National Honey Monitoring Scheme (Saturday 25th September 2021)

Beekeeping has so many different aspects to it. Pottering around outside in all weathers, communing with nature, talking to insects, growing flowers, and eating all that lovely honey. Well, yeah, all of that. But it also hits a few nerdy spots for those with a mind thus inclined. That would be me, then.

Last year I joined the National Honey Monitoring Scheme, which is a project aiming to monitor long-term changes in the health of the UK countryside. How am I contributing to this ambitious plan? By sending in an annual sample of honey produced by my bees. Me and several hundred (or is it thousands of?) others around the country. These samples are analysed for pollen content, revealing the types of flowers the bees have visited for food, providing a snapshot of crops and other habitats surrounding our apiaries – thus building up a substantial profile of the entire UK.

Quite a quest, huh?!

Last year’s sample went from one of my hives then at Sennen. A particularly delicious liquid gold honey, with a sweet citrus note. It took eight months for analysis results to come back, and I was surprised (and somewhat disappointed) to find that the primary source was a mix of brassica species – (turnip, cabbage and cauliflower, broccoli, oilseed rape, various mustards). So much for that ‘citrus’ note?! Additionally there were various types of ivy, also bramble, heather and numerous wildflowers. Quite a mix, and a fair representation of location; rural coast dominated by monocrop fields, interspersed with woodland and wild habitat.

This year I’ve sent honey from a different location, just four miles west of Sennen, a little further inland at a place called Crows an Wra. Still surrounded by farmland. So very possibly a similar profile. I just have to wait another eight months to find out …

Is there a doctor in the house? (Friday 24th September 2021)

Not yet, but there will be in a few years from now. Not that I’ll be able to fix anyone’s broken leg, because I won’t be *that* kind of Doctor, but one of those academics with a head full of knowledge that I myself find fascinating but does not necessarily enthral the crowd at my local pub (and is unlikely to save any lives). I am nevertheless feeling both excited and accomplished at being accepted as a Doctoral research student at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies. I am also feeling a little overwhelmed, because … well, y’know what they say about ‘be careful what you wish for’ … this of course only the beginning, for now the real work begins (just one week from now: start date October 1st. Gulp).

It’s a funny old feeling – like the world (well, not the entire world but my own personal little patch of it) has shifted, whilst at the same time remaining the same. The news came on Thursday, initially, by email (followed the next day by a more official letter) and in celebration we (hubby and me) went skipping off downhill for fish & chips on the prom (tiddley-om-pom-pom). Ah yes, we know how to live. Even the intermittent cloudy showers could not spoil it for us. There’s a lot to get organised – a major point being funding (or, at this point, lack of, but I’m aiming to get this sorted ASAP). And in the meantime, this last few days – while I have headspace free – I’ve been plodding on with the edit of my MA thesis material, which I am reworking into what I hope will be saleable products, ie. a series of books aimed at those with an interest in local Cornish history and folklore … (I know, I know, I ‘m being a little cryptic here, not quite revealing the whole just yet. But I will. When myself and my work are ready for public scrutiny) …

Harvest Moon (21st September 2021)

2021 Harvest Moon, Penzance (photo credit Greg Huckfield)

Barley moon, Corn moon, Fruit moon … call it what you will … is the final full moon before the Autumn equinox, and a marker point for farming cultures throughout human history, calling time on crop harvests before the weather takes a seasonal turn. Hence the name. A full moon hanging heavy and bright in the night sky, is always a sight worth seeing, and living on the far-southwest Cornish coast we get to enjoy a really clear view of this natural phenomena, enhanced by the relative absence of overbearing electric street lights and surrounding expanse of sea, lending a mystical feel to the whole experience. I really enjoy summer – I function best, both physically and mentally, in warmth and light rather than cold and dark – so for me this time of year has a tinge of sadness, because I know that winter is on its way, necessitating a shift in to hibernation mode. I do however value the ‘pause and reflect’ effect of this seasonal downshift, looking back on the last few months and making plans for what’s to come next.

