Just three days ago, I documented the arrival of not one but two colonies of honeybees, reinstating me as an actual beekeeper since Storm Eunice toppled by last remaining overwintered hive back in February. Here I likened honeybees to busses – wait long enough for one and two then arrive together. Well, it turns out I was wrong. Three is the magic number. Why? Because, within hours of writing that blogpost, up popped a call via a Facebook community group: ‘Help! A swarm has landed in my garden!’ Lucky for me, I was the first to respond, and they are now happily settled in a polynuc, awaiting relocation to a full-size hive as permanent home. Retrieving a swarm is such a magical experience – I’m yet to meet a beekeeper who has tired of watching a colony ‘march’ willingly into a box (the trick is to get the queen in first – once she is safely in there, the rest will follow).
This is a slightly bigger swarm than the one that arrived into the bait hive, but smaller in number than the purchased colony. And, again, they are beautifully dark in colour, some with a fine deep golden stripe/others with slightly wider gold band – and a lovely calm temperament. And what a wonderful midsummer Solstice gift – from zero to three colonies in three weeks flat! I have not yet seen the Queen in this one – I sneaked a peak inside, briefly, this evening (to get a ‘feel’ for size and temperament), but I won’t be disturbing them for a week or more (other than to add supplementary feed and precautionary varroa treatment), leaving them in peace to get on with the important business of drawing out comb (building ‘furniture’) so that the Queen can start her essential work of laying eggs to produce more bees. There is just the one other job for me at this early stage: I’ve never previously named any of my Queen bees, but feel I want to from now on – starting with this one, who I am dubbing ‘Amanda’, after the lady whose garden she and her entourage decided to land in.
Honeybees, it transpires, are a bit like busses. As in, the old cliche about waiting a long time for one and then two arrive at once. Well, not two individual bees, but two colonies – one, finally purchased with generous Crowdfunder donations (after bit of dilly-dallying to make the right decision on which bees from which local honeybee-breeder) and the other, a wild swarm that I caught in the garden at home using the ‘bait box’ technique. I am beyond excited, and feel that I now have an essential missing part of me back in place. Beekeeping really does ‘get’ you like that!
And so to introduce my new ladies.
Firstly, the swarm. I’ve known of the ‘bait box’ technique for a long time. It really is simple: just an empty hive-box with a frame of old comb inside (ooh look girls, a ready-furnished house!) and a few drops of lemongrass essential oil (to mimic Queen bee pheromones). Position the box up high up – well, in this instance, on the roof of my grandchildren’s playhouse in the back garden here in Penzance. And then wait. I’d read about it, and heard from others who’d done it, but I’d never previously tried it myself. Thus, I was amazed to find that it really does work – and it only took four days, from set-up to move-in!
Swarming is the honeybee colony’s method of reproduction: when a colony grows too large for it’s present location, it will split into two; half(ish) stay behind, raising a new queen to continue in situ, and the rest then leave together (swarm) with the old queen, to set up a new home elsewhere. In readiness for this, a number of ‘scout’ bees go in search of a suitable new location. The idea of a ‘bait hive’ is to present such a location, all set up and ready to move into. The arrival of a swarm is indeed a sight – and sound – to behold. And quite scary if you’re not a beekeeper; a noisy cloud zigzagging back and forth, around, and around. The mayhem soon settles; within ten minutes they were (mostly) all safely inside, having evidently decided that this was indeed their perfect ‘des res’. Honestly, I felt like some sort of witch, enticing these wild creatures to settle where I wanted them, using my very special magical powers. It also felt like these bees had themselves chosen me. Even more so because I’d had a difficult morning (minor traffic accident: car written off) … this swarm’s unexpected arrival just a few hours later really helped put me back together.
