Despite the hirsute and rough-hewn appearance of many motor-bikers, they have a legendary attachment to the motorcycles which they ride. So it is with beekeepers (the “hirsute and rough-hewn” description only applies to the males of the species, obviously) and the deep affection which they have for their bees.
We’re lucky that we are neighbours to a Jamie Oliver Teaching Kitchen in Orford Primary School. During late August, with the summer holidays coming to an end, we move our extraction and filtering equipment, together with honeybuckets and jars, into this pristine food-quality environment, we spin out and then cold-filter the honey harvest, prior to ripening the honey and then pouring it into jars.
Lucky me! My Easter present from Sarah was a gleaming art deco Minton Solano honeycomb box. It’s so vintage that it makes me feel young.
And our Bermondsey Street honeycomb fits perfectly inside.
Yellow is the colour of Easter. Daffodils, chicks, Easter Sunday sunshine…and honeycomb boxes, of course. As I said, lucky me !
Sarah and I were delighted to receive a collection of wonderful bee-drawings made by the pupils of Orford CEVA Primary School, following our bee-education day in March.
Here are some random samples of the art-work.
In particular, we loved the vibrant colours and the many different interpretations of a bee’s anatomy.
We marked them all 10 out of 10! Full marks!
Fronted with an instantly-recognisable Victorian school design, Orford Primary School provides a friendly, inclusive learning environment for its pupils. It is set in the beautiful Suffolk coastal town of Orford and has a catchment area of the parishes of Gedgrave, Iken, Butley, Sudbourne and Chillesford. With its own weather station (sponsored by Orford Sailing Club), a dedicated IT annexe and a pioneering array of solar panels on its rear extension roof, the school represents a great asset for the community. And on the last day of Science Week in March 2015, I was preparing to take my bees to school.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. That time was last September, when Debbie Gayler took over the joint headship of Aldeburgh and Orford Primary Schools and I offered to bring the bees in to show to the children. Now it was mid-March, 5C and in the middle of a solar eclipse, with a clammy, dank light fading perceptibly. And I was decanting Queen Beryl and 5 frames of bees out of Snape Hive and putting them into a glass observation hive to take into the school. Suddenly, it didn’t seem such a good idea, after all.
But the time had come. I had long thought that, since the pupils can see the hives from their playground, I should satisfy their curiosity, broaden their education and pique their interest in their neighbouring bees. So to introduce them by name, the two cedar hives are called Snape and Iken, named after local villages and the experimental poly-hive in the middle is called Castle. Because it looks a little like Orford Castle.
So I introduced the children from Aldeburgh and Orford Schools to their local bees in Assembly. And also to my lovely assistant and wife, Sarah. Just as well for that preamble, since in the nick of time, the School lap-top, my memory-stick and the projector started talking to each other, so that my narration of bees going about their business in all months of the year and could fall into place with the pictures. Things were definitely starting to look up.
An observation hive has a single-frame of bees with the Queen, bees, eggs, larvae, sealed brood and some honey on it, inside a viewing section with two glass-sides. This is fixed on top of a nucleus (half-size) hive with 4 frames of bees and a frame of food in it, to keep the bees busy inside the hive. It is a secure installation for both bees and spectators, but the precaution of fixing it in place with a ratchet strap, just like all my hives in the apiary, always seems like a wise idea.
It was a pleasure to take questions about honeybees from all ages of this well-disciplined, but bright and cheerful group of children. There was one question which referred to the Queen’s mating flight and which needed delicate handling, but I think Queen Beryl’s blushes were spared.
At the lunch-break I was given my first School Dinner for 35 years – and my compliments to the chef ! Orford School has worked closely with the Jamie Oliver Foundation to disseminate The Teaching Garden Project to other local schools – and its teaching kitchen adds an invaluable dimension to the educational facilities for the area’s schools.
The school has own organic vegetable and herb garden in which all the children work. Which is great for my bees, who gather pollen and nectar from the plants. Pollination helps the plants become more fertile and productive. Thanks for your gardening work, everyone !
Bees eat lunch, too, you know.
After lunch, we set up the Observation Hive in the centre of the IT room (once again strapping it down securely)
and a bee-jacket and blue glove Dressing-Up station at one end of the room
and a touch-zone with real Propolis
and real Pollen displayed at the other.
And what bee-education day would be complete without a honey tasting ? Here’s a tip which you can try yourself. Take a spoonful of local honey, pop it in your mouth, close your eyes and just hold it on your tongue for a count of five. Just taking this little extra time will reward you with a real release of flavours…
Then we divided up each class into three groups, so that they could rotate around the room and ask questions about each exhibit in turn.
Yes. Looking through a bee-veil does slightly change your view of the world. It makes seeing things a little harder, but it gives you protection. It is important that adults and children should never consider approach bee-hives without proper protective clothing and only while accompanied by an experienced beekeeper.
The sun was shining, after the glum, clouded solar eclipse, as we took the Observation hive back to the apiary and replaced its frames in Snape Hive. The way to think of a bee-hive is as a single organism, with its own personality, habits and even its very own smell, which comes from the particular odour of each hive’s Queen. The bees reunited bees soon settled back into Snape hive.
In many ways, a happy, healthy bee-hive is just like a bustling, buzzing school. Everyone gets on well together and works hard to get the day’s tasks done.
At the end of the day, our goal had been achieved: a spoonful of education about Orford’s bees. And a little entertainment along the way. Sarah and I really enjoyed being “school-side” for a day. Thank you, Debbie Gayler – and your wonderful staff. And of course, thank you, Orford Primary School children for your hospitality to our bees in your school kitchen garden. I can only repeat the words of Orford resident and writer, Anthony Horowitz, who remarked about Orford School, its staff and its pupils: “What a great place. The sort of school everyone would wish they’d been to.” Quite.
This is a little experiment. Penny Robertson, Secretary of my local Leiston and District Beekeeping Association in Suffolk, told me in 2014 that she was not aware of any of the LDBKA’s >100 members using, or ever having used, a poly hive. So I installed this one last summer and this is what I saw last weekend – with the thermometer showing a chilly 4C !
With the bees flying at these low temperatures (note that 10C is generally viewed as the lowest safe temperature for bees to fly) it is possible to offer both positive and negative interpretations about Castle hive’s unusual excursions. Here’s how:
An Optimist might rejoice that the bees are so well insulated in their poly-hive that they are able to fly in unusually low temperatures. A Pessimist might respond that this could equally be a function of their breeding line, rather than their lodgings, a classic case of nature, rather than nurture. Furthermore, he might add, there is no obvious advantage to be flying in dangerously low temperatures, so perhaps something about their the poly hive is forcing them to fly. Perhaps they need water to dilute their honey stores, or the fondant and pollen feed which I can see them eating on top of the frames. Ah-ha, replies the Optimist – that suggests that they are benefitting from an early build-up of brood, which will position them well for the Spring – unlike the draughty Snape and Iken cedar hives. Then again, perhaps the bees in the traditional wooden hives are regulating their hives so that some natural condensation is retained inside for diluting their stores to make them edible for brood-raising, so they do not have to fly, counters the Pessimist. Hmmm.
So will I be enthusiastically recommending the use of polystyrene hives to the good beekeepers of the Suffolk coast in 2015 ? Too early to tell.
But while the jury’s out, here are some other considerations about using the poly hive. The Pessimist would note that, as configured, it has bottom bee-space, so the semi-rigid transparent plastic sheet supplied as the roof to seal the hive, makes it fussy to close up the hive, jiggling the sheet around to avoid squashing bees between the plastic roof and the frames. Also, the walls of the hive are too wide to attach a frame holder, which are very useful to keep a couple of frames pressed up close to the outer wall of the hive at inspection time, rather than putting them on the ground, leaning against the hive. The Optimist would strike a more positive note, pointing out that the hive floor has a nice sloped landing board, that the polystyrene body makes the hive lightweight to handle, and that all the poly infrastructure can be intermixed with wooden brood and super boxes, if required. And finally, it is easy to strap down to a paving slab to keep it from blowing away in the wild coastal winds.
So it will be a while before I can assess the outcome the first year of my Suffolk poly hive. And when I’ve made my mind up, I’ll take the Optimist and the Pessimist down to the Jolly Sailor to buy them both a pint of Adnams bitter.
Our delicious Suffolk Coastal Honey is now on sale in its home town of Orford – at the winner of the BBC’s Best Food Producer 2012 – the illustrious Pump Street Bakery.
An ideal Christmas present, with or without a bar of Pump Street’s extraordinary “bean to bar” range of artisanal chocolate!
I’ve always been lucky. But never luckier than when invited by Joanna Brennan to tour Pump Street Chocolate’s factory with her father Chris Brennan, family owners of foodie icon Pump Street Bakery.
Under a clear blue sky, we congregated on Sunday morning, small groups converging on Pump Street’s Orford Chocolate factory as 11 o’clock drew closer. In the middle distance, the bells of St. Bartholomew chimed the appointed hour and Chris Brennan appeared in his immaculate whites, to usher us though the porch and into his spick-span shrine of chocolate. With reverential hush, we foregathered in the “chocolate room”, where the introduction slide of an AV presentation was playing against the wall.
