There are worse ways to spend the Easter holiday than hopping onto the 10.45pm ferry from Portsmouth and then rolling off into the French countryside early the next morning.
We were heading for the in-laws in the flat calm sea of vineyards around St. Nicolas de Bourgueil in the Loire valley. This is the most northerly point in France where quality red wine can be grown. The strict appellation contrôlée rules insist that only grapes from the cabernet franc variety can be used to make a St. Nicolas be Bourgueil wine.
The wine which these vines produce on this sandy soil, layered over clay deposits of a vast former river bed, is light and fruity, but with a slight astringency. Best drunk relatively young, this red wine is served cellar-chilled.
In 2013, these 2,600 acres under vines (visualise a patchwork of 2,600 full-size football pitches) produced around 8 million bottles of wine. Honey-coloured tufa limestone, clean-cut and Flintstone-smart in new-built walls, is testimony to the prosperity of this nook of rural France. But I digress.
It is a truism that success comes at a price. And as we gently gardened in the sunshine, we saw bumblebees and butterflies aplenty. So, I hear you ask, what’s all this got to do with honeybees ? Well, nothing. That’s the point. I didn’t see a single honeybee over 6 days in the spring-flowering gardens. Not one.
My theory is that the man-made monoculture of vines and the attrition of varroa on wild bees share the responsibility for the abeyance of the honeybee from this rural idyll. With a huge communal forest, the mighty Loire and the somnolent suburbs of Bourgueil village, all under 2 miles away, I was astonished by the absence of bees.
There is an old French adage: “long comme un jour sans pain” – or, “as long as a day without bread” – to conjure up the torment to the gallic soul of a day deprived of that vital commodity, bread.
Here in St. Nicolas de Bourgueil, I’m tempted to translate that quaint expression into a beekeeper’s lament: “long comme un jour sans abeilles” – or, “as long as a day without bees“.
I found a few bees diligently working on a flower-free first floor balcony the other day. It struck me as unusual behaviour (no pun intended) that these worker bees seemed to have confused a bit of plastic piping with a nectar-primed blossom. What on earth were they doing, crowding busily onto the rim of a white central heating vent?Most mysterious.
So often in beekeeping, as indeed in life, a conundrum can be solved by stepping back and adapting a Sherlockian strategy of observation and deduction. And, of course, letting yourself think like a bee. Hint: just concentrate on the obvious and don’t be distracted by detail.
Question: you live with 50,000 half-sisters in a box atop a breezy 4-story roof parapet in London. After half an hour or so, which basic commodity would you lack?
It’s that simple.
And the priority for bees is that their source of water should be reliable: bees use water in winter to dilute their honey stores and feed their colony. The closer, the better, given chill air temperatures. In summer, nectar from flowers contains a high proportion of water to slake the thirst of the bees, but the need to raise new brood and to air-condition the hive (through the cooling evaporative effect of a thin film of water spread on the face of the wax comb) places a heavy demand on the resource.
So what could be better from a bee’s perspective than a nearby combi boiler which fires up at regular intervals – a water feature which meticulously, metoculously, secretes warm dew-drops of purest H2O ?
Now, it is not clear that urban tap water necessarily fits the bill for my bees. With its added chlorine (which is less than one milligram per litre – which equals one part per million – the level recommended by the World Health Organisation, as Thames Water’s website so reassuringly informs us), its ozone-dosing (injecting ozone into the water to break down pesticides and organic material) and its chloramines (the final treatment action is to add a dose of ammonia, which reacts with chlorine to form chloramines, which decay at a slower rate compared to free chlorine), is it any wonder that the sipsome sisterhood of honeybees may be inclined to disdain the mains ?
London’s drinking water has been treated with chemicals for only 160 years (chlorine was first introduced to combat the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in Soho). That’s sufficient time for the capital’s human inhabitants to get accustomed to the hot-and-cold-running sluice. But perhaps the bees, with their 200 million year tenure on this earth, have yet to accept Thames Water’s new-fangled, chemically supplemented, water-based drink as a substitute for the real, wet stuff.
