HiL – the aftermath

Bank Holiday weekend saw the inaugural Headstone Village Show, incorporating the annual Harrow-in-Leaf (HiL) event. Nascot Wood Bees participated again, competing in around 20 different classes, from honey to poetry, wax candles to photography, cakes to cut comb.

In a series of short posts, we’ll look at a few of the classes and what’s involved, as they give an idea of not only what’s involved in show prep, but also a flavour of just what you can do with honey, wax and other honey products.

So this one is looking at class 172, “DRINK (alcoholic or non alcoholic) incorporating honey, other than mead”.
Redcurrant, honey and lemon cordial

Redcurrant, honey and lemon cordial

When we gave up our allotment a few years ago, we “rescued” a number of currant bushes (red and black) and relocated them to our garden, where they continue to be productive. This year has been reasonable for our redcurrants so we thawed a bag from the freezer and set to to create what would, hopefully, be a refreshing and tasty drink. Very simple to make, with very few ingredients, the “redcurrant, honey and lemon cordial” proved to be just that, and a rather impressive colour too. Bottled in a (sterilised) 25ml wine bottle and with a custom-made label, it looked the part. It seemed to go down well with the judges too, winning 2nd prize in the class. The remainder of the drink was kept in a corked bottle in the fridge, but a few days later “popped” its cork as evidently some fermentation is taking place. There’s no preservatives other than natural honey so if making this, we’d suggest drinking it within a week or so and keeping it chilled. We like it diluted about 50:50.

1lb redcurrants
1 pint water
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

Simmer redcurrants in water until cooked. Sieve into the honey and sugar; stir well and add the lemon juice. Serve chilled and diluted to taste.

Highly commended for Taste

Highly commended for taste and aroma
Well, Harrow-in-Leaf 2015 has been and gone. Not the driest day of the year, but a good turnout and some great exhibits in the show. A fuller update will follow shortly but for now this is just to say that (again) Nascot Wood Honey has been awarded a “Highly Commended” in the class judged on taste and aroma. Needless to say we’re delighted, and maybe our honey taste contributed to prizes in the mead, cake, biscuit and drinks classes too…

Responsible Beekeeping

What do the BBC’s Monty Don, Costco, and Breakfast News all have in common this week?

On Gardener’s World last week, Monty was promoting bee-friendly gardening and highlighting the importance of bees to our way of life. All good stuff. But in one section, he showed us his (as yet unused) top-bar hive and suggested, apparently quite seriously, that a top-bar hive is a suitable introduction to bee-keeping for just about anyone, including those in suburban, urban or even city-centre environments.  “Get some bees from your local BKA… just set it up and leave it”.

Monty + his top-bar hive

Monty + his top-bar hive

As well as Monty, cash-n-carry warehouse Costco are in on the bees thing, with a “bee kit” (top bar hive in a hexagonal outer case, not much else) sold under the banner “Just add Bees”.

What’s so bad about all this, then?  Well, whilst beekeeping is indeed a very accessible activity, taking on a colony of bees brings with it some responsibilities.

Responsibility to the bees… as soon as we put bees in a hive, they’ve been taken out of their natural environment. Even a top-bar hive is not the same as the place they would have chosen for themselves; we’re dictating their exposure to the weather, to preservatives, to predators, and much more. Having stripped the colony of their freedom of choice, we have a duty of care to the colony and to not just “let them get on with it”. We should be protecting them from disease, predators, the weather and be pro-actively engaged in ensuring their well-being.

Responsibility to our neighbours… swarming is a natural instinct, and the way colonies reproduce. However swarming, particularly in the urban environment, can be a significant anti-social (to humans) behaviour. Though rarely aggressive, a swarm can be inconvenient at best and intimidating, or downright dangerous, at worst. If not collected promptly it may choose to settle somewhere inappropriate, and if that’s inside a chimney or in a wall cavity the costs involved to the property owner can be very substantial. In a “domesticated” or urban setting, it’s down to the beekeeper’s skill and judgement to manage their colonies and minimise the number of swarms they lose “over the fence”.