Which for me of course means bees, plants, and words.

This season for me has not been a good one, for bees. There, I’ve said it. Nothing instagram-worthy about that declaration, eh?! (I did a business start-up course years ago, and the tutor would repeatedly tell us: ‘Make out that you’re a great success, even if you’re not’. Pretending to be something I’m not has never come naturally or comfortably to me, so obviously I struggled with this – supposedly basic – aspect of self-promotion, being unable to con myself – never mind others into *believing*. Good thing I never went into advertising eh?!). Nor has it been a particularly prolific period on the allotment, the obvious point being that I’ve spent so little time or effort there, having insufficient energy and inclination to do so. It has, however, been a good few months on the academic and creative side of things. Proving the point, that it it is true what ‘they’ say: that you cannot have it all (and perhaps should not try).

But back to the bees …

sole survivor (colonies 1 & 2 out of 5, combined)

From what I’ve seen on social media chat and also in the news, it’s not been just me. Beekeepers everywhere have had a difficult year this year. Beekeepers in France have been so hard-hit they’ve had to request financial help from their government, with honey harvest in some areas dropped to below half the usual amount. On Facebook I’ve seen others such as myself, starting the season well but by early summer realising that something is very wrong.

wax moth larvae

I ended last year with six colonies, all separately hived, all doing well; out of these, five came through winter successfully, and I looked forward to what I thought was going to be a great year for honey. And then … The cold wet spring meant insufficient food-forage at that crucial time, and from there they not only didn’t pick up but floundered. Unusually, I’ve had to continue supplementary sugar feed right through summer, and still they’ve struggled. Add to this enthusiastic robbing by wasps, an infestation of wax moths, and the end result is just two out of those five colonies survived. Ironically, this is the two that I moved from one location to another back in June, downsizing from three apiary sites to two. Transporting beehives from one place to the next is a risky business, in this case resulting on one of these two hives becoming queenless, so that I then took the further decision to combine the two into one. Astonishingly, it’s these that have now survived. Leaving me with just this one, supersize (double brood box) hive to pin my hopes on, for overwinter. Fingers crossed they will get through, and in spring I can start again – raising new colony splits from this one hive, to continue forward.

frames of beeswax

On a positive note, this has given me lots of new beeswax (to be transformed into candles). Far less bee worries over the next few months. And more head space for everything else … which right now mainly means writing. I am currently awaiting confirmation of a place as a PhD research student, building forward on the MA which I completed earlier this year. It is very exciting but also quite daunting. PhD or not, I’ll be taking these ideas forward in the creation of a series of books, which I am now working on (Watch. This. Space) ….

September already (8th September 2021)

How did that happen?! The year has whizzed by, and summer has passed in a whirl, with family fun as priority. With grandchildren aged 8 and 2, and the beach on our doorstep, there’s been a lot of sun, sea and sand, plentiful ice-cream, and a fair amount of fish ‘n’ chips eaten straight from the box whilst sat on the sand/grass/prom bench: a lot of wet towels, soggy swimsuits and sandy shoes, bags of sea-glass, crabs in buckets and bundles of driftwood, with the highlight for me being my first attempt at SUP boarding – including of course the inevitable fall-off with a grand splash. To top it all, we’ve been back-garden camping in a fabulous VW tent (Simple pleasures and – bonus – no campsite fees!). Inevitably, the allotment has gone neglected, with only the occasional visit, purely for family fun.

And then there are the bees. This has been an unusually difficult bee-year, with a number of factors impacting on bee health and honey production. Starting the year with five hives (of six overwintered) I am now down to two! I’ll be nurturing these through autumn in preparation for winter: this will be the first year I’ve taken no honey off for human use: instead I’ll be leaving it all for the bees, giving them the best chance of surviving through to next spring. As ever, my granddaughter has been keen to help – with her baby brother watching (and learning) from a safe distance.

Write on (11th August 2021)

So … My husband wrote a book.

