What’s flowering now – Cornish clifftop

A trip to Chapel Porth on the north Cornish coast, where the wind batters anyone who meets it. Drew enjoyed the wild effect it had on his lockdown hair. I enjoyed the views but not the earache I got from the ‘sea breeze’.

I took a photo of a couple of little solitary bees hunkered down in what I thought were dandelions. The wind was shaking the flowers about violently but the bees stayed put, nestled firmly in.

Large shaggy bee

At home one of the experts on the Bees, Wasps and Ants (BWARS) Facebook group told me this was the wonderfully named ‘Large shaggy bee’ (Panurgus banksianus). A long-term monitoring project called The UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme looked at numbers of bees and hoverflies between 1980-2013 and found that the range of this species had declined by around 54%. So I was lucky to spot these beauties. The males are said to shelter in the flowers in dull weather.

They were not on dandelions as I thought but a plant called Catsear. Moira O’Donnell, the @nervousbotanist, wrote the helpful tweet below to help with ID’ing Catsear.

Moira O’Donnell tweet Catsear

From a distance I’m still not sure if these yellow flowers are dandelions or more Catsear.

Flowers behind a wall

Foxgloves at Chapel Porth

Foxgloves at Chapel Porth

The foot paths past the old mine house and along the coast take you past bright swathes of purple heather, mingled with the wizened thorns of gorse bushes. A few brave little wild flowers survive at the edges. A few bramble stems trail among the heather, but they don’t manage to take over.

Heather

Chapel Porth cliff top

Chapel Porth cliff top

It’s mad that this is only the second time I can remember seeing ladybirds this year. Tommy has learnt what ladybirds are from pictures in books. They used to be everywhere. One surreal summer when I was visiting family in Wales, a ladybird cloud was blown in on the beach and covered everything in ladybirds.

Tommy had a good time looking at bees and insects. He had an even better time later when he got an ice cream down on the beach!

Tommy looking at flowers

A little further inland on the way back to the car park was this thistle. Another successful spiky plant managing to survive the eternal wind.

Thistle

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Book review: Interviews with Beekeepers by Steve Donohoe

Steve must have amazing persuasive powers, for somehow he got a book deal for travelling the world chatting to fellow beekeepers about their techniques. What beekeeper wouldn’t want to do that? The beekeepers Steve met are: Murray McGregor, Michael Palmer, Ray Olivarez, Peter Little, Peter Bray, Richard Noel, Randy Oliver and David Kemp. All commercial/ex commercial beekeepers or honey producers. David Kemp is an ex-bee inspector and former assistant to Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey, so was able to tell Steve all about Brother Adam’s methods.

The interviews are really in-depth, it’s a meaty book with a lot to it. If you are interested in queen breeding, maximising your profits or just learning more ways to do swarm control, this book should have something for you. There are lots of little tips to be picked up. I’d like to try Murray’s trick for autumn comb replacement (p.44), getting three frames of foundation drawn out then – apparently as there is no drone rearing at that time of year the frames are perfectly drawn, 100% worker.

Interviews with beekeepers

Interviews with beekeepers

All the beekeepers in the book make or made their money through pollination, honey sales, nuc sales or being a bee inspector. I’d like to see a follow-up book by Steve featuring interviews with beekeepers making a living through alternative routes like offering training courses, doing cut-outs of colonies from tricky places or looking after bees on behalf of businesses like hotels and law firms.

For example, Steve could travel to San Diego to interview Hilary Kearney (Beekeeping like a Girl) who specialises in complicated honey bee removals, runs beekeeping classes and mentors new beekeepers. Or he could meet the lovely Sara Ward at Hen Corner, who runs craft and food courses, including beekeeping. Over to you, Steve!

 

You can buy Interviews with Beekeepers as a hard copy or ebook at https://interviewswithbeekeepers.com

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What’s flowering now in Cornwall: late May to early June

In a different lifetime – perhaps simpler, happier times – I used to walk the wild paths to find out what was flowering in Hanwell, my area of London. There was a surprising amount of green space there, connected up by canals and parks. One field used to be full of bright yellow ragwort and cinnabar caterpillars, a sunny sight to see.

I thought I might try to do that again in Cornwall. We shall see how it goes. The foxgloves are especially spectacular this year, standing tall in all the country lanes. Huge bumble bees disappear inside their bells.

A friend gave me a book called ‘The complete language of flowers: A definitive and illustrated history’ by S.Theresa Dietz. ‘Digitalis purpurea’ also goes by the old names of Cow Flop, Dead Man’s Bells, Dog’s Finger, Fairy caps, Goblin’s Gloves and Witch’s Thimble, to name but a few of its delicious nicknames. According to superstition, if you pick one, the fairies would be offended.

Foxgloves

Some eagerly awaited visitors have found our Lamb’s Ear patch – wool carder bees. They wear chic black outfits with bright yellow stitching down the side. The Lamb’s Ear are useful to them both to line their nests with their fibres and for their nectar. I was perplexed today to find one laid completely still on one of the leaves. I thought she might have been grabbed by a crab spider, but there was no sign of any creature gripping her from below. Perhaps she was just having a rest? When I returned a bit later, she was gone.

