Friday 16 May 2014

Away for a Short Time

I'm going to be away from blogging for a while as I'm hospital visiting a lot at the moment. I look forward to catching up with everyone's blogs soon.  In the meantime, I'm going to leave you with a photo of Cador, the young gander, keeping an eye on Harriet while she sits on her nest. He has to stand behind a barrier because she doesn't like him too close!

Wendy x

Friday 25 April 2014

A Healthy Diet for Bees

Bee on apple blossom

I've been very busy with my bees. Like other beekeepers, I've seen my colonies build up quickly in the mild spring and one of them (my favourite colony - the lovely, calm one that doesn't want to sting me) has been thinking about swarming.  Generally, this is a bit early in the year for swarms, but the queen has been laying so well - and the bees have expanded so much - that they now want to divide their colony.

Bee on look-out!

When I had a peek inside the hive on Easter Monday I saw that they were preparing to raise a new queen - a sure sign that they were just days away from swarming. I knew I had to act fast, otherwise half of my bees would soon be flying off into the sunset. So I've created an 'artificial swarm' i.e. divided the colony myself (and basically tricked the bees into thinking they've swarmed). I would usually reunite the colonies when they've settled down, but I think I'll keep these as two separate colonies. It gives me another hive.

Creating an area of bee-friendly shrubs (with a beehive on the left, charcoal burner on the right and nesting goose watching it all in the background!)

I've also been helping my bees by clearing areas for plants that they'll love.  The area in the photo above had become a bit overgrown and full of weeds, but I've now cleared it for bee-friendly shrubs (that should eventually crowd out the weeds).  I've recently planted Californian lilac, berberis, and chaenomeles to start with (this area won't be for entirely native plants, but all plants will have been grown in British nurseries). Because the hives will be right next to this area, the bees won't have to fly very far for their food.
Ancient woodland near to my beehives. The bees love to forage on the bluebells.

While I've been planting for my bees, I've been learning a bit about the nutritional value of their diet from some reading and a lecture I've attended recently. I find this information fascinating and I've enjoyed learning some chemistry and biology again. I gave up studying these two subjects sometime in my mid-teens when I had to choose either arts or sciences at school (I chose arts). I remember I couldn't do a biology and history/English combination together which was a bit frustrating. I really enjoyed biology.

As a beekeeper, my main interest is honeybees, but I'm learning about bumblebees and other bees, too.  For example, bumblebees are quite vulnerable to running out of food when they're out flying, apparently they can only fly for about 40 minutes on a full stomach - so it's possible to come across a bumblebee on the ground that's out of energy. When I find a bumblebee like this, I try to revive it by picking it up and placing it on a bee-friendly flower that will provide it with nectar.

I've mentioned before that when honeybees forage for food, they collect both nectar and pollen from flowers.  I'm so amazed by how these little creatures organise their colony to collect food. I've recently heard that if foraging bees come back with food that isn't right for the conditions or needs of the hive, the colony just won't accept it. This seems a bit harsh on the poor bee coming back after all that foraging, but then bees are programmed to think with a 'hive mind'.

I'm planting so many bee-friendly flowers this year, but I've learnt that the nectar-flow from them varies all the time depending, for example on the day's temperature, the amount of sunshine, humidity, wind, age and vigour of the plant (which is a good reason to keep my flowers as healthy as possible). Bee-friendly plants that flower in winter are important to help the bees into spring, but I must remember to plant them where they'll receive the maximum amount of sunshine in the short, daylight hours at this time of year.  Then they'll be of real benefit to the bees.

I haven't been surprised to learn that it's important for bees to have a varied diet, because it makes such good sense. They've evolved to forage on a range of wildflowers, so it's of concern that today they're often in areas where there are can be a limited source of food e.g. a single arable crop.

This spring, oilseed rape is growing in nearly all of the fields surrounding the smallholding 

There have been some interesting studies made on bees and single crops like sunflowers and oilseed rape (and in the US, sesame). Bees love sunflowers and oilseed rape, but sunflower pollen, in particular, hasn't been found to be particularly nutritious for them. Its protein content isn't very high.  This has to be something for beekeepers to think about in areas where they move their bees to forage on this crop in the summer (like in France).