A simple statement that fills me with collaborative wifely pride. We are a multi-talented marriage, and it’s been a pleasure to observe and support him through the creative process; from idea to finished product, available to purchase here https://www.amazon.co.uk/FM247-RADIOS-MOTION-Pop-Novel/dp/B099G6FHC5/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=rob+spooner&qid=1628661004&sr=8-1

This pop novel is a sequel to FM247: This Is Radio Binfield! joint-authored in 2009 with lifelong friend Andrew Worsdale. This sequel is all the hubby’s own work, and is told via the voice of DJ narrator Lugwin Loggins. Admitted to hospital following an acute psychotic episode, he is haunted by a childhood dream about the killing of the Albanian Civil Rights leader, Ramiz F. Kreshnik, and experiences daily the effects of a schizo-affective disorder causinghim to hear voices – including that of his DJ persona ‘The Emperor’. Attempting to unlock the roots of these issues, his doctor prescribes ‘radio therapy’, motivating Lugwin to compile a playlist of one hundred songs; these form the chapter structure of the book, with each song informing Lugwin’s understanding of how his fractured family background has shaped his mental health, as he seeks to transition from hospital to Community Care. Will Lugwin recover, and maintain his mental health? Can he make his dream of public service broadcasting a reality?

Work is already in progress on a prequel rewrite, currently working-titled FM247 On The Air, and you can read more about the man himself here: just pop up the the menu bar and click on ‘Rob Spooner – FM 247.

Meanwhile, my own writing ventures have been (temporarily) side-lined, in favour of family fun, as we’ve had our granddaughter staying with us for the summer. Here she is (together with next door’s cat) ‘modelling’ grandpa’s book, perched on the bench outside in the community garden (which we – ourselves and neighbours, as a collective – have been creating this last couple of years, and which I keep intending to blog about but as yet haven’t – but will – i really will! – be doing very soon).

Write. I’m on it. (Sunday 4th July 2021)

10.48 PM. Just a few hours since my previous post. Mission accomplished. I attended my first (of what will be many) ‘live session’ of the Memoire writing course, as per today’s previous post. Like a lot of people, this whole Zoom-meet thing is quite new to me … well, not *completely* new, because my MA was by distance learning, studying ‘at’ the University of Wales Trinity Saint David via the magic of modern internet connection. So, not entirely new. But new enough. And then there was lockdown. And now we all have Zoom fatigue. The positives, nevertheless, still outweigh the negatives – most obviously, now, being able to ‘attend’ a course hosted by a tutor in Canada, along with fellow students all around the world, accommodating different time-zones, altogether in cyberspace. Live chat and interaction – plus – bonus! – the whole thing gets recorded, so we can watch it again, whenever, wherever, and however many times we might want or need. A wholly different experience to my undergraduate studies, way back when …

But I digress ….

Topic for the evening was ‘memoire as poetry / poetry as memoire’ with guest speaker Canadian poet and glass artist Kim Mckellar – who, I confess, I had never heard of until now. Here is an example of her work …

Poetry is an art that I myself am yet to master. Yet. If ever. One day (perhaps) I may try. Perhaps. In the meantime, this first session was inspirational, and energising … yet it left me depleted. I’d not known what to expect, found it difficult to stay focussed, and then when it was over I felt fidgety and strangely emotional … Simultaneously flat, weirdly tearful, yet oddly also rested and lifted. Only one thing for it: a hot, deep, bubbly bath. With tea. And chocolate. Waiting for the kettle to boil (for said tea) my gaze followed through the kitchen window to this climbing rose (pictured, below) currently sprawling, in full bloom, up and over the back fence. Framed against a dramatic sky (not yet dark with night, but heavy with impending weather) it somehow matched my mood. The picture does it no justice: poor lighting and insufficient techno-whizzary to make full use of the camera settings. I’ll take another tomorrow. In better light.

