Let’s Make Honey, Honey

I know there are a lot of beekeepers who read this blog, so if you’re one of them look away now! I thought it might be fun to post a few photos of the process of making honey for the non-apiarists though. I’m far from an expert beekeeper, although I’ve been keeping them more or less successfully from 2005. I’ve been on a couple of courses hosted by my local division of the BBKA, and picked up a lot from the beekeepers I know, but still feel I’ve a lot to learn. It’s a real art, and not something that can be learnt from books in a couple of years. We only have between 2 and 4 hives, but they seem to do well and I’ve developed my own style of looking after them. To be honest I’m more into the husbandry side of it than the honey production, but it’s still very satisfying turning up to dinner parties with a pots of honey, or selling them at the village fete. So, how do you get the honey into jars?
Homeward boundOur most successful honey producers this year started life in 2009 as a swarm from one of my friend’s hives, which I captured and hived. The photo shows the queen leading the swarm into their new home in May last year. The big box you see is mostly the “brood chamber”, which has vertical frames of wax “foundation” inside for the bees draw out into cells (beekeepers of old and many current apiarists don’t use these, but let the bees make their own wild comb). These will either be filled with eggs by the queen, or pollen or honey by the workers. When the colony starts to expand, in the spring, I put a metal grill “queen excluder” on top of the main box. Because the worker bees are smaller than the queen they can get through it but the queen can’t. On top of that I put smaller boxes, “supers”, with wax foundation. Because the queen can’t get to them to lay her eggs, the workers fill them up with honey. HoneyThe photo shows a super with a full frame. There’s a lot goes on over the summer, of course, which is for me where the fascination is, but if things go well you end up with a crop of honey to extract in early August. I take much less honey than many beekeepers, which means that I don’t have to feed the bees with suger syrup over the winter as they have more than enough by way of natural stores. Honey extractionThe first stage of the extraction process of the honey we do take is to get rid of the bees from the supers, which we do with a simple system of bee valves which let the bees in one way, down to the brood chamber, but not back up again. Once that’s done, we lug the boxes back to our honey extraction centre (AKA my office) where my glamorous assistant starts the process of decapping. Once the bees have collected enough honey in a cell they cap it with wax, which we remove with a heated decapping knife. Centrifugal honey extractorIt’s a sticky business. Once that’s done we pop the frames in our extractor, which works by centrifugal force; turn the handle, it whizzes the frames around three at a time, and the honey spins out onto its sides where it then falls in rich globs to the bottom of the tank. Next we filter it through a fine sieve into a settling tank overnight. Then, hey presto, Lamyatt honey, which we bottle in rather superior hexagonal jars. I was really pleased this year because I managed to make some squares of comb honey too in minute quantities, which has already been reserved for close family and those local friends with the best wine cellars. Whisper it not, but we’ve had our biggest year this year, and the honey is delicious. I usually make furniture polish or candles with the wax, but that’s another story. Before I do I have to treat the bees for disease and clear up sticky floors, sticky sink, sticky kitchen surface, sticky door handles, sticky…
Related Posts: Honeybees

Garden Plants for Butterflies and Bees

Symphytum officinale
Not so good for honeybees...
We’re often asked to come up with a top ten list of garden plants for butterflies and bees, and I’m never quite sure what to say. IBRA (the International Bee Research Association) produce an excellent book, Plants for Bees, with notes telling you whether a plant is particularly good for nectar or pollen, or for bumblebees as opposed to honeybees. It helpfully also covers trees and native plants, which are, of course, important as food plants for butterfly and moth larvae. The British Beekeepers’ Association provide a helpful list, as do the standard beekeeping books I use. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Butterfly Conservation have good summaries on their websites too. Anway, everyone I talk to or read seems to have their own favourites so I’m just going to come up with some general guidelines pinched from various reliable sources:

    1. Always prefer single flowered cultivars over double flowered.
    2. Don’t buy the fancy hybrids you saw on offer at the local garden centre. If they’re not sterile the chances are that any pollen or nectar they have will be inaccessible. Think wildflowers, or cottage garden perennials, or herbs.
    3. Try to ensure that you provide a continuous supply of forage throughout the active season for bees and butterflies. Different butterfly species and different generations are around from spring until autumn. The trend towards warmer winters means bees could be flying almost any time throughout the year; they need pollen particularly in the spring and early summer for their brood, then increasingly nectar for honey. Traditionally beekeepers referred to a period in mid summer as the “June gap”, when there is often a temporary shortage of flowers which it is useful to compensate for too.
    4. Plant in clumps. Jan Miller makes this point in her helpful article in the latest edition of The Cottage Gardener; butterflies can’t see well and will find groups of flowers more easily.
    5. Plant a variety of plants. Bees seem to be healthier if they are not surrounded by a monoculture, and on a practical basis different species need different sorts of flowers as they have different length tongues. Long tongued bumblebees and solitary bees like the Hairy Footed Flower Bee love comfrey, for example, but short tongued honeybees can’t reach its nectaries.
    6. If you’re particularly keen on bumblebees, concentrate on plants from the pea family (Fabaceae), like the Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius) or Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). Dave Goulson explains why in his book “Bumblebees”; Fabaceae pollen has the richest protein and highest proportion of essential amino acids. These plants are also of great importance as a source of nectar.
    7. Plant British plants, particularly for butterflies. They need natives to provide food for their larvae, and most need very specific plants. Yellow Brimstones will come to your garden only if you plant Buckthorn. Andrew George’s book “The Butterfly Friendly Garden” has an excellent list of native plants and their associated butterfly species.
    8. Plant helpful trees if you can. There are a lot of flowers on an apple tree.
    9. Make a wildlife pond. Not only will you then be able to grow several of our most beautiful and nectar rich wildflowers (which we’d be happy to sell you!), but the water is good for every insect in the garden. For bees specifically, honeybees collect water (for their brood, to maintain humidity in the brood nest, and to dilute their own honey), and the mud is useful for mason bees to make their nests.
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud At The Pondside

Habitat Aid Newsletter No.5: 13th May 2010

This cold dry weather is a nightmare, but I suppose at least it’s given me time to sit down and write a newsletter. I’ve been a very busy boy over the last month, so much to catch up on.

We ran our first course in April, which seems to have been a great success. Tutored by Hugh Roberts of Environments for People we all learnt how to build a wildlife pond, now sitting in front of me. Thanks to Hugh and to our wetland plant supplier Gower Wildflowers. The pond’s already populated by a selection of interesting looking invertebrae, and the swallows are collecting mud from it as I write. All very rewarding. Next off are our meadow days, run by Sue Everett, on the 11th and 12th June.

I flogged up to Sheffield last week to go to an intriguing workshop on Green Roofs and Living Walls, which is an area we’re keen to get more involved with. We already have a relationship with a consultant, and supply generic native seed and plug mixes for green roofs, but hope to do a lot more in future to encourage folk to plant native plants rather than just use the sedum mats they have done in the past. Green Roofs in particular seem to me to be a fantastic and practical way to encourage biodiversity in urban areas – among other advantages!Green roof in Sheffield

I also hope we can do more work with seeds, where we are starting to supply end business customers directly. After a successful trial we are supplying the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA Enterprises Ltd.) with two native seed mixes particularly helpful for bees, which I have high hopes for. We’re also supplying Flowerworld with the seed for a 50,000 sachet promotion at Morrisons to promote the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Our other bee related news is that we’re expanding our range of plants and exotic trees for bees as a result of some suggestions from Andy Willis at the BBKA Spring Convention and Norman Carreck at the Laboratory for Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex. They’ll be supplied by R.V.Roger and available from this autumn.

We are seeing the first fruits of our work with designers, sourcing native plants for some very exciting schemes. We’re both promoting those currently working with habitat creation in mind, and encouraging others to think about it more.

As to life here, Kingsley the new ram has been a success and the mad Runner Ducks are laying again, albeit mostly not in their Duck house. My bees are happy too, and I’ve set up a couple of bait hives for them. Mike the gardener’s grand veg plot looks great and our various mini-meadows look promising too – if only it would rain!

