The Art of Bee-ing … (Monday 4th March 2019)

queen beeI haven’t written here for a while (several months in fact), being in winter hibernation mode and focussed on other things (did I mention I’m studying towards an MA?  Short cold, dark wet days and long cold, dark wet nights are the ideal time for hunkering down indoors, head stuck in a book).  But in recent weeks, as the weather’s begun to show signs of what’s come to be known as our ‘fool’s spring’ (you know, that fickle burst of warmth in February, tricking us into thinking winter’s over – just before we get that ‘second winter’ in March) has turned my thoughts to the coming months.  And it’s not just me; a first tentative peek inside each of my three hives (since closing them up for winter back in November) revealed three sturdy colonies of busy-bees going about their busy-business of … well, just being bees.  IMG_20181020_153819I was pleased to find that all have (so far) survived the winter, and that my queens have re-started laying (queen honeybees take a break from egg-laying during the winter months, as the colony reduces down in size and bee-life slows down).  Also, that they’re still doing OK for stores; plenty of honey still in the combs, and not much interested in the sugar back-ups I’ve left on offer; even bringing in decent amounts of pollen from surrounding hedgerows, fields and gardens.   This is something of an achievement in itself for a first-year beekeeper, particularly as two of the three colonies were acquired (somewhat unexpectedly) quite late in the season, and the first lot came with long-established disease issue, which I evidently managed to bring under control.  There’s still time, however, for it all go wrong.  That’s the thing with beekeeping – it’s a bit of a gamble.  So, I closed them back up and I’ve left them alone.  Fingers crossed; they’ll get through these next crucial weeks, intact.

39499305_10214565952196899_4186939647210815488_oThere’s a curious contradiction in being a beekeeper.  On the one hand, we get to feel all hippy-happy and flower-power, tuning our hearts and minds into the shifting seasons and subtle naunce of bee behaviour; yet on the other, we get all kick-ass and hardcore, calmly plunging our hands into a seething mass of 60,000 stingy insects …  It’s an unusual mix.   And then there’s the multi-layers of additional skill and knowledge – it’s not just about the bees and honey; there’s gardening and botany (which flowers do they like/dislike? How much access do they have to forage?  What can I grow – and not grow – to help them along?), turning a hand to DIY (constructing and preparing hives, building and fitting frames) and a fair bit of thinking-on-your-feet (literally, as you stand there with the weather changing, hive open, bees dive-bombing your head, racking your brain for a quick-fix solution or bodge-it-& -codge it alternative to the essential *thing* that you forgot to bring).  Then of course there’s the kitchen action.  Not only the seasonal fun (and sticky mess) of honey extraction and jarring, wax cleaning and candle-making, but the year-round witchery of brewing sugar syrup and candy to supplement the bees’ fluctuating honey stores.   33460075_10209173410531657_2129993549033242624_o

One thing I’m aiming to add to my bee-keeping practice this year is essential oils.  I trained as an aromatherapist several years ago, and it feels like the obvious thing to me, to use natural essential oils rather than chemical products, for bee health and disease management.  it’s something that struck me as obvious when I learned that the main ingredient in proprietary products for treating varoa (a parasitic mite) is thymol, a constituent of thyme essential oil (from which it’s extracted).  I’ve been reading around the subject, and have a whole heap of ideas I want to try out.  But in the meantime, my attention is turned to spring sowing and growing in readiness for that bee-garden I’m aiming to create, at my main out-apiary site in Sennen.

53526711_2007735802854529_4913960619809439744_n.jpgI’m really lucky to have been given free(ish) reign to create a bee-paradise, at the back of a B&B where I have two of my (so far three) hives (making it, technically, a BeeB&B!).  The two main beds have been covered overwinter to subdue what was already there (a rampant mass of cultivated and wild flowers, weeds and who-knows-what-else) – working around patches of herbs still good enough to leave in-situ.  50277518_337487516852886_1256716209722753024_nIt should all be sufficiently died-down by now, so I can start to uncover small areas to work, digging out any larger roots and/or simply raking over the soil, covering stubborn areas with cardboard (to further suppress what’s underneath) before adding compost where necessary and making a start on sowing the many – many! – seeds that I have stashed away in readiness.  Including these, which I won in a Facebook giveaway from Mr. Fothergill’s.    Who doesn’t love a competition win, eh?! And flowers for free – now that’s got to be good.  Not just for me, but also my bees …

 

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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 …

 

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!

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