An apiary visit, bait hive set up, garden developments and bee rescuing adventures

Sunday was an absolutely glorious summer’s day in Cornwall, one of the first we’ve had this year. What do you do when it’s beautiful out and you’re a short distance from some of the finest beaches in the country? It’s a no-brainer: you put on a sweaty beesuit and go look inside some beehives.

West Cornwall Beekeeping Association apiary visit – Kate Bowyer’s apiary

The WCBA runs these visits to give members a chance to find out how fellow members organise their apiaries, see their bees, and ask questions. The first apiary visit of this year was to see Kate’s hives. I won’t give away their exact location, but Kate keeps them in an enclosed field in a village about half an hour’s drive from Truro.

It was nice to meet up with local beekeepers. We had a couple of retired semi-professional beekeepers amongst us, one of whom was a ex-bee inspector. It was interesting to hear about their experiences as commercial beekeeping is so different to having a couple of hives at the bottom of the garden.

Hive inspection Kate Bowyer

Kate’s hives were mostly thriving, with only one which was struggling with some chalk brood. There was some discussion about whether to try to feed and nurture it or leave the colony to dwindle out.

You could tell that Kate inspects regularly as all the equipment came apart quickly and cleanly as she went through her hives. The bees were all good tempered and put up with a crowd of onlookers getting in their way as they zoomed back and forth bringing nectar home. She was going to demonstrate a Bailey comb change but the queen proved too elusive.

Ever seen this slightly unusual hive stand? Previously NHS equipment!

Nucleus hive Kate Bowyer

Drew and Tommy came to pick me up and we enjoyed some delicious home-made cake and biscuits which Kate provided along with a cup of tea. I spoke with a entertaining gentleman who has been keeping bees for fifty years and previously kept a herd of pygmy goats. Tommy was very pleased to be so well fed and called out “Bye cake” when we left!

Bait hive and garden developments

The nucleus hive I have on order is still not ready, so meanwhile I’ve set up this bee hive in our back garden. Well, more accurately Drew set it up, as he nailed the hive and hive stand together (the hive stand is his own design). I’ve turned the entrance facing south, put an entrance reducer in as bees prefer small entrances and have added some lemongrass oil infused cotton wool balls. I don’t have an old brood comb though, which would be ideal to attract a swarm.

Bait hive

Drew and I are both loving spending time in the garden now that spring is here. I’ve bought some plants from Rosybee plants as they specialise in providing bee-friendly plants that are grown in an environmentally friendly way, without pesticides.

Below you can see a row of Stachys byzantina – Lambs’ ears, which is a silvery, softly haired plant especially attractive to wool carder bees, which use it as a mating site. They use the hairs from soft plants like Lambs’ ears to line their nests – see Plant lambs’ ears and keep wool carder bees happy (Guardian, 2016). Very usefully it also happens to soothe bee stings! I’ve also added catmint, foxgloves and echinops ‘star frost’. Our garden is fairly sunny but the clay soil combined with high rain fall here may be a challenge, even more of a challenge may be that Drew and I know nothing about gardening!

Lambs ear

Bee saving adventures

The barista at my local coffee shop took it in her stride when I turned up with an exhausted female hairy footed flower bee in my hands. I’d found the little bee sitting on the ground while walking through a car park. I requested a sugar sachet and water and settled down on a sofa to give her a feed. At that moment she decided to take off and flew towards the door! Luckily Drew was able to reach her and let her out, otherwise I would have felt very guilty.

Guess what though… I am not the only bee loon in Truro! Yes, really! Just ahead of me as I walked to pick Tommy up from nursery was a woman on the other side of the road, half walking/half running hastily down the hill. She abruptly stopped, pulled a tissue out of her bag, and picked up a small black object from the road which she cradled in her hands as she walked on. ‘Could it be…?’ I thought to myself. ‘Does anyone else pick up bees…?’