So this is an (admittedly not very academic) skim through some of the information I've gleaned on bee nutrition. There's plenty of further reading on these subjects that I won't list, but I will just mention Emily Heath's great beekeeping blog and her recent post on nutrition here

I'd love to know which of my plants are the most nutritious for my bees, but as I can't know this, I'll do my best for them by planting a range of bee-friendly flowers on the smallholding and encouraging the spread of wildflowers. This way I hope to give the bees the variety of food they need.

Monday 7 April 2014

Spring Tales


Like every other gardener, I'm frantically sowing seeds, planting, weeding and digging at the moment.  There just aren't enough hours in the day at this time of year! So I'm very busy - but not too busy to notice all sorts of activity taking place in the nearby hedges and trees. While I'm gardening, all the birds are singing, pairing up, nesting and raising young. I often stop what I'm doing to take a closer look, especially when I can hear or see the summer birds back again after the winter, like the Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. Every few days I hear a new song.  It can't be that long, now, until the Swallows and Cuckoos are here, too.

There seem to be lots of mini-dramas taking place in the hedgerows as the birds start their new families. The Song Thrushes are an example. I like to think there's a heated debate going on here, perhaps about this year's nest...

In some areas of the smallholding, nests have already been built. In a box on a fence, a pair of Robins are nesting. I put the box up a while ago now, and it's so hidden by ivy and clematis, that I'd forgotten all about it.  But they found it...

The young Robins in the nest are already making a noise, so the parents are busy feeding, going backwards and forwards. This isn't a good photo, but I didn't want to disturb them too much and they were obviously bothered by me watching them with the camera, so I took one quick shot and left them in peace...

Sadly, it seems that some pairing up hasn't taken place. There's now a solitary Hare in the local fields, so I haven't seen any boxing this year...

Most of my walks are in the local wood, because the wood anemones are covering the ground - and the first bluebells are coming out.  It's starting to look magical in there.

There are spring butterflies in the glades...

And because it's spring, it's time for a haircut.  Here is before...

and after...

I can see Harry's eyes again! I hadn't seen them properly for weeks.

So, it is wonderful to see all the local wildlife in spring - except for these...

I wish there weren't so many pairs of Rabbits. I had surrounded one of my flower patches with chicken wire to protect my flowers from them.  But over the years this became entangled with grass and weeds, so it began to look terrible and I took it out. After this, it wasn't long before the Rabbits moved in and helped themselves to the flowers.  I'm going to try spraying Tabasco sauce around the edge of the patch as a repellent.  Otherwise I'll have to put in another kind of fence...


Monday 31 March 2014

The Edible Garden Show

Last Saturday, David and I went along to the Edible Garden Show at Alexandra Palace.  I must admit I'm not usually one for visiting shows, but I'm making lots of changes to my own garden this year and so I thought I could pick up some tips and ideas. I also guessed that it wouldn't be a very large show and we could see it all in a morning - which was perfect because it was such a beautifully warm, sunny day.  A day to be outside in the garden, in fact!

Alexandra Palace is worth a visit alone.  I hadn't been there for well over twenty years, and enjoyed seeing all the architectural detail again. Originally built in 1873, it has been damaged by fires since and so it has been restored, destroyed and restored again...

We arrived soon after the show opened, so it wasn't very crowded. I headed straight away for the stands selling wildflower seeds and it was interesting to see on one stand the different wildflower seeds sold for different soil types (I have heavy clay here).  I bought some seeds to suit my soil that are also bee and butterfly friendly and I'll sow these in small patches around the smallholding (now I'm no longer going to create my mini-meadow).  I also bought some wildflower seeds to plant with my veg that will attract beneficial insects and keep aphids away (hopefully).

Of course I had to visit all the bee-keeping and bee-product stands, too..

Traditional Skep Making

I was intrigued by the different types of honey on sale, because I'd like to flavour my honey in the future. I might add some vanilla or ginger or various spices, for example.  So I was on the look-out to see what other people are producing and get some ideas. I haven't had a good honey crop for the last couple of years so I'm hoping for one this year -  and then I can have a go at some of the different tastes. I think it would be really fun to do.