According to my book, Lamb’s Ear guards against harm and wards off evil magic.

Wool carder bee

Wool carder bee

Wool carder bee on lambs ear

Wool carder bee on lambs ear

Red campion grows along a field I walk around to pass the long days. Its symbolic meanings include ‘youthful love’.

Red campion

Red campion

In the past week campanula flowers have come out, casually growing out of walls and any little spot where no other flowers will grow. Patchwork leaf cutter bees zoom between them, occasionally stopping for a rest in the sun. They are said to collect sections of leaves from plants including birch trees, roses, lilac and honey suckle, which they carry away to use in their nests.

The mini apple trees were pollinated very fast indeed and the apples are now well on their way to getting big. I prefer the cooking apples on a little tree by our shed though, except that most of them are too high to reach. But I will get a few crumbles from them.

What is growing where you are?

Apples

Apples

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A shortage of eggs

For weeks now both my hives have had no eggs or brood. So I’ve been reading about queenlessness and asking the advice of other beekeepers recently.

People said things like ‘Be patient. Bees won’t deliberately make themselves queenless’. So, rather than ordering a new queen in the post I managed to get a frame of eggs from a kind local beekeeper. A frame of eggs is a test of whether a hive is queenless – if it is, they should make queen cells. The bees did nothing with it. Did they have a queen, or were the eggs somehow damaged by being away from their colony and transported in the car without workers to care for them?

Still, I waited and hoped. And then finally last weekend one of the hives had the long looked-for eggs. One per cell, at the bottom of the cell. The sign of a queen! The bees seemed in a better mood. There were about three frames with eggs so I took one to the other colony which miraculously has no laying workers yet no eggs or brood either. It will be interesting to see what they do.

While I was waiting for eggs, some bees came to me. Unfortunately, they came to my chimney. Just as the old colony up there had started to dwindle and die out, a new swarm dramatically moved in, filling the air with bees. A procession of thoughtful neighbours knocked on the door to inform us… one said:  “If you go to the British Beekeepers’ website, you can find a local beekeeper”. When they discovered that I happen to be a beekeeper, I loved their confidence that I could sort it out… if only.

At the moment I am reading ‘Interviews with Beekeepers‘ by Steve Donohoe. There’s a lot to it and I am slowly moving through in the small bits and pieces of free time I get, taking in the advice and humour. It arrived quickly soon after ordering.

Below are a few photos of flowers out in Cornwall at the moment and cake that I’ve been eating.

Mexican fleabane

Mexican fleabane – this grows everywhere along the Cornish walls

Hawthorn

Hawthorn – the queen of May

Foxgloves

Foxglove – good for bumble bees

Victoria sponge cake

Victoria sponge cake and a cookie I won as part of my runner-up prize in our street’s VE day art contest

 

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An unpromising start

I inspected my two hives for the first time this year recently. The weather in Cornwall has been gorgeous since lockdown began, so I was expecting to find some brood and honey, maybe even brood boxes bursting with bees. Sadly, though both colonies are still alive, neither seems to have a queen.

I inspected Demelza without needing my smoker; her bees remain as gentle as ever. They had stores, and plenty of foragers returning, but no sign of any eggs or brood. No chaotic cells containing the multiple eggs of laying workers yet either. Just lots of empty cells in the middle of the brood nest where brood should be. It’s unusual for queenless hives to be good tempered, but something isn’t right.

Kensa’s bees were a very different and more nerve wracking matter, needing heavy smoking. I would have been stung from head to toe if they could have reached me! I couldn’t blame them for being mardy though, as they were low on stores and only had a couple of frames of capped brood. I spotted no eggs. I didn’t see the queen in either hive, though I was deliberately focusing on trying to find eggs rather than the queen. Kensa’s queen is presumably quite flighty as I’ve always found her hard to hunt down.

I don’t think I can do much to help either colony. They’re not in a state to start a Bailey comb change as I had hoped. Ideally I would get another queen from somewhere but it’s probably too early in the season for that, especially with everything going on at the moment. I’ve set up a bait hive in case I can catch an early swarm. For now I will just use dummy boards to reduce the amount of space in the hives and feed Kensa’s hive syrup. They were battered by a winter of rain and storms, which perhaps was too much for them. With baby Holly around I haven’t had as much time to focus on them as I’d like. Guess what though… the chimney bees are still alive!

I’ve been enjoying seeing the spring flowers come out in my garden and in the couple of local parks I can reach on foot. Below are some pics.

Below is Lithodora – a favourite with the little black local female Hairy footed flower bees. I think they nest in my neighbour’s wall, as I have seen them coming and going around there.

Lithodora

These cheery yellow flowers are lesser celandine, which grows at the edges of fields, hedgerows and in woodland.

Lesser celandine

Cherry tree in my garden. The petals fall constantly, producing beautiful confetti. Our mini apple trees have come through the winter well and are attracting pollinators with their freshly scented white blossom.

 

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The little bee that lost her way – book review

if you’re looking for a bee themed book to read to children, you can’t go wrong with The Little Bee That Lost Her Way by Paul Vagg.

The charmingly illustrated worker bee – looking like a northern granny in her Pom Pom hat and glasses – gets distracted while out filling her pollen baskets. She has all sorts of near misses with the local birds and beasts, including a magpie in a neckerchief, as she desperately tries to find her home again.

Tommy enjoyed reading about the little bee together, especially enjoying the part involving a big spider with many eyes. I’m pleased to say her story does have a happy ending! The book is written in rhyming poetry and filled with bright illustrations which should appeal to any child who loves insects and other animals.

The little bee that lost her way, by Paul Vagg

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Beekeeping in isolation

Spring is showing her face; the rain has relented and some eager flowers have opened up their petals for the warmth of the sun. Around us pink and yellow primroses are sprinkled, their shapes like the classic flowers children draw. A few fruit trees have started to blossom. Bright yellow dandelions and blue forget-me-nots decorate my overgrown garden.

Pink primroses

And just as all this is going on, just as the beekeeper is getting excited, we are locked in our homes by a deadly virus. There will be no friendly meet ups with tea and cake this season.

My preparations continue regardless; I must hammer together some brood frames ready to do a Bailey comb change sometime in April so that the bees can draw out fresh comb. When to do this, between looking after two small children, I’m not sure – maybe 2am?! I am not particularly looking forward trying to find the queen, as both hives have been quite aggressive this winter. I’m just hoping it was the rain and wind that made them grumpy. Last week I ended up running for it, as I made the mistake of removing the mouse guards in a bee suit but with regular shoes which exposed my socks. Their woodpecker protection (a wire cage) is off now too.

These are strange and unexpected times which have made me appreciate how easy my life was before (and still is in many ways). There was so much I took for granted. Stay safe everyone.

Blossom

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Waiting for spring

Two storms have wailed past the bee hives. And still the Cornish winter continues, a rarely relenting fall of rain and hail, accompanied by a bitter wind.

I don’t know how the bees feel about it, but I am certainly finding it hard to keep my spirits up. I see them flying still, collecting pollen from the few flowers out there. Somehow they keep going.

I check on them every week or so, making sure their entrance holes are not clogged up with dead bees. I remove the hive roofs, peel back the insulation and quickly put fondant in before the bees discover my intrusion. If I am too slow, too curious, they come for me in anger.

Will they survive this winter? I have done things differently this year, distracted by the arrival of our own queen bee. I did not feed syrup in the autumn as I usually do, leaving each hive a super of honey instead. And though I had an anti-varroa Api-Bioxal treatment ready, Holly arrived a week early and I didn’t manage to trickle it.

The colony in our chimney survives of course, defying the usual expectation that bees untreated for varroa will die out. If I poke my head out of the attic in a rare dry moment, I see the workers returning to their crack.

There are signs of spring of course, some earlier than ever: frog spawn in January, daffodils in December. Our camellia tree has begun presenting its enormous pink blooms to the sky.  Before I know it, just as the winter seems to have lasted forever, I’ll be collecting swarms from trees.

Bombus hypnorum

Bombus hypnorum, spotted in February

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A new queen arrives for Christmas

Happy Boxing Day/Day after Christmas everyone – was a busy one for us as we have a new Queen in the family. Holly Cariad Elowen arrived on Sunday. She doesn’t issue many commands yet but I have a feeling that may change!

Holly Cariad Elowen

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All tucked in for winter

A quick post on what I do to get my bees ready for winter. Here’s how the hives are looking right now.

Poly hive with woodpecker protection

Over the years I’ve found this works for me:

  • A thymol based anti-varroa treatment in late August – I count this as part of my winter preparations, as it’s about the bees being able to rear healthy young workers to last the winter.
  • Feeding 2:1 strength sugar syrup in September (though this year I haven’t and left a super of honey on each hive instead – we’ll see how well that works out)
  • Mouse-guard on (late October-early November, once ivy pollen has stopped coming in)
  • Chicken wire cage put around the hives when the first frosts arrive, to protect against woodpeckers
  • Fondant put over crown board during December, then topped up as necessary
  • Sheets of loft insulation tucked in over crown board, to keep the top of the hive insulated
  • Open mesh floor on bottom of hive
  • Hives strapped down, with a brick on top to protect against the wind
  • Oxalic acid drizzle done around the winter solstice

What works for you?

I am still not very confident about overwintering in Cornwall, as the weather is so soggy here compared to London. We’ve had a few mini-hail storms since November. Also I’ve taken a risk by not feeding syrup in autumn as I would normally do.

The life of a winter bee is all about hunkering down, keeping the queen warm and surviving the short, cold days. Below is an illustration I did a few years ago of the differences between a summer bee’s abdomen and a winter bee’s abdomen. When it’s too cold to fly, the winter bee stores up all her waste inside… imagine the relief when she finally gets out! My bees have still been flying, so are not at this stage yet.

Summer bee/winter bee abdomens

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