Saturday, 21 March 2015

Veg Boxes or Raise those Veg

After spending six years battling the weeds on our vegetable plot we decided enough was enough. Trying to keep it under control was taking up too much time and the rest of the garden was starting to suffer. Something drastic had to be done and we decided raised beds were the answer.  We mapped out the area and costed up the membrane, wood, bark mulch and loam required.

It's a good sized plot, fenced to keep out the chickens.  Bordered on two sides with fruit trees, the rear and front fence had empty borders.  To prepare the area, we firstly transplanted a holly hedge which surrounded the old asparagus bed to line the rear fence.  The hedge was originally made up of seedlings found around the garden and was doing so well we're glad we had somewhere to transplant it to.  We grubbed out some of the fruit trees which were sadly failing and could no longer stand up on their own.  We lifted the crowns of two large trees to the rear boundary to let more light in and chopped down a fir tree which gave little pleasure.  The wood was of course reused in our wood burner.

The plot was now empty apart from the compost area and we were ready to start work.  We rotavated the area, then laid a black, breathable membrane, pegging it in place.  We then placed the bark mulch bags on top of the membrane to stop it ripping.  We were doing this work over the winter months and didn't want the high winds to ruin everything.

We worked out that we had plenty of room to install 14 boxes, 2.4m by 1.2m.  Yes, you might recognise those dimensions as standard lengths of wood.  That made the job easier.  The boxes were made on a flat area near the house, then transported perched on a wheelbarrow up to the plot and manhandled into place. Bark mulch was then laid between the boxes to protect the mulch and hopefully deter more weeds.

A few months earlier we had shredded lots of cuttings and stored in some bags.  We put a layer of this at the bottom of the boxes.

A mixture of Rolawn Blended Loam and Hallstone Topsoil was duly ordered and delivered and then emptied with spade and that trusty wheelbarrow.  Good exercise over Christmas and New Year!  

Everything was completed in time for the growing season.  We planted two boxes with strawberry plants that I had potted up last autumn and one box held rhubarb that we had also saved.  Into the rest went an array of veg; broad beans, courgettes, french beans, magnetite, leeks, parsnips, carrots, onions, potatoes and salad.

We had plenty to eat and enough to give some away and had our own carrots and parsnips for Christmas dinner.  We've now doubled up the strawberry beds so that we can plant two boxes with runners each year and also have two mature beds.  Very easy to net which gave us more strawberries than the birds for once although we did leave some for them.

Now looking forward to starting to plant them up for this year.  Crop rotation has been planned and seeds purchased.  Spring is here, bring on the planting. 

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Life of a Beekeeper - July & 'The Swarm'

8 July 2012 The Hive has Swarmed

As soon as we removed the roof we knew the hive had swarmed as there were only one or two bees in the top super now so we removed this completely. The second super also had a lot less bees in it and not much more had been capped. It was similar in the first super. The weather had again been awful all week with just one day of sunshine.

So, to the brood chamber. The first comb had a queen cell and another three queen cells were found on the third comb from the far end. No sign of the original queen who had obviously cleared off with the swarm. We decided to leave all the queen cells on and let nature sort it out.

We spent a fruitless hour wandering around the garden trying to find the swarm, in the hope that they hadn't gone far and we could rescue it, but to no avail.

During the week the bees have been warning us away from the hive, so we took it that no queen was present yet.

14 July 2012 New Queenie and Our First Swarm

What an exciting day. On the way down to inspect the hive, we could hear a swarm on the other side of our hedge. We decided to go ahead with our inspection and deal with that afterwards. Butterflies already starting in the stomach!

On inspecting the hive we found a new queen and lots more queen cells. The first, third, fourth and fifth frames all had at least one queen cell on. We found the new queen on the sixth frame. She looks completely different to the original queen but most definitely a queen. At least two of the queen cells were open and the bees were tending all of them. We put everything back as it was, again trusting them to sort themselves out as we had no way of knowing if the new queen had taken her maiden flight yet and mated. We decided that apart from having a quick look through the glass crown board we would leave them alone for the next two weeks.

So, the swarm.... As it was in next door's field we felt we should really deal with it. After all, we had a second hive standing empty. I think we thought we would either buy another nuc or split the original hive but dealing with a swarm seemed like the next step in our life as beekeepers. We strolled round nonchalantly to the farm next door and told them they had a swarm in their hedge and could we have a look to see if we could capture it.

