Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Winnie the pooh daydream: bees, drones, queens and HONEY

My bee guru Tanya supervised another peek into my bee colony last week. This is the 'wild' colony that I managed to capture in my bait hive in the 1920s orchard. Since the colony is about to have a population explosion we added another story onto the hive (called a 'super') and hopefully it is from this that we will be able to harvest honey. And check out the suits...(could I bee any hotter?)!

Unfortunately to get into the hive we had to disturb this wild comb somewhat, but it provided the perfect opportunity to have a really nosey snoop around their magnificent wax world. You can see a cross-section through the brood comb and inside these cells are the white developing larvae. Along the top edge of the top photo the comb is for a different use - it has honey and pollen (the darker brown stuff) stored and this is both a food source for the workers and developing young. Do they have it on toast, you may well ask?

Look how delicately sculpted the cells are. This close up shows the sedimentation of pollen produced as different bees contribute their tiny parcels collected from a range of plants with different coloured pollen.

Whenever you open a hive and disturb the bees they tend to congregate and do this special nosier wing-fan action. This is their way of calling in any disorientated bees who have gotten lost or wandered off.

I know what you're thinking: who's this handsome lad? He's a male bee (or 'drone') and slightly larger than the female workers. A proportion of each colony is made out of drones (even though all of the workers are female) because no colony can reproduce without a fertilized queen. He was skulking on his own on one of the frames. Pull your wing out son and get pollinating!

We made some frames to go into the brood box and encourage the bees to build their comb on them. In this photo I am helping Tanya attach this wild comb onto a frame before returning it to the hive. Ideally we should have filled the box with frames very early on and then the bees would have had no choice but to build comb on them.

The advantage of the removable frame system is two-fold: Firstly, you can take them out to check up on their progress. Secondly, it is less energetically expensive for the bees to build comb on a frame with a sheet of wax that has the hexagonal cell pattern embossed into it (a 'foundation'). Wax takes about six times more energy than honey to make so this foundation reduces the amount of energy the bees spend on wax and thus they can produce more honey.

That metal grid thing is called a 'queen excluder'. It separates the brood box at the base with the 'super' above and has gaps that are just too narrow for the queens abdomen to fit through. This prevents her from laying eggs in the super, keeping it just for honey and pollen. Royal discrimination.

Picnicking with winnie the pooh? I got to take home some of the honey comb and it tasted goo-ood.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Inspecting the hives...I'm covered in bees!

At the end of April my beekeeping guru Tanya came over and helped me to install two bait hives, one in each orchard. The aim was to try and capture a wild colony when they start to swarm around this time of the year. It seemed like a real long shot, but amazingly I started to see bees going in and out of one of the hives about two weeks ago. So on Thursday evening we went back to have a peek at the colony and see how far they had got with their empire...

This is Tanya carefully lifting the lid on the hive in the 1920s orchard. That beautiful construction is wild bee comb and represents the natural form of a bee comb, the home of the colony. It is so pale because it has been made recently - over time apparently it will become browner with the build up of propolis. Unfortunately, comb like this is more tricky to manage than comb built on the removable frames you can see to the front of the hive. Ideally we would have filled the hive with these frames before they managed to build this natural comb and thus forced them to build on the frames. Still, what a wonder to behold!

Most commercial beekeepers would break up the natural comb into flat sections and attach it using string or elastic bands to the frames, thus allowing the colony to be managed much more easily. Since I don't have to be as efficient we decided on a compromise where we left the bulk of the natural comb but filled the rest of the hive with frames for them to move onto as the colony grows.

Here I am using the smoker to move the bees around and try and prevent any from being squashed. Smoke irritates them and they shy away from it. Amazingly, the bees didn't seem to get too bothered with our meddling and they didn't try and sting us. Phew!

We took a small piece of comb out to have a taste. The cells on one side are filled with nectar and the darker cells contain pollen which you can also eat. The bees have not yet started converting the nectar into honey. They do this by adding an enzyme and reducing the water content. This allows them to store energy supplies since honey will not ferment (it is in fact the only type of food that never goes off in pure form!). When the colony gets bigger I can add another story to the hive and sustainably harvest some honey periodically. We ate it with the first strawberries of the year. Very decadent!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Charingworth Orchard Trust on the road

I work part time in the market garden at Daylesford Farm and on the 22nd of May we had our summer show. Over a thousand people came and I had a little stall promoting traditional orchards and their many wonders. I met Monty Don who seemed pretty knowledgeable on the topic and said he had his own garden orchard with 38 varieties - go Monty! That jam jar by the dead log is full of beetle poo, or more accurately, the characteristic lozenge shaped frass of the Noble Chafer beetle. Its a rare beauty and an old orchard specialist so I thought it would be a good prop to have in case I met anyone really keen! I had a selection of some of the good orchardy books too:

The Story of the Apple, by Barrie Juniper and David Mabberley

Man-made Eden: Historic Orchards in Somerset and Gloucestershire, by James Russell

Ciderland, by James Crowden

The Northern Pomona, by Linden Hawthorne, Elke Laver, Bridget Gillespie and others.

All worthy additions to any garden library. I also had a few copies of my article for Historic Gardens magazine - The Traditional British Orchard - A precious and fragile resource. It's not in print yet but stand posted...

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