Apis is one year old this week. And to celebrate that anniversary, I am delighted to announce the winner of our “Name The Mystery Seedling” competition.
Two entrants got the right answer : Basil. How they managed to look at a forest of green sprue and guess correctly, I cannot say. To decide the winner, I asked John Chapple, the high priest of London beekeeping, to toss a coin. He (rather swankily we all thought) pulled out a 1-pound coin from his pocket and covered it with the palm of his hand. Nikki Vane called “Heads”. It was revealed as “Tails”, and so the proud owner of a jar of 2013 Bermondsey Street Honey is “oval”.
Well done, oval. I hope that this victory was be seen as compensation for your honourable runner-up position in 2013’s bee-haiku competition !
As a townie, I am starting to learn about country beekeeping. For example, fields of oilseed rape are not common in London. In Suffolk, careful management of strong bee colonies close to these flying carpets of canary-coloured flowers is required if you are not to lose an early swarm – or if you do not require a good deal of hard-to-extract, solid-setting rape honey.
Bees go mad for the sweet blossoms of oilseed rape and will fly on auto-pilot over other forage to get to it. But this crop is there for the benefit of the farmer, not the beekeeper, so these vast chrome-yellow canopies provide an abundant source of nectar and pollen for a relatively short time of the year – and which deplete rapidly once the seed-pods start to set in mid-May. Many rural beekeepers have reported that their bees become short-tempered for a short while after the nectar flow ends – and then the pumped-up bee population needs to find sustenance elsewhere. Luckily, our locality has many well-stocked gardens, hedgerows, woods, brambles, horse-chestnuts and neatly-tended allotments to keep the bees supplied with nectar and pollen throughout the late Spring and Summer.
In Suffolk, the School House Bees are stirring: this is Snape Hive.
And the oil-seed rape is coming into flower in an adjacent field:
Q: What happens next ?
A: I have added a new brood box of undrawn foundation on top of the over-wintered brood box (pictured above), so that the bees can use the nectar flow from the rape to build wax brood comb in the upper box. This gives me the option of keeping the two brood boxes as a super-charged, double-brood colony. This arrangement should suck in nectar faster than a top-of-the-range Dyson going head-to-head with Usain Bolt over 100 metres. But I could also divide this turbo-charged colony into two viable units relatively early in the season. Remember that it takes 10 pounds of honey to make a single pound of beeswax – and in my new country apiary, I would rather have a new box of brood frames drawn with fresh white comb than a couple of supers stuffed rigid with crystallised rape honey. A great way to convert a haul of unwanted oilseed honey into valuable new brood comb.
At least I think that is what happens next. Watch this space !
On Friday 21st March 2014, a new Bermondsey Street Bees urban forage initiative came to fruition. Literally.
The first phase of our Leathermarket Gardens project was the planting of 6 varieties of Apple trees and 13 fruiting red and white currant bushes. We started at 10am and completed on schedule at 12 noon.
This plan for a comprehensive greening of a stark and unlovely wall running for over 100 metres on the northern perimeter of Leathermarket Gardens will provide sustainable, diverse forage for bees and other pollinators in the middle of busy Bermondsey, London SE1.
This project has been supported with imagination and commitment by Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST), who supplied the trees, shrubs and two expert plantswomen, Nicola and Mary. All organised by the boundless enthusiasm of Hej, of course.
There are two more phases planned: delivery of 8 tonnes of soil conditioner and the margin of wildflower sowing is planned for 23rd April and the final phase, the planting of bee-friendly climbers, is scheduled for 1st May. Each and every volunteer is welcome to join us – no need to bring anything with you, apart from a slight inclination to get down and dirty for a couple of hours in a great cause!
The roll of honour for March’s Tree/Shrub planting starts with Bob, who looks after Bermondsey Village Hall and who gave us access to water supplies to get the plantings well established (Thanks also to Christine, for her permission to take the water !)
