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.
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 …
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 …
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.
If there’s two words together guaranteed to divide a room full of beekeepers, it’s ‘ivy honey’.
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??
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 …).
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 …).
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. Living 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?
Well, 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 …
Where 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:
Lost 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. Here, 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. Meanwhile, 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. Joining 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.
Alongside 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 …
Well, it’s a fairly sombre mood everywhere today. 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. 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.
Ok, 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’. 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 recipes – on which my own is based. Certainly it would have involved some internet clicking, flicking through various 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 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 and ‘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; courgette, 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 – 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). And 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) preventing the growth of bacterial 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.
- Wash 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.
Chop 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).
- Add everything together into pan.
- 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.
The slower the better, in my experience. The chutney with progress through a series of stages, from (1) pan full of individually recognisable pieces, separating out into (2) 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’.
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 (3) 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.
To 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. 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 …
- 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 hot bubbling chutney and an oven full of hot glass jars).
- Spoon the chutney into the jars. Fill up nearly to the top. The chutney should not touch the lid, but you do want as narrow a gap as possible, between the two (keeping the air space minimal, for bacteria and mould control). 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.
- 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 …
- When cold, add labels, and stash away in your cupboard.
- Experiment 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.
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 …
‘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. In 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! This 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 since 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. I’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. It’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!