With the BBC’s “Best Food Producer of 2012” award under Pump Street Bakery’s belt, Chris wears his pre-eminence lightly. And his first utterance was a master-stroke: reminding the foregathering that we were in a working food-production environment, he bade us all wash our hands. The message was powerful: so, guys, pay attention : this isn’t a cinema or leisure centre – it’s the hygienic core of the chocolate-making universe and here we do things the right way. Our ritual cleansing completed, we turned our shriven attention to our host.
His native Jamaican accent syncopated with Canadian vowels, Chris commanded our attention with the simple revelation that bakery and chocolate shared a common trait – that they both require expert fermentation to make a perfect product. The width and breadth of my ignorance was evident from the outset – and I was determined not to miss even a nuance of the words from the pulpit.
Indeed, Chris then delivered an eloquent homily on the evils of the bulk cocoa-trade. Purchases at exploitative prices through a chain of intermediaries meant that the (now largely African) independent producers of cocoa beans receive such rock-bottom prices that they are compelled to use the cheapest available form of labour – children. A swift admonition for those sinners amongst his flock (complicit with the big UK chocolate brands, most of which, ironically, were descended from Quaker families – Terry, Cadbury etc – who sought to offer the masses a temperate pleasure to displace alcohol) and Chris moved nimbly on to the sweet brown stuff. “Bean-To-Bar” is the nub of Pump Street Chocolate’s proposition. In practice, this means that Chris deals directly with the cocoa bean growers, deliberately paying 4-5 times the buyers’ cartel prices and 2 ½ times “Fairtrade” prices, to ensure a high-quality, ethical (no child-labour) and traceable supply of raw material.
So we started with a cocoa pod: big as a veined brown skittle, this was where it all began. Inside would be a white pulp, the fruit wrapped around 20-40 seeds – the precious cocoa beans. These are fermented, then sun-dried before being shipped directly to Pump Street Chocolate. That’s the whole supply-chain. We left the “chocolate room” and went out into the sunshine to peek inside the container with its hessian-sacked bean-bags, each variety and vintage neatly labelled.
Next, we stepped inside again and observed saw the custom-built ( by a local engineer with long F1 driving experience) winnowing machine for separating the cocoa bean husks from the chocolatey “nibs” and sampled a shaped, lightly-roasted cocoa bean.
A question was asked about how Chris ensured the consistency of his product for the marketplace. The answer was candid: “I don’t. Once you get to the realisation that no two batches will ever be the same, it won’t bother you.” The message is iconoclastic for modern food shibboleths : forget the mediocrity of equal outcomes, instead embrace inconsistent excellence. As I listened to Chris, it was slowly dawning on me that his fervour for excellence in his chocolate production had multiple parallels with my own beekeeping principles!
We processed back into the chocolate room, where the machines were devotionally whirring and churning, as we had left them. The chocolate/sugar grinders, paddling chocolate as smooth and dark and as a wet mink’s coat, were disclosed to be modified Indian spice-grinding drums, massively pimped with an American engine, rebranded and supplied to smaller-scale chocolate producers.
Summoned forward, communion-like, we look our turn to the glossy torrent, reverentially dipping our wooden spatulas into the spate, withdrawing it taking a step back, while obeying Chris’s injunction to: “Raise it to the vertical”. The sight of a dozen people in procession, raising their chocolate-wands heavenwards on instruction could have been mistaken for a cabbalistic gesture. But it was simply Chris’s technique to prevent the rivulet of chocolate dripping off the spatula as we stepped down from the high altar of the cocoa bean.
One particular heresy was exposed by our celebrant of the true chocolate. Chris uses milk powder when making milk chocolate. I recalled the assertion of a “glass and a half of full cream milk” in every half pound of chocolate with which one English chocolate company used to market its mass-produced, purple-wrapped product. This is now inaccurate – milk solids are described by the mass-manufacturer as 28% of the ingredients and indeed, the EU intervened in 2010 to insist that each pack should read: “The equivalent of 426ml of fresh liquid milk in every 227g of milk chocolate”. Serves the whole damned lot of them right, if you ask me !
Precision of temperature and time were evident in all of the processes. There were trials, Chris pointed out, as he roasted each new bean under different conditions until his tasting team had agreed on the correct treatment of the beans. After looking at the tempering machine for Pump Street Chocolate’s new breadcrumb/chocolate hybrid “Sourdough and Sea-Salt Chocolate” confection, we were convinced of the science-lab accuracy of the art of making fine chocolate.
We could sense that we were approaching the final stages of the “bean to bar” process when Chris, a man with a mission – and a strong sense of the theatrical, urged me to take down from the shelf next to the person-sized fridge a monstrous slab of chocolate, the result of 70 hours of warm metal caresses, now cooled and rested.
The next short step is to reheat the chocolate and put it into the bar-making machine for a final melt and hold at a precise temperature. A simple plastic tray received the exact fill of chocolate and the bean had finally become a bar !
It was almost an anti-climax when Chris asked us to sample his chocolate. The door of the fridge swung open to reveal racked shelves, closely spaced, and a wonkaesque panoply of chocolate bars – and three plates with a different chocolate style on each. But the tasting soon overcame any lingering reserve amongst the disciples of Chris’s chocolate. I can confirm that I am now a convert, as autumn takes hold, to the colour brown. The rich, deep, sleek textures of the Pump Street Chocolate which we sampled (Madagascar – Milk 58%; Sourdough and Sea Salt ; Grenada – Crayfish Bay Estate) won us all over. Never has “brown food” been so appealing !
His Sunday service concluded, Chris was even more generous with his answers to the questions which were put to him, shaking hands as we departed, chatty as a country parson. I can wholeheartedly recommend a pilgrimage to Pump Street Chocolate, to celebrate the dedication, devotion and ingenuity of Chris and Joanna Brennan’s enterprise.
But there’s more….. Pump Street also won a 2014 Wallpaper Design award for the simple (and resealable!) packaging. Its website has won accolades and Cédric The Van is a charming accessory to spread the Pump Street gospel over the immediate neighbourhood. So let’s add effortlessly cool design to great bread and extraordinary chocolate. Almost impudent excellence!
Tempted ? Well, the last Chocolate Tour scheduled as part of the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival is on Sunday 12th October – please book, as instructed below:
The last of our chocolate room tours as part of Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival Fringe are running this weekend – still some places left for Sunday, if you’d like to come please book here: http://www.pumpstreetbakery.com/bookings/aldeburgh-fringe-chocolate-room-tour-9
In fact, it turned out that my tour was even luckier than I had first thought. As I listened to the messianic Chris Brennan describe his chocolate making as “bean-to-bar”, the words “bee-to-jar” sprang on to the tip of my tongue – the perfect encapsulation of my one-man, beginning-to-end honey production. Thanks for the inspiration, Chris ! “Bee-to-jar” it is, then!
There are times in life when you can tell that you are witnessing something slightly incredible – yet you don’t have the foggiest idea what’s actually going on. Here’s an instance which occurred in my Suffolk apiary recently, with some amazing footage of what is called “Queen Balling”. Hint: keep your eye on the yellow dot in the lower right quadrant of the screen!
First, some background.
The classic diagnostic test for Queenlessness in a hive is to introduce a frame of brood containing eggs to the hive. If, after a few days, the bees have started to construct Queen Cells (QCs) using the eggs, it is a sign of Queenlessness. If the bees treat the eggs as ordinary brood, to be fed and subsequently sealed over with wax, until the bee emerges 21 days later, then the hive is Queenright.
In this case, after 3 days, there was no sign of QCs on the test frame, but the bees were calm, organized and diligent, with polished brood cells. That all suggested that they probably considered that they had a Queen.
So I decided to try a new technique: remove a fertile Queen from her colony and insert her into a sealed Queen cage and lay her on top of the bars of the hive being tested. The reaction of the worker bees would be highly indicative of their state of queenlessness: if they showed polite, but sustained interest, they would probably be Queenless. If they responded with hostility, then they would most likely be Queenright.
I did this with my veteran 2012 matron Queen, the yellow-marked Amber. The indication was that the bees in the hive being tested were very interested in Queen Amber and not at all hostile, so I withdrew her after a few minutes, tipped her out into her home hive and watched with sudden concern as her daughters mobbed her (which is called “balling”).
This is the technique which bees use to envelop, overheat and kill intruders such as the European hornet. On the basis that the bees knew what they were doing with their very familiar Queen, I grabbed my camera and recorded the event. You can see Amber awash in a tide of bees, with the faded yellow dot on her thorax.
Well, I can reassure you that no bees were harmed in the making of this video. Queen Amber escaped completely unscathed. My best guess is that the bees noted the scent of another hive/another Queen from the hive/queen cage and were anxious to bend their bodies around Amber to protect her and re-absorb her distinctive pheromones.
Any other suggestions out there ?
I hope that your bee-hives are stacked with supers full of honey and are looking quite like Orford Castle. Happy beekeeping !