After reassuring them it was relatively safe for us all to take a look, they turned the electric fence off in the cowfield and we all had a look. It was in the hawthorn hedge. It was obviously too much to ask that it would be hanging off a nice, overhanging branch. We took on the challenge and went back to ours to get kitted up, telling them we'd let them know when it was safe.

Kitted up and armed with the smoker, secateurs, bee brush, nuc box and a bedsheet we went back round. Butterflies were now doing cartwheels. On the way round we passed another neighbour with their grandchildren. The little boy of about 4, recognised us as beekeepers which was great, as if he had been older he might have thought we were coming to deal with a nuclear outbreak or something.

Back in the field we had to climb over the now unclipped electric fence and then the outer fence, giving us a long strip to work in which was only about 3 feet wide. We laid the sheet on the ground making our first mistake as we didn't spread it out enough. I held the nuc box up, having been warned by Pete that about 2-3 pounds of bees were about to land in it and I needed to make sure I was ready and not drop it. As if! Luckily I managed to brace it in the hedge so didn't notice the weight too much.

Pete then took the box and put it upside down on the sheet which we'd put a frame of foundation onto. He then used the lid of the box to prop one corner up so that the rest of the bees would be encouraged to enter it (the queen bee likes to be in the dark and the rest follow her). The bees that had been flying around gathered back in the hedge. Knowing that we had to capture the queen we cut the branch they were on and knocked them onto the sheet with the others, doing this twice more until we were satisfied we had got as many as possible. We waited about 10 minutes to see if they were going to stay where they were and went to tell our obliging neighbours that we felt we'd captured the bees but needed to let them settle down for a couple of hours before collecting them.

The weather started to draw in again and it looked like a storm was coming, so earlier than planned, at about 5.30pm we headed round to collect them. Back over the fence and most of the bees were still in the nuc box. Pete gathered up the sheet around it which would have been easier if we'd spread it out more and we put the lid on top. He lowered the box over the fence and while I held on to the top he climbed back over the fence. We then had a very adrenalin filled walk back round to our house and down the garden with what was basically a bottomless box with a large amount of bees hanging down below it, being kept in by my finest cotton sheet.

Between capturing the swarm and collecting it, we'd been avidly reading the books and had got two feeders ready, one for the old hive and one for the new. At the new hive we realised we hadn't taken the empty supers down for the feeders to go in and had left the feed behind. We carefully lowered the bees to the ground and went back for the supers and feed. Back at the hive and now we'd forgotten the door bar; we'd already decided which process to use to get the bees into the hive and didn't want to lose the queen immediately by leaving the door open and letting her escape straightaway so it was a run back to the house to collect it – not easy in full beekeeping kit.

Okay, now we're back at the hive and think we have everything with us. We had a choice now – let the bees walk up a board into the hive, which is the cool thing to do, especially if you can sit and watch them but with the weather closing in we decided to knock them straight into the hive. They went into the brood chamber like a treat and we then gently filled it with foundation combs, making sure we didn't press down and damage any bees. On went the crown board and feeder. After a minute of two we removed the entrance bar and hurrah, the bees stayed in the hive and one or two soon started to come out and explore the area. We then put a feeder on the new hive.

We felt like real beekeepers now but thoroughly exhausted after an adrenalin filled afternoon. Barely managed a glass of wine before falling asleep in the evening.

The following day the bees at both hives were happily going about their business. We put the entrance bar back on the new hive in order to reduce the entrance and help them defend it against any predators, such as wasps.

Next week we need to inspect the new hive to see if there are any eggs which will tell us if we have a mated queen or not. As we're rubbish at spotting eggs it could be a bit frustrating.

So we learnt a few lessons today – spread the sheet out more and make sure you have everything you need with you although the books say you always seem to have forgotten something.

21 July 2012 First Inspection of the Swarm Hive

Spotted the queen and some capped honey but no sign of any grubs or eggs (which we can't see anyway). The queen looked like our original one but as this was definitely a second swarm, it may not have been. We decided to leave the new hive for 2 weeks before inspecting it again to give them time to settle down.