Then there were Nikki, bee-elegant, as ever, in her pink wellies:
And Mike, whose stake-hammering would put Van Helsing to shame:
Not to mention a male hairy footed flower bee bee-fly (thanks, Steve Alton!), spotted by Nikki:
Liz put in a supportive appearance “for two”:
And Jon pitched in with a shovel on the brick-rubble-rich soil like a man possessed:
Throughout, we were guided and encouraged by BOST’s finest: Nicola made sure that we were watering properly, while seeming to dig holes in just half the time it took anyone else:
While Mary was quite strict about the proper depth of hole to be excavated while telling us takes of her recent sabbatical, building schools and trekking in Tanzania:
Job done, Nicola and Mary saddled up the BOST battle-bikes:
But not before posing for a celebration with Bermondsey’s own Hiver Beer (which recently won “Britain’s Next Top Supplier” – and is made with Bermondsey Street Honey!)
You will note that, consummate professionals of the gardener’s art, Nicola and Mary’s bottles are unopened in the middle of their working day. My and Mike’s bottles are distinctly open. You can draw your own conclusions….
Now we need to ensure a rigorous watering regime to get the new plantings formly established. Plans are in place to work with Bermondsey Village Hall. All in all, a great local effort which will produce sustainable forage for pollinators, add greenery and character to an urban park and provide a smattering of Bermondsey fruit for residents.
I think that this is the way forward for forage in London! Be part of it: come and join us on 23rd April and 1st May !
Bermondsey Street Bees has initiated a planting of bee-friendly fruit bushes and trees supplied by BOST (Bankside Open Spaces Trust) in Leathermarket Gardens SE1 (opposite Bermondsey Village Hall, against the brick walls of the Guinness Trust Buildings) from 10.00am to 12 noon on Friday 21st March 2014. This will provide serious long-term forage for bees – with resilient, hardy, fruiting perennials. Come and join us !
Short notice, I know, but you are cordially invited to pop along and lend a little local support for this project. Just bring yourself – all equipment will be supplied!
Next to opening a supermarket, being invited to plant a tree is clear-cut proof that you have arrived on the celebrity circuit. Pictures of all participants will appear on the Bermondsey Street Bees, thus ensuring that you will become an instant tree-planting celebrity.
Sitting next to the hives on the rooftop, it’s clear that the Bermondsey Street Bees have started 2014 in excellent condition. I’ve put on new hive floors (complete with spanking-new, white-painted landing boards) to replace the grimy, overwintered ones, so I know that the hives are heavy with honey stores. And I can see plenty of pollen going in.
Since things are looking just the way nature intended, I’m resisting the temptation to open up Shard, Abbey and Thames hives for another fortnight, despite last weekend’s lush temperatures. My impulse to crack open the crownboards for the first inspection is being kept in check by the readings from my in-hive Humidity/Temperature monitors which tell me that humidity is below 50% and the temperatures on top of the brood nests are all over 31C. And there are busy “orientation flights” being made by newly-flying bees at the hive entrance.
Putting that all together leads me to believe that there is a healthy progression of brood in the boxes – and the mood-music of the bees suggests that this is worker brood (excellent), rather than drone brood (very bad news at this stage of the year).
So I have put off the first full inspections until at the end of March – but still a whole month earlier than last year’s first inspection, which was on 27th April!
Which means that there’s time for a little more outward-bound photography: here’s one of my lovely “winged barcodes” getting to grips with a mahonia aquifolium flower just outside the Congestion Charging Zone.
The bee which you see, flitting for forage on a row of orange-throated crocuses, is not there by accident. She has been sent.
Or rather, steered. In the deep dark of the beehive, the “waggle-dance” is not recreational, nor even remotely procreational. It is informational: a sat-nav download by a successful returning forager transmitting the co-ordinates of its food source to its followers. As the bee rehearses its tight figure-of-eight rushes, intercoded with a blurring belly-dance anchored to the comb, she is narrow-casting data to a mob of antennaed apprentices, turning them into winged barcodes. Never doubt that the bee which you see is on a mission.
Just standing and looking at the hypnotic, baton-swinging intensity of a bee working a parade of blue crocus, I had a flashback, like stumbling down a rabbit-hole of recollection.
And there I was, bare-kneed, pushing at a garden gate and stepping past the soldierly rows of crocuses, marching, uninvited to a stranger’s front door. A penknife-sharp retrieval, a slice of memory, back to a time when, as the eldest child of political activists, I was conscripted into the ritual of “hedge-hopping” .
The term “hedge-hopping” describes a leaflet-drop to all the letterboxes along one side of a street. But to my boy-brain, we were the shock troops of the garden path, parachuted with pin-point accuracy deep into the enemy territory of a marginal Council ward. And we were programmed to perform a single goal : Distribution was our thing.
