Honey the food of the gods
Now is the time we start harvesting our honey. The hot weather has meant that the ‘June Gap’ has come early this year and many of the June flowering plants have finished. The oil seed rape honey was ready in June and this has to be extracted immediately. The reason for this is the high glucose content makes it
set in the comb rapidly. If this happens we either have to feed it back to the bees later in the year or melt the frames down. This is a messy and expensive process resulting in the loss of a frame for next time.
Extracting the honey from the comb can be a very messy business. A time when everything becomes sticky! Consequently in order to comply with the regulations it must be done in an ordered way making sure that everything used is scrupulously clean and sterile.
It starts by removing the supers from the hive into a bee proof area, namely our kitchen. Then the top thin layer of wax, known as capping, is removed and the frames put into the extractor. This is a device a bit like an old spin drier that revolves the frames making the honey flow out by means of centrifugal force.
The honey is then simply filtered through a fine mesh and placed into storage containers ready to be jarred. No other process takes place with our honey it is pure raw honey straight from the hive.
The ‘cappings’ are very pure wax and we melt these down, filter the wax and use this wax for our beeswax products. Nothing is wasted in beekeeping
Plant of the month
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) This is one of the easiest plants to grow. Apart from its culinary properties it attracts every form of pollinating insect known to man. It was introduced into this country by the Romans who saw it as a plant of happiness and marital harmony.
All it needs is a well drained sunny position and it will flower from mid summer onward to the first frost
Swarm or not to swarm that is the question
This month is swarm time and we are inspecting our colonies on a weekly basis in order to try and minimise the risk of swarming a time consuming process but it must be done so that we can maximise our honey production. However we are not always totally successful!
Sadly one colony is turning out to be rather aggressive and whilst a certain amount of feisty behaviour can be a good thing, being followed by a couple of defensive bees all the way back to the truck is just not on. So that queen regrettably is going to have to go and be replaced with a gentler lady. It always surprises me how doing this can have such a fast reaction. After a week or so the mood of the colony changes and they become much more docile and the joy of beekeeping returns.
The process of swarming is the way that colonies increase, when the colony gets to a size that is too large for their environment, in this case the hive, they will start to make new queens from some of the brood. And prepare together with the existing queen to go off and find a new home. As soon as the new queen cells are capped scout bees are sent off to look for somewhere suitable and the old queen and half the colony buzz off leaving the younger bees and brood to build up again. Before they decide on the most suitable home they settle in a rugby ball shaped cluster with the queen in the centre and wait for the scout bees to report back.
We try and avoid this by removing the queen cells as soon as we see them but if as often happens they beat us to it we perform an artificial swarm by moving the old queen and some of the bees into a new brood box a short distance away. They then think they have swarmed and start to build up again,at least we hope they do!
A bit of Bee lore
“A swarm in May is worth a bale of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon and a swarm in July ‘aint worth a fly”
The reason for this saying is that late in the year the new colony does not have enough time to build up to provide a crop of honey. So the earlier you get one the better.
A Busy Beekeeping Month
So far this month we have had a spell of hot sunny weather and the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is in full flower. This is the plant that in the autumn will bear the Sloes, so it should be a bumper year for Sloe Gin. However there is a down side, for this is the period that is known as the Blackthorn Winter and usually coincides with a spell of cold wintry weather, not good for our beekeeping.
At the moment they are out and about foraging from the wild Cherry and the remaining willow catkins. The danger is if the weather suddenly blows cold the girls can’t get home. The other activity they are busy at is gathering water. They need this to dilute their stored honey and we try and make this as safe for them as we can. We use large plant pot saucers with large stones inside close to the apiaries so that the bees can fetch the water without using up too much energy or drowning.
We have started inspections in earnest now, checking that all have a queen that is laying well or to use the correct terminology that they are ‘queen right’. The queen needs to be up and going now because the winter bees will be dying off and we need a good hatch of summer bees to ensure a good honey crop.
Other types of bees are also out and about. Some of the most fascinating are the mining bees that busily dig out their little nests in our old cobbles. I find that having a cup of tea and sitting watching them going about their business is one of the most relaxing things one can do. These bees along with other solitary bees are amongst the best pollinators we have. They leave the honey bee standing in the pollination stakes and these are the creatures we should be cherishing. They don’t sting either!
A Bit Of Bee Folklore
According to the folklore of this country, if a bumblebee buzzes around your house or at your window, it brings news that a visitor will soon arrive, but if anyone killed the visiting bumblebee, the visitor would bring nothing but bad news (which serves them right).
At last the gloom of the last few months has lifted and so have our spirits. Most of the colonies seem to be ok and on a sunny day they are bringing in pollen. This is a good sign, it shows that the queens are beginning to lay and there is some brood. So it’s off with the mouse guards. If we left them on the pollen that the bees carry in their baskets could be knocked off as they return
It is still too early to do a proper inspection. The rule of thumb is to wait until the flowering current is in flower. This indicates that the temperature is around 14 C and the girls will not get chilled. If they do they could kill the queen and then all is lost.
Inspection at this time is always fraught with worry. Is there a queen or has she died during the winter? Can we see any eggs? The colonies have to make enough young bees now to take over from the winter bees that will start to die off. The sign of pollen coming in is good so fingers crossed.
A nice sunny day last week brought the steady drone of queen bumble bees coming out of hibernation and feeding off the crocus to gather strength. Having feasted on the nectar they set off in search of a vole hole or similar in which to start their new colony. They are attracted by the smell of vole or mouse urine and in our garden this year, they are spoilt for choice.
