‘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.

End of an Era (28th April 2021)

Yesterday we buried the cat. What a sad sentence that is to write. At somewhere around seventeen years of age, Shooey the Wonder Cat was the last of a feline trio, central to our wider family life. His old ma, Twink, shuffled off this mortal coil several years back, having made it to not quite a decade, while the ginger ninja known as A cat Called Chicken survived well into his twenty-first year. The house feels eerily empty. And quiet.

New Year, New bee-ginnings (16 April 2021)

I began writing this on 6 January. And here we are now, more than 3 months on. Time flies, even under normal circumstance. But this last 12 months, with the whole world being so … well, just plain weird … time feels kind of elastic, speeding up and slowing down and standing still, all at the same … erm … time. And then there’s been winter. I am never particularly great in these cold, dark months. Throw in lockdown and … it’s all been a bit much really. But with spring now well and truly ‘sprung’, I’m beginning to get back out there, reconnecting with the wider world, and finding ways to move forward. Which, for me, means growing stuff and playing with bees. Creative activities – as much as my dodgy hand allows. Maintaining (or trying to maintain) health. And writing.

Having finally finished my MA in January (hoorah!) I’m allowing the academic side of my brain some much-needed ‘time off’. Yes, there are many projects to be pursued. But for now, I’ve been focussed on gentle reconnection with my garden and allotment. Which, at this time of year, means seed-sowing. Meaning every available space – from greenhouse shelf to windowsill – is crammed with trays and pots in various stages of growth, from newly-sown to awaiting-plant-out-to-final-growing-position. All very life-affirming.

Even the hubby – a lifelong non-gardener – is getting in on the act, since a friend suggested a giant-pumpkin-growing competition via social media. Obviously he’s gone for the classic ‘Atlantic Giant’ – aiming to grow the best, and beat the rest. I myself meanwhile am on my usual mission to grow as many different types of beans as possible, using my own saved seed – from varying shades of climbing runner, borlotti and butterbean, along with all the other allotment plot ‘must haves’ – from squash to salad leaves to herbs and, of course, an array of flowers providing food forage for my bees.

Of my six overwintered bee hive colonies, four have survived. I say this to people and they’re like: ‘Oh no! Two of your colonies died!?’ Missing the point, that a certain percentage loss is a *normal* part of beekeeping. Honeybee colonies in the wild die all the time … we just don’t see it. It’s just nature. It is just what happens. Survival of the fittest, and all that. Yes, it is disheartening to open a hive for that first spring inspection and find them all dead. Conversely, it is an absolute joy to find a hive alive and buzzing with life. Hope for the future. The promise of good things to come. And we all need a bit of that now, don’t we. It is early days yet, but all four surviving colonies are looking good as we head towards summer. All could go horribly wrong of course – spring-into-summer is still a precarious time, for honeybee survival rates. A sudden cold snap, insufficient food forage; things can turn in a moment. So we will see. Time will tell. But I’ll be doing my bit to keep them fed and nurtured, with a purpose grown bee buffet.

One other thing I’m particularly excited about is the future direction of this blogsite … I’m currently developing a ‘Shop’ link, enabling online purchase of my honey and candles alongside a range of other items, mainly sourced locally from independent creatives, each of them located ‘somewhere in west Cornwall’. So watch this space. Good things are coming …

Bye Bye Bongo, Bye Bye (Sunday 4th April 2021)

Oh, how we become attached to the vehicles in our life. Or is it just me?! Bongo Friendee. A friend indeedee. But when ‘repair’ becomes ‘rebuild’ you know it’s time to move on. I’ve never been one for naming my cars, and the van – my first van – the van – was no different. Always, simply, ‘the van’. We’ve had so much life in this van. So many adventures. So much fun. Quite a few sad times too. And as allotment and beekeeping runabout, it’s served me well. A real all-rounder, and a hard act to follow … But follow, something will. We’re just not sure what yet. Time will tell …

New Year, New Bee-ginnings … (Monday 8th February 2021)

Two months in, and a belated ‘Happy New Year’ to all. What a year 2020 turned out to be. What will 2021 bring?! Time will tell. For me inevitably this coming year will involve bees. And flowering plants. And words. And various creative projects … all to be revealed. Watch this space for updates.

Ivy League (12th October 2020)

If there’s two words together guaranteed to divide a room full of beekeepers, it’s ‘ivy honey’.

Ivy (Herea helix) flowers

Ivy honey is produced by honeybees foraging on nectar from the flowers of the ivy plant (hedera helix). Abundant from late summer through autumn into early winter, ivy provides valuable late-season food for honeybees and other pollinating insects, in the form of pollen (protein) and nectar (carbohydrate). As food for humans, ivy honey has a distinct and delicious taste, with medicinal properties in the same league as Manuka, making it especially helpful as expectorant cough remedy and anti-inflammatory treatment for respiratory disease.