28 July 2012 Big hive, Inspection following Swarm

I'm to take the lead on the inspection this time. Took the feeder off and placed carefully on the floor as still some bees on it even though there was no food left. The glass crownboard wouldn't come off straightaway and I struggled a bit using the hive tool to help remove it as this was my first time and I was unsure of what pressure to apply. Some frames in the top super were being drawn out and quite a few frames in the bottom super were covered in bees and some more capping had taken place.

It took some effort to take the queen excluder off without upsetting the bees as it was stuck in several places. There were three queen cells on the first frame and they were occupied. The second frame had lots of stores but no sign of the queen. The bees were starting to get a bit annoyed at this point, indicated by a notable increase in their volume. There were more queen cells on the fourth frame which we removed as we knew we had occupied cells on the first frame and if we didn't spot the queen we could leave those to develop. We found the queen on the fifth frame which also had queen cells but as she was on the edge of the frame I put her back in as quickly as possible. In the brood chamber the bees were running about the frames and clearly not happy which we believe is because they had no eggs or grubs to tend to. Sixth frame in and I was now getting nervous and taking too long as the bees weren't really reacting to the smoker and there were so many bees on the frames that Pete took over handling them. The rest of the frames were okay and we quickly went back through removing as many queen cells as possible.

We then decided we would leave this hive for two weeks to allow them to settle down.

The Life of a Beekeeper - June 2012

2 June 2012

As most of the feed had been taken at the last inspection we put a block of ambrosia on during the week and now virtually all the frames have been drawn out with many, many, fat grubs on the new frames, proving that the queen is still present. We spotted her on the middle frame, about twice the size of the workers and nutbrown in colour. I thought she looked a bit weird but found some pictures of the same type of queen on the internet, so happy.

About half the frames in the super were drawn out but no honey as yet. Lots of honey in the brood chamber and some capped. Bees coming back to the hive with yellow and red pollen. Two fields of rape seed oil one field away, which was good to see. Perhaps we can learn to ignore the hayfever we both get from it, if it means we have a good hive and the honey should, of course, help with the hayfever.

10 June 2012

Unexpectedly sunny day giving the amount of rain we have had. High level of activity at the hive. Queen spotted on the outermost frame next to the dummy board and the outermost frames now virtually full of capped brood.

The super is now getting very heavy. There is still some undrawn comb so they have plenty of space left to expand into. No capped honey in the super yet. The ambrosia is about half eaten so we left it on. Left it on, after dropping it on the floor with lots of bees still on it! They were not happy but we did apologise.

17 June 2012

Yay, queen spotted again. Some capped honey in the super now, but not a lot. We removed some brood cells hanging over the bottom of the frames. We checked the varroa floor, as we have at each inspection and thought we could see some varroa but weren't absolutely sure. Sometimes being a newbie is very frustrating.

The ambrosia was now finished, so we put a small sugar feeder on as the weather has been appalling, with lots and lots of rain. You may wonder how we knew to get a sugar feeder ready. We have a glass crown board which lets us remove the lid during the week without disturbing the bees and gives us a good idea of how things are in the hive.

Back in the house and out came the books (Guide to Bees and Honey, Ted Hooper MBE; Bees at the bottom of the garden, Alan Campion and Gay Hodgson) and  leaflets we were given on the course at Thornes, produced by Fera, the most useful of which was Managing Varroa. They said if you weren't sure about disease you could take some cells off and inspect them. As we had removed some brood cells overlapping the frame, I went out to the shed and took some cells apart. Yeuch, what a job. It did, however, confirm presence of varroa, so another lesson learnt and we can now recognise them and measure how many there are on the varroa floor.

30 June 2012

The rain, ever present this year, started before we finished inspecting the brood chamber which was disappointing as we had to rush everything. We didn't see the queen this time but still plenty of grubs which there should be, with us spotting her on the 17th. However, we now had queen cells which was very disconcerting. We removed a few of them but daren't take them all off in case we didn't have a queen any more. We put some Apiguard strips in to reduce the number of varroa. Apparently, you can't get rid of them altogether but need to reduce the number so that the hive is healthy enough to get through the winter.

All the syrup had been taken so we removed the feeder and installed a second super. Inspecting through the glass crown board later in the week showed they had moved into the second super and were drawing the frames out but by the end of the week they had almost abandoned it. Nervously waiting for good weather so that we can inspect again.