Responsibility to the environment… we’ve all heard about the spread of varroa mite in the past 15 years or so, and the possibly imminent arrival of small hive beetle. These parasites can – and do – decimate bee populations and are partly responsible for the decline in bee numbers that we’re all so concerned about. Possibly even more serious is the threat from both European Foulbrood and American Foulbrood (the latter a Notifiable disease). Yet with large numbers of novice beekeepers, or beekeepers letting the bees “do their own thing” unsupervised, we can not only not control these threats but won’t even be aware they’re in our own backyards or rooftops. Regular inspections by a knowledgeable beekeeper are essential to maintain the health of our colonies, and failure to keep on top of these, especially combined with a laissez-faire attitude to swarming, will surely result in further avoidable losses and impact to our bees – and therefore to the whole ecosystem.

Encouraging people to consider taking up beekeeping is laudable, and I’ve no problem at all with that. But when beekeeping is presented as “Just add Bees” – or in Monty’s words “just set it up, and leave it” – it can so easily lead to unhealthy bees, nuisance swarms, infected honey and environmental damage. In fact, Monty also suggested harvesting honey – if you do that and are not a “primary producer” (harvesting and processing the honey yourself), or you’re selling it wholesale, you’re contravening the law too if you’re not registered as a food producer, so you could end up in a whole lot of the sticky stuff…

There’s been a flood of condemnation of Monty’s comments on at least one beekeeping forum, with a number of complaints being sent to the BBC. The irony is that this item came just one day after an item on the BBC Breakfast news program about the number of bee swarms occurring in London in the past week or so, with a representative of the London Beekeepers Association suggesting this may in part be down to novice beekeepers failing to take effective swarm control measures. Beekeeping isn’t rocket science but it should be done responsibly. To be fair to Monty, he did include the phrase “learn how to bee-keep” but that was rather lost in the “simply lift them out & take the honey” and “you don’t even need to do that… Just set it up & leave it” enthusiasm.

I like Monty’s presentation style and appreciate his enormous horticultural knowledge and expertise. It’s disappointing that the BBC have allowed him to include this item and it will be interesting to see if there’s any clarification or retraction next week.

This won’t take long…

Six years ago, when the Beekeeper was just a “potential” beekeeper finding out what was involved, several people told us beekeeping needn’t take a lot of time – an hour a week or so on average.

So here’s a photo montage of the last ten days or so…

Prizegiving

FRIDAY: National Honey Show, Wax workshops, shopping and viewing the entries

Honey for Sale

SATURDAY: National Honey Show, more wax workshops, lectures, and collecting the cup!

SUNDAY: Visit apiary – checking hives and discussing the weekend’s activities.
Honey for Sale

MONDAY: labelling up and boxing honey for a bulk order.

TUESDAY: Evening committee meeting at the apiary.
Dr Jamie Ellis

THURSDAY: Evening spent with Harrow Beekeepers listening to Jamie Ellis’ excellent talks, on Small Hive Beetle and how he (Jamie, not the SHB) got involved with bees.

FRIDAY: Trip round the M25 to a cash-n-carry that stocks bakers fondant – a useful bulk food for the bees over winter.
Visited British Entomological and Natural History Society show in London

SATURDAY morning: Visited British Entomological and Natural History Society show in London to see some other insects. Helps us appreciate that, working with bees, at least the objects of our devotion don’t need a magnifying glass to be seen. Some of those beetles were tiny! 

Harrow BKA AGM

SATURDAY evening: Harrow BKA AGM – sharing the National Honey Show cup with Judy, HBKA business and annual dinner.

Fondant

SUNDAY: Morning visit to the apiary and the orchard, to check hives and put some fondant on where needed. Catch-up with HBKA after AGM

(And the drone spent a couple of hours making up another hive stand and writing this blog!)

