat off and assess the damage.  Do not mix the burned bits into the finished product; just leave them there on the bottom of the pan.  On a positive note; a small amount of gentle ‘burn’ can actually add depth of flavour!  But if the chutney begins to catch too far before it’s finished cooking, best thing is to transfer into another pan, keep calm and carry on.
  5. When the chutney is nearing ‘done’, sterilise you jars.  Simply switch the oven on, to 120o / gasmark 2, and leave for 10-15 minutes.  Then turn off.  The idea is to dry completely, and kill off any bacteria or mould spores.  If the lids are still damp, they can go into the oven also for a short time, but only after it has cooled down from ‘hot’ to ‘warm’, just to dry them off.  Allow the jars and the chutney to both cool slightly before the next stage, though you do need both to still be quite hot, when you put the chutney into the jars.  Use a folded towel or oven mitt when handling the hot jars.  (But, truthfully, if you actually need to be told this, then you probably shouldn’t be left alone in the kitchen, messing around with a big pan of bubbling sugar and an oven full of hot glass jars).
  6.  Spoon the chutney into the jars.  Fill up nearly to the top.  44106462_283215785858515_9141669698616688640_n.jpgThe chutney should not touch the lid, but you do want as narrow a gap as possible, between the two (all about the bacteria and mould, remember).  And take your time; smaller rather than larger spoonfuls, to avoid trapping too much air as bubbles in the finished product.  Use a wide-neck funnel to avoid spilling chutney down the outside of jars.  Tap each filled jar gently but firmly a few times on the worktop, to level the  surface and allow air to rise and  escape.
  7. Put on the lids.  Do this while the chutney is still quite hot.  Twist the lids firmly but not too tightly shut – as the chutney cools it creates a vacuum, causing the lid to tighten a little more.  Leave to cool.  Oh, and now wash-up …
  8. When cold, add labels, and stash away in your cupboard.
  9. golden-crown-cartoon-icon-jewelry-for-vector-11865780.jpgExperiment and have fun.  Add to your stash, and, every now and then – over the coming weeks, months, years – open the cupboard and admire your glistening jars, and feel pleased with yourself; you are the Chutney King / Queen.

Startin’ Over (4 November 2018)

‘I bet you get loads of lovely stuff from your allotment, don’t you’.

21368897_10211976679066689_5321215366809826245_oNot so long back the answer to that question would have been an unequivocal: ‘Oh yes; loads’.  Well … maybe not loads, but quite a bit, and quite often, as an integral part of daily life.  But this last couple of years, not so much.  And this last twelve months, barely anything at all.  Yes, I have grown some, and what I have grown has been good – the usual summer flurry of fruit from long-established trees, bushes and plants doing there own thing, with little effort or intervention.  Potatoes – always potatoes, albeit mostly in bags, dotted around the garden at home.  And tomatoes – again grown at home in the garden.  Lots of tomatoes.  Chillies, and various herbs, mainly in the greenhouse – again at home.  An array of pumpkins in all shapes, colours and sizes – including a giant that made it to ‘Star Letter’ in a national magazine.  Also one or two ‘firsts’ – a rather fine heritage melon and a seemingly endless supply of cucumbers – and some giant-pumpkin-kitchen-gardenexperiments with the unusual; multicoloured glass gem and purple corns, and some rather marvelous beans, which I’ve repeatedly dried, saved and re-planted; the unexpectedly bright blue progeny of bog-standard red and white runners progressing year-on-year through shades of pink, purple and near-black.  But the week-in-week-out staples that we used to enjoy – salads and herbs, fresh green leaves and myriad roots … these have dwindled to the point of non-existence, mainly through diminished health meaning less time, energy or inclination for allotment action, with surgery to both hands – either end of 2017 – and twelve months immersed in post-graduate study kind of finishing me off for a while.  The turning point has come only very recently, with a concerted effort to physical rehabilitation and – the real motivator – my return to beekeeping and the discovering that beehives are not allowed on local allotment plots here in west Cornwall.  On the ‘up’ side, not being able to have them at the allotment spurred me on to find other places to put them, so that I now have the two quite different but equally fabulous out-apiaries not so far away, and in the meantime I’ve been in communications with my local council Amenities & Leisure manager, renegotiating the rules for allotment beekeeping – meaning that, come spring next year, I may be able to have bees on my plot.   Erm, my somewhat disorganised, neglected and overgrown plot, that is …

 

… Thus, I’ve been getting stuck back in – albeit slowly and gently.  Re-planning and reorganising.  Tidying and weeding.  Strimming.  Chopping stuff back.  Chucking out rubbish.  I’ve had a friend ask if she can come along and help.  45294673_2279284662305872_4500358649343901696_n.jpgWhich will be great.  And of course there’s my hubby, on hand for a bit of No-Dig shoving and shifting.  So things are definitely on the up, and moving again in the right direction.  I even spent an afternoon sorting through my mahOOsive collection of seeds – I have so many!  But they’re not doing me much good stashed away, unused.  Going through them – discarding those out of date, checking what I have and have not got; what I don’t need (2, 3, 4 packs of the same thing, and stuff I’m never going to grow).  Also what I do need (or want) but don’t have, and so need to buy.  All really helped to refocus, to start planning for the coming year.  Next step is to start sowing ahead, as there are many things can be started now, either in pots inside or out on the plot direct into the ground.  Getting a head start and giving me that feeling of ‘getting there’ …

 

Can We Dig It? (19 October 2018)

Yes we can.  But why bother if we don’t really need to ?!

This is the my first post on allotment and garden growing since deleting all previous content and changing the focus, to include my recent re-start with beekeeping.  I’d written previously about No Dig and feel it’s worth revisiting here, for this initial post on getting going again.  My Allotment plot has, in the last couple of years, become quite neglected.  Not through disinterest or laziness, but the practical impact of ill-health and reduced physical ability – impacting also on ventures in the Bee Garden and Bee Field.

Limits of time and health dictate that I have neither the energy nor inclination to expend hours or effort in overly physical and (dare I say it) boring tasks – including that age-old cliche of allotment and garden activity; digging.  Fortunately none of us now actually need to, thanks to the No Dig method perfected in recent decades by Charles Dowding, on a premise that is glaringly simple in its logic: nature does not dig, so why should we?

It’s an obvious point, and one that is hard to dispute.  Because aside from the occasional earthquake, volcano or landslide, nature – in her timeless wisdom – does not dig, and instead layers up soil depth and fertility with the seasonal cycles of life, death and renewal.  The No Dig method echoes this natural principle.  Obviously, yes, if you want to plant something like an apple tree or blueberry bush, you will need to dig a hole to plant them into.  ‘No Dig’ does not mean never digging.  It simply means no unnecessary digging (as is the traditional norm; all that ‘turning over’ and ‘double digging’, etc).  Digging disturbs the essential life of the soil (insects, worms, fungus and microbes).  Not digging allows this essential balance to remain undisturbed, thus making for healthier, more fertile soil – which of course equals more healthy plants – and less weeds.

12) October 2014Yes, weeds.  One of the main reasons that gardeners traditionally dig.

Again, obviously, the more well-established deep-rooted specimens do need to be dug out, and super-toughies such as brambles need to be chopped back, grubbed out or even burned out.  But more general weeds can be managed by suppressing their growth, by simply covering them to block out light, causing them to die.  There are two main ways to do this, with both variations on the same theme; suppression by cover.

1) Covering a larger area over the long-term (several months, even years) using purpose-made black woven ground cover, thick cardboard or anything else you happen to have – old dumpy bags (cut at seams and opened out flat) or even (as I have done) the discarded bouncy circle-base of an old trampoline!  [The one thing I would say to not use is old carpet.  Full of chemical toxins, difficult to move when wet, and generally nasty].  Whatever you use, the effect is the same; when eventually uncovered, the ground underneath will be beautifully clear, to work with relative ease.   IMG_20180318_142205[1]

Or 2) the more immediate method (for those impatient to get planting) covering a smaller area with a layer of something that will block light (thus killing weeds) but will itself eventually rot – most commonly cardboard (I have also used natural fabrics; old cotton towels, etc) – and on top of this a layer of fresh compost, into which you can plant, straight away.   Soil-improvers (seaweed, manure, sawdust, or products such as rock dust) can also be added as base or intermediate layers (the worms will pull this material down, to incorporate) but always finish with a deep layer of fresh compost, for sowing or planting into.  I’ve used both methods on my allotment (with a little help from the hubby) – covering large areas to come back to several weeks, months or even years later; or layering up smaller sections to start working immediately.  It’s definitely the way forward.  Not only on the allotment but also in the Bee Garden and Bee field, aiming to transform them each into into a productive growing space sooner, rather than later – and with much less hard work!

 

The Sugar List … (14 October 2018)

As discussed previously, there are times when we beekeepers give our bees sugar as a supplement to their own honey stores.  During times of increased brood (baby bee) production for example, and during those long, cold winter months, when bees stay sensibly inside and snack happily on the honey they spent the summer making and storing (boosted by these sugar supplements that we helpful beekeepers provide – just to be sure).  I’d heard rumours about the Tesco  ‘sugar list’ and thus tootled along to the Customer Services desk of my local branch, secretly expecting the staff there to have no idea what I was talking about …

44077948_337046247042743_7740494145088651264_n.jpg‘Ah yes’ the smiling Customer Services assistant replied: ‘You need to have your details added to the list, and then just wait – we’ll phone you; there’s a waiting list; you’ll be number five ….’.

A mere three days later I discovered a voicemail: ‘Hello, it’s Tesco’s here; we have some sugar for you … ‘.  Now we all love a bargain – even better if it’s free – and as a beekeeper (with three hives now on the go, and winter fast approaching) the repeat cost of sugar soon mounts up.  So to receive a large bag containing 12kg or so of perfectly usable (for bees) sugar was extremely welcome.  Various split or broken 1kg and 2kg bags, unsaleable and unsuitable for human consumption, but just perfect for dissolving with water to make bee syrup and (as I’ll discuss in a future post) bee ‘candy’.  Three weeks later, again a further 11kg or so.  44028229_570330083384075_7603604191516295168_nIn such a short space of time – and with several others between me in receipt of the same –  there is evidently a LOT of sugar getting spilled or simply becoming unsalable due to broken packaging.  So top marks to  Tesco for putting this scheme into action in collaboration with Bee Improvement for Cornwall (just a shame it is not – yet? – nationwide, rolled out to begin with just in parts of the Southwest).   A further fortnight on – and another lot; this time roughly 10kg of loose sugar in an extremely useful lidded bucket – bonus: food-grade plastic buckets again cost money, so to be given one for free … well, it just gets better and better!   44041536_308408093085154_8099903150221164544_nThis lot, I discovered, must have been swept up from (I’m guessing) the bakery floor, for I found it to be riddled with flakes of (I think) pastry (or was it nuts??) … Not that this mattered, for it was no great effort to shake the whole lot through a sieve, filtering out the detritus to be left with a fine mound of perfectly usable (for bee purposes) sugar – ideal for transforming into bee syrup, which I’ve been regularly making to feed to my bees 44047486_2301656010062604_2804885824955482112_nsince around the start of September.  A simple solution of sugar dissolved in hot water, allowed to cool and then stored in large plastic bottles.  Easy to transport and ideal for pouring to fill the purpose-designed feeder that goes into the top of the hive, beneath the roof, where the bees very quickly get stuck in – enjoying the easily-assimilated carbohydrate as a much needed energy boost at this busy time,  preparing to hunker down for winter.   44117037_111928833042398_223342577179426816_nI’ve even experimented by adding dried herbs to infuse the syrup for medicinal effect – a little ‘insider tip’ from an experienced beekeeper friend, adding variable combinations  of lavender, sage, thyme and rosemary – all of which I grow in my garden and store dried for kitchen use.

It’s really important – in fact it’s vital – to ensure that the bees have enough food stores to see them through winter.  This additional supply of immediately-assimilated carbs in the form of sugar is ideal for fuelling hard-working bees as they go about their busy work, and is given usually only at crucial times of the year, supporting the bees whilst allowing those precious honey stores to remain in the comb for for winter use.  38755326_10209578843307223_8658041898457366528_nIt’s essential however, that we supplement in this way only when we have no forthcoming plans to take off honey, and also not when there is sufficient forage (nectar-rich flowers in bloom), because although this additional sugar is intended for immediate consumption (like a person snacking on a high-energy bar before a run) it is not unheard of for bees to store these sugar supplies in the comb, just as they do with nectar (collected from flowers) – meaning the ‘honey’ we take off could in fact be white sugar, processed by the bees in the same way.  Not quite the high-quality natural product that we (or they!) are aiming for!

43763017_710946635933348_6124770883337715712_n

Vegan Vagaries … (12 October 2018)

38755326_10209578843307223_8658041898457366528_nIs honey suitable for vegans?

I’ve hesitated in publishing a post on this question, but it’s a subject that keeps arising, and so I here offer some thoughts on that controversial question: Is honey vegan?

The short and most obvious answer is of course an emphatic ‘no’.  Honey is an animal product, and vegans do not eat or use animal products in any shape or form.

‘What’?!  I hear a few disgruntled mumblings: bees are ‘animals’?  Well, yes, they are living creatures, and honey is the food they make for themselves.  Yes, that’s right; bees make honey for themselves.  They do not make honey ‘for’ humans.  honey-in-ancient-egyptBut at some point in our deepest history, people discovered that honey is not only delicious and nutritious as a valuable source of natural sweetness, but that it also has medicinal benefits; soothing sore throats and healing wounds in addition to tasting great – and is thus worth the trouble entailed in obtaining it.  Honey is referenced in the Bible as a symbol of prosperity and health, and in the Quran as ‘a healing for humankind’.  Classical Greece upheld the honeybee as a symbol of the Goddess Artemis, whilst the Ancient Egyptians believed honey to be the tears of their sun god, Ra; placing jars of honey in the burial tombs with other offerings to support the departed through their journey into the afterlife – its preservative qualities being such that honey discovered during excavations of the Great Pyramids was found to be still edible, 3,000 years on.  man of bicorpYet Humanity’s love for honey goes back long before this, as evidenced in the ‘Man of Bicorp’ cave painting on the walls of  The Cueves de la Arana (‘Spider Caves’) in Valencia, Spain, depicting honey being harvested around 8,000 years ago: not from a ‘hive’ as we know it now: people didn’t ‘keep’ bees back then but instead risked their lives for a rare taste of the sweet stuff, shimmying up trees or balancing against the cliff face on rickety rope ladders, to access the honey stored by wild colonies living high in hollow tree trunks or hard to reach caves.  Jan-van-der-Straet_Bauerlicher-BienenstandWild honey harvesting continues to this day in some parts of the world, and remained the only option prior to the medieval adoption of the straw ‘Skep’ as the preferred method right through to the late 18th century, when the modern box hive began to take form.  So, humans eating honey – and ‘keeping’ bees – is nothing new.  But yes, honey is an animal product – and so no, technically, honey is not vegan.  43195801_1837661159651843_6289365265754882048_n.jpgBut as with many aspects of human belief and behaviour, there are many shifting shades of grey to vegan rhetoric.  Many vegans I know will use no animal products at all, including honey and all related products, on the principle of not wanting to benefit from the exploitation of other living creatures.   Others I know will use certain products if the animals involved are neither harmed nor exploited – such as eggs from garden-kept chickens that will not be killed for meat, and honey produced by small-scale hobby beekeepers (such as myself).  I totally ‘get’ this, for I too consider the provenance of products and choose to not eat honey from large-scale producers; buying only from reputable small local beekeepers – and now, even better, endeavouring to produce my own.  So yes, I understand the principles.  emi cropI am however shocked by the array of misinformation and blatant propaganda circulating around the vegan community with regard to honey; what it is and how it’s produced; much of it promulgated by passionately motivated yet ill-informed enthusiasts, who very clearly have never had a conversation with an actual beekeeper – never mind taken a look inside an actual hive.   I here address some of these misconceptions, in what’s turned out to be a rather long post.  Bear with me, as I explore some complicated issues – ultimately leaving you to make up your own mind.

(for those finding this post a little too long – and it is long! – the key points are available to read individually under the Menu Heading Is Honey Vegan?