In certain areas of the show, there were presentations by TV/radio gardeners and professionals, but I didn't listen to any of these. None of the subjects they were discussing really drew me in and, to be honest, after a while it started to get a bit stuffy in the main hall.  It was better to keep moving around. So we wandered over to look at some of the gardening equipment and features. We love working with wood and there were some wood products on display, but it wasn't really a show for wood craftspeople. I was fascinated, though, by some of the many ideas for growing food and flowers in small areas like balconies and courtyard gardens and tiny, urban spaces.

After this, I managed to resist temptation... I didn't leave with any plants. But I couldn't walk by the chickens and ducks without having a good look. Should I add another couple of hens to my girls? Probably not - I have enough for now and they're happy together in their little group. It was interesting, though, seeing the different types for when I do decide to buy some more. And of course the chicks and ducklings were all adorable (see first photo).

So; that was the morning done. I bought some honey-flavoured fudge from one of the food stands and then we left. Although I enjoyed the visit, I'm not thinking of going again.  But then, perhaps I do miss something by not going to the different garden shows. If you have any experiences of them, I'd love to hear.  Are any of them unmissable?

Thursday 20 March 2014

Fallow Deer in Sunlight; Red Deer by Moonlight

Fallow Deer

Spring is starting to work its magic in the local countryside, so I've gone on some longer walks through the woods and fields looking (and listening) for signs of it.  In this lovely, sunny weather there's been plenty to see and hear; the first Chiffchaffs, the first butterflies, Marsh Harriers displaying over the local reservoir, the Great Crested Grebes' displays on the water, bats in the evenings, masses of wild violets and primroses on the woodland floor.  And everything looks a lot greener, too, except in the hedgerows and the orchards, which are full of white blossom.  This is a view of the orchard next door...

There's a little bit of pink and white blossom in our newly planted orchard, too.

I'm always looking for unexpected wildlife sightings on my walks, so I was thrilled to see some Fallow Deer through the trees.  With their sharp ears, they knew I was approaching long before I saw them, of course - but I still managed to get a couple of photos before (with a warning bark) they all took off...

Although it has been suggested that Fallow Deer may have been in England during the Roman era, it was the Normans who were responsible for establishing a significant population here. They did this soon after they set up their forests (the word 'forest' first appears at this time, when it is mentioned in the Domesday Book).  Fallow Deer remained in managed forests and parks for centuries, but escaped into the wider countryside in the early twentieth century. They love to eat ash, elm, hawthorn and hazel.

Only four days after I saw the Fallow Deer, I came across more deer in the fields.  I often see the little Muntjac, but this time I saw a small herd of Red Deer.  I couldn't believe I had two fabulous sightings of the 'rarer' deer in just a few days (I won't say it's a bit like buses coming along at once because they're too lovely for that!) I saw the Red Deer just as the sun was going down...

I know that these Red Deer are all that's left of the beautiful herd I saw last spring  here.  I'm very sad (and very angry) to see that there is only five left when I counted eighteen last April.  I know what has happened to them, but I won't write about that story now.  You can probably guess. So these five were a very special sighting, and I managed to get quite close to them, although it was growing darker all the time, so the photos are terrible (and it makes me realise how lucky I was to get such a good sighting for those photos last year)...

Soon I was watching them in the moonlight...
The final rays of the sun shining on the moon

Red Deer are the last of the large deer we have in Britain (Roe and Fallow Deer being smaller).  I find it fascinating to think that thousands of years ago, I could have been looking at Reindeer and Elk, too!  I completely agree with Oliver Rackham, who wrote in his marvellous book, 'The History of the Countryside'...
Deer are the nearest that we have to the great beasts of prehistory; few of us can resist the wonder and adventure of seeing them.

Monday 10 March 2014

Wildflowers and Wild Areas

I've been dreaming of planting a wildflower area for the summer, but I'm beginning to think that it'll be one project too many at the moment. I've created a wildflower area before and it looked fantastic one year, full of field poppies and corncockles and cornflowers.  But the following year (the wet 2012), it was a real disappointment. I realised, then, just how much hard work is needed to create and maintain even a mini-wildflower meadow.

So with all the other gardening projects I have on my list this year, a wildflower patch will have to wait. I keep changing my mind about where it will be anyway.  I've now planted trees where this was before - and I've recently decided that another possible patch of ground will be given over to spring bulbs instead.  So the truth is, it all needs a lot more thought (and more dreaming!)

But even though I'm not ready to create a mini wildflower meadow this year, I still want plenty of wildflowers on the smallholding.  Most of these will be the flowers that'll be growing naturally in the 'wild' areas i.e. the untidy bits.  I love discovering something different about the wildflowers here; I'm always thrilled to see a new type of wildflower appearing or to see that existing wildflowers have started to colonise a new patch. Last year I found some bird's foot trefoil growing along a path for the first time.  I knew the butterflies would be interested in this - and they were - visiting it again and again.

I really want to encourage more butterflies here this year. I already have three buddleia davidii bushes that were covered with Peacock butterflies last year, and the Red Admirals love the ivy when it flowers in early autumn. Now I'm thinking of lady's smock for the Orange Tips (this will also go in my future mini wildflower meadow), drifts of scabious and some michaelmas daisies. I'm even going to leave small patches of nettles and thistles in the deepest corners of the smallholding, because butterflies love these so much (although I'll be making sure they stay there!)

As well as butterflies, I'll also be planting for moths and will be using Countryside Tales' great post on plants for moths as a guide here.   .

Along our country lane there are lots of primroses in flower at the moment, and over the years I've been encouraging these to spread on our verge.  This year - finally - I have a whole bank of primroses.  They look beautiful, but there's a story here. Last year the primroses flowered late, and early one morning I was horrified to see the council's machines cutting the verges and hacking down the primroses. No one can prove who owns the verges in our lane and it's assumed the property and landowners do. But this didn't stop the council from cutting down the wildflowers on my verge and on all the other verges, too...


Our small country lane doesn't go anywhere and the grass on the verges never grows high enough to cause visibility problems for drivers, but try telling that to our council (as I have).  Try telling them, too, about the importance of wildflowers for pollinators!  I thought I was making progress last year in conversations with them, but when I contacted them again this year I was told the verges have to be cut - whether there are wildflowers growing there or not - and if anyone wants to encourage the spread of native primroses then they need something called a planting licence...

...and after

Grrr...I can feel a battle against red tape coming on.  I'm considering contacting Plantlife, a charity that protects wildflowers, to see what advice they have for me. Plantlife's 'Flowers on the Edge' campaign urges councils to cut verges less and after the wildflowers have finished - so my situation is just right for this.  Let's hope the council start to listen...

Anyway, I'll finish with a photo of my own, homegrown destroyer of flowers - as Pip is nesting in one of my flower beds again this year.  I dread to think what she's crushed, but she's happy, so I'll just leave her there and hope the flowers will revive when she's finished!

Wednesday 26 February 2014

A Bee-Friendly Garden for Spring (2)

First of all, sorry to anyone who has not been able to read this post before i.e. because it hasn't shown up.  Hope all is OK now and thanks for your comments letting me know about it.

In my earlier post here I decided on the flowers I'd like in my bee-friendly garden and I'm now happy that my bees are going to have plenty to forage on. Flying bees will be looking for four things; nectar and pollen (bee food), propolis and water.  Propolis is a sticky, resinous substance collected from various trees, which bees use as a glue to keep their comb in good condition. Beekeepers don't tend to collect propolis for use, although it can be used by us as an antiseptic and for other products such as soap...
Propolis Soap

Bees will also want access to water and they can collect it on my smallholding from the large pond or my new mini pond. Both have shallow areas for the bees to visit easily.

On a warm day in March or April, I'll spring clean the hives by transferring the bees to a clean hive and blow torching the old one to scorch all the detritus in it. I'll also replace old comb with new. This is a really satisfying job - it's the kind of spring cleaning I enjoy because I'm sitting out in the sun on the grass cleaning out all the winter muck from the hives (and it's so much better than spring cleaning the house!!) Good hygiene in the hives is important because it helps to keep the bee diseases at bay.

There was bad news on the subject of bee diseases last week. Recent research has found that two diseases found in honeybees have now been found in bumblebees (details here). Bumblebees (like honeybees) are already facing threats such as pesticides and a decline in the areas where they can forage and so this could well be another serious blow to their well-being. And, unlike honeybees, (which are managed in a hive), I'm not even sure how wild bumblebees could ever be treated...

But I'm going to help bumblebees as much as I can, so I'm creating a nest site for them. I've taken an old, broken storage jar and half buried it in the ground, drilling a bumblebee size hole in the front. I've also been collecting some moss, and when I've dried this out, I'll put it inside the jar for nest material. It may be a bit roomy, but I hope the bumblebees discover it and will want to use it this spring.

Like other beekeepers, I'll do my best to look after the health of my bees throughout the year. And I recently came across a new idea to help me do this - The Bee Gym.  I love the name! It's basically a framework of different shaped devices that are placed on a mesh floor of a beehive - and its purpose is to rid bees of the varroa mite (this is a nasty mite that attaches itself to bees and can eventually destroy colonies).  When the bee visits the gym, it scrapes the mite off of its body when it passes through the different devices - and the mite falls through the mesh.

I very much hope the Bee Gym works - the varroa mite is one of the most serious threats facing honeybees today and it's good to hear about a such a simple solution to tackle it.

Honeybee on Camellia

 I'm now going to source the flowers and seeds I need for my bee-friendly garden - and everything will be organic. Tammy at Casa Mariposa in her great post here talks about pollinator-friendly flowers in garden centres that are not what they seem because they have already been treated with harmful pesticides.  So that's something to look out for. Unfortunately, though, I can't stop my bees flying right over everything I've planted to a field of crops that have been sprayed with agricultural pesticides. This is just what bees do.  But I'm glad that the European Union has banned some of the most deadly neonicotinoid pesticides. The chemical industries are lobbying hard to overturn this ban, and the UK Government didn't support it in the first place, but it's important that it stays in place to protect our bees and other pollinators.

They need so much help.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

A Landscape of Water and a Field of Hares

Will it ever end? More storms here and heavy rain - but at least we're not under water like all the poor folk in flooded areas.  In a rare moment of sunshine this week I went to have a look at one of my local rivers, the river Wid, to see if it was about to burst its banks. It was very high and flowing fast, but there was mercifully no flooding. I remember driving over an old hump back bridge over the Wid not long ago and straight into the river. Eek! The road had completely disappeared under water. When a river has burst its banks, it certainly swallows up everything around it.

I was thinking about the Wid because I've been listening to the arguments in the news about rural verses urban when it comes to flood protection. This debate has already been had here, because it's been decided that Chelmsford (England's newest city) will be protected by a flood alleviation scheme that will impact on a couple of local parishes on the Wid.  The river will be diverted from its historic flow through the parishes, new embankments will be constructed and a flood storage area created. Chelmsford has been built on three rivers and dredging in this area has not been considered an option because (among other reasons) water would then flow more quickly into the city and the water levels would be higher there.

The gatehouse at Ingatestone Hall

Anyway, wandering along part of the Wid, (which doesn't happen to be a very long river), I came across the sixteenth century Ingatestone Hall. This has been closed to visitors for winter, so I couldn't take any photos apart from the gatehouse (Ingatestone Hall may be familiar from TV and films - I know it was used as the exterior of Bleak House in the superb BBC adaptation a few years ago). I've been inside the Hall once and the features I remember most were the priest holes (the owners of Ingatestone Hall in the 1500s were Catholics).  It's clear that someone would really have to be desperate to hide in these holes.  It made me feel claustrophobic just looking at them.

The most exciting part of walking in the countryside on this day was spotting four interesting bumps in the middle of a large field.  Through the binoculars, I could see that the bumps were four Hares. I wondered if these were pairing up and if so, were they thinking of boxing? We're coming into that time of year and I'd love to see it take place - I've never seen it before. Sadly there was no boxing today; instead they seemed to be too busy enjoying the sun. They were also keeping a wary eye on me, because I was moving closer and of course each time I did, they moved further away.

But I'll be back over the next few weeks, to see if I can catch a glimpse of them boxing at last.

Something else has been keeping an eye on me, too...

I didn't see many Kestrels last year, but I've already seen a handful around here this year. I hope it's a good sign.

Back that evening to feed the animals, I've two new companions that follow me around looking to take some of the food for the Chickens and Geese.  This little Robin nips in and takes the Chicken food in a daring raid when he thinks that me (and the Chickens) aren't looking...