Yet once Chateau Thames has been vapourised in my Ariston boiler and then been vented out of a poly-pipe, the distillate drip is pure water, with all modern additives stripped out. Water in the raw. Aqua.
Could it be that we have stumbled across one of the secrets which make the consistently award-winning Bermondsey Street Honey so remarkable – the discerning, winged water-bearers and the purity of their hydration ?
Welcome to the first Apiary report of 2014. Executive summary: the Bermondsey Street Bees are in great shape.
Just look at how elegantly jammed Abbey Hive was at the very first inspection. To see bees on all the frames – and, on closer inspection, to find 6 frames of brood in all stages (BIAS) – was tremedously encouraging, especially since this is the colony which I have selected to provide my new Queen Bees for 2014 ! We will come back to Abbey, Queens and Queen Cups later in this post.
But first, let’s see how Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive is getting on in the second year of her reign:
Scarlett is a 2013 Queen (hence the slightly faded red marking on her thorax) and has presided over a strong hive, which had already filled half of a honey super (placed under the brood box over winter, to buffer the brood box against chill winter winds). At this inspection, I moved the super above the brood box, checking that Scarlett had not taken her egg-laying extravagence below stairs (she had not – it would be unusual for a Queen to move down – generally, all bees prefer to move up) and adding a Queen Excluder (QE) between the super and the brood, while plonking another super of empty, but fully-drawn comb, on top of that. I will move the super of empty comb under the half-full super, once that has filled up. So all is well with Shard Hive and Queen Scarlett.
On to Thames Hive, which is doing just fine, but is noticeably less ebullient than Abbey and Shard Hives. That is not to say that it isn’t looking promising – especially for this time of year – and indeed this frame of brood from Thames Hive is a delight to observe:
Take a look at the strong ochre semi-circle of worker brood, garnished with a blob of yellower drone brood standing proud just off-centre towards the top right corner. Note also the arcs of honey in the top corners of the frame, and a patchwork no-man’s land of different coloured pollens between the honey arc and the brood semi-circle and in the bottom corners. The nurse bees like to have food for a growing bee population close to hand. So I’m expecting Thames Hive to catch up with the other two colonies in short order.
But let’s loop back to Abbey Hive for a little beekeeping “show and tell“. It was in Abbey Hive that I found a “Queen Cup”, which is the building-block of a Queen Cell. The discovery of one of these is the curtain up for the beekeeper’s most important role, after the health of the bees: swarm prevention. Usually, you would expect to see Queen Cups from mid-April onwards, along with a decent patch or two of domed drone brood amongst the smooth-lidded worker brood. Both Queen Cups and drone brood were present at the very beginning of April !
Anyway, the thing about Queen Cups (also called Play Cups) is that the sight of them is indicational, not informational. There is no harm in finding a Queen Cup in the comb at the bottom of a frame, as long as it is empty. If, on the other hand, you see the glint of a white egg, you need to mark the frame and be vigilant. If indeed the hyphen-like egg is floating in a drop of milky royal jelly, or has even entered the curved larval phase of its development, then the bees will soon draw out the wax to form a true Queen Cell. Then a full swarm prevention protocol is required. Sharpish.
So here is the picture of the Queen Cup in Abbey Hive as I first saw it. I tilted the frame and looked inside to see that there was no egg, nor a pool of royal jelly. So no action was required. But to demonstrate this graphically, I used the hive tool to break down the wax cell wall to show the empty base of the cup. (Fear not – the bees will repair this damage in short order).
So from now until July, I’m on high alert for tell-tale Queen Cups/Play Cups. 2014 is shaping up to be a great beekeeping year.
But let’s not get carried away. A strong start to the year only increases the chances of being taken by surprise with an early swarm. The simple rules are: give the bees plenty of room to expand; add a super as soon as the brood box is more than three-quarters full.; ensure that the Queen has space to lay and is not “honey-blocked” by and excess of honey stores occupying the brood nest; maintain a rigorous 7-day inspection cycle to spot incipient Queen Cells.