Honey propaganda myth No1: All beekeepers kill their bees in order to harvest the honey.   

A lot has changed in 8,000 years.  Yes, when our prehistoric ancestors plunged their bare hands deep inside the wild bee colony to break off chunks of dripping honeycomb, certainly a number of bees died in the process; mainly the larvae and grubs encased in the hexagonal cells of the comb, all of which got eaten along with the honey – valuable extra protein with the sweet hit!  hive structureLikewise, the medieval monks housing wild-caught swarms in their new-fangled straw skeps had just the one option when it came to harvesting; splitting open the skep to break up the comb to retrieve the honey (filtering out the bits of bees, larva and wax through a fine fabric sieve) before starting all over again with a new swarm in a new skep.  The development of the modern box hive changed all this,  with the deliberate design of a two tier system, in which the queen and colony live safely in the lower chamber, called the ‘brood box’, whilst the honey is harvested only from the level above this, called the ‘super’.  honey-super3It is a relatively easy process to lift off the supers to remove the honey without damaging or killing any bees along the way.   As a small-scale hobby beekeeper, the last thing I want to do is harm my bees.  A brand new colony of honey bees from a reputable breeder costs on average between £150-£200.  Or you can raise your own, with time and skill.  As beekeepers we spend all year nurturing and tending our bees – expending vast amounts of time, money, and effort in keeping them alive.  It would be utter madness to kill them during the all-to-brief summer honey harvest – only to then have to start all over again; buying more bees!  It is however a miserable fact of large-scale honey production that industrial beekeepers do not share the same regard for their bees, and may indeed find it more cost-effective to destroy the bees during or after summer honey harvest and buy more the following spring – rather than worry about (and spend time and money on) keeping them alive over the winter months.  For a small-scale beekeeper, however, the exact opposite is true; we strive to support our bees to survive, and take care not to harm them.

Vegan propaganda myth No2: The Queen bee is kept prisoner by having her wings ‘ripped out’ so she cannot escape.  Because bees will not produce honey without a queen.

I’ve read this on numerous vegan blogs.  It is not entirely true.  But not entirely untrue either.  Yes, some beekeepers (particularly those working on a larger scale) will prevent the queen bee from being able to fly by clipping her wings.  NOT by ‘ripping’ them out but, more accurately, by trimming the wings with small sharp scissors (removing no more than a third) so they remain intact but become non-functional.  Yes, I know this sounds harsh, and to understand the rational you need to first understand some basic bee behaviour.  three_types_of_beesA honeybee colony comprises three types of bee; female Queen, female workers, and male drones.  The queen bee is the central figure in the colony.  While there are many tens of thousands of workers and a much smaller number of male drones, there is only one Queen, and her sole purpose in life is to lay eggs – up to 2,000 per day!  No queen = no bees (which of course means no honey).  The queen bee’s highly specialised anatomy means she is unable to forage for her own food, or perform any of the many basic tasks of survival.  She is totally dependent on her worker offspring – as they in turn are dependant on her.  lf, however, she ‘fails’ in her egg-laying duties (through ill health, poor genetics or simply old age) then the colony will waste no time in raising a replacement, and they will then kill the old queen (their own mother) – making way for the new one to take over.  imagesEither that or they will swarm.  This means that the colony will split; first they will go through that same process, raising a new queen; half will then leave with the old queen to set up home elsewhere, while the other half remain with the new queen, and carry on as they were.  This leaves both halves of the split temporarily weakened and vulnerable – which can be bad news for a beekeeper, as the remaining colony may then collapse, or take time to recover from the swarming process – time that could have been better spent thriving and producing honey.  But here’s the thing; if the queen cannot fly, then the colony will not swarm.  That is why beekeepers clip (not rip!) the queens wings.  Not to ‘keep her prisoner’ but to ensure the colony stays strong.   On a personal note, I do not clip my Queen bee’s wings.  In fact I don’t know any beekeepers who do.  It is mainly the larger scale industrialised honey producers who do this.

Vegan Propaganda myth No3: The Queen bee is artificially inseminated against her will, and forced into servitude.