And as my left hand held open the flap, my right hand would thrust the two-tone glossy through the letter-box. This routine was repeated hundreds of times and might seen mundane, almost boring, to the uninitiated. Not so.
There was a delicious scintilla of surprise each and every time my hand pulled back through the letter-box: it extracted a puff, a snuff-pinch, a whiff of the living smell which inhabited that house.
Each house had its own astonishing respiration: spicy, sweet, smoky, sometimes seductive, some downright disreputable. But each breathed an authentic aroma, unquestionably unique. And when all the pamphlets were gone, we left, joyously empty-handed. And we returned home. Back to our own scent.
And here was my revelation: a shared experience with the bees. Honeybees hedge-hop, too, as post-code-purposefully as I did. Man and insect, dutifully skirmishing, lucky-dipping at each map reference, tasting the difference of their brief hosts.
But for the bees, delivery is not their intention. Their goal is to extract a pot-pourri of early pollen – and when brimful, to haul the harvest hivewards. Accumulation is their thing.
Homecoming bees fly straight, intent on the landing-board. Like an elongated letter-box, the hive entrance exhales the home-aroma, the honeyed hum of warm wax, and in they go, fully laden, scampering, breathless, their mission accomplished!
An adventure is when you start a journey not knowing where it will end.
So when I set off to the Caribbean, in search of a typical beekeeper on the island of Barbados, my quest had all the component parts of an adventure: a new destination and no inkling of how an outcome might be achieved.
This was deliberate. I wanted to meet an ordinary beekeeper. My research had already identified my namesake, the bajan beekeeping supremo, Rudy Gibson, as the hottest hand on the island. But I was determined to find my beekeeper by trusting to chance, rather than idly clicking through Google or TripAdvisor. My plan was to arrive in Barbados, don sunglasses, shorts and flip-flops and just keep my eyes and ears open.
It was that simple….and it didn’t take long. On our second evening on the island, my wife, Sarah, and I were walking along the shore road towards Morton’s fish-fry in Moontown, when I stopped to take a photo of this glorious, sunsetting sea-scape.
Then, crossing back over the road to walk with Sarah into the oncoming traffic, I was halted by a sign, halfway up a telegraph pole: its message was unequivocal: “BEE-KEEPER 249-5905 237 5991“.
Relishing the pin-sticking happenstance of my discovery, I sat down the next day to call the number displayed on this battered, flaking rectangle. I dialled, the phone was answered: ‘Hello,” I ventured, “I’m a beekeeper from London, England, and I’m visiting Barbados – are you the beekeeper ?”
“Yes, that’s me. I’m Ben the Beekeeper. Would you mind calling me back on this other number? This one’s a mobile which is low on credit”.
Impressive: I knew immediately by this thrifty welcome that I had encountered a true beekeeper !
And soon after calling Ben on his other number, I recognised another typical beekeeper’s trait. Ben liked a chat. Particularly about his bees. Ben explained that his name was not actually Ben, nor indeed was his surname “The Beekeeper” which, I assured him, was a common complication in England, too. Ben told me about his family’s Guyanese beekeeping pedigree, his apiary site in Christchurch parish and his natural cure for “varona” (varroa). So far, so good.
And better yet, Ben was an urban beekeeper, living in Carrington Village, a town of narrow, dusty streets just north of Bridgetown, the principal city of Barbados, which itself is the most densely populated of all the Caribbean islands! As a keeper of very urban bees myself, this adventure was turning out better than I had hoped…
A few hours later, Sarah and I pulled up outside a squat house off Belmont Street adorned with the same “BEE-KEEPER 249-5905 237 5991” sign as I had seen on the telephone pole – except this signage filled a 4-foot high and 6-foot wide placard on the front wall of the property. Perhaps overly influenced by this strong branding, I felt that I was getting to know Ben already.
In the earth driveway to the side of the house, we approached a man who was working on a car: a blue 1955 MG Midget, up on blocks awaiting new brake parts. And yes, raising his head from under the bonnet he acknowledged that he was indeed Ben The Beekeeper. Smiles and nods replaced a handshake, as Ben’s palms eloquently expressed a devotion to engine mechanics.