Plant of the month
The Oso Berry (Oemlaria cerasiformis): This makes an erect, loosely branched suckering shrub about 3 m in height. The light green leaves come early and are quickly followed by greeny white bell like flowers with a delicate scent. It is very happy in quite dense shade and the bees love it.
February is often considered to be the dullest, dankest month of the year. However the nights are getting shorter and when the sun shines there is a definite feeling of spring in the air. It was just such a day last week, the sun was shining and the air was warm . It was too much for the bees and they came out in force. The air positively vibrated with the sound of buzzing as the girls hurled themselves around gathering nectar and pollen from snowdrops and crocus.
The gathering of pollen is a very good sign; it means that there is brood and also a queen present. I sat and watched them for some time, their pollen baskets were full of red pollen from snowdrops and it seemed that all the hives had survived……..so far.
February is the time of the year when we could lose some colonies from starvation. We keep a close eye on their stores. A few did seem a little light and so they were given some fondant just in case.
There has been a lot written recently about the declining bee population. Unfortunately a lot of the message is about the honey bee which is not in any real danger. Heaven knows in a few months we will be having a battle to contain them. It is the other pollinating insects that need our help. Bumble Bees particularly together with hover flies, bee flies and a variety of insignificant little insects that no one notices. All these are declining at an ever increasing speed and we can do our bit by planting bee friendly plants, not being too tidy in the autumn and winter and leaving some long grass. Also leaving clover to flower in your lawn for a couple of weeks in the summer time gives the bees some forage.
Plant of the month
The lungworts and particularly Pulmonaria rubra are brilliant forage for emerging Bumble Bees at this time of the year. Their brick red flowers are carried over light green leaves which are evergreen. Happy in sun or shade they make superb ground cover for those difficult situations.
During this month there is very little to do in the apiary; the bees will all be in a cluster during cold spells and during these, we seize the opportunity and treat them with dilute oxalic acid in an attempt to control the dreaded Varroa mite. This has to be done when the bees are in the hive and there is little or no brood
present. If we left it later the weather could warm up and the queen would start to lay. Its a job that has to be done quickly so that the girls don’t get chilled. So its off with the lid and cover board and gently dribble the mixture between the occupied frames, usually five, and back on with the board and lid.
Being deep in the countryside we are always on the watch at this time of year for the larger pests. These are badgers, they will destroy a whole apiary in search of honey, Green Woodpeckers that bore holes in the side of the hive to get at the bees and now we are blessed with deer that can and we think did in the summer, knock over the hives.
But still when the sun shines there is a slight feeling of spring in the air and birdsong particularly the Tits, changes. But even these little charmers eat bees…….Ah well.
A bit of bee lore
January is always wet, cold and frosty and gardeners waterproofed their boots with beeswax mixed with mutton suet, boiled linseed oil and resin. It was brushed in while the mixture was still warm and while they were still dry and clean. This method also kept the leather soft and supple.
This month has started, as winter should, with beautiful frosty weather. Now the bees cluster together rather like Penguins do, in order to keep warm. They can, by rapidly contracting and relaxing their flight muscles, keep the cluster at a fairly constant 350 C. These are now the ‘winter bees’ which live for months rather than weeks providing they have enough stores when they can all to easily starve to death.
In order to ensure this doesn’t happen we occasionally check their stores by lifting the hives gently and judging the weight. Too light and we give them some fondant, basically the icing you get on the top of an iced bun, to keep them going. Never do we give them syrup at this time of the year the liquid would create humidity which could spell disaster. Bees can cope with cold but not a humid atmosphere.
If the weather warms up as it seems to these days the bees will venture out and gather pollen and nectar from any winter flowering plant. One of the best is Sarcococca confusa (Christmas Box) which flowers throughout the winter. Evergreen and totally hardy; on a warm day the perfume from its small cream flowers wafts over the entire garden. Black berries follow.
A bit of beelore
There used to be a tradition of giving each colony a gift of fondant on Christmas Day, and very importantly we ‘tell’ our bees its Christmas and wish them a very happy one!
This is the month which sees the start of Autumn. A time when everything starts to slow down, the days growing shorter and the temperature drops. The bees respond to this by moving close together forming a cluster in the hive. But on warm sunny days they still venture out to gather pollen and nectar from the remaining ivy blossoms.
Ivy (Hedera helix) has an undeserved reputation for being invasive and causing damage. However it is one of the most important plants for wild life during early Autumn. It is not a parasite as is often believed and takes no goodness away from the tree up which it grows. Rather it provides vital roosting habitat for small birds and hibernating insects and also an important food source for both insects and birds at the back end of the year when there is very little else.
Mice can also be a problem at this time of the year. They will enter the hive to feast on the honey and wax. Quite often they are stung to death which means a nasty dead mouse at the bottom of the hive and of course lots of dead bees. The corpse of the poor mouse is then covered with Propolis a sticky substance that bees make from the resin of certain trees which mummifies it and prevents unsavoury smells in the hive which the bees object to. To overcome this we fit mouseguards on the hive entrance which allow the bees to come and go but is too small for a mouse to enter.
A bit of beelore
Bees have been revered since ancient times. Early man believed that honey bees where the messengers of the gods who led the souls of the deceased to heaven. Some of these souls then returned to earth as bees and only they, as messengers of the gods, where allowed to gather the honey.