As always here, no news isn’t good, or bad, just a reflection of the weather – almost no rain, and too much to do. I should start with a quick reference to Hannah, which we hope will be the last, named storm, of the 2018/2019 season.
Hitting West Wales with a slightly strange straight Westerly wind direction on April 27th, it caused significant damage to fresh emerging leaves on the windward aspect of many trees locally, and caused some major trees to fall. Click here for one local example friends told us about yesterday – a near escape for the lovely church at Betws Bledrws.
We thought we’d escaped any major damage here, until we headed out to walk the woodland trail at Byrgwm Forest on April 28th. Halfway down our access track, the huge root plate of a leylandii type conifer had been ripped out to within inches of the edge of the track. As we pondered just how this could be easily removed, we did wonder if it were cut through sufficiently quickly, whether it might return to its previous position.
The photos below give a glimpse of how glorious the roughly 2 hour walk near Brechfa is, following streams, climbing through different wooded areas, and criss-crossing with the mountain bike trails. There’s even the fantastic Forest Arms at Brechfa close by for a post walk drink or meal. And usually, almost no other people to be seen or heard, once you leave the car park.
It transpired that our neighbour, whose land it was on, had come down with his chainsaw whilst we were out, and cut through all the top branches lying on the ground, and indeed as the last one was severed, the enormous double trunk pinged back upright, leaving a scene with almost no sign of damage at ground level. Well done Kerrie, and great to hear that you weren’t catapulted over the hills and far away, as the trunk snapped back into position!
I must record the sad passing of Margaret Bide recently. Margaret was a remarkable lady who we’d got to know over many years, initially through our joint interest in old quilts and textiles, and Fiona’s involvement with the Welsh Quilt Centre in Lampeter. Margaret was a font of knowledge on all things relating to textile design, dyeing and the history of woollen mills in Wales, and single handedly resourced and masterminded the restoration of a derelict woollen mill at nearby Cellan, which somehow or other she managed to keep going as her Welsh base, along with a house and garden in her parent’s home town of Farnham, Surrey.
Beyond this she had a huge network of contacts and interests in other fields and our paths crossed repeatedly over the years. Including my documentary film and her links and advice on Welsh folklore, when she was supportive enough to come to its first screening in Swansea; a major book launch by Richard Bebb on the history of Welsh furniture making (click here); the “right” way to restore old stone properties and her links with Ty Mawr Lime in Brecon; her passionate interest in wildflower meadows and how to manage them, and her support of the Carmarthenshire Meadows Group – she had her own small meadow at the mill in Cellan; and more recently her support and interest in my Welsh Historic Snowdrop Hunt project, with several forms collected from her own garden and wonderful stories to go with them.
I’ve never met anyone with such clarity of thought and expression and such a wide-ranging diversity of interests. Phone calls were rarely brief, but nearly always resulted in ideas or links to pursue, and Margaret would often follow up in due course with newspaper clippings, old snowdrop catalogues, etc, and then a further call to see whether I’d acted on her recommendations!
She managed to keep active and in control of everything in spite of gradually failing eyesight, and we’re going on a holiday later this year as a result of just one of her many links, provided a year or two ago. “I think you’d be very interested in this small garden tour holiday company, which I read about in a magazine advert recently.”
I’ll greatly miss her wisdom, breadth of interest, incisive mind, and clarity of thought and expression. In many ways she has been hugely influential to our lives here in West Wales. She never married, had no near relatives, and died quite suddenly without apparently leaving any clear instructions for her estate. However, she’ll live on in a very real way with her distinctive clear voice and some of her captured thoughts, since there is a huge archive of recorded interviews with her, made by the British Library, under their National Life Stories Collection initiative, and accessible on line by clicking here.
Sadly, Margaret never got to grips with computer technology, so there aren’t many other links to this remarkable lady which I can provide, but visitors to our garden will be able to admire her snowdrops in future years, and I felt honoured to be asked to read the following Wordsworth sonnet, and say a few words at her recent funeral. I hope Margaret would have approved, though she’d probably have critiqued my lack of clarity in its delivery.
To A Snowdrop
LONE Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,
Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay
The rising sun, and on the plains descend;
Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend
Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eyed May
Shall soon behold this border thickly set
With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing
On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;
Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!