I acquired this rose almost exactly five years ago, in the first week of July 2016. It was then very small and scraggly, merely a couple of short stems with a few leaves but a strong root system, bursting to escape the 5-inch pot in which it sat, grasping onto life, in a forgotten corner of my mom’s overgrown back garden. She had died, suddenly, just a few days previous, five weeks short of her 80th birthday. I brought it home and planted it out in my own garden, where it has since grown steadily, extending its reach to fill almost the entire fence, drooping indulgently over into the back alley, all sprawling branches, sharp thorns, and abundant foliage. It flowers every year at this same time, marking the anniversary of her passing with an ever-expanding display of outrageously glorious magenta pink blooms.

It must mean something, I am sure. I just don’t quite (yet) know what.

Write on. (Sunday 4th July 2021)

Well this is exciting. A change from the more usual blog focus on bees, garden growing and health. Last week I enrolled on a creative and nurturing writing course. A memoire-writing course with award-winning Canadian playwright, performer and best-selling author Alison Wearing .

Yes, I know that I just finished an M.A., I have a few projects on the go, and am applying to start a PhD (fingers crossed) this coming autumn. But this is different. A side step from formal academics to more personal endeavours languishing far too long on the back-burner. I am beyond excited, as I’ve been wanting to do this for quite some time (several months, in fact) but I kept putting it off, awaiting that mythical *one day* … you know, the ‘one day’ that never comes …

Well, that ‘one day’ is now here. Result being that, simultaneous to feeling ‘beyond excited’ I am somewhat apprehensive … because of course now there is no excuse. Nowhere to hide. The time is here. The time is now.

My li’l ginger study buddy, October 2017

‘Save’ the bees … or, did y’hear the one about the bee that walked into a bar? … (Friday 2nd July 2021)

Social media. A double-edged sword. Simultaneous blessing and curse. A great way to keep in touch / A murky swamp of misinformation … including an alarming array of inaccurate ‘how to save / help feed the bees’ misinformation masquerading as ‘advice’. From the well-worn ‘revive a tired bee with a teaspoon of sugar and/or honey & water’ cliche to this latest meme depicting a plate of grated apple, crawling with badly photoshopped honeybees, as supposed method of ‘supporting’ bees with a ‘natural’ sugar-infused drink. AKA the ‘bee bar’.

Thankfully I am not the only beekeeper screaming out from the keyboard: ‘NO! Please do NOT do this!’ in response to the profusion of enthused: ‘Oh, yes! What a brilliant idea – Yay! Help save the bees!

Fortunately, many have responded reasonably – and for the most part, rationally – to the news that putting out sugar/honey/grated fruit as bee food is a bad idea. A really bad idea. But there are those who just will not listen. They just have to be right. And/or they just like to argue … The main issue being the identity of the insects themselves, with a huge number of commentators insisting that they are not bees, but wasps. Because wasps are yellow and stripey … and all bees are all cute ‘n’ fat ‘n’ fluffy … right?!

Wrong. The insects in the meme are absolutely – without a doubt – honeybees. Not so cute, not so fat and nowhere near so fluffy. And yes, to the uninformed, they can look more like wasps than bees.

So, now we have that cleared up, on to the sugar-honey-fruit thing.

Firstly, the ‘revive a tired bee with sugar/honey and water’ trick.

This one is a bit of a ‘yeah but no but’.

White-tailed bumblebee drinking sugarwater (photo: Bumblebee Conservation Trust)

Yes, if you find a bumble bee (yes, cute, fat ‘n’ fluffy) looking tired and depleted, perhaps crawling around on the ground, seemingly unable to fly, it may well be that he/she is tired, thirsty and exhausted, and yes you can offer an energy boost by mixing sugar and water (equal amounts) on a teaspoon, in a bottle top or even direct onto the ground: the bee will drink and, refreshed and revived, may fly off and away. Be realistic, however: they may be crawling around on the ground because of injury, illness, or simply old age, in which case no amount of sugar/water is going to help them. However, the No1 point here is to only ever use sugar for this. Ordinary, granulated white sugar. Never – NEVER! – feed honey to bumblebees. Why not? For the simple reason that bumblebees do not naturally eat honey. Honey is made by honeybees – not bumblebees. Honey should therefore not be fed to bumblebees. Ever.