Three weeks on, they are doing really way: I let them settle for a few days, and sneaked a peak at the Queen – she is a beautiful dark reddish brown, and her daughters are all mainly black, some with a fine golden stripe (a free-mated queen honeybee will partner with multiple drones, meaning a wide mix of genetic traits in the resultant offspring). I am relieved to find that their temperament is calm and gentle. Because the downside with swarms is that you very much ‘get what you’re given’, which in reality can mean bad tempered bees that may be loaded with disease or parasites – for this reason, I’ve treated them for varroa, added food supplement to give them a boost, and am keeping a close eye on their progress. So far so good. Already, there is a growing brood of eggs and larvae in varying stages. In a few weeks I’ll move them into their permanent new home, a full-size hive at my out-apiary near Sennen. I may then give the bait hive one more go, here at home, on the off-chance of another swarm in need of a new home …
And then, to the bought-colony. Again, beautiful dark, locally-bred native honeybees, purchased from a trusted beekeeper friend (who I’ve bought from previously, several years ago when I first got going). Whereas a swarm is something of an unknown quantity, buying a colony from a known breeder is much more of a safe bet. These lovely ladies have gone to my allotment in Gulval, where they are already hard at work, getting ready for honey production. Fingers crossed, before the season’s out, there’ll be enough for me to fill a few jars for my Crowdfunder supporters, in return for their generous help back in February, when Storm Eunice brought my beekeeping ventures to a (thankfully, now temporary) halt.
As detailed in previous post, as a PhD research student I am exploring the folklore of Cornwall as preserved by Victorian writers William Bottrell and Robert Hunt in their collective publications; Hunt’s two-volume Popular Romances of the West of England (1865)with Bottrell’s two-volume Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (1870/1873) and single-volume Stories and Folklore of West Cornwall (1880).
A century and half since their initial publication, original copies lurk in libraries and can be found for sale online. I am lucky enough to own an original edition of Hunt’s 1871 ‘first and second series in one volume’ (triumphant charity shop find). Hunt was a prolific writer, and an astute businessman, publishing books on a wide range of subjects, always in a limited run, each one going through multiple reprint for subsequent resale (KeeerchiNG!). Bottrell, not so much. His three separate books were published each just the once, also a limited print-run, meaning original copies are hard to come by. Fortunately, all are available as modern digital reprint, and I’ve been working my way through these in recent weeks, dipping in and out of the various tales. Imagine my delight to find beekeeping, honey and mead featured in stories by both …
For example … in his 1870 Traditions and Hearthside Stories; first series, William Bottrell tells the story of ‘Trewoof’, a long-gone mansion house in the vicinity of Lamorna near land’s End. Here, the reader is guided through the house, and out into:
‘… a delicious garden, richly stored with flowers and delicious fruit … under a sheltering in the hedge of holly, bays, box, and privet, protected on the north side by a close-cut hedge of yew, were placed the row of beehives …On benches, as well as suspended overhead, from the roof-timbers of rustic building, were many hives of bees. Rows of hives were also placed on shelves against the inside of the southern wall, holes being left in the wall for the passage of the bees: instead of leaving the place, swarm after swarm had fixed themselves unobserved under the rafters, from which the combs hung within reach, dropping with honey. Though the place was all alive with bees they never stung any to whom they were accustomed, who did not molest them’.
Honey and mead as staple food and drink feature in stories by both writers.
In Robert Hunt’s ‘St. Perran, the miner’s saint’ (1865, first series) everybody – including St. Pirran himself – is ‘ruined’ by overindulgence in ‘mead and metheglin’ whist celebrating the discovery of tin – giving rise to the local saying ‘drunk as a Perraner’, still in use today.