It’s also a great regret that I can’t phone Margaret and tell her about the uses we’re making of the unnamed willow which we now grow extensively here. Margaret had many clumps of a variety of coloured stemmed Salix and Cornus, which she kept pollarded around her mill at Cellan, and every year she took armfuls of cuttings into the local garden centre for them to sell. I think that this is a form of osier willow, Salix viminalis, and hence potentially of value for basket making. We’d always noticed how if left uncut, it produces fabulous long, arching, yellow catkins in mid spring, (shown below after all the pollen has been stripped away by bees). However, it’s only since my recent interest in honeybees developed more seriously, that I’ve realised it’s an extremely useful plant to grow to extend the willow pollen season beyond the masses of Goat willows, Salix caprea, which seem to kick off the spring bee pollen fest. And not just for bumblebees, but honeybees as well.
And with this I’ll segway into a major section on how the bees have been over the last month, which is the main reason I’ve not managed a post recently.
In summary I’ve had to try to get up to speed on bee ecology and management in just under 2 months, since I was given the chance to acquire the hive and its resident bees, which a local beekeeper, and now long-suffering friend and advisor (!) had installed on site, last summer. This has proved to be a gargantuan task – and one that has nearly exhausted me and tried Fiona’s patience to breaking point. Not only does one have to try to understand how a honeybee colony functions at an individual and social scale, but there then comes the decision about how one wants to keep them – in a more conventional, interventionist way where maximising the potential honey harvest is one of the primary aims; or with a more “natural” bee centred approach, where opening the hive and honey removal is done in a very limited way. It intrigues me that whilst one can take university courses in the UK on surfing, politics, sporting injuries or multitudes of “media ” based options, there isn’t a single university attempting to encompass the social life, ecology, biology and management of bees. Perhaps there should be, and our world would indeed be the better for it?
The critical decision about how one decides to try to “keep” bees can only really be made after one starts to develop an idea of the pros and cons of each approach, and this has huge implications for a novice beekeeper, because it will determine what equipment, and in particular which hive and frame designs, one decides to use. And most aren’t easily compatible.
Suffice to say, I decided to go the more natural route and settled eventually on a hive design based around one developed by a French abbot called Émile Warré, in the mid-twentieth century. Click here for an article which I found to be very persuasive by a Welsh beekeeper, David Heaf, who has used Warré hives for a number of years.
The plan was that starting from the initial hive we acquired, which was housed in an existing conventional, and larger “National” hive, and which had grown by mid-April to look as above, I’d hoped to gradually establish 3 or 4 more colonies to give my little set up more resilience, using Warré style hives which I’d constructed. Plans for making such a hive are freely available on line, click here, and I reckoned it gave me a good chance to recycle many of the bits of left over wood and assorted building materials from decades of projects here, which were languishing and cluttering our barn.
However, the trouble with beekeeping is that the bees don’t directly communicate their own plans with you, their potential landlord.
So whilst I was making good progress with constructing the several boxes necessary for a single Warré hive, the initial colony threw a swarm on the last day of April, which by a pure fluke, I’d managed to photograph on my trail camera which I’d set up simply to try to record the varying numbers of bees obvious outside the hive, throughout the day.
Since we’d been working on a potential site for another bee hive in the morning, I only came across the swarm cluster just after lunch, as I was halfway through a bumblebee count walk, around the garden.
Apologies to any experienced beekeepers who read this and are mortified or amused by the following tale – it’s simply how things happened and I don’t have space to go into many of the reasons why I’m going a more natural route, though some of the most helpful pieces of intelligent writing about bee management I’ve found can be read here, and here, and here. For a concise and clear insight into the complex issues of a more “natural” versus more mainstream and interventionist approach to beekeeping, I’d urge anyone interested either in eating honey, or the long term viability of honeybees, to have a look at the introductory page on the Oxford Natural Beekeeping Group’s web page which you can read here. I’m guessing many readers, like myself before this year, really have little idea about how most bees are kept and managed.
By coincidence, there have been two relevant BBC Radio 4 pieces on honeybees recently as well – click here for Tim Harford’s well produced short piece on the significance of the design of the Langstroth hive in industrialising bee keeping – one of the items he’s chosen for his series on “50 Things that made the modern economy”; and here for a piece on Saturday Live involving a discussion with Sarah Wyndham Lewis, a honey sommelier. Will you ever taste honey in the same way after listening to this? (The section on honey begins 30 minutes into the programme)
The experience of discovering and capturing this first swarm can best be described as akin to my fraught first weekend on call as a young vet. With no back up, no trained nurse (just dear Fiona who as a geography teacher was expected, as part of me taking on the job, to muck in and be my unpaid anaesthetist), I was presented with an emergency Caesarean section to perform on a cat. My previous total personal hands on surgical experience had involved completing a single incredibly lengthy cat spay, in the university operating theatre.