Again, this is a complicated one.  Beekeepers replicate the social structure of bees in the wild.  So to understand the principles and practices of modern beekeeping, it helps to first understand some basics of natural bee behaviour.  A colony of honey bees is made up of one Queen and a varying number of workers and drones; a new swarm will contain around 20,000 bees in total, while a well established colony will comprise up to 60,000 – reducing down as winter approaches; increasing through spring and summer.  Of this total only a few hundred will be male drones – their sole purpose being to go out and mate with a queen.  The rest of the colony is made up of infertile female worker bees – and, as the name suggests, these girls do all the work, being allocated different tasks throughout the course of their lives, ranging from nursery duty (feeding and cleaning up after the babies) to door-guard, housekeeper and food production, and of course the important duty of attending to the Queen, whose only purpose in life is to lay eggs.  Within her first week of life, the new Virgin Queen will leave the hive on her ‘maiden flight’, seeking out a crowd of male drones flying en-mass in search of available queens.  downloadOnly a few ‘lucky’ drones actually ever get to ‘do the deed’ – a brief encounter that leaves their genitals ripped from their body and embedded temprarily inside the queen – shortly after which, he dies.  Yup: nature is brutal.  The mated queen then returns to the hive, and settles down to the important work of laying eggs, day in, day out – for her entire life.  A queen may have mated with several drones on that one occasion.  Those drones may be infected with any of the many diseases currently contributing to bee decline; they may be carrying virus or bacterial infection (which then gets passed onto the colony, who then spread it to other colonies) or be genetically prone to certain health problems and behavioural tendencies.  For this reason some beekeepers – particularly those working on a larger scale – prefer to buy in queens that have been artificially inseminated by drones bred specifically to be good tempered and disease-free – as opposed to allowing their queens to fly off and mate randomly with bees of unknown genetic profile and potential health risk.   In the wild a colony will periodically raise a new queen to replace the old, in an attempt to eradicate disease and other problems, or when the Queen becomes too old to continue laying.  Beekeepers simply replicate this natural behaviour, utilising the wonders of modern science.   But not all beekeepers.  As a small-scale hobbyist, I allow my colonies to raise their own queens – as and when they decide they need – and allow these queens to do their natural thing, flying off to mate where, and with whom, they choose.  This of course brings it’s own complications; the queen may not return – or she may return un-mated and unable to lay the essential fertilised eggs; thus the colony may die (unless they are quick to raise another new queen who then successfully mates).  Or she may return, carrying disease infection.  For this reason, as responsible beekeepers we regularly inspect the hive and colony within, looking for signs of disease and other issues – for which we then take the necessary action, supporting the bees to overcome the problem.

Vegan Propaganda Myth No4:   Beekeepers ‘gas’ their bees into submission using smoke.

The worse example I’ve seen of this particular nugget of mis-information is in a video produced by a wildly popular young female vegan vlogger, drawing parallels between beekeeping and a Nazi concentration camp; cross-flashing images of beekeepers smoking bees with historic footage of Jews entering the gas chambers, in a video deliberately intended to enrage.  smoker.jpgI have to say without doubt this is total rubbish; a propagandist fantasy postulated on a glaring lack of any real knowledge or experience of actual beekeeping.  The reality of the bee smoker is that, again, all we are doing is replicating the bees own natural behaviour.  In the wild, bees have a natural survival instinct against fire.  Alerted by the smell of smoke, a colony of bees will prepare to leave their home, and instinctively they ‘pack up’ the one thing they need to survive – food.  Gorging on their honey stores until their honey stomachs are full, the sudden rush of sugar makes them peaceful and drowsy.  As beekeepers we utilise this natural behaviour, calming the bees with a few gently puffs of smoke, in preparation for opening the hive – making the whole experience more enjoyable for all involved – also lessening the risk of being stung.  The bees are not harmed, and the beekeeper is protected: win-win.

Vegan Propaganda Myth No5Honey is bee vomit. 

This one is high up there on the list of ‘scare tactics’ designed to put people off eating honey.  And I’ll admit, it does have the ‘eugh’ factor.  But it depends what you mean by ‘vomit’.  If, as a human, you came staggering home late after a night on the booze, stopping off for a kebab along the way – and as you stumbled in through the door barfed up the alcohol-soaked-semi-digested contents of your stomach, this would be vomit, and not something that you would want to 1) share with your friends, or 2) shovel into a storage container to save for later.  Pic_BeeAnatomyIf, however, you were a honey bee, you would have two stomachs.  Yes, that’s right, and a fairly major point that these vegan propaganda bloggers somehow ‘forget’ to mention.  Honey bees have two stomachs.  One is the ‘true’ stomach; part of their digestive system.  The other is a purpose-specific and much larger ‘honey stomach’.  Not a part of the digestive system, but a separate organ entirely, serving as shopping bag, mixing bowl, cooking pot and storage container all in one, where nectar (a sweet sticky liquid collected from flowers) is stored and processed into honey before being packed for storage in the hexagonal comb cells – from where it can later be retrieved as needed.  Yes, it is enzymes in the honey stomach that transform the nectar into honey.  And yes, the process involves passing the nectar/honey from bee to bee, each taking a turn in the work – but hey, this is bees, not humans.  And not ‘vomit’.

Vegan propaganda myth No6: beekeepers ‘steal’ honey from bees, and feed them instead on white sugar, which is bad for their health.

Again, the answer lies somewhere between yes and no.  Honey is a specialised food, made by bees for bees.  No getting away from that fact.  And so yes, in taking the honey from a beehive we are, in effect, ‘stealing’ the food that the bees have worked so hard to make for themselves.  43951043_2261743254112711_6183342941491167232_nBees need two main foods to survive, and both are collected from flowers; protein (in the form of pollen) and carbohydrate (in the form of sugar).  Honey is 82% sugar, but it also contains trace vitamins and minerals and mystery substances that science is unable to identify or replicate.  It really is magical stuff, and as a responsible beekeeper putting the welfare of my bees before my own sweet tooth, I personally choose to leave sufficient honey on the hive for the bees, taking only the surplus – if there is a surplus – for human use.  But of course, not everyone does it this way, and again it is commercial beekeepers who are most guilty of ‘stealing’ the entire honey harvest from bees that they may then destroy – or, if they do keep them going overwinter, feed on sugar as the cheaper alternative.  The beekeeping community is strongly divided over whether this does – or does not – harm the bees health.  I personally feel that it’s a bit of a ‘no brainer’.  Bees invest their entire life in making this special food, on which they rely for survival.  I myself believe that replacing this purpose-created food with processed white sugar has got to have a negative impact on bee health.  It is a fact, however, that all beekeepers will at some point rely on sugar as a means of ensuring their bees have enough to eat in times of shortage.  Bad weather, extreme cold, attack by predators, disease and other disasters can leave a colony short of food; as can an increase in brood (baby bee) production; and the only way to overcome this is to provide additional sustenance,  in the form of sugar as carbohydrate.  This is done by giving Syrup, fondant or bee-candy, which are made by dissolving and/or cooking sugar and water in variable combination.   My own syrup and candy recipes include the addition of herbs (lavender, thyme, rosemary) for medicinal effect, and I give these processed white sugar products only to supplement – not replace – the bees own honey.

Vegan Propaganda Myth No7by not eating honey you will ‘save’ the honeybee. 

This is a difficult one.  It is a fact that honey bees are in decline, at an alarming rate.  Not just those ‘enslaved’ by beekeepers but bees in the wild as well.  There are ten or so diseases potentially fatal to honeybees.  dead-bee-791x382These diseases spread from bee to bee, and from colony to colony, through the normal social contact of bees going about their normal bee activity – unknowingly passing virus, bacteria, fungus, moulds and parasites between themselves and each other.  As beekeepers we regularly inspect our hives for signs of these problems, and take the appropriate action to prevent or treat.  Wild bees simply die from these same diseases, or at best struggle against adversity – in the meantime spreading the infections far and wide, free from human ‘interference’.  From this perspective, domestic beekeeping plays a vital role in supporting honey bees to survive and thrive; beekeepers striving to protect and strengthen bee colonies against disease.  Again, this is more true of small-scale beekeepers, rather than those working on an industrial scale; for as hobbyists and small-scale producers we take care to protect and maintain the health of our bees – whereas larger scale operators may be more inclined to miss the signs, with such vast populations to monitor, and may prefer to destroy rather than treat, if disease is present.  They also work within a much more generous financial margin; the loss of one hive countered by the profits of another.  Whereas small independent beekeepers will be working within a much tighter financial framework, reaping smaller monetary rewards whilst very likely paying out more in higher quality bee care.   So, not eating honey will not ‘save’ the bees and could in fact have the total opposite effect; forcing the more responsible and environmentally aware beekeeper out of action, thus reducing the total bee population, with the resultant drop in monitoring and treatment leaving bee disease free to spread more freely.   bee flowers