Totting it all up comes to about 30 hours in 10 days.

Coming soon to a calendar near us… pollen workshops and the first in a series of training sessions in preparation for Bee Husbandry exams, plus – maybe – a little bit of beekeeping :-)

Birøkt i Norge (Beekeeping in Norway)

Aurlandsfjord, Norway

Aurlandsfjord, Norway

The beekeeper and I recently had the pleasure of a short break in Norway, a country of amazing beauty but phenomenally expensive. Visiting both Bergen and Oslo, our mini break took us to both town and country, along deep fjords, over mountains, past glaciers and over city tram tracks.

Despite visiting in the first few days of October, we were blessed with some sunny days and quite comfortable temperatures. But it’s not always like that, and we saw plenty of last season’s snow up on the mountain tops. Perhaps better known as the “land of the midnight sun”, the corollary is that it’s also the land of the midday night. As beekeepers in the UK we dread the freezing, damp winters here but further north (and southern Norway is roughly level with northern Scotland) the winters are harder – and much longer.

Bergen harbour

Bergen harbour

So we weren’t expecting to come across large apiaries and local honey on sale everywhere. And we didn’t.  (To be fair, we did find some local honey in the marketplace in Oslo. Sold in plastic tubs and without the constraints of EU labelling, to our English eyes I must say it didn’t look the most appealing product, but it was available.)

However some last-minute Googling before we set off across the North Sea confirmed that beekeeping is alive and well there, with something like 90 beekeepers in the Bergen area alone. In a land where there are government taxes on sugar (and goodness knows, all foodstuffs there seem to cost the earth) beekeepers are able to claim a tax rebate, completing an annual return and recouping the tax. Since we need to feed sugar water, syrup and/or candy in the UK, the Norwegians’ need must be much greater to ensure reasonable over-wintering rates. On the plus side for them, varroa – which is now endemic in the UK – has barely reached Scandinavia, with just a handful of hives showing infection each year. Similarly, other pests and diseases like hive beetle, foulbrood are virtually unheard of, perhaps because of the sterilising effect of the harsh winter climate. The huge distances between (clusters of) hives also reduces the risk of disease and pest transmission between apiaries.

Naeroyfjord, Norway

Naeroyfjord, Norway

The state plays quite a large part in Norwegian life, and government controls extend to the variety of bees one may keep. Honeybees are all of the species Apis melifera, but there are three common strains that are kept for honey harvest: the black bee, the Buckfast bee, and the Carnica bee. These are all kept in the UK and beekeepers can mix’n'match strains as they wish, but in Norway you may only keep the strain(s) permitted in your particular area. There are also strict controls on the movement of bees within the country and their import. Maybe as a result of these controls, and the need to really prepare for winter, overwintering losses in Norway average about 10% (i.e. 10% of hives die out each winter), which is lower than
recent UK winters (in 2012/2013 one third of UK colonies were lost).

Nesbyen, central Norway

Nesbyen, central Norway

So perhaps there are lessons to be learnt from the Norwegian experience – and at the very least, our admiration goes out to beekeepers who successfully keep healthy, productive colonies in a land of awesome beauty and huge challenges.

 

 

Wall painting in Oslo town hall

Wall painting in Oslo town hall

As a postscript, during our stay in Oslo we visited the City Hall there. A grand building (and free entry – very much worth a visit) it’s almost a shrine to Norway’s socialist beliefs of the 1950s, with vast murals depicting labour, toil and the reaping of communal benefits from them. In one room an entire wall is given over to a representation of this ideal in the form of a beehive, with the workers selflessly toiling for the good of the whole community.

Apple Day – 20 Great Ways To Eat Apples and Honey

Image

So, it’s Apple Day and I thought I’d share these honey and apple recipes with you…

The approach of Autumn…

A bee visitor to Harrow - in - leaf sums on a dribble of mead after the judging

A bee visitor to Harrow – in – leaf
sups on a dribble of mead after the judging

Although unusually warm, the signs of Autumn approaching are all too clear. Not just condensation on the windows, and even the first frost on the car roof; but also the ivy flowers covered in bees gathering in the last big pollen harvest before winter. The ivy is really important for them, as they build up reserves of food to see them through to spring. As beekeepers we make this job harder for the colonies, as we’ve taken a lot of honey from them that they were keeping for a rainy day.