Which brings us back to the subject of honeybees. And those grated apples.

First up … to repeat a basic point: honeybees eat honey (which they make from nectar, the sugary juice of flowers which they collect by forage-feeding). They do not eat fruit (the end result of flowers being pollinated by foraging insects). Additionally, they have a natural aversion to alcohol … And guess what happens when you mix grated apple with water and leave it lying around … yup, that’s right, it ferments … as in, turns to alcohol. Meaning, your plate of grated apple in water will not work as food for bees. It will however attract wasps. Lots. Of. Wasps. (footnote: in unusual circumstances – for example, if they are starving and there are no flowers around, then yes, bees will chow down on whatever sugar source is available – including the junk-food options).

So … next obvious idea – what about sugar water?! Yes, I know, this seems like an ideal solution. But again, this is a really bad idea. Why? Well, again, the sugar mixed with water will ferment. Into alcohol. The main reason, however, is that honeybees naturally forage for their own food, collecting pollen (protein) along with nectar (sweet carbohydrate flower-juice) – travelling up to five miles visiting many different flowering plants along the way. They will, however, take the easy option – for example, if there happens to be a container of sugar-water lying around then they will happily rely on that instead.

Which of course prompts the seemingly obvious next-step solution: so, we can leave out honey as bee food … either neat, or mixed with water … right?

Wrong.

Honeybees make and eat their own honey. They do not (naturally) eat honey out of a jar off a supermarket shelf: honey that has been produced by other honeybees, perhaps several thousands miles away: honey that has been heated, treated, processed and blended with corn syrup and other cheap sugars as profitable human commodity. Not only is this type of honey devoid of nutritional content, it can potentially contain pathogens of bee disease that are harmless to humans but disastrous – even fatal – to bees. Bee diseases that may be present in the country where that honey was made – but not (yet) a problem here, in the UK, where that honey is sold. For this simple reason, we avoid feeding honey to bees.

Which brings us back, full circle, to the opening point: what can we do, if we want to ‘help feed’ and/or ‘save’ the bees?!

The answer is really quite simple.

Firstly, yes, go ahead and create your ‘bee bar’. A shallow container, with a few pebbles, marbles or decorative stones (for the bees to stand on, so they do not drown). But please, no sugar water. No honey. And certainly no grated apple. Instead fill it simply with clean, fresh water. Honeybees take water back to the hive, to dilute their stored honey, ready for use. Other insects too will come for a drink. Add fresh water daily, and occasionally wash the stones (a quick rinse and scrub in clean water, to prevent algae and other build-up).

Second … and this is the BIG one. Grow flowering plants. As wide range as possible, for as much of the year as you can. Bees (and other pollinating insects) forage on flowers: collecting nectar and pollen as food. However big or small your space – several acres of field, a modest back garden, a windowsill or a single small pot – this is, first and foremost, the most effective way to ‘help save’ the bees (and other pollinating insects).

No grated apple required.

Reinventing the Wheel (Sunday 20th June 2021)

‘I feel like a rat on a wheel. But the thing is – I built the wheel. This endless cycle of ‘to do’ … I created this … I put myself here … ‘

This realisation hit a couple of weeks back. I’d been feeling it for a while, but it took until now for those feelings to crystalise into thoughts expressed as words.

Living with so-called ‘invisible’ disability places limits on normal daily function. And because none of it is physically obvious – there is no wheelchair, no walking stick, no missing limb or prosthetic aid (hence the term *invisible* disability) the effects can be misconstrued as behavioural trait or personality fault. Lazy, unreliable, flaky (Yes, I’ve been called all of these and more. Mainly not to my face). The no.1 problem in all of is work. How to maintain a *normal* job in a no-longer-normally-functioning body? Hence my return to education in 2017 (embarking on an MA, which should have taken two years but, in reality, stretched out to more than three) – at this same time starting again with beekeeping (fifteen years on from my initial ‘dabble’) …

Skip forward three and a half years. MA completed (final mark pending) with various writing projects in process and the potential to continue on to a PhD this coming autumn. Health struggles are ongoing – exacerbated, of course, by the government-led Covid response (all ‘non essential’ hospital treatments – including my own rehabilitative therapies – were stopped last April/May, only recently restarting, after a year of non-intervention).