Yet many (most?!) beekeepers deride the stuff. Largely because it crystalises (sets) really quickly in the cells of the comb, making it impossible to transfer from hive to jar without a whole load of extra work. But mainly because (so they will tell you) it smells and tastes different to other honeys – and (so they will tell you) not in a good way. (It actually doesn’t. But more on this later). Some will even tell you that it’s bad for the bees (and here I quote an actual beekeeping tutor, with half a century’s beekeeping experience) ‘because it sets hard in their stomach and kills them’ ….

I’ve often puzzled over this particular nugget of misinformation; why would honeybees (in all other ways super-intelligent) make such an effort, deliberately collecting and storing food that will kill them?! Did none of them (not even one, out of the average 50,000 living together in a hive ) ever notice their myriad sisters’ dropping dead after lunch… and make the connection?? And, if eating ivy honey does kill them, how have they survived, as a species, this last 30million+ years??

Fresh honeycomb, with crystalised ivy honey, and polyfloral honey still liquid.

Of course, I now know this particular beekeeper’s myth to be exactly that – a myth. Ivy honey does not kill honeybees. It does, however, set really solid, really quickly, in the cells of the comb, meaning a whole load more faff than usual for the beekeeper, hoping to get it out of the comb and into the jar. Which is, I suspect, the real reason so many beekeepers do not like the stuff. This, together with the characteristic smell and alleged odd taste …

… All of which turn out to be additional knobbly nuggets of beekeeping folklore.

Yes, it is true that, freshly packed by the bees into their hexagonal comb cells, ivy honey does have a distinctive sweet & tangy floral aroma; the same fragrance as ivy flowers themselves (Walk past an expanse of ivy in flower on a warm sunny afternoon, and there it is). In the enclosed, warm space of a beehive, that aroma is unmistakable. And does indeed hit you full-force, when those frames of honey are lifted, fresh, from the hive. But here’s the thing … that smell (or ‘stench’ as I’ve heard some beekeeper’s call it!) very soon mellows – as does the taste, transmuting into something altogether more delicious – or, it would, if you bothered to keep it long enough to find out.

And therein lies the key. Many beekeeper’s have never eaten ivy honey. Why? Because they’ve heard the ‘tastes bad’ myth from other beekeepers (who heard it from other beekeepers …) … meaning the ivy honey gets left on the hive or (if they believe in the ‘kills bees’ myth) is removed and discarded (yes, really). Or else they’ve stuck a finger into a fresh frame of ivy honey, straight from the hive, straight into their mouth, and found the hit of unfamiliar flavour to be just too much. Thus the idea perpetuates, that ivy honey is not worth the bother, on account of the distinct smell, the odd taste, and the extra work (oh, and, of course, it’s legendary bee-killing powers …).

Soft-set ivy honey.

But, oh – what a treat they’re missing!

As I have just found out, when I gave ivy honey a go myself for the first time this week; just a couple of frames from my two strongest hives – leaving most still there for the bees.

Yes, it took a bit (erm, quite a lot) more work. Because, whereas most honeys run like liquid gold out of the frame, flowing freely, ivy honey (set hard in the comb cells) has to be coaxed out, gently but determinedly in a step by step process that does take a while (and creates quite a bit of washing up). Indeed, quite a faff. But the result? Several jars of creamy-smooth, delicious soft-set ivy honey. And not a whiff of bad taste about it.

I’ll be spreading it on toast and stashing a jar or three away for the inevitable winter cold and flu season. Because this is where ivy honey’s greatest value lies – in it’s manuka-like medicinal powers. Which, unlike the ‘tastes-bad-&-kills-bees’ is not a myth but a reality supported by an increasing body of scientific research, demonstrating ivy honey’s antibacterial, anti-inflammatory qualities. Plus of course, the simple fact that it tastes good (although, shhhh … don’t say this out loud in a room full of beekeepers …).

Another year on … (Monday 3rd August 2020)

Nearly a whole year since my last post.  And what a year it’s been, not only globally and nationally but also personally, with for me the main focus being health readjustment and rehabilitation in response to some long-term issues that, I’m now having to be honest with myself, just ain’t going away.  And yes, I know, this is supposed to be a blog about beekeeping and garden & allotment growing.  Or whatever.  And here I am waffling on about health?

But herein lies the point.  Health underpins all other aspects of life.  disbilityLiving with so-called ‘invisible’ disability and chronic illness is complicated, exhausting – and not for the fainthearted.  Three interconnected conditions – complex regional pain syndrome, fibromyalgia and chronic photosensitive migraine – creeping up on me over the course of several years, to collide in a perfect storm; reducing the ‘me’ that I used to be.  Not that I’ve simply rolled over and given up.  Like a lot of people in similar circumstances, I for a long time floundered in a state of denial, pushing myself to function as ‘normal’ and hiding the reality of my new, far-from-normal ‘normal’.  Result?  Utter exhaustion.  On all levels (physical, psychological and emotional).  Thus, up util just a few months ago, I was seriously considering abandoning the allotment that I’d so enjoyed for so many years.  It was simply too much.  Likewise, I’d begun to wonder how I could realistically continue beekeeping – much as I’ve been loving it.  Not that I’m going to waffle on too much about all that here.  Because this is, after all, a blog about beekeeping and allotment & garden growing.  Or whatever.  So it’s enough to say here that this last twelve months have been a process of readjustment and rehabilitation.  And here I am now.  Moving forward.

So.  What’s new?  And what’s stayed the same?

116071339_10213666296530999_5410276717015334210_oWell, in the event I did not give up the allotment, and instead swapped my overly-large plot for a smaller one (about a third of the size) on the same site.  And the best bit?  I get to keep bees there!  Additionally, I still have my two existing out-apiary, making a total three separate sites, all very different.   I’m still growing vegetables and  fruit, herbs and flowers on the (new, smaller) allotment.  I’m still growing pollinator-forage flowers – on all the three sites and also in the garden at home.  And that’s about it really.  And it’s enough.  I am enough.   And so on we go.  I’m intending to post a bit more regularly from now on (more than once a year, at least?!).  So watch this space …

 

 

Busy Me; Busy Bees … (Wednesday 28th August 2019)

emi cropWhere does the time go, eh? Five months since my previous blog-post; such a lot has happened.  Time to reflect, while pondering a forwards plan.  Two years since deciding to return to beekeeping (after a lapse of nearly two decades) and little more than a year since I began with my first single hive of bees, I feel I can now call myself a ‘real’ beekeeper, having ticked off a number of fundamentals on the apiarist’s learning curve:

Did a Beekeeping course (not once but twice, sixteen years apart); check.  Acquired my first honeybee colony and a whole load of equipment (a mix of new and pre-used); yup.  Negotiated an out-apiary (being unable to keep them at home in my small town garden) and there sited this first colony, very soon accompanied by a second, duly sited alongside; yes and yes.  Negotiated a second out-apiary, and here sited a third colony.  Overwintered all three, thus going into spring with three strong colonies across two very different apiary sites; check.

So far so good … and then:

46837061_354469262030313_7079979220650164224_nLost the first colony (alive and well in February; suddenly dead in March) most probably due to my own error.  Consoled myself with the remaining two colonies, planning ahead for all that lovely honey to come … only to have both of these teeter towards failure in May/June, as Colony No2 turned out to be overly swarmy and Colony No3 fell victim to the site-owner’s penchant for weedkiller; double whammy.  Fortunately, I had by this point (back in April/May) got all adventurous, putting into action all that I’d read about raising new colonies as ‘splits’ (one each from my two then-still prolific surviving colonies).  Result: two offshoot colonies, both going strong.  Thus I was able to save the two failing colonies; taking a frame of eggs from one of these ‘splits’, I combined the two failing hives together, adding in that frame of eggs, from which I hoped the bees would raise themselves a new queen.  Result: two weak queenless colonies transformed into one, complete with new, healthy and productive queen, all (by July) doing well in their new shared home at my original Sennen site.  sennen two hivesHere, they have gone from strength to strength, so much so that I have recently split this now-prolific combined colony, rehousing half into the vacant hive (previous home of deceased Colony No1). Fingers crossed they will raise their own new queen, and I’ll go into winter with two strong colonies again on that original site, at Sennen.  65309389_326377434963280_3168580846672150528_nMeanwhile, a new opportunity presented; a quiet corner of a field at Crows-an-Wra (a tiny hamlet about three miles inland from Sennen; a convenient and manageable distance from my original site).  Here I am siting the two April/May offshoot-split colonies; one in the long-empty ‘spaceship’ Eat Natural hive, and the other in a more standard ‘National’.  Meaning four strong and healthy colonies (two on each site) going into winter; hopefully they will both survive, to have a head-start come next spring.  emi run beeJoining me on the learning curve, my granddaughter continues to enjoy visits to the bees; donning her miniature beesuit (the smallest size available) and gloves, she is confident and knowledgeable, and always happy to end a hand.

44820595_909228045934290_1429670634312433664_nAlongside all of this I’ve been processing wax and making candles (watch this space for future details on where and how to buy), and experimenting with sowing and growing pollinator-friendly flowers, on both apiary sites and also in my garden at home.  The one thing that hasn’t properly happened  (yet!) is honey harvest.  What with bee losses and so much change: repeating steps, backtracking, troubleshooting and restarts, taking the bees’ precious food (which they work so hard to produce) is way down on my ‘must do’ list.  It is a long-shot but I’m hoping I may still get to take off some honey this season.  Not impossible (still a few weeks to go yet, before the autumn wind-down) but unlikely; bottom line being that, whatever honey my bees do manage to make and store, they need it more than me.  There is always next year, and in the meantime I can satisfy myself with knowing that I’ve learned a lot in this first year, and will continue to do so …