In Bottrell’s ‘Giants of Towednack’ (1870) – told similarly by Hunt as ‘Tom and the Tinkeard’ – a supper of ‘barley bread, cream and honey’ is served to a visiting guest, along with ‘mead and metheglin’. In ‘A Queen’s Visit to Baranhual’ (Bottrell, 1873), a lavish banquet is finished with ‘white bread, cream and honey’ washed down with ‘brandy, sweet-drink (metheglin) and other cordials’ – after which, the hostess whips out ‘a bottle of rare old mead, and a flask of extra strong brandy’ as digestive remedy for the Queen: ‘glass upon glass of mead, with several sips of brandy’. In ‘Cornish Castles’ (1873), the combination of bread, cream and honey features as afternoon tea, and again in ‘The fairy Master, or Bob o’ the Carn’ – this time a buffet-style spread of ‘bread, cheese, apples, honey, and other things.’ In ‘Hallantide’ (Bottrell, 1880), ‘old sweet-drink (mead)’ is enjoyed by the women as they gossip after a celebratory feast – while the men sip hot toddies and smoke ‘shag tobacco’ from ‘long pipes’.
Similar stories arise in contemporary collections by other writers across Britain, and there are more from Bottrell and Hunt – evidencing honey as a staple food, and beekeeping as essential component of rural life.
Here we are now in March, already. January seemed to drag on for about three years, February passed as one long, cold, dark never-ending (and very wet) blur. But now the daffodils are out and the sun is beginning to shine; spring is on the way. Sadly, the bees from the hive upturned in Storm Eunice did not survive – I tried my best to save them, but the queen had gone and so many had died, there was never any chance of their recovery. So I now have an empty hive awaiting preparation for the coming season, and – thanks to all who’ve so very kindly donated to my Crowdfunder campaign – I’ll be able to start over, in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, my time and attention are very much focused on academics, settling gradually into life as a post-graduate research student. It’s been four month since I enrolled as PhD candidate with the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies (University of Wales Trinity Saint David), and while I’ve known all along what my research subject would be, it’s taken until now to feel comfortable – and confident – enough to share it here.
Firstly, I really like old books. For me, an old book (musty pages, hand-scrawled notes, old library date-stamps and bus-ticket bookmarks) is a window through time, connecting ‘us’ in the here and now with ‘them’ back then and there. A time machine, allowing the reader to travel back through history, to a different time and place. And I have a real thing for history – not that I knew this all those years back at school, when ‘history’ consisted mainly of the names of ‘important’ men and the timelines of war. Give me social history, the history of real people living real lives. This is my kind of history. The history of food, houses, lifestyles – and literature. Of course, living in west Cornwall, this kind of history is all around. Dripping from every street corner, every farm field, clifftop and hillfort, abandoned mine and crumbling ruin, all those prehistoric stone circles, burial chambers, and standing stones. Even the house that I live in, built over a century ago, is a bricks-&-mortar documentary charting one hundred years of social change. For my PhD research I get to channel all of these interests, exploring the lives of Victorian folklorists William Bottrell and Robert Hunt as the primary collectors of Cornish folklore.
The term ‘folklore’ means, at its simplest, the beliefs, traditions and customs of ordinary people – the ‘folk’ – and was coined back in 1846 by English academic William J. Thoms, categorising the rural mass population as subject for study via the lens of colonial middle-class prejudice. Ordinary working people as curious ‘other’. I prefer to think of it as literary acheaology; retrieving the clues buried beneath words on a page. The Victorian era was a time of huge change, socially, economically, politically, and culturally, as religious ideologies crumbled beneath the revelations of Darwinian theory, and the technological advances of science fueled the Industrial Revolution – upturning all that had been before. All across Britain, a multitude of writers (mainly men) rallied into action, intent on ‘capturing’ the disappearing ‘old ways’. William Bottrell and Robert Hunt were two such men. Their combined works became founding texts in the study of Cornish folklore; Hunt’s two-volume Popular Romances of the West of England (1865) with Bottrell’s two-volume Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (1870 & 1873) and single-volume Stories and Folklore of West Cornwall (1880). In the century and half since intial publication, their collective tales have been reworked for retelling, in a myriad different ways. I too will be doing this. My main focus, however, will be these two men themselves; I’ll be looking in more detail at their lives, exploring their motivation and methods for producing these seminal works. I’ll be blog-posting here as I go, sharing my findings and plotting my progress, as I venture back in time via the folklore of west Cornwall, preserved by these two Victorian writers, a century and half ago.