Hopefully we’ve judged it right, and maximised our harvest whilst giving them time to rebuild their reserves. We have to take into account the likely pollen and nectar flows in late Autumn, the current size of the colony, the weather over the coming winter, and the likely availability of food at the start of the 2015 season. If we could get all that right we’d be making a living as weather forecasters,  so there’s a lot of luck and plenty of contingency involved too. Plus regular inspections so we know what’s going on, and starting to top up the nectar flow with syrup or candy where needed.

Other actions we can take though are to secure the hives against disaster; we’ve narrowed the entrance ways so the bees can defend against robbing wasps – and bees from other hives – and later we will put on mouse guards to keep out thieving rodents. We will also wrap vulnerable hives in chicken wire to deter hungry woodpeckers, who can drive a colony out of a hive even if they fail to make a hole in it.

Despite Autumn drawing closer, there’s still plenty going on. One of our hives has been busy building a queen cell (hopefully so a new queen can supercede the current one, rather than to swarm)… then again, we’ve taken two swarm calls this week. One was to an inaccessible swarm that was going to move on by itself, and another the property owner never called back with contact details; but it just goes to show that some colonies at least think the summer’s not over yet!!

Harrow-in-leaf update

So, a week later and all the buzz from Harrow-in-Leaf 2014 has died away.

Despite the heavy rain on the Monday (it was Bank Holiday – what did we expect??) I think a good time was had by all.

Nascot Wood Bees – in the form of Doreen – entered no less than 17 classes, ranging from honey to poetry, candles to cakes. The “highlights” were sharing joint first in the “display” class (see our earlier post ), getting “best candle” for the moulded, twisted candles, and receiving “people’s choice” award for the “Shakespeare” display (though nothing to do with bees or honey!)

People's choice display - William Shakespeare

People’s choice display – William Shakespeare 

The hoped-for prize for mead didn’t materialise but prizes were won in all the honey classes, as well as “other food incorporating honey” (figs in honey), beeswax polish, and the poem.

We were at the show both days, (well, you have to be really to setup and take down) but spent plenty of time enjoying the displays, helping out with stewarding and sales – and not a little time capturing the myriad of local bees who also chose to “visit” the show. These got a little out-of-hand at times, with some managing to get into the display frames and robbing honey, others getting drunk on dribbles of mead from where bottles had been opened for judging. However, whilst they came back in as quickly as they were ejected, as far as I know no-one came to harm – either bee or human.

Prize-winning moulded candles

Bees visiting the marquee tasting the mead

The story of John Parr

When people hear we’re beekeepers, one of the questions that sometimes comes up is “why keep bees, apart from the honey?”  Well, there are lots of things we get from bees aside from honey. And this fact is celebrated each year with a class at the Harrow-in-Leaf show, the “products of the hive” display. This is judged on artistic presentation of at least six products from the beehive; nothing’s tasted, nothing’s measured, it’s just about how the display looks. Some competitors concentrate on pure visual effect, and the results can be stunning; but each year we try and come up with a theme, something that tells a story. Last year we did Winnie-the-Pooh’s picnic; this year it seemed appropriate to theme it around the centenary of the start of the Great War.