And this Duck has taken to following me around, too. She's very cute, half the size of the other females (and the Drake she hangs around with), but she's twice as noisy and is always at my heel letting me know she's there...

You can see how muddy it is around the Geese and Chicken houses.  Some of these squelchy holes are quite deep, too.

We've also had some lovely Swans visiting the surrounding arable fields...

I expect they're comfortable wandering everywhere at the moment, because everywhere is so wet.  I think this is a landscape for them.

Thursday 6 February 2014

A Bee-Friendly Garden For Spring (1)

Honeybee on Hellebore
It's stormy here again today, but on Sunday we had some lovely sunshine (and it even felt a bit warm at last). To make the most of it, we met with some friends and had lunch on one of the Thames barges moored up in the quay at Maldon.  I love the barges and I was delighted to discover that the cafe was on 'Thistle', which was the same barge I hired out for my family for part of Mum and Dad's Golden Wedding Anniversary celebrations a few years ago.  We had a fabulous day then - and being back on 'Thistle' brought back all those memories.

Thames Barges

Anyway, this brief glimpse of sunshine has also made me think about plans for the garden and whether it will look how I want it to look this spring. Most of all, I want to be sure that it's as bee-friendly as it can be. I'm planning to move more beehives back to the smallholding (from the fields) and it's important that there are enough flowers here and in the surrounding area for my honeybees (and other pollinators) to enjoy.

So; here is a wander around the garden (and the smallholding) with a review of all the flowers the bees will forage on from late winter to late spring. I'm also including the flowers I'll be adding to my 'must-plant-this-year' list.

Crocuses - perfect for bees

Along the edges of the garden under the trees, I can see that there are several clumps of snowdrops flowering.  I've planted them with cyclamens, although these have finished flowering. I'm now considering planting some winter aconites with the snowdrops because I love this combination of white and yellow flowers. The bees will forage on both of them, flying to the aconites when the weather is mild and these little flowers open their petals.

I also have a shady area full of beautiful hellebores, a favourite of mine and of the bees! Another bee-plant is mahonia and so this is a must in my garden. Crocuses are also important for bees in spring and I've planted these just about everywhere, although it's always a disappointment to see how few of the crocuses I've planted actually come up each year. What on earth happens to them?!!

Many of the spring flowers for bees are yellow, which is a colour bees can see. Bees, like us, can also see green and blue, but they can't see red, and when they're drawn to a bright red flower like a field poppy, they're drawn not to the red in it but to pigments that reflect ultraviolet (which is a colour they can see and we can't, of course).  The pollen they collect from field poppies is a dark blue.

Wood anemone - loved by pollinators

In my local woods, bees will forage on wood anemones and bluebells. In the fields they'll be attracted to dandelion.  Apparently dandelions mainly release pollen in the mornings, so this is when they'll be particularly attractive to bees. On the edges of some of the fields, which have been cleared over recent years, I've noticed there are still gorse bushes surviving. Gorse is always reliable because it flowers all year.

In the arable fields, my bees will forage on oilseed rape this year.  It's been planted close to the smallholding and some of it is flowering already (which won't please the landowner).  Bees love this crop - a field of oilseed rape is a real bee-banquet. They become very excited when foraging on it and return to the hive covered in the stuff. They also become very grumpy when the crop has finished flowering, because this plentiful source of food is suddenly no longer available.

Apple blossom

Bees also look for flowers in the trees and hedgerows and here, they'll find catkins; apple, pear and cherry blossom, horse chestnut, and blackthorn.  I have lots of hawthorn, too, but this doesn't always provide something for bees (it varies from year to year), possibly due to warmth and weather.

Bees love grape hyacinths and wallflowers.  I have grape hyacinths due to flower but I'm annoyed with myself that I didn't get around to planting any wallflowers for spring this year. The seeds are still in the packets! I would like to grow lots of wallflowers so this is a must-do for this year. Meanwhile, in my herb garden, I do have plenty of rosemary, which is the best early flowering herb for bees.

Clematis Montana 'Rubens'

Close to the house, the bees will be attracted to the clematis montana covering the pergola in April and May. They will love the pyracantha and holly when they flower, too.

So, having reviewed the garden, I'm pleased that my bees and other pollinators will have something to interest them here from now until May.  But I'm aiming, next year, to have so much more ready for them.