Poll Dorset in the orchard
Post Kingsley moment in the orchard

More Bee Plants

At the Beekeepers’ Spring Convention I toddled along to a lecture by Andy Willis on bee plants. It was interesting fare. You hear so much advice on bee plants which is either misleading or wrong that it was refreshing to hear from someone who has made this a lifetime’s work, and who bases his views on personal observation. Many “good” forage plants will only produce a decent flow of nectar in specific circumstances, so he emphasised the need for diversity. I hadn’t also fully appreciated that honeybees value flowers like Field Poppies (Papaver rhoeas) for their pollen, but not for their nectar. He ran through the year, providing a list of plants to provide continuous sources of pollen and nectar, which is one of the things we’re hot on too.
Some of his ideas included:
January: Winter Cherry (Prunus x subhirtella)
March: Winter flowering Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), Almonds (Prunus dulcis), Apricots (Prunus armeniaca)
June: Acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia)
July: Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)
September: Golden Rod (Solidago spp.)
October: Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica)
December: False castor oil plant (Fatsia japonica)
We’ve got the trees for sale now in our “trees for bees” section on the website.

Adopt a Bee Hive

Cornfield Annuals
Cornfield Annuals
A new initiative from the BBKA – Adopt a Bee Hive – its first public fundraiser ever in its 136 year history. Sponsored by Saga and rather oddly supported by Raymond Blanc it aims to raise money for research and education and involve non-beekeepers. It looks like a great idea.
Raymond points out:

We can all help by planting pollen and nectar rich plants and trees and of course giving money to fund research into why they are dying.

I’m thrilled to say we will be supplying the BBKA with native seed selections especially for bees, which will be trialled at their Spring Convention.

Holistic Beekeeping

HoneybeeA bee blog is always good for a bit of a punch up, so time for a quick thought before I start to go through all my spare frames as the snow starts to fall again.
Late last year I went to a lecture from a holistic beekeeper, hosted by my local Association. I went feeling antagonistic but left in contemplative mood. It turns out my approach is intuitively more “holistic” than I’d thought.
By way of background for non apiarists, there is of course a great deal of research going on (not least at the excellent Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at Sussex) and speculation in bee circles about the well-publicised declines in honeybee numbers. One argument is that a contributory factor to hive mortality has been the over-commercialisation of bee keeping. Current practices can be pretty aggressive and interventionist, particularly in some places in the world, so no surprise, the theory goes, that these parts are where problems like Colony Collapse Disorder have become such an issue. The holistic camp see these apiaries as the equivalent of battery chicken farms; the parallel is alluring as they have been created by similar commercial pressures.
Personally I think that’s going a bit far, but I do sympathise. This isn’t going to get technical – I’m absolutely not qualified to do that – but there are some things I do which just make sense to me personally and which “natural beekeepers” would approve of. Whenever possible I use mechanical rather than chemical intervention (although this is tricky for proper disease control), and keep it to a minimum.
The BBKA has been giving alternative beekeeping some airplay recently – hats off to them – and beekeepers can follow the link to find out more about holistic beekeeping and the Warre hive. As for honey consumers rather than producers the message is simpler – as usual, if you can, buy local.
Related posts: Honeybees LASI

Help for Bees

BBKA Calendar
BBKA Calendar
Today we’ve launched our historical herb collections, some of which might sound frivolous (Plague Garden?), but all of which actually have a serious intent. Although they’re a bit of fun, the collections’ historical context allows us to promote some unusual and half-forgotten herbs and native plants, and true species rather than less useful modern cultivars. All good stuff for pollinators, which is why half of the profit we make on them is going to either the LASI at Sussex University or the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. There are lots of good plants in the British Beekeeper’s Association 2010 (there’s a depressing thought) calendar as well, which I had a sneak preview of today. It seems like an ideal stocking filler for the beekeeper in your life, but perhaps more importantly there’s a lot of gardening advice here and information for anyone with a general interest in helping wildlife. Nice photos too. Profits all go to the BBKA; you can pre-order directly from them here.