Meanwhile, on the beekeeping side, what started out as one hive has grown into several, across three different sites. Plus all of the associated activity (honey production, candle creation, hive maintenance). And then there’s the growing: flowers, herbs, veg … I’ve also, in this last 18 months, instigated and managed a community garden project in the street where I live (more of this another time, in a future blog post). As each new opening has arisen, I’ve gone with it. A fun-filled learning curve, at some point turned ‘rat on a wheel’. But here’s the thing: if it is me who put myself here, then it is me who can free myself back up. Reset the wheel.

This, then, is exactly what I am now doing. First up, the most obvious: reduce the physical work-load and time demands. Editing three apiary sites down into two. The choice (which one to let go?) has been easy: the Bee Garden, my very first apiary site, where I started out, back in 2018. Despite my best efforts, in nearly three years there’s never been a good honey harvest here: whole colonies have died (one of them quite suddenly) and/or struggled to survive overwinter, largely I think due to the adjacent farm fields (on all sides, stretching several miles, meaning insufficient wild forage and potential contamination with agro-chemicals). Add to this the land-owners plans to sell up in the near future, meaning I’ll have to be moving at some point anyway. As the saying goes, a ‘no brainer’. Nevertheless, I felt a considerable pang of sadness as I closed up the two hives, dismantled the hive-stand, loaded everything up and drove away for the last time – very soon overlaid with relief, as I settled them together into their new location at the Bee Field, which will now be my main apiary site.

Life is a constant process of change. We can resist – remain stuck – or go with it. Stagnate or adapt. Survive or thrive. The choice is our own.

World Bee Day (20th May 2021)

Today is World Bee Day. As a beekeeper, I did not know this. So I looked it up, and it turns out that World Bee Day came into existence only relatively recently, in December 2017, when the UN Member States approved Slovenia’s proposal to proclaim May 20th as just that: World Bee Day (the culmination of a three-year campaign by the Slovenian Beekeeper’s Association).

Why this date? Because 20th May (1734) is the birth date of Slovenian Apiarist Anton Jansa, a major pioneer in the world of beekeeping.

Again, I did not know this.

We do indeed live and learn.

So, what’s it all about? Well … bees … obviously. The aim being to raise awareness of the importance of bees and beekeeping around the world, through the celebration of World Bee Day. It should by now not come as news to any of us that we need bees. Not just honeybees, but all bees and also other pollinati’ insects. Our own survival – and that of everything else on the planet – depends on it. Simple as. The good news is, there is a LOT that we can do to help. And none of it is too difficult:

1) Provide pollinator food forage: ie: grow flowers. In your garden, on your allotment, in pots or in window boxes. As wide a variety as you can, and for as much of the year as possible – ideally, all year round.

2) Get to know the many different types of bees. Watch them. Enjoy them.

3) Provide housing. No, this does not mean you need to take up beekeeping (unless, of course, you want to, and have the knowledge and practical means to do so). Honeybees live in beehives. Many other types of bee do not. An Insect Hotel will be a great home for solitary bees. And a pile of logs will provide a safe place for Bumblebee Queens and Solitary Bees to retreat overwinter.

4) Provide fresh drinking water. Nope, not sugar water. Not honey. Just clean, fresh water in a shallow dish, with marbles or pebbles to stand on while drinking, and as landing and/or take-off points.

5) Buy local honey, and beeswax products. Support your local beekeeper, helping them to support their bees. Most of the honey for sale in supermarkets is mass-produced by commercial beekeepers, treating their bees a economic commodity rather than living being. And much of this so-called ‘honey’ is heavily adulterated with cheap sugar syrups – meaning it’s not actually honey. Buy from your local small-scale beekeeper and you’ll be getting real honey, made by bees that have been well cared for.