So, despite my best efforts, the bees, toppled in Storm Eunice, did not survive. My last remaining colony of honeybees. Gone.
‘You should start a Crowdfunder’ somebody said. To which my initial reaction was: ‘Nooooo – I cannot just ask people for money! And then I got out of my own way. And started a crowdfunder.
The aim is to raise £250, the current ‘about’ cost of a nucleus (start-up) colony of Cornish black bees (native British honeybees, perfectly adapted to this location).
All donations are welcome, large or small. Crowdfund pledges of £10+ will be rewarded with an 8oz/227g jar of honey from these bees (when available). Any surplus funds will go towards more bees, and/or a topbar hive, which is a different style of beehive, with a whole different style of beekeeping, which may be better suited to my windy out-apiary in the field at Crows an Wra.
OH the irony. Just a couple of days back, I was delighted to find that my bees had, so far, survived winter. And then … Storm Eunice. Same bees; knocked to a heap on the ground. Survival and destruction both for the same reason; the overwinter configuration of my two remaining colonies. ‘Double brood’ being the technical term; two brood boxes (the bit where they live) stacked one atop the other. Two colonies combined together in this have a better chance of surviving overwinter. And they did. Such a tower, however – even with additional weights and straps – did not stand a chance against winds of ‘up to 100mph’ that took the roof off Sennen lifeboat station and London’s O2 Arena, ripped large trees up by the roots, sent garden sheds and children’s trampolines flying, and brought down power cables far and wide, leaving many without electricity for days. And yet … again … against the odds … these bees have survived. Huddled together inside their shattered home.
At first it looked like all of the frames – lying horizontally where they would normally be vertical – were empty. And then suddenly there they were; pouring up and out between the frames to crowd together on the (now front-facing) bottom edges. And for a moment we all stood there, all those bees and me, not entirely certain what to do next. Long story into short, I was able to retrieve and restore them to safety, and am waiting to see what happens next. They may survive. Or they may not. Only time will tell …
I am not much of a ‘winter’ person. I really do not enjoy being cold. Or wet. Or windswept. (Does anybody??). It always puzzles me that we, as (supposedly intelligent) humans, are the only living entity on the entire planet to not follow the natural rhythms of the earth’s seasonal cycle. Pushing ourselves to continue as ‘normal’ through these dark, cold, miserable days – then labelling it a ‘disorder’ if our minds and bodies succumb to the physiological effects of shorter days and longer nights, colder temperatures and reduced sunlight. The ‘winter blues’. A form of ‘illness’ to be ‘treated’ and ‘corrected’. For those of us with so-called invisible disability layered up with the complications of chronic illness, the effects are heightened. The complex regional pain syndrome in my left hand (I am left handed) causes cold in that hand to register not as ‘cold’ but as ‘pain’. The multifaceted effects of fibromyalgia become amplified, and the Christmas period in particular brings in own special kind of hell, with ‘cheerful’ bright flashing (migraine-triggering) lights EVERYWHERE, torturing me with pain, nausea, vision loss, and more, so that I avoid leaving the house as much as possible (becoming more of a recluse than I already am) – turning down invitation to social activities that would (as I know from hard-learned experience) leave me unwell for several days. Because the three conditions interact. Flare-up in my hand can trigger a migraine; migraine in turn can trigger the CRPS in my hand, and the whole lot can then set off a chain reaction of wider-body fibromyalgia symptoms – because all three conditions are rooted in the central nervous, the ‘information superhighway’ of body-&-mind.
Thus I tend to retreat in ‘hibernation’ mode from early December, reemerging in early February, around the time of what is known here in the northern hemisphere as Imbolc (in Christian overlay, St. Brigid’s day) – the midway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, ie. the official beginning of spring.