We needed at least six different products, and we thought of 4 or 5 pretty easily; thereafter it gets a little harder, but here are the ten that we came up with that we could represent in the display:

  1. SAM_7199Honey dressings (honey has healing and antiseptic qualities that are sometimes used in trauma cases)
  2. Foot cream (great for trench-foot)
  3. Lip-balm
  4. Wax polish (really good for wood, but can also be used on leather)
  5. Honey-and-oat cookies
  6. Jar of honey
  7. Wax candle
  8. Block of wax
  9. Berry-and-honey vinegar (great for sore throats – when diluted!)
  10. Mead

So these were our items, and they were to be presented with a WWI theme, but how to link them together? We came up with the idea of a “package from home” and found a rough canvas bag that looked vaguely military, but the story needed strengthening so we decided to write a “letter from home”. We found a photograph of a beekeeper collecting a swarm into a skep from 1914, so that was to be worked into the story too. I wanted the letter to be believable and refer to real events, so started a little Googling, and very quickly came across the story of Private John Parr. We worked some details into the letter and combined it with the above list of products. As we researched more, we found just one personal tragedy out of hundreds of thousands, made all the more poignant because John Parr’s home was less than 10 miles from Harrow, and we were writing the letter on the 100th anniversary of his death.

John Henry Parr, from North Finchley, is believed to be the first British soldier killed by enemy action in the Great War. He was shot, thought to have been on a reconnaissance mission on 21st August 1914, when he was aged just 17, the youngest of eleven siblings. His body was never returned to England, and it was after the war that his mother, Alice, was notified of his death. They continued to write to him until that time.

The story was so powerful we felt it needed telling, so as a postscript to the display added a printed note, the paragraph above, to the front of the display. There was no evidence that any of John’s family were beekeepers, and we did put this disclaimer on the display. We hope that visitors will have been both touched by the story of John and his family, and learn a little more about the uses of honey and other products of the hive. Because in our 10 products we’ve only scratched the surface; as well as honey, the rarer substances of propolis, royal jelly and bee venom have remarkable properties … maybe the subject of a future blog.

P.S. The judges must have been impressed by what they saw, as we were thrilled to share first prize and the cup!

Receiving the cup
Receiving the cup

The winning entries
The winning entries

 

North Finchley

21st August 1914

Dearest John,

We pray this small parcel reaches you safe and finds you in good health. Your father and I, and all your brothers and sisters, miss you dreadfully but are so proud of you. It must seem a million miles away from North Middlesex. Your old boss the butcher took this photograph of your father collecting that swarm earlier this year, before the war started. We’ve been busy and all the following are made with produce from the hive:

Lip Balm Honey dressings Candles
Foot cream Leather polish Honey
Honey & Oat biscuits Wax blocks Berry vinegar
and of course some mead ~ I do hope the officers let you share this with your chums.
Looking forward so much to your safe return once this awful thing is over.

Your Mother, with all of my love.

The Queen is dead; long live the queen!

During a routine inspection of our hives at the apiary yesterday morning, the Queen was found on the hive floor. She was expired, bereft of life, shuffled off this mortal coil, resting in peace; in short, an ex-Queen.

Now these things happen occasionally; bees – even queens – aren’t immortal after all. It was particularly bad timing, however, in the run-up to Harrow-in-Leaf and the many preparations still to be made for that show. With no sign of any new queen cells it did, however, present an opportunity for a job that’s been on the cards for a while. We had a nuc-box (a half-size colony) of bees in the garden that were waiting for combining with a larger hive. It was queen-right and, though large for the nuc box it was in, too small to over-winter confidently. (Yes, it’s only August, but this is the time to prepare the colonies for winter!)

So on return from the orchard the frames from the nuc were moved into a full-size brood box, and come dusk were carefully taped up and driven to the orchard. There, the two brood boxes were placed on top of each other, with a couple of sheets of newspaper between. Doing this introduces the colonies to each other gently; they become accustomed to the sounds and smells of the other and are less likely to be aggressive once they finally eat through the paper and the colonies unite.  We normally move bees at dusk; late enough that virtually all the flying bees have returned to the hive (we don’t want them coming back to the hive location and finding their home has gone) but early enough that there’s still enough light for us to work safely.

Time will tell how successful the combination will be; and also why the queen died in the first place. She’s currently safely in the freezer for later post-mortem examination…