Storm, Swarm, return to Norm (Tuesday 9th August 2022)

What a difference 6 months makes. Ditto: three years. And, oh, how time flies. Back in February I lost my last remaining colony of honeybees to Storm Eunice. The previous year had been an odd one (not only for me but others beekeepers I’d heard of, around the world): starting 2021 with 6 healthy colonies, I ended with just the two, with one of these becoming queenless, so I’d combined them together and they survived well overwinter – until Storm Eunice arrived, and that was that. Prompted by a friend I set up a Crowdfunder, aiming to raise sufficient funds for a replacement colony, and was amazed at the generosity of friends and strangers: enabling me to get going again.

In my Crowdfunder pitch, I stated my intention to thank each contributor with a jar of honey from the new bees. However, honey production is unpredictable, so I’d given myself (and the bees!) an 18-month timeframe, to avoid undue pressure. So, what a joy it has been to find I’ve been able to do this sooner rather than later, thanks to these wonderfully busy bees very quickly producing an impressive stash of honey, largely due to these past few weeks of wonderful warm weather. I’ve taken only enough to reward my Crowdfunder supporters and others who’ve helped me. The rest is staying on the hive for those busy bees: they’ll continue to make more in the coming weeks, so that, come autumn, they’ll be well-stocked with honey to get them through winter, ready to get going again next spring.

In the meantime, of course, I also caught two swarms, taking my total colony collection from zero to three, in a matter of weeks. The first one, I caught via the magic of a bait hive, set up in the back garden at home. The second one I retrieved from a nearby garden, following a shoutout for ‘help’ on social media. This second one I’ll write about another time. The first one was a small swarm, with a beautiful red-brown queen who got straight to work, laying eggs as fast as her daughters could build the comb for her to fill … they have, however, taken some time to expand, and have struggled with wasps robbing their precious food stores. They’ve remained living in a small hive atop the playhouse in my back garden, where I’ve been enjoying watching them going about their busy-bee-ness; checking in on them every now and then until, this week, I felt they were ready to move on, and I relocated them into the ‘spaceship’ (as I call my Eat Natural Pollenation hive) at Crows an Wra (not far from Land’s End).

It’s not the prettiest of beehives, and there have been some issues with it (a novelty design trailed specifically for this project). I had to bodge-up a reinforcement roof covering (because the original roof let water in), and it could definitely do with a new paint-job … but the heavy metal legs are sturdy (meaning it won’t – fingers cross! – go over in future wind storms) and it is dry and secure inside … I’ll keep using it until it can no longer be used. And then make a new plan …

I actually haven’t been back to this apiary site since retrieving the toppled hive back in February, and was not entirely surprised to find the place overgrown with gorse and brambles: though I was a little shocked to discover just how much it had grown – towering at nearly 2m high!! Astonishing, the difference, since I first sited my bees there back in August 2019. Fortunately, my glamorous assistant (aka husband) came along to help; clearing a path to leave the spaceship nestled securely in a protective enclosure of thick gorse and brambles – providing shelter from the wind AND a source of pollen-&-nectar bee-food. Win-Win.

Swarm Troopers (Thursday 23rd June 2022)

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.

Back to Bee-sics (Monday 20th June 2022)

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.

Beekeeping in Cornish folklore (Thursday 10th March 2022)

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.