One argument against this, is that bees in the wild ‘will find a way’ – the assumption being that their immune system will adapt to overcome the problem.  Well, yes and no.  In an ideal world, wild bees would be thriving, their immune systems and overall health bolstered by the array of nutrients found in natural forage.  But the truth is that natural bee habitat, including food-forage, has dramatically declined and continues to do so, meaning that bees – and other pollinator insects – simply do not have enough to eat, and what they do eat may be lacking in sufficient nutrients and/or contaminated by the chemical fertilisers and herbicides of industrial agriculture – the very same industrial agriculture that produces the fruit and vegetables eaten by vegans.  So you could argue, in reverse, that if you don’t eat honey but you DO eat fruit and vegetables, as a vegan you are yourself contributing to harming – rather than ‘saving’ – the bees!

Yes, I’ll say that again.  By eating fruit and vegetables (including nuts and seeds) you are benefiting from the work of honey bees – including those that are commercially managed.  The very same bees whose honey you may refuse to eat.

Let me explain.

The vast scale of industrial farming, and the absence of wild habitat, means there are simply not enough wild bees and other insects available to pollinate the huge fields of mono-crop agriculture.  r428922_2048632In the absence of sufficient wild insects it is normal practice for large-scale farmers to employ commercial beekeepers, transporting thousands of hives across thousands of miles to different locations at different times of the year, to pollinate these crops into production.  Almonds, for example (the key ingredient in that vegan staple; almond milk) rely on commercial bee pollination – as do so many of the foods central to a vegan lifestyle (avocados, for example).  Indeed, if you as a vegan want to truly avoid consuming products reliant on the commercial exploitation of honeybees, then your only option would be a greatly restricted diet; mainly grass-based cereal crops (wheat, oats, barley, etc), wind-pollinated plants (tomatoes – hoorah!) and non-pollinated crops (potatoes, for example).  Not much fun.  And not much help to the bees and other insects, nor your own health – or the environment as a whole.   pumpkins old plotThere is however a better way, and that is to buy only local and/or organic produce from small independent producers or, even better, grow your own (thus reducing the toxic load of agricultural chemicals).  You could also grow pollinator-friendly flowers to feed and strengthen your local bee (and other pollinator insect) population.  And you could also (here comes the curveball!) support your local small-scale beekeeper by  … buying and eating their honey!

Well, haven’t I just lobbed a grenade there?!   Please bear with me, just a moment more.  Technically, no, honey is not vegan.  boom-5All honeys, however, are not created equal.  Where the large-scale commercial beekeeper (working alongside the large scale commercial farmer) is concerned primarily with financial profit, the small-scale local beekeeper is first and foremost concerned with the welfare of their bees.  Many small-scale beekeepers are also enthusiastic gardeners or allotment growers, supporting their local environment to support its local bee (and other pollinator insect) population.  Buying and enjoying honey from your local small scale beekeeper actively supports that beekeeper in their endeavours.  So yes, while honey – being an animal product –  is technically not vegan, it very much depends on the honey, and where you – as a vegan – sit on the sliding scale of veganism.   If your blanket rule is ‘no animal products, per se’ then no, you will quite rightly choose not to eat honey.  But if your main concern is the ethics and morality of beekeeping practice and the welfare of honeybees, and you want to support the natural environment as a wider whole, then honey from a small local beekeeper could be for you.  It is ultimately a matter of personal choice – but a choice that is better made on the basis of accurate information, as opposed to sensationalist propaganda.

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