Me and planet earth, we got a thing goin’ on.
Not that it is all bad, this hibernation thing. In fact, for me it is the only way forward. Not simply a matter of surviving, but thriving. And although ‘unseen’ in the public domain, I am far from idle. And certainly never bored. This has been particularly true this time around, since I’ve been investing a substantial amount of time and energy in various methods of therapeutic intervention via my local NHS ‘Pain Management’ department. Regular appointments with a whole array of incredibly knowledgeable, skilled and capable health professionals, including occupational therapists and physiotherapists, and (the bit that surprises people most when it comes to managing pain) psychologists. One-to-One input and an online group (currently, week 6 of 9). I only wish this had been available ten years ago, when I first needed it – instead of the dismissive: ‘nothing we can do, you must just learn to live with it’ …
But I digress.
Most significant this winter, has been my enrolment (October 2021) on a 3-4 year PhD, at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. I say ‘at’ but in reality I am home-based here in west Cornwall, working online as distance-learner via the wonders of modern cyberspace. ‘PhD’ sounds terribly grand, frighteningly clever, and somewhat intimidating. In reality it means I have committed myself to the next three (possibly four) years immersed in a subject of my own choosing. Put that way, it can sound a little self-indulgent. This notion is, however, balanced by the fact that my research proposal has been approved by a whole panel of highly accomplished academics, all experts in their own field, together agreeing that my suggested research is, in fact, a worthy cause. Who’d had thought it, eh?! Not bad for a 55-year old grandma who left school at 16 with a handful of average O-levels, returning to education at 22 (by then a newly-single mother of three) … with more than three decades of life lived since, along the way aquiring a Bsc. Hons. degree, an MA., teaching certificate, and more. And yet, still, this last few months, I have floundered. Because it’s all very well getting a place on a PhD programme. But you then have to do the work. Follow through. Walk the talk. Come up with the goods.
Fortunately, now four months in, I am in a much better place than I was at the start, when the initial buzz of acceptance sank rapidly beneath the shock of: ‘What have I done? Am I up to this?!’ Very quickly plateauing out into a rabbit-in-the-headlights zombie state of … ‘What. Am. I. DOING?!?!’ Cue, subsequent blur of funding applications, getting-to-know-you meetings with my two wonderful supervisors, seemingly-endless form-filling, additional funding applications, much buying of books, paper, more books, and a steep learning curve getting to grips with a much appreciated disability-support package (ergonomic equipment and computer software) … plus, most recently, a proper-academic submission of my full three-year research plan … And now I am ‘there’. Wherever ‘there’ is. Point being, I have somehow gotten out of my own way, and am now getting on with it.
Meanwhile. There is a much-neglected allotment needs tending (it can wait) and a colony of bees left to their own devices over winter. So, feeling the need to reconnect with the wider outside world (and with a brief window of blue sky) I headed off yesterday to check on my one surviving colony, which I last looked in on at the end of November. Last year was a mysteriously disastrous year for honeybees, with beekeepers around the world suffering dramatic losses for reasons that so far remain unclear. Inexplicable queen death and general failure. I lost 4 of my 6 colonies, with one of this final two becoming queenless, my only option being to combine the two together pinning all hopes on their overwinter survival, aiming to build back up again this coming season. I cannot overstate the my joy – and sheer relief – at finding them alive and well (as far as I can tell from the quick lift-of-the-roof manouvre I performed, not wanting to disturb them too much at this still-precarious early stage of the year). I did a quick icing-sugar shake varroa treatment, popped on a block of fondant as supplementary feed, and closed them back up. I’ll leave them to it for the next few weeks, and check in on them again towards the end of March, by which point the weather should be starting to warm up, and the queen (assuming she has survived) will have again begun to lay the all-important eggs, replenshing the colony with lots of lovely new honeybees.
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 …
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 …
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.
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.
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) ….
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.