The woman crossed over to my side of the road and stopped at a bright patch of flowers along the verge. She carefully moved what I could now see was a bumble bee onto the flowers. And on she went, walking away speedily, in a hurry to get somewhere fast. In such a hurry, and yet she took the time to care for a little bee.

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Rotten: Lawyers, Guns and Honey

I was alerted to this new documentary on Netflix all the way back in January by Ron Miksha, who writes the fantastic Bad Beekeeping Blog, here’s his post on it – Rotten: Lawyers, Guns  & Honey.

Well, I finally got round to watching it! If you follow bee news, a lot of the Lawyers, Guns & Honey episode probably won’t be new to you, but it’s a fascinating insight into the behind the scenes work of testing honey and protecting consumers from the ever-persistent honey scammers. For those of you who don’t have Netflix, here’s my notes on the episode.

Honey frame before uncapping

Honey crime

Lawyers, Guns & Honey is all about how the lure of quick cash has spawned an undercover world of honey crime, with suppliers passing off honey diluted with sugar syrup or tainted with antibiotics as the real deal. To combat this honey testers must compete in an ongoing arms race of ever-more ingenious tests, which the honey fraudsters somehow keep finding a way to combat.

We heard that the amount of honey bee colonies make keeps dropping, yet honey consumption is soaring as people become more interested in natural products (sources weren’t given for these stats, so they may be US only figures). There are middle-men honey packers who make a living from buying in large quantities of honey and blending honeys together in huge vats, to make an end product which is easier for food manufacturers to use.

A testing arms-race

The US government has put extra import taxes on honey imported from China, to try to even the playing field for American beekeepers. But this is easily circumvented by importers who put a different label on the Chinese honey and route it through a third-party country like India, Malaysia or Russia on the way to the US. Government testing is rare – most testing is done by packers and testers to protect their business against food fraud.  However – perhaps surprisingly – this testing is not required by US law.

Germany is the second biggest importer of honey (‘honig’) after the US, with honey being part of a traditional German breakfast. Gudrun Beckh, Services Managing Director at the German lab testing company Quality Services International, explained to us how the firm tests each sample by both taste and smell before putting it under the microscope. Taste and smell indicate authenticity, while pollen analysis is used to determine geographical origin. But of course, pollen can be filtered out.

A new method has been developed which is much harder to beat – for now. Using ‘Nuclear Magnetic Resonance’ (NMK) techniques, scientists can measure the magnetic fields of individual atoms to create a molecular fingerprint. This is checked against a database of honeys from around the world. For the moment this is an effective tool.

Catching the honey fraudsters

In 2008 employees of the international trade company Alfred L.Wolff were convicted in the largest food fraud case in US history – nicknamed honeygate. Large quantities of ‘Russian’ honey were being imported by Wolff, but when tested they were identified as Chinese honey samples. Federal agents seized documents, shipping records and samples of honey.

One particular purchase order, no 995, proved instrumental in establishing the guilt of National sales manager Stefanie Gisselbach. Just as Gisselbach was at the airport waiting for a flight back home to Germany, where it would have been difficult to extradite her from, agents found the vital evidence they needed. Email trails showed that the honey purchased in order 995 contained chloramphenicol, a powerful antibiotic fed to bees to keep them healthy – illegal in the US because the resulting honey can be fatal to humans who consume it. When Gisselbach discovered this, she followed instructions from head office to sell it on at a fire sale price.

Faced with the evidence, Gisselbach agreed to cooperate and eventually 27 individuals/companies were charged; nine defendants pleaded guilty while ten defendants are currently fugitives living in countries outside the US. Indeed Gisselbach, who was fairly new in her role, was probably only continuing with procedures to cover up fraudulently relabelled Chinese honey which were systematic before she arrived in post. You can read more about this in an Open Magazine article, Honey Laundering by Sabrina Buckwalter.