No back up was available. I just had to get on with it. Times have changed since I qualified. Fortunately!
At least the cat survived, though sadly not the single kitten.
But the advantage this sort of previous stressful exposure in a veterinary career, particularly with surgery where a life was usually at stake, and just how a living body handles and reacts, is that I knew that never mind this swarm was a completely novel experience – I just had to get on with dealing with it as quickly as possible. It had settled reassuringly low down on a conifer branch barely 15 yards from the source hive, and I needed to move it into some sort of container, before they all flew off to a new home that scout bees would have been searching for, even as I stood, secateurs in hand, camera round my neck, and visibly shaking. The only thing to hand, which I deemed appropriate to use for an initial capture, was an old German butter churn, which I’d been toying with turning into a basis of a hive since the internal dimensions of the cavity approximate to a typical natural bee colony in the hollowed out centre of a tree – about 60 litres, in fact.
A spare frame with bee’s wax was quickly dropped in, on an angle to make it fit, and to try to make the musty butter churn smell more hive-like, and to try to avoid them deciding to leaving in disgust a.s.a.p. The branch was clipped off the tree with secateurs. The majority of bees still clinging to the branch dropped in, I removed the bung from the base of the churn and gradually placed the lid on top. The bees sat on the lid and all round about, abdomens raised, pumping out swarm pheromones telling all the remaining bees milling around – “this is where we are”.
The plan was to leave the churn where it was for a few hours to allow most of the bees to settle inside, and indeed to be certain that the vital queen bee was inside the churn, and not left outside. Later in the day the captured swarm could be moved to its eventual new home, which even whilst this was all happening was being prepared for just such an eventuality – but not quite finished!
It was remarkable to watch the all the bees left outside gradually find their way in, through the small hole at the base. I should add that at this stage the butter churn had no fixed bottom to it, so I’d had to rig up a temporary cardboard and thin ply base held in place with Duck tape.
I felt hugely elated at what I’d witnessed and achieved, until safely back inside, I pondered the problems I’d now created for myself.
The bees would settle on the lid of the butter churn and begin to build their comb there which would then be impossible to remove. The eventual weight of the butter churn with comb, bees and eventually honey, would make it really difficult to lift or move, and of most immediate concern I still had a cut branch and the dropped-in-frame, which would completely wreck any chance of the bees building any sort of ordered comb.
Later in the day, the bung was inserted into the base hole and the whole structure which had at least been previously fitted with an (only white primed) base plate, with a central cut out allowing it to eventually sit on top of one of my Warré boxes, was wheeled down to the now nearly finished site.Located beneath a few large trees, and with its own roof, this again is not the typical approach. Most apiaries consist of hive boxes really close together and out in the open, which obviously makes for a much more efficient management process if one’s going to open the hives or do any intervention on a regular basis.
But if you’re not? I figure that in our wet environment, having most of the rain kept off the hive will be hugely beneficial from an energy conservation point of view, and also having hives separated may be helpful for reducing potential disease transmission and even pheromonal chemical communication. This is hugely important for bee behaviour. Click here for an extensive and quite up to date review of the complexity of pheromones in the ecology of honeybee hives, and in particular the importance of alarm pheromones in initiating aggressive/defensive bee behaviour, (when viewed from a human/bee perspective) and their stimulus for kamikaze stinging. And click here and here for some of Derek Mitchell’s thoughts on the importance of good insulation for not just winter colony survival, but also reducing energy expenditure during the vital process of turning nectar into honey, within the hive.
Later in the evening I returned to attempt to remove the branch and frame. I lifted the lid carefully, but there was an extraordinary and quite unique thumppp whoooshh sound, as the balled mass of thousands of bees which had been clustering beneath the lid, fell to the base of the churn.
A tiny piece of green foliage poked out from this disturbed mass of Apis mellifera.
I bottled out.
Although in my protective bee suit, and with gauntlets on, I just couldn’t force myself to plunge my hand into this seething cauldron of aggrieved bees. I retreated and slept on it rather fitfully.
In the morning I’d resolved the issue – I’d use our long-handled barbecue tongs. So once more suited up, I returned to the hive, lifted the lid again, heard the same extraordinary sound of thousands of bees collapsing in a heap, but this time carefully fished out the conifer branch and shook most of the bees back in the churn, and then returned into the seething pit with the tongs, to retrieve the frame with wax.