Lose your bees to a swarm and you are, by definition, not a bee-keeper. I reserve the title “bee-squirter” for myself or any others who allow half of a beehive to abscond into the wide blue yonder. And it is not just one’s beekeeping pride which would be dented by losing a swarm – you can be sure that the honey crop will take a huge hit from having half the workforce take a hike.
Half-empty or half-full, Queen Cups are fundamentally important to successful beekeeping.
Magnolia gets a bad press: its off-white hue is the flying duck of decorative paint finishes. Available over the counter at all good hardware stores as BS 08B15, its 5-litre cans are beloved of property developers and interior designers (the bland leading the blonde). As inoffensive as a limp handshake, yet equally infuriating, magnolia’s wishy-washy, wall-to-wall pallor occupies a realm beyond cliché.
Well, I’m here to intervene and restore some balance. So, first, I’m going to ask you to wash away the emulsion of negativity under a waterfall of relaxing music. So here is JJ Cale’s slow-hand serenade to his own Magnolia. Let the music play, cascading into your mind. Allow it to pool there – and then seep down through your body.
Now, with your roots refreshed, let us visualise the magnolia as an agent of transformation. You are standing under the magnolia tree, perfectly balanced, its petals standing as upright as a choir. You grow, sap rising through your toes, infinitesimally, irresistibly, as you stretch upwards, kith and kin with the dappled boughs of the tree.
And now contemplate more closely: This magnolia. It stands in St James’s Churchyard, just off Piccadilly (“down the ‘Dilly” to the initiated) and is one of my favourites. Sheltered from high winds by an unlikely alliance of Wren’s Church, its Rectory and BAFTA, its scooped goblets are brimful of early pollen for bees. And its poise is serene, resplendent and luxurious.
You are here – growing in the middle of this magnificent springtime sight.
Take a deep breath. Deeper yet, and hold for a heartbeat. Now breathe out the word “Magnolia“. Exhale slowly, and hold onto the “-aaaaaaa” all the way, voiding to the very pit of your stomach. And relax…
Great! Well done, everyone….nice session. Next week we will be meditating on why people who wear trainers always take the lift to go from the ground floor to the first, rather than employ their athletic footwear to walk up a single floor. Bring your yoga mats.
Serge Pantalon, philosopher and self-proclaimed “mouvement”, has shocked the beekeeping world with evidence from the Bayeux Tapestry that the varroa mite arrived in England as the secret weapon of the Norman Invaders in 1066. In a sensational claim, he reveals that the English King was killed by a giant varroa mite, not a Norman arrow.
The evidence is striking. Using modern imaging technology, Pantalon has detected a giant varroa mite, under-stitched into the first weave of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, stealing away like an assassin from the scene of Harold’s death (see picture).
Furthermore, Pantalon argues that the notion that the English King was killed by an arrow in his eye is a product of academic sloppiness. He explains that the word “arrow” is a medieval corruption of the Old English word “varrowa“, or, as we now call it, “varroa“.
And when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the Battle of Hastings thus: “at the battaile by the hoarie apple tree the militarye mite of the Ffrench did slay Kinge Haralde“, historians have overlooked the obvious meaning, according to Pantalon. Might not the words “militarye mite” simply refer to an elite, killer varroa mite on a mission, rather than being lazily mis-translated by generations of scholars as “military might” ?
“This is so Serge“, said Avril Fule, Secretary of the Pantalon Appreciation (National Treasure) Society (PANTS). “He’s a genius. People used to think that King Harold was killed by an arrow and that the varroa mite only arrived on these shores in 1992. And now we know that the Battle of Hastings was won by a giant parasitic insect whose descendants have been bothering bees in this country since 1066. Hardly a week goes by without Serge rewriting history. It’s pure Pantalon“.