How this affects US bees and beekeepers

The value of beekeeping is already in question for commercial beekeepers. There are now over a million acres of almond orchards in California. Trends in healthy eating are driving consumers towards using almond milk and almond flour. Due to competition from cheap imports, most US beekeepers would struggle to make a profit from producing honey alone – so they turn to commercial pollination of crops like almonds.

Predictably, acres and acres of just one plant species isn’t great for bees. Every year most of the honey bee pollinating power in the US is brought to one concentrated area. All the bees from different operations mixing together, plus the chemicals and fungicides sprayed on the orchards, is not a healthy mix.  The beekeepers have to supplement their feed with sugar syrup because the almond trees produce more pollen than nectar. The bees are burning more calories pollinating the trees than they’re bringing in.

The money at stake and the difficulties in keeping healthy colonies tempts a few to the dark side. Thousands of bee hives have been stolen from sites in the California valley, with evidence pointing to professional beekeepers being the culprits.

The poet of the episode

Special mention should go to Norberto Garcia, the eloquent President of the International Honey Exporters Organisation, who came out with some lovely quotes, telling us there’s an “unstoppable depth to the bees, there’s so much detail to what they do” and “There’s some romances about bees. Romances are not so easily explained”. 

Anyone who has kept bees will know what he means – despite all the times you’re hot, sweaty and have angry bees pinging off your veil, there’s something about bees that gets to your heart. Let’s support local producers who we know look after their bees well and create good quality honey. Look at the label when you buy a honey; if it seems very cheap, you might want to ask yourself why.

Frame of honey

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Growing wildflowers – notes from a talk by Elly Phillips, MeadowSweet Consultancy

A couple of weeks ago I had a rare mid-week evening trip out. Colours Cafe, a local Truro cafe which holds regular events inspired by nature, wellbeing and good food, was hosting a talk on growing wildflower meadows by a local gardener and meadow consultant called Elly Phillips.

The talk was fascinating though sadly I was the only audience member there! Perhaps because not many people in Truro (myself included) have space to grow a wildflower meadow; however Elly’s tips are suitable for borders or small pots of wildflowers too. Since her talk I’ve sown the seeds she gave me, but unfortunately we’ve had a surprise second snow fall since then, so I’m not sure whether they’ll have survived that.

Elly Phillips, Meadowsweet seeds

Flower seeds given to me by Elly and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust Buzz Club.

The importance of poor soil

Wildflowers like poor nutrient soil. If the ground has been fertilised in the past and now has grass growing there, then cutting and removing the grass is a good way to remove nutrients from it. You can also plant brassica vegetables like Brussel sprouts, cabbages or broccoli to deplete the soil, as they will suck up all the nutrients as they grow.

Know your soil

Have a look at local verges around you to see what’s growing naturally. Feel your soil to test whether it feels sticky and clumpy like clay or is more fine and sandy. This will help you assess what plants will appreciate your particular soil. You can also get acidity kits to test your soil’s pH levels. If you really want to take it seriously, the RHS has a soil analysis service which currently costs £30.

If you see slate rocks in your soil, that is a clue that your soil is likely to contain clay. If you see granite, that is a clue that your soil is likely to contain peat.

Some wildflowers, like Birds foot trefoil and yarrow, are forgiving of most soils.

What, where and when…

Snowdrops can be planted in spring – buy ‘in the green’ when bulbs are fresh. Crocuses can be planted in autumn. Garden centres tend to put cornflower and poppy seeds in wildflower mixes – these look very pretty but are only suitable for annually agitated soil, otherwise they won’t return the next year.

Elly recommends buying seeds and plants from specialist wildflower suppliers rather than garden centres, as they will supply good quality native seeds. Research by Dr Dave Goulson has also shown that many garden centres use pesticides, so by buying their plants you may actually be harming local pollinators – see his June 2017 blog post, Pesticides in ‘Bee-Friendly’ Flowers.

To yellow rattle or not yellow rattle

Apparently this is a common debate when planting a wildflower meadow. Yellow rattle is semi-parasitic and helps to suppress some grasses. It’s an annual, so the seeds need to drop or be harvested before sowing back. You need around 1.5 grams per square metre.