On close inspection of this frame, with its pre-pressed hexagonal wax foundation, you can make out the effect of a weight of warm bees resting on it for just a few hours, and causing it to buckle and warp. In addition, you can see the faint white outline of where the bees were already beginning to make new beeswax comb, building on the template provided. Probably hundreds of bees making wax crystals out of nectar, or honey taken before they left the original hive, and carefully chewed and manipulated in their mandibles, before being placed so speedily onto the outline cells. No hanging around after the thrill of the swarming event, and with none of these insects ever having done this before, amazing innate behaviour, for them to get on with new home renovations, as quickly as possible.
How I assess what is going on with this “hive” or colony will clearly be limited, but by the following day I’d lifted the churn onto two of the by then part finished, but incompletely painted, Warré hive boxes, which I’d already managed to make. The hive also had a proper base with access board, though there probably aren’t too many beehives with reclaimed Victorian mahogany table top base plates.
The natural beekeeper can always just sit and watch, and listen, and there’s a much quoted book by a German apiarist “At The Hive Entrance”, which provides useful guidelines from observing the bees, their numbers, behavior and amount of pollen carrying, as clues to how things are inside the hive. Click here for the pdf. I’ve yet to delve into it, though I had already experimented with using my stethoscope on the hive wall, as a refinement to simply placing my ear there. There’s a pleasing distinctive low regular machinery hum of an active hive, which I noticed changed once the first swarm had left the mother hive, into a more variable, almost wailing, sound. But could one record this?
This led me to exploring digital stethoscopes, but with high costs, and poor reviews was quickly abandoned as a sensible option. So googling cameras that can see round corners, I was amazed to discover the British designed EazyView digital inspection camera system. Click here for more. Reminiscent of the sort of endoscope technology that we dabbled with in my latter days of small animal practice I was so impressed by the website and demo You Tube video, and its excellent value for money, that I bought one within an hour, and eagerly awaited its arrival. Although I should add that the technology uses a tiny camera and LED light on the tip of the long, but only 8.5 mm diameter, flexible bendable access tube, rather than the much more fragile and expensive fibreoptics of endoscopes. Apparently, all British Gas engineers now carry one of these, and it gets rave reviews from plumbers and electricians but I couldn’t find any examples (yet!) of one being used to look into bee hives.
Within 2 hours of reading the manual, and waiting until dark, I was back down at the butter churn, removing the butter churn bung and carefully inserting the LED light and probe for a glimpse of what the bees were up to.
The camera can take still images, and short video clips onto an on-board memory store, zoom in, adjust LED brightness, and upload images to a computer really easily. The video format is a small AVI file which I’ve found I need to convert to an MP4 file to upload directly into a blog.You can add an additional flash card if required too. Obviously controlling the position of the tip takes a little bit of practice, and I reckon the bees are aware of the light, and slight warmth which would limit regular or long term use.
But for a quick peek into a “natural” hive like mine, with some sort of access point, or even through the main entrance, it’s a fascinating insight into how active they all are, even well after dark. In the clip above they’re starting the critical task of building new wax comb so that the queen can begin to lay eggs once more, to re-establish a viable working colony, since during the summer months most of the working bees which have flown out with the swarm will only have a relatively short 3 or 4 more weeks of life ahead of them. The clip below is from swarm 2 hive where I retro-drilled a narrow, pluggable hole in the side of one of the boxes, though I may find that this gets permanently sealed in place by the bees quite quickly. .IMAG0010
My sense is that if done occasionally, on a cooler night and not around the time of a full moon for a quick look, although some bees will resent the LED light and its warmth, the potential disruption is far less than that involved in taking the hive apart and inspecting frames – though obviously of much more limited “practical” or “interventionist” use.
Having had one swarm which had used up my still unfinished hive component parts, I was really surprised to exit the house 2 weeks later to hear the air full of noisy bees. There had been a lot of activity on the Sycamore tree above the original hive, so I thought I’d take the camera up to have a look. Over the next half an hour, another huge swarm had emerged from the original hive, and very gradually drifted across the garden before very gradually settling as a cluster on the arched Clematis montana ‘Broughton Star’. Once more it was chopped off and into a holding container, again on the very same day that we had finished creating an additional potential hive site.And relocated later in the day.
The experience of being beneath so many flying insects with huge potential for causing personal harm, but instead entirely focused on relocation, was a very special one indeed.
I was now very short of boxes, and had needed to swap boxes with the butter churn base hive to enable me to finish painting them. So I was shocked to find Fiona telling me as she mowed the upper hay meadow path just 3 days after swarm number 2, that the hive was swarming again.
