Tuesday, 28 July 2009

How to start beekeeping for free (almost)

I'm really pleased with the progress being made by my bees this year. Having started the year with no bees I now have two thriving colonies, one nucleus of Carniolian bees which I bought, and the other a swarm which came in of its own accord. The swarm is doing extremley well, and has filled up a box and a half with eggs and brood, and almost a full super with honey. I forgot to put the queen excluder on and they seem to be doing so well that I thought I would just let them get on, and they have kept the brood to the bottom and the honey stores in the top super, so all is well. They also seem to be very good tempered bees and I almost feel I could handle them without gloves and bee suit. The carniolian bees are making plenty of brood but have not yet filled up the brood box although their wax is a beautiful pure white.

I have been doing quite a bit of research about bees recently, and have come to the conclusion that I will change my way of keeping bees quite radically in view of what I have learned. Most people are aware of the concern about the welfare of bees worldwide, and many suspects including pests, disease, global warming, poor husbandry, and pesticide use have been suggested. I think it quite likely that most of these are contributory factors and that bees are indeed the "canaries in the coalmine" early warning to us all about the dangers of not caring for our environment. It was interesting to me that when this problem first appeared in the press and on the news some time ago, it was suggested that the difficulties were largely caused by "bad beekeepeers", messing about in their back gardens and not doing a proper job. There were "inefficient amateur beekeepers" allowing the varroa mite to run riot in the population. This reminded me of the way that amateur poultry keepers were set up to be the scapegoats for last years H5N1 or bird flu, before the danger turned out in fact to be closer to intensive factory farms like Bernard Matthews. And then of course this year's great profit making scam for Roche and Glaxo Smith Kline, H1N1 or Swine flu and so on and so on... Sorry, I'm digressing into Rant Mode... Amateur poultry keepers, beekeepers, and gardeners are not the culprits in these scenarios but more often the last bastions of common sense, traditional and local knowledge and practice, many of whom make a substantial contribution to the future of healthy food production and protection of the environment. OK rant over, but to get back to bees - there are similarities between keeping poultry and bees, and it's not just that they both have wings.

Picture from the Barefoot Beekeeper by Phil Chandler showing the author and one of his home made Top Bar Beehives

Before the Reverend Langstroth invented the modern wooden framed beehive so familiar to us all, bees were kept in basketwork skeps where they were free to make whatever kind of honeycomb they wanted. But in return for the wooden framed hive we now give them we have taken away their freedom to live in the way they have chosen to live for thousands of years, and it seems to me that if we keep them like chickens are kept in battery farms, it will all be for the worse. We put them in homes not of their own devizing, try to control and alter their natural behaviors to suit ourselves, transport them around the countryside to pollinate various different crops, sprayed with chemicals, robbed of their precious honey for which we substitute refined white sugar. It's no wonder bees are suffering, it would be amazing if they were not with this kind of treatment. We now largely accept that keeping chickens in tiny cages gives us an inferior product, causes harm to the environment, is less healthy to eat, and is immoral. It's pretty much the same for bees. If we think bees are "just insects", and consider them in welfare terms, we must at least consider the consequences to the wider environment of their being abused.

I've been keeping bees for a few years now and it has always seemed somehow not quite right to me in some way. Now I know why. I now find it appears to be entirely possible to keep bees in a much more natural and "non interventionist" way, by using simple Top Bar Hives and giving up the slightly obsessive control freak style of the modern hive. I'm definately going to give it a try and anyone who is interested in finding out more about these issues should take a look at the Barefoot Beekeeper by Phil Chandler, and the associated web site for natural beekeeping at http://www.biobees.com/ And if you are interested in keeping bees in a simple, natural, and (not the least important consideration these days) inexpensive way, have a look at Phil's book. He describes how you can start beekeeping without any of the expensive equipment you may have thought you needed and how to make what you do need yourself, if you're even a tiny bit handy or have access to someone who is, neither of which applies to me, unfortunately.

And as a final sad footnote, it even seems that the very people who have been entrusted with looking to the welfare of bees, the BBKA The British Beekeepers Association, are in league with chemical companies like Bayer who produce agricultural chemicals and pesticides of proven danger to bees!! See http://vimeo.com/1158245 I have written to the BBKA and will not be renewing my membership.

Loadsaweeds! And a Mystery Egg Thief?

I have been away at an exhibition "up north" so have a bit of posting to catch up with. Like most people with livestock I have to rely on friends and neighbours to help out when I go away, so I try really hard to make the arrangements as foolproof and user friendly as possible. However I've noticed that my idea of foolproof seems to not always hold up to daily scrutiny by other people, and so my long suffering neighbour and friend Alison comes round before I go to see what kind of Heath Robinson contraptions I have come up with this time, guaranteed of course not to go wrong, break down, fall apart, allow escapes, fox attacks etc etc. The neighbours all know when we're going away with the incessant racket emanating from our garden, of hammering, sawing, and generally banging about for the whole of the previous week. Anyway, this time I spent a few days making some proper automatic feeders and drinkers with components from the Solway Feeders whom I highly recommend - website http://www.solwayfeeders.com/ -they sell all the bits and pieces you need for various options, and I also found a small industial unit in Cirencester who sell off used plastic barrels cheaply. (Contact Rachel at MJP Casings Cirencester http://www.naturalsausageskins.co.uk/ - also an excellent contact for anyone wanting to try sausagemaking at home) The large containers make excellent water butts and the smaller ones are useful for making large automatic feeders, and they are safe to use for livestock as they are approved food use containers. I will try to post some more construction details and photos later.