Now feeling really nervous as fairly certain there will be a swarm. There are so many views on what you should do when you see queen cells, remove them all and install a mated queen, leave all but a couple of cells and let nature take its course. Whatever you choose, the waiting time to the next inspection is not easy.

The Life of a Beekeeper - First Inspection

26 May 2012

Four of the five new frames placed last week were already fully drawn out and being filled with honey, with the fifth frame being started. We added a super and left the remainder of the syrup on (only about 10%). Lots of grubs and bees emerging. We didn't spot any eggs or the queen this time. There were no grubs in the new frames so we must check these fully next week to ensure the queen is present and laying.

No sign of any queen cells being produced. Pete had his first sting, on the thumb. We'll keep a better eye out for them on hands in future.

I can't tell you how hard it is to walk away not knowing if the queen is still there or not. We're having to develop a whole new level of patience.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Life of a Beekeeper - The Big Day Arrives

20 May 2012  The 'Big Day' has arrived. All the preparation done: hives bought in kit form and built, lessons attended, books and websites read.

Practical workshop today at Thornes near Lincoln and they very kindly let us pick our bees up at the same time. Felt slightly nervy on the drive back, with a few thousand bees strapped into the back seat but thankfully only one was loose. Only one, she says, which unfortunately we had to let out of the window after about 40 miles as it became too interested in me, the driver!

We placed the nuc on the hive stand and left it until evening. We then transferred the 6 frame nucleus which was very full of bees, into the hive. Our smoker went out almost immediately but because of the practical we had had earlier, when we had the same problem, having inspected so many hives, we were confident enough to go ahead. The bees seemed very calm which added to our confidence. We thought we spotted the queen, unmarked, but couldn't be absolutely certain and we couldn't hang around as the priority was to get them into the hive. Five new frames of foundation were added and a gallon of syrup in a contact feeder.

When making the feeder up it would have been useful to know that when you turn it over the syrup pours out. We thought the feeder was leaking but it actually stops very quickly and some of the syrup running into the hive doesn't do it any harm, as it tells the bees that there is food for them.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Oh what Folly!

OK, we dug a pond, a few years ago.  It was a big pond and as we had very few beds at that time, there was nowhere to put the soil, so we made a 'mound'.  Well, we figured as we live in a flat area it would, and it does, give us a view over the surrounding farmland.  We sowed some grass seed and a couple of pounds of wildflower seeds and it looked fantastic the first year.  After that, it wasn't so good, mainly as the poppies didn't appear again and the more invasive wildflowers took over, something we have now seen repeated at a garden and nursery we like to visit, Breezy Knees, outside York.

We stripped it off earlier this year and sowed some Medallion lawn seed, available from Rolawn Ltd.  It looked very nice but needed something on top.  I favoured a hololith but they're expensive.  So being the recyclers that we are, we decided to build a folly from a pollarded willow.  We'd already created a new willow tree and a willow arch from it, so why not a folly?  After a very hot morning digging deep holes to bury the willow in and tying it together, we were pleased with the result.  It will take several months to know if it has worked but should be worth the wait and will be a lovely picnic spot. Or it may be complete and utter folly! What's gardening without experimentation.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

It's Red, Wooden and Californian

Having been blown away by the Californian Redwoods on the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive in the New Forest and in the Peebles area of Scotland, as soon as we had a garden large enough we purchased two redwoods and planted them in the middle of the garden.  This was in 2008 and we then proceeded to build the rest of the garden round them.  We planted them to what I am assured allows for the width they will eventually become, although I suspect we will have to cut an archway through them, if we want to be able to continue to access the orchard through the existing arch!

We positioned the summerhouse so that they will provide some shade on the hottest days.  If I'm honest, we didn't really think this one through but there are plenty of other areas we can sunbathe in, in 10 years time, when there probably won't be much sun at the summerhouse at all.  South is the direction behind us, so the only thing they will provide shade for is the summerhouse which give us plenty of apples and pears for the scrumpy as the orchard develops.

The Redwoods are growing at a rate of knots and each year we take a photograph to map their growth.  Our little cat, Missi, usually joins in as she doesn't like to be left out and loves a walk round the garden.

I have now dug a decent border for them and underplanted them with dwarf echium raised from seed and forget-me-nots transplanted from self-seedlings, for the bees to enjoy.  We have honey bees for the first time this year and a bumblebee nest under the summerhouse decking so a few more bee friendly plants won't go amiss.