Shoes off as we entered the house, passing straight into a living room dotted with Hindu artefacts and decorations. But most imposing was the 10-day old 3-foot wide flat-screen TV, tuned in at an “outside” volume level to the BBC News channel. Throughout our 40-minute chat we would learn much about bajan beekeeping principles, Ben’s views on the ethnic tensions between Barbadians and Guyanese on the island and a good deal about developments in the Ukraine crisis.
I presented my credentials, a black-and-white Apis blog card, as Ben wiped his hands and I explained to Ben my intention to write a post about our meeting. Having asked for, and received, Ben’s permission to take notes and photographs, I set to chronicling our encounter.
Ben’s family owned the biggest beekeeping business in “British“, Ben insisted, Guyana, Rajkumar Apiaries, with over 300 hives, and his brother Ahnand Rajkumar MSc A.Ag is a beekeeper in Wellesley, Ontario. Ben had been in Barbados since 2000, since which time many Guyanese had migrated towards Barbados. Ben had also learnt some of his Barbados beekeeping skills from one of his mentors – the great Rudy Gibson.
With his main apiary located in Christchurch, near the main Grantley Adams airport, Ben kept both urban and country bees. Nodding to the MG Midget in the yards, Ben boasted that, with the hood down and a beehive strapped into his front passenger seat, he attracted plenty of attention when tranferring hives between his apiaries. Unfortunately though, Ben had been awaiting a crucial car-part delivery for several hours and so we were unable to leave his home to visit his out-apiary until it arrived. He explained:
“That man told me that he would be here in two minutes when he called me. I asked him whether he meant Barbados time or English time and he just laughed. That was two hours ago and now I’m vex…”
Ben launched into a monologue which referenced his grievances against native Barbadians, which conluded with the phrase: “So who’s the racist now?”. It was to become a familiar refrain. Undeterred, I steered Ben back to the topic which really excited me from our telephone conversation: his cure for varroa.
“All natural“, Ben declared. “No chemicals, you see. It’s tobacco.” Obviously, Ben was no stranger to controversy. “That’s what knocks off the varroa. You plant tobacco in front of your hives, and as the bees fly through the tobacco leaves, the natural power of the tobacco plants gets rid of varroa” said Ben. Well, smoking tobacco is rumoured to discourage mosquitos and midges, I pondered. And the traditional treatment which Bristish beekeepers use against the varroa mite is oxalic acid, which is derived from rhubarb leaves. So why not tobacco ?
“And then, in your smoker, you roll leaf tobacco around dried slices of garlic, long-way down the clove, only long way down the clove, you see, and old onion skins”, Ben confided. “That mixture calms the bees. And for varroa, it’s even better if you add some black pepper. Varroa hates black pepper smoke“.
It may be that such a recipe is a bit too spicy for traditional UK beekeepers’ tastes, but it may be that there is no harm in trying. Obviously, I would advise anyone wishing to follow Ben’s suggestions to first do their own research and satisfy themselves of the suitability of any of Ben’s recommendation for their own bees.
Ben explained that his bees were a “mixed strain” as a consequence of the proximity of other islands, Central America and international transportation. Certainly a touch of “scutella“, the africanised bee, to which he attributed a propensity to sting unprotected flesh without encouragement and speculated that the more ferocious bees from his out-apiary were especially prone to launch themselves against the darker skin of native bajans.
Anyway, back to the bees. Here is a close-up of one of Ben’s bees.
To soothe the disappointment of our scuppered visit to his main apiary, Ben invited us to see the beehives in his back yard. So we walked from the living room, along a corridor and through the kitchen and went out into Ben’s dirt and white-stone-chipped yard.
There we met Pooch, whom Sarah reliably informed me could be termed “an island labrador“, given his miscellaneous parentage. Pooch was very much a guardian in the yard, certainly not a pet allowed to enjoy the interior of the Rajkumar household.
Ben’s hives were simple 11-frame brood boxes, very recognisable to all as beehives. They were arranged higgledy-piggledy against the fence at the rear of his property. Interestingly, all the hive entrances were aligned to face the perimeter. Ben’s home bees mainly forage on “wild flowers and vines” – and I had also observed bajan bees foraging for pollen on Golden Palm blossoms in the cool of the early morning. It was unclear precisely how much honey Ben extracted from an average hive, but he measured his yields in gallons. And, like my own Bermondsey Street Honey, Ben’s honey had completely sold out, so we were unable to buy any to recompense him for his trouble (but at least offering to buy some satisfies beekeeping etiquette).
In Ben’s yard, I noticed that all of his hive entrances faced his perimeter fence. I assumed that this was to get the bees “up” in the air, so that they were not tempted to fly low across Ben’s yard, making life difficult for hanging out washing or other human amenities. “No“, said Ben “I have put them there to stop the rascals from jumping over my fence and into my yard. The bees fly up and into the face of anyone looking over into my yard. And I put these hives are where they have jumped over before. I don’t know why they do that. But they do not like bees and the bees do not like them.” Ben explained in his sing-song, island accent.
“Your first line of bee-fence,” I volunteered.
So these bees in Ben’s home apiary were, along with Pooch, part of Ben’s home security system. Which helped explain the outsize lettering on the front of his house: “BEE-KEEPER 249-5905 237 5991“- this was not so much an advertisement of his services as a warning to potential miscreants. I wonder how many London beekeepers consider their hives as a burglar deterrent ?
A dose of rain slashed down and we retreated to the Ben’s sitting room and the torrent of non-stop world news reporting. We swapped beekeeping tips and stories for a while longer (for those with a lively interest in bajan bees, please see below Ben’s Top Ten Beekeeping Tips, unedited by me). Ben vouchsafed his real name to me: Hemindranauth Rajkumar and ensured, one last time, that I had caught his drift about interracial tension on Barbaos. Yep, I really had hauled it on board. It was time to head home..
As we shook hands, Ben commented to me, with a smile to Sarah, whose feet he had complimented earlier: “You must be a good beekeeper. You have chosen a very lovely Queen“. A gallant parting shot from our thrifty, loquacious, news-hungry bajan beekeeper. “Come and visit the Bermondsey Street Bees, whenever you’re in London“, I said, as we waved farewell to Ben and his bees.
In the time since our arrival, a tropical shower had washed over Carrington Village, the conflict in Ukraine was lurching inexorably forwards and Ben’s car-part delivery had still not arrived. But the bees were busy, though, hither and thither.
So my Caribbean adventure was not quite along the lines of Drake or Raleigh; no swashes were buckled, no timbers were shivered and, as far as I am aware, the King of Spain’s beard remained unsinged for the duration of our visit. But this small expedition had brought me into contact with an urban beekeeper located over five thousand miles away from my own apiaries and with very different beekeeping methods from mine.
It just goes to show that the world’s a big place – and that there’s room for us all.
Ben The Bajan Beekeeper’s Top Ten Tips (NB: These are unedited and may not represent best practice for U.K. beekeeping – DYOR)
Position tobacco plants in front of your hives. The bees will have to fly through them and the perfume of the tobacco plant will separate the varroa mite from the bee.
A good, calming smoker fuel is produced by wrapping leaf tobacco around dried garlic and onion skins.
To make this smoke effective against varroa, add black pepper to the mixture.
Add Terramycin, a broad-spectrum antibiotic, to bee-feed to produce strong, healthy bees.
Swarm-trapping and clipping Queen’s wings are the most effective methods of swarm control.
When moving hives small distances, use cleaning fluids to wash away to hive-smell in the old location and the bees will not return to it.
To maximise honey production, use an 11-frame brood box with only 10 evenly-spaced frames in it above the brood box (without a queen excluder), but below a super. The bees will draw extra-long cells, which the queen will not lay in and which will hold more honey.
Use canvas gloves to manipulate bee-hives. These offer protection and allow your hands to breathe. Nitrile gloves make your hands too sweaty.
Old, dark comb will give you dark honey. Fresh wax foundation or new comb will give you a light honey.
Bee-hives are a great way of protecting your property against wall-hopping interlopers.
All you have to do to win is to name the plant which these mystery green shoots will turn into when they grow up….and yes, it’s certainly a bee-friendly plant !
To enter, just put your answer into this post using the “Comment” box below this picture. The winner will be announced on 27th March – the first anniversay of the Apis blog – and will receive a jar of the multiple award-winning Bermondsey Street Honey!
Rules: One entry per person. A draw will take place if multiple correct answers are received.