Whether all these new colonies are large enough to be viable, remains to be seen, but with my minimal intervention approach I’ll wait and hope that since they’ve all emerged early in the year, they at last have a fighting chance. This is now the critical phase for them – apart from the bees left in the original hive, obviously none of them have any honey stores to draw upon. They have to make new honeycomb from scratch not just to allow storage of surplus foraged nectar and pollen brought in by worker activity, but also to provide a hopefully mated and viable queen somewhere to begin to lay eggs in.
Apart from the first swarm, which would have been centred around the original “old” queen who left from the national hive, the new queens, if present, would have had to take off at some point on a mating flight as virgin queens. If all went well, they could then begin to lay fertilised eggs which would develop after a period of just over 2 weeks into more potential female workers to continue the new colony’s establishment. If the queen has died, or not been mated, or not returned to the swarmed hive base, then that colony will gradually peter out, as existing workers die off, and there are no new worker bees to replace them.
Yesterday, just 2 weeks after the final swarm was caught, and on a day when all 4 colonies were extremely (worryingly?) quiet, as assessed by bees flying in and out of the hives, the EazyView camera used at dusk, again proved really helpful. The clip below shows just how quickly this last swarm has built out some brand new wax comb inside the inner frames of its hive. IMAG0047
There’s still quite a lot of blossom around for them in what has been a stunning year, and one of the most interesting aspect of this whole saga has been discovering that most of the time so far, the honeybees aren’t present in the garden in huge numbers, preferring instead the mature trees, so have progressed through the different willows, onto the apples and other Malus, and hollies.Lately, they’ve have been focused on the sycamores and other maples – just as expected from the scientific paper from the NBGW on honeybee foraging activity, mentioned in my earlier post.
Have you ever stood beneath a mature sycamore on a sunny May day when the drooping flower panicles are rich with nectar, and heard the noise of working bees, both honey and bumbles?
A whole second phase of Warré box and frame construction has begun, and I’ve finally tweaked my own design for frames to use in these boxes, based on bent willow wands and wire. How will the bees enjoy working on these? Only time will tell, but my initial impressions after this burst of activity is that the huge advantage we have in this part of the world, to offset the possible weather challenges for honeybees, is the vast amount of early season, mature tree, pollen and nectar. And hopefully the garden, meadows and abundant brambles will pick up the slack as we move past peak tree flowering season. Quality of accommodation probably comes a fair way down the list of factors in likely survival. Fingers crossed.
It was a real delight to welcome Australian garden photographer, Claire Takacs (Click here) back to Gelli Uchaf. By complete coincidence she was here on Bank Holiday Monday, exactly 3 years after her first visit. This time she was hoping to get more photos of the magic terrace garden, for an exciting new collaborative book project featuring gardens from around the world, and which will hopefully be published in a year or two. We’re thrilled that our garden was chosen to be part of the plan, and once more we were hugely impressed by Claire’s tireless efforts, over a day of mixed weather, to try to capture the essence of this part of the garden under sometimes challenging light and weather conditions. No matter how good a garden might look on the day, in the green, a professional photographer knows that the trick in creating memorable images is hugely influenced by both the light, and the eye behind the camera. Claire’s portfolio of stunning garden images continues to grow, which reflects her dedication to her art and craft, and just how much research and slog goes into every shooting session.
Over down time, and meals when the light had left the scene, Claire even sowed the seeds of the benefits of Instagram to this notoriously slow on the uptake blogger, and given that our shepherd’s hut is a consequence of her previous visit, watch this space.
Thanks so much Claire, it was a very special 2 days for us, and best wishes for the rest of this project, and we look forward to seeing your images in due course. My own humble efforts below taken on the day of her visit show why we always think that the garden is at its florally most impressionistic around this time of the year.
Coming from Australia, which has no bumblebees, it was a huge thrill to be able to point out to Claire the hundreds, if not thousands, of bumblebees active in the garden over the two days she was with us. The steady increase in bumblebee populations here is a real vindication of our flower selections and management decisions taken over the last couple of decades, and I really doubt if there would have been any garden in the UK with more bumblebees per acre as we had in late May 2019. Many of the plants grown specifically for bee appeal have become more numerous over time, but this year the situation has been aided by the abundance of tree and hedgerow blossom in the wider landscape. And all this before the meadows really begin to take off.
First flowering of ten gorgeous, but very appealing to rodents, Tulipa sprengeri, grown from seed scattered many years previously. The photos don’t really do justice to just how exotic this latest flowering of all tulips is, and even better for us, it seems to cope with quite a bit of shade.
The first hay’s been cut, around the perimeter of the upper hay meadow, and safely brought in.
The year marches on.