All this does mean that every time I go away I spend the preceeding two weeks preparing to go, then a week away, and when I get back there's a months weeding to do. And boy can those weeds grow in three weeks! The veg garden looks like a jungle! But at least there were no serious problems this time for Alan and Alison, and my new automatic feeders and drinkers worked pretty well. Even the automatic greenhouse watering timer seemed to work. Amazing!The weather up north seemed quite cool and rainy, and I think it was similar down here, which has also contributed to the weed overgrowth situation. Anyway, I set to, with help from the chickens, - I did the weeding, and they ate the insects - here they are tucking into an ants nest they found in the woodchip path.

One interesting thing Allan mentioned whilst I was away that he saw what he was fairly certain was a ferret in the garden. I have noticed the remains of some stolen eggs in the garden recently and had put it down to crows or magpies entering the duck house and dragging out eggs before I had collected them. Now I'm thinking it maybe another culprit, so I have brought the defunct squirrel catching cage out of retirement and baited it with an egg - nothing so far, but we will see.
This is a picture of one of the eggs, not broken as you can see, but opened on one side and completely emptied. So quite a delicate job really, I would love to hear from anyone who has seen anything similar.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Life is just a bowl of cherry...

In view of my much vaunted Tesco Plastic Carrier Bag Anti Bird System, I thought I would post a photo of this year's fantastic crop on my Stella cherry tree. Yes, this is the total crop, not an example of a choice fruit, not one of the biggest fruits, but the complete and utter total crop. It's all I was able to find when searching this morning,.. Oh no , tell a lie, the total crop is more like double that at least......

Hmm, well of course it's my own fault, for not keeping an eye on proceedings, and being too busy doing other things, but it's a disappointment, since there were very many more fruits on the tree before the birds got to them. By way of excuse, here is an example of a mere fraction of

my strawberry crop for this year -

so it's not all bad news. Even the Tesco carrier bags can't be expected to do the job on their own, and I should have a) put out more of them, and b) kept a more careful watch on them. So where I had been intending to offer you a lovely recipe for the famous and delicious French cherry pudding Clafoutis Aux Cerises, or in my case Au Cerise, I felt that a single cerise in a large plateful or Clafoutis was going to be a bit heavy on the carbs. I was going to offer the recipe, not because I particularly love it, although it's nice, but because it reminds me of the yorkshire version of it that we used to have as children, which was I suppose Clafoutis Au Rhubarb. My dad used to make a Yorkshire Pudding, strewn with chopped rhubard just as it went into the oven then sprinkled with sugar as it came out, and served with cream or more likely evaporated milk. In fact my dad was quite a fan of batter in general, quite apart from the compulsory Yorkshire Puddings, he often made us apple or banana fritters, - just chunks of fruit dipped in batter, deep fried and sprinkled with sugar, - I think he felt it was good value and filled up three hungry children at little cost, (he was a Yorkshireman after all) the rhubarb being doubly beneficial being a garden crop that was effectively free.

Anyway, to gloss over the lack of cherries, and concentrate on my surfeit of strawberries, I feel I could effectively drown my sorrows with a Strawberry Daiquiri, a delicious if old style summer drink that I thought of when looking for ideas on what to do with strawberries besides ice cream, jam, and well, just eating them. I came across Hugh Fearnley's recipe for Strawberry Granita - as strawberries don't keep very well, you can use up some less than perfect ones (chuck the mouldy ones though) by making his Strawberry Granita and using a scoop of it to make my Strawberry Daiquiri thus ..
1 cup of Strawberry Granita ( basically you put some sweetened strawberry puree in the freezer and when it's nearly frozen solid you scrape it up with a fork to make a kind of strawberry snow)
Half a cup of white rum
Juice of half a lemon or lime
An assortment of umbrellas and other vulgar 50s cocktail decor

If you use Hugh's proper granita you can just stir in the rum and lemon juice and that's all you need to do, apart from drinking it, or if you're using frozen strawberry puree just whizz it all together in a food processor,and tip into suitably 50s style cocktail glasses.
Drink through a straw whilst putting your feet up and enjoying some old Fanny Craddock cooking programmes, ( don't worry you're not required to actually eat any of Fanny's gruesome confections, it's entirely for amusement) or if you're not up to that, Marilyn Monroe in the Seven Year Itch would do as well. Perfect summer entertainment. But then, as must be apparent by now, I am very easily amused.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

First of the Summer Veg and Poultry Update

I decided to get some fertile eggs for the white duck, and was a able to obtain six mixed Indian Runner Duck eggs from Mark Henham on Ebay, which I slipped into her nest this morning. and I must say she was remarkably unappreciative of my efforts on her behalf, giving me a good pecking and hissing like Sid, as I slipped the six eggs under her and removed the dummy ones I had left her with for the time being. I still have my doubts about her ability as a broody, but I decided to put all the eggs under her and hope for the best. It might work, but it might not, we'll see.

The broody hen, on the other hand, is doing extremely well with the fourteen table chicks. and I have let them out over the last few days, to explore further afield she's very good and strolls authoritatively around the garden with them, clucking all the while, so that they know where she is, and they chirp and chirrup so she knows where they are, and if someone gets into difficulties, stuck behind an obstacle of some kind, the volume soon ratchets up, so that she knows whats happening and where and can take appropriate action. It's amazing really that she manages not to lose any of them, considering that there are fourteen of them and she, being a chicken, can't count. It's quite difficult for me to count them actually, as they' re always on the run, but they're definately all still there, They don't look quite so cute anymore, as they've grown a lot and lost their downy fluffiness, and are starting to get feathers like proper chickens. