I was given a small, mystery plant in Autumn 2010, and popped it in the ground at the top a bank, not knowing what to expect. Luckily this well-drained sunny position suited it down to a ‘t’ and it has since flourished, proliferating vigorously, and above all it turns out to be quite the bee magnet – attracting the attention of the honey bees and bumblebees.
common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) on bush germander (Teucrium fruticans)
It is a mediterranean native with downy grey-green, aromatic foliage. The flower is interesting and intricate – icy blue petals with deep purple veins, sporting great-reaching, show-off stamen, designed perfectly to rub themselves sneakily on the bee’s back as they get on with the business of sucking up nectar.
Teucrium was named for Teucer, the legendary first king of Troy who pioneered use of these plants as medicinals. He was a great archer and fought alongside his half-brother Ajax in the Trojan War. Fruticans, more banally, means shrubby.
Spying on the bees as they go about their outdoor pursuits has become something of a passion, and stalking them as they forage round and about the house has opened my eyes to all the various snacking places on offer.
Some of these floral opportunities are ravaged in the wink of an eye, others last a little longer. It certainly surprises me how quickly a tree / flower / shrub can be devoided of pollen.
The two main areas of activity this month have been the fruit orchard and the box trees.
In the orchard it started with the almond trees, and then the wild, flowering plums. We have two, young, purple-leaved Prunus trees, which have pink flowers, and then a host of a white blossomed varity, which must have been here for decades.
Honey bee on Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera “Nigra”)
The blossom on the old ornamental plum trees makes it appear as if the snow has returned. In summer, these bear heaps of small plums, which look fabulous but sadly are not good for eating (not even for making jams or chutneys).
Honey Bee on ornamental plum (Prunus cerasifera)
fruit of the wild plum
Regarding the box (Buxus sempervirens), there are several smaller shrubs in the garden and one large tree, about 3 metres tall – Im guessing that that too has been around for decades.
The box tree is monoecious – plants have their male and female parts on separate flowers, but together on the same plant. Flowers are green and grow in clusters in the leaf axils. Each cluster contains several male (staminate) flowers with conspicuous whitish-yellow anthers, and a terminal female flower containing a three-celled ovary.
Honey bees on Box – the staminate flowers visible (anther and filament)
Buxus flowers are not showy, but are quite fragrant. The female (pistillate) flower is small, star shaped and yellowish green. The star points are actually sepals – boxwood flowers have no petals.
Just opposite the kitchen window is a southerly facing bank, which is covered in a thick carpet of wildflowers and weeds, with a hint of grass. At midday, it is a mass of colour, very picturesque, and is attracting a multitude of wildlife – especially bees.
With all the buzzing, it doesn’t take a detective to track down some of the visitors. Especially when they are relatively large and sporting black and yellow furry stripes (with a cute white bottom)…
Bumblebee on Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum)
There are one or two honey bees in the mix, gleaning every little they can. Most of their sisters are over at the box tree, which is currently pollen central (more of that in another post).
Honey bee on Common Field-speedwell (Veronica persica).
my new friend, the Carpenter Bee
and finally, something new to me, even though it is apparently one of the most common bumblebee species, here is the Common Carder Bee. It is medium-sized, has a long tongue and nests on the surface of the ground…
Last night we went to the cinema to watch a new documentary – Des Abeilles et Des Hommes (also called More Than Honey), reporting the decline in bee populations, and the multiple possible reasons behind this phenomenon. Swiss film producer Marcus Imhoof, journeys around the globe filming folk closely involved in bee-keeping – apiarists, honey producers, hive transporters, pollen gatherers etc, and each tells their story. The film lasts about 90 minutes, and comprises factual snippets, nuggets of information, some bee-keeping basics, all with beautiful cinematography including some amazing macro work.
The film begins in a stunning Alpine setting, with Fred who is out gathering a swarm, no hint of protective clothing. He is descended from a long line of bee keepers and can recall how things used to be. For him traditional methods are all important. Fred is fighting cross-breeding, striving to keep the local race of black bees pure. He discovers one of his queen bees has been interbreeding with a yellow bee from a neighbouring valley, and without compunction, squeezes off the head of this traitress.
The story moves to a vast almond producing area in California, and the associated honey producing / pollination operation. The scale is immense – and the driving force is money making. The orchards were alive with bees collecting pollen – but after just a short while the hives have to be transported on – as, once the pollen has been collected there is no more nourishment for the bees and for them it is has become a desert. The trees are fumigated during the day – and traces of fungide can be found in the resultant honey. Additionally the bees are fed antibiotics, to help assure the continued presence of this all important component of such industrialised agriculture.
We meet Heidrun Singer and her production line of Queen Bees – she gently transposes larvae into false royal cells, thereby tricking the bees into feeding them royal jelly. Apparently her queen bees are sold around the world – and we see them packaged up and hauled off by a courrier company.
Onto China, to an area where bees are so scare that pollination is done by hand – by human beings (mostly women). Pollen is collected and sold in small packets, and then a team of workers, armed with cotton buds, the pollen in a bottle round their necks, pollinate the trees, flower by flower.
Back to the US, to Arizona, where Fred (another Fred) works collecting Africanized Killer Bees. Having retrieved a swarm, he doesn’t destroy it, but rather keeps it – noticing that they are more hardy than their normal counterparts, produce good honey, but have to be treated with a good deal of respect.
There are further tales of Foul Brood, pesticides and the varroa mite. Evidence of stress sufferered when transporting the hives on the back of lorries for thousands of kilometers each year. Footage of bees fitted with tracking devices. We meet a German neuroscientist investigating bee brains. And much more.
This is not a film with a beginning, a middle and an end – it is educational, a neutral presentation of facts and information, from which we are allowed to draw our own conclusions. We see that traditional and natural methods, and unlimited growth may be unsustainable. Does the answer lie in a totally unexpected source?
The film is originally in German, and is available with French subtitles (there is a certain amount of spoken English).
Spring is in the air… finally. I have been itching to get and about with the camera for several days now, ever since the Japonicas burst into bloom with their beautiful, vibrant orange-pink flowers. I also noted that the almond tree wasn’t too far behind, with buds aplenty.
It has been warming up nicely, and apparently the bees won’t come out to actively forage until the temperature hits 13 degrees. And full foraging is not acheived until it warms up beyond 19 degrees. It was pleasantly mild at the beginning of the week, but then we were hit by a Vent d’Autan – a quite violent wind coming at us from the east, and this time gusting up to 60 kms/ hour. It lasted for 48 hours, and at times it felt like the roof of the house was coming off (luckily, it didn’t). I certainly didn’t feel like venturing forth, and I imagine the bees stayed indoors too.
Conditions yesterday were much improved, so off I trot with trusty camera to see what’s going down in honey bee world. And lo, there were the girls hard at work, collecting pollen from the stunning Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica) bushes. All very photogenic – that’s the calendar image for March 2014 in the bag.
Just next to the Japonicas is a splendid almond tree, starting to blossom. I love this flower, with its tinges of pink and incredible perfume. The bees were here too, gathering up the yellow-brown pollen. This pollination work is important in the big almond producing regions of the world – the pollination of California’s almonds is the largest annual managed pollination event in the world, with close to one million hives (nearly half of all beehives in the USA) being trucked in February to the almond groves.
We have a whopping two trees, so hopefully the girls won’t bee too overwhelmed with the workload.
The sunflowers this summer have been quite magnificent, and the house has been surrounded on three sides by their sunny, cheerful faces. This years are even more special because of the added dimension of suspecting that they could possibly be providing the raw materials for our first honey.
At their peak, each flower had perhaps 2 or even 3 bees working away collecting pollen / nectar.
I think we can be fairly certain that the honey that we did harvest comes virtually exclusively from the sunflowers. In other words, its a monofloral honey. I like to think that the bright yellow colour backs this theory up. The honey is now starting to crystallise- so whereas the honey initially was clear and reasonably fluid, it is now more opaque and much thicker and creamy – but equally delicious.
I have read that honeybees collect mostly nectar from sunflowers, whilst wild bees collect the pollen. Honeybees however cannot avoid picking up pollen – and will transfer it from flower to flower. Sunflowers rarely self-pollinate, and scientific research shows that pollinated sunflowers have a higher seed yield. A nicely balanced partnership.
The sunflower head is made up of individual florets, which start to open from the outside in. In the image below, there are five or six rings of florets which have opened – and will continue to open at the rate of two or three rings per day. On the day I took this image, all the bees were to be found just in this inner rim of the sunflowers. Each floret will mature into a sunflower seed.
flowers within the flower
So, a big thank you this year to the sunflowers – not only for their aesthetic perfection, their colour and cheer – but also the 30 odd jars of super honey. I must go and deliver a big pot to the farmer who planted the sunflowers, although I’m not sure if he should be thanking us (and the bees) as well – I wonder if the seed output has increased.
Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent (Richard Dawkins).
The poor, sad drones are being evicted from the hive. We are now moving into autumn, and the workers are kicking out the drones because they have no use for them any more and they are considered to be a drain on precious resources.
The drone cannot feed himself – he doesn’t have a proboscis for sucking nectar from a flower. He cannot defend himself, as he has no sting. He cannot make honey. Luckily for him though, he is good for one thing – and that’s wooing the queen bee and seeing to her intimate, feminine needs.
However with the change of season, the queen is moving into a phase of celibacy – and just wants to spend winter with the girls. So, poor old Mr Bee, without even having committed any crime, is sent unduly packing.
I would like think that there is some sort of Winter Rest Haven for Bloke Honeybees – somewhere to repair to after a heavy, hedonistic summer of eating, drinking and lots of bee nookie (and precious little else).
Following much the same process as we did last week, with JP’s hive – in one hour, we had removed the honey frames, cut off the wax cappings and centrifugally extracted all the honey. Along the way, more lessons were learned too.
A top tip to remember for next time is to properly zip up the beekeepers suit. Andy must have left a small, bee-sized gap and was visited on the wrong side of his hat by one of the ladies. He did keep very calm, adopting a strange crouching position and managed to successfully shoo said intruder back into the open air without either of them suffering undue harm.
bee off with you!
Despite Andy’s little adventure, I realise that it is important to start trusting the beekeeper’s suit. With inquisitive bees buzzing around one’s head, it feels natural to back off – but so long as one carries on calmly and efficiently, keeping aware of any change in the bees’ mood, its okay to be right in there working on the hive.
Another tip is perhaps to sport gloves, even if only photographing, albeit from a short distance – JP was stung on the hand. Bees can be camera shy.
I wondered what to do with the messy mix left after the honey extraction, and decided to leave it to strain – and was happy to discover that this yielded about 300 ml of extra honey. The wax was then washed in warm water and has been melted down for a future project.
sticky mix of wax and honey, left after uncapping and filtering
Our ‘Extracting Room’ was used, in the olden days, to shelter animals, and has a massive tank once used in wine making. It’s certainly old, and has been the scene of a couple of inexplicable goings-on. Maybe we have a resident ghost, who likes to turn his hand to honey extraction…
We estimate a yield of around 8 kilos of the scrummy, sweet stuff – its all still sitting in the settling tank, waiting to be put into jars in a few day’s time. Time to reach for the honey recipes!
Having ditched the disguises, and made it hot foot round to the safe house (JP’s office), giving the bees the slip, we start to unload the treasure and the necessary equipment, ready to move in to Stage Two of the operation – the Extraction.
Men Beehiving Badly
JP has been tooling-up and amassing the requisite tackle, to be co-owned by us and new crew member, Vincent. The key piece of machinery is the Extractor. This is a drum, containing three cages, each of which will hold a frame. Ours is hand powered, the handle is turned to start the frames spinning, and the honey is driven from the cells by centrifugal force.
bright shiny gadget ~ no plug, not even a USBee port
Other equipment is a long, serrated knife for uncapping the honey cells, and a large plastic tub over which the frame is worked. This is to catch any honey drips and bits of wax (aka cappings).
The frames are still warm (its about 35 degrees outside), and uncapping the honey is a delicious, exciting moment, as the deep yellow, sticky liquid oozes from the cells. The first attempt at removing the top cover of wax is rather gung-ho, and we realise that more of the cell has been destroyed than is strictly necessary.
The technique however is soon refined, and the first three frames loaded into the extractor. This is put into motion, and the honey starts to pool at the base of the extractor.
When all nine frames have been processed, the tap is opened and the honey literally gushes out. It is passed through a filter and into a bucket. At this moment, it would have been rude not to have dived for the teaspoons and savour the freshest, tastiest honey ever.
The filtered honey is then decanted into The Maturateur – a posh name for a tub with a lid and tap, where the honey is left for a few days to settle, to get rid of air bubbles and bits of wax. The weigh-in shows a very healthy yield of 15 kilos.
So, a job well done and time to celebrate. There was a small matter of a sticky floor to clean, and then we rushed back to the house, stopping at the cheese shop, so that we could sit and relish the very first pot of Jean-Philippe’s very own honey.
The sunflowers have started to go dark brown and crispy – which pretty much signals the end of the honey season. It is time to remove the super, and crack on with out first honey harvest (deep joy). We are starting with JP’s hive. This hive is a couple of weeks in advance of mine, plus the sunflowers around my house were planted late – and there is still evidence of bee activity.
The afternoon is hot and dry – ideal conditions for relieving the bees of the fruits of their labour. To be fair, we are only taking a share of the spoils ~ and leaving them plenty for winter. So, in return for providing them with rather excellent accommodation, we help ourselves to some rightful recompense, even if the bees are none too happy or indeed compliant with this arrangement.
Its a stick-up! Your honey, or your life.
It is deemed best to wait until most of them are out, and to go in disguise. We have a new collaborator, Simon, who is on Smoker Duty, plus a couple of paparazzi (Kim and Vincent). JP is leading operations, with Andy aiding and abetting.
Breaking and Entering
JP has a new, empty super – and is going to transfer the frames one by one from the active super. A few puffs of smoke, a bit of leverage from the beekeeper’s crow bar to break the propolis glue, a gentle brush – and the frames are quickly spirited away to the awaiting getaway vehicle, where they are convincingly draped with an old blanket. The bees barely notice.
Andy (aka Shifty) conceals the haul
The frames are remarkably heavy, and it promises to be quite a heist.
Getting the brush off
All nine frames nicely pilfered, the team pack up pronto, and speed off to transfer the booty to a second getaway vehicle – wanting to transform the evidence as quickly as possible.
Looks like we have pulled off Stage One of a successful non-Sting Operation.
desperately avoiding eye contact with any passing bees