How to sow

You need minimum 50% bare earth to sow into.  Scatter the seeds on top of the bare earth. It’s worth putting sand or sawdust into your seed mix so that you can see where you’ve sowed and also because it helps distribute the seeds.

Trample or press the ground down lightly after sowing to stop the seeds blowing away – but seeds don’t survive in compacted ground, so don’t pack the soil down too hard.

Autumn is the best time to sow, as then flowers have time to get a head start, but spring works too.

Aftercare

Year 1 – cut regularly through summer
Year 2 – cut at the end of summer

Note: if you have sown annuals don’t cut between April to July, to allow them to flower.

You must remove the cuttings! Otherwise they will release nutrients back into the soil, which is bad for wildflowers.

Links

Here’s some seed suppliers/wildflower experts which Elly recommended:

Bumblebee on borage

Bumblebee on borage – one of the best flowers you can grow for bees

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Get ready to find Asian hornets in your apiary – notes from a talk by Martyn Hocking

This weekend I went to the Cornwall Beekeepers Association (CBKA)’s AGM. There were some probing questions asked… but luckily there was also plentiful tea and cake to sweeten the proceedings. The CBKA’s setup is more fragmented than Ealing as it is split into seven local groups spread around the county. There is also a West Cornwall Beekeepers’ Association! It was hard deciding which to join since I live in central Cornwall, so for now I’ve joined both.

The speaker afterwards was Martyn Hocking from Woolacombe in north Devon. Poor Martin achieved fame amongst British beekeepers last year when he spotted a Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) in his apiary. An ex-teacher, he looked at ease stood on top of the village hall stage. He set the scene of last September 2017 for us… describing himself as an ordinary beekeeper with a long list of other hobbies (although he has two apiaries with 15-20 hives, more than the average British beekeeper).

A glowing teddy bear…
While in one of his apiaries, out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of an insect which he knew was different to anything he’d seen before, with an end which appeared glowing like a cigarette. It was velvety too (to him the hornets look like teddy bears you might want to give a cuddle – if they weren’t there to rip your bees’ heads off). A highly segmented body, long legs, wings longer than its body. He felt a sense of dread. At home his wife Sally laughed, ‘Don’t be so daft’ when he told her he thought he’d seen an Asian hornet.

Vespa velutina. Photo by Jean Haxaire, Courtesy The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Crown Copyright.

Vespa velutina. Photo by Jean Haxaire, Courtesy The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Crown Copyright.

An email to the National Bee Unit reporting the sighting was responded to with a request for a picture. Trying to get one cost him a week, as struggling with an iPhone 4 to photograph a fast moving insect is not easy. Knowing as he does now that the hornets are not overly aggressive away from their nests, he recommends catching them with a shrimp net then putting them in the freezer to get a sample for the NBU (the NBU has advice online on how to do this). Ultimately the NBU will want a sample specimen before putting nest eradication plans into action.

Asian hornet behaviour 
Martyn now knows that Asian hornets don’t just like to ‘hawk’ in front of hives but will appear from the back, dive underneath and then grab bees at the front before flying away. They are not usually aggressive to humans unless within around 30 metres of their nest (at which point they can be very aggressive). Like Martyn, it is likely to be around September when you first see them, as this is when their need for protein sources like honey bees increases. They dismember bees because they want their thorax and flight muscles as protein for the nest. To satisfy their need for protein, fish fingers can be used as bait.

Asian hornet eating hoverfly. Photo by Jean Haxaire, Courtesy The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Crown Copyright.

Asian hornet eating hoverfly. Photo by Jean Haxaire, Courtesy The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Crown Copyright.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What should the National Bee Unit be doing?
Beekeepers are not currently part of the NBU’s eradication protocol, but Martyn argues that they should make use of us, as we are one of the few groups of people that pay attention to insects. We are the border guards between the Asian hornet becoming established here. He felt very much on his own after reporting the initial sighting, with the responsibility put on him to provide a photo, followed by feeling brushed aside once the NBU inspectors descended on Woolacombe.

However, beekeepers are also part of the problem. Look at these stats, which Martyn gave us:

  • 2016 – 2700 Asian hornet reports logged with the Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS)
  • 2017 – 4500 reports logged with the NNSS. Only two of these were genuine Asian hornet sightings, one Martyn’s and the other on a lorry in the other end of the country, in Glasgow.

The majority of these false reports are made by beekeepers. Coming from a Cornish family, Martyn was reminded of one of his mum’s old Cornish sayings – “Everyone knows what to do with a kicking horse when they haven’t got one”. It’s easy to criticise the NBU, but in many ways they are trying their best to raise awareness of the hornet, through giving out information sheets, doing talks, running Bee Health Days for beekeepers, maintaining the BeeBase website and now a new Asian Hornet Watch app.

Lessons from France
Brittany is similar in size to the South West peninsula. Last year, around 900 Asian hornet nests were destroyed there. This is the scale of the situation we could soon be facing. We’re currently in a phase of ‘Preventing establishment’. It is not clear yet how the NBU would deal with a containment phase. In a 2012 Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) assessment report by the government, establishment of the Asian hornet here and its subsequent spread across the country was estimated as ‘highly likely’.

Yet, Martyn argues, the language and tone of the NBU publicity material on Asian hornets is positive and relaxing, with the effect of calming beekeepers rather than stirring them to action. His overall message was – we should be worried! We should be using this time to prepare ourselves, putting together local Asian Hornet Action Teams of beekeepers to keep an eye out and support any members who have a potential sighting. Don’t think that because you are not by the coast you are safe. They could enter the country by truck, train or plane, not just by flying over the Channel.

Further reading:

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Black bees in the mizzle at Godolphin

The Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA) organised a big conference on at the Eden Project in Cornwall last weekend – Sustainable Beekeeping: A future without imports. It was all about the benefits of keeping our native/near native honey bees, i.e. UK populations of dark European honey bees, the sub-species Apis mellifera mellifera.

I didn’t go to the conference, but I did get to see some dark bees during an apiary visit to the National Trust’s Godolphin House, which had been organised as part of the conference weekend.

Bob Black, one of the Godolphin beekeepers, hosted the visit. Over forty of us gathered round in a circle and it quickly became clear that this was a rather expert audience, with some professional beekeepers amongst us. A few had travelled from as far as Ireland and the Isle of Wight – like Cornwall, remote places where distinct bee populations can thrive. I also had the pleasure of meeting a blog reader – hi Alan and Lynn!

As the famed Cornish ‘mizzle‘ came down thick and wet, we squelched round to various parts of the Godolphin estate to see the hives. A few hardy bees were flitting in and out for soggy cleansing flights; they were indeed black in colour.

Sorry for the terrible photos – was too busy listening to Bob to take many. He filled us in on some of the details of keeping the bees at Godolphin – the first dark bee colonies came around seven years ago, supplied by Cornish beekeeper James Kilty. Bob has seen his dark queens mating amongst nearby trees and believes there are now enough dark drones locally for them to be able to maintain the sub-species by mating naturally.

Bob sells around twelve dark bee nucleus hives a year and doesn’t take pre-orders as he won’t know till around May how many he has to sell. He receives around 4-5 emails a week from people wanting to buy native dark bees, some from as far away as Canada!

For varroa control they use Apiguard and trickle oxalic acid. Honey production is not huge but they make enough to sell in the Godolphin shop. Indeed, the latest BBKA Honey Survey 2017 results found the Wales and South West regions were the least productive for honey, with a wet summer causing honey crops to drop to an average 18 lbs per hive.

It may look like dusk in the photo below of one of Godolphin’s buildings but was actually around 1.30pm. Bob told us feral bee colonies nest among some of the buildings but tend to last only a couple of years before dying out.

Godolphin

We walked on to the main apiary site which the public can view. The Godolphin poster below says the bees are particularly special for a number of reasons:

  • They like to keep clean: they groom, nibble and clean their hive
  • They are suited to the UK environment
  • They are good-tempered
  • They have a good health record
  • They store food for rainy days

I will have the chance to see for myself if this is true this summer as I have ordered a nuc now 🙂  There may be a commercial angle to promoting the benefits of dark bees, as it gives Cornish bee breeders a unique selling point. I would prefer to have local bees as I have found the climate here is slightly different to London, warmer but wetter.

The bees that live at Godolphin poster

Bob posted this quote from one of the attendees on the Cornish Black Bees Facebook page:

“A great afternoon at Godolphin today, hosted by Bob Black as part of the BIBBA weekend. Beekeepers from Ireland, Essex, blogland and Redruth joined together to hear about the realities of retaining a local bee population – against all odds. I really enjoyed talking to the representatives from Ireland ‘s Native Bee Association who are battling to save what we may have already lost – a true native bee. An interesting dilemma for them – they want ban imports of bees but, beekeepers want to export their bees because others want the native black bee – and you can’t have it both ways! Thanks Bob for hosting this event, and asking WCBKA to be part of it.”

Moving from creatures of the air to creatures of the water – I met our native garden frogs for the first time this week. When we moved in during November I assumed our pond would have frogs, but we never saw any – until they came and said hello outside our door in spectacular style! Four to six little heads can now regularly be seen bobbing up and down in the water. If I can keep both my bees and my frogs happy this year I will be very happy too!

Frogs mating

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Honey on the BBC’s Food: Truth or Scare show

Thanks to Mark Patterson from the London Beekeepers Association for posting about this – bee expert Professor Dave Goulson featured in a segment about pesticides in honey on the BBC show Food: Truth or Scare last Wednesday (available to UK viewers for another 22 days).

Food: Truth or Scare TV show screenshot

The honey segment starts at 21 minutes in. The presenters, Chris Bavin and Gloria Hunniford, look at headlines from last autumn about pesticides found in honey – “75% of honey we eat contains pesticides” reads one, quoting a study in which scientists tested 198 honeys from around the world. “I always regard honey as being pure, about being healthy, about being mending” says a shocked Gloria.

“Do we need to worry about the honey we eat?”, Chris chirpily asks Prof. Goulson. Together they look at an observation hive and we hear that honey bees travel up to five miles to forage, meaning they inevitably come into contact with pesticides. It’s also explained that many UK supermarket honeys contain honey blended from several different countries, often a mix of EU and non-EU honeys. Even organic honey producers cannot guarantee their honey is pesticide-free – certainly in the UK there is no organic farm big enough to provide over a five mile radius of pesticide-free forage.

However, Dave tells us that the good news is that the levels of pesticides found in honey are small – the concentrations are low and well beneath what are deemed to be safe levels for humans (in the short term!). There are concerns about the possible long-term effects of pesticides on us – no-one really knows for sure what the effects might be. However, Dave is going to carry on eating honey – phew! Not a surprising conclusion but a reminder of the environment our bees have to contend with.

Further reading

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Fame in Cornwall Today

Over the years my blog has led to many unexpected opportunities and serendipitous meetings. This has happened yet again since moving to Cornwall – the editor of Cornwall Today came across my blog and now I feature in this month’s issue.

Emily Scott Cornwall Today Moving Story February 2018

Cornwall Today – Full PDF article

I’m hopefully getting closer to having bees again – Drew and I have been discussing the best place to keep bees in our back garden, which is a little awkwardly shaped and also north facing. He has kindly offered to build me a hive stand. The going rate locally for a nucleus hive seems to be around £200, which is a little eye-watering as I’ve never had to buy bees from a supplier in the past. When I do get them I shall be looking to do a split as soon as they create queen cells – I have no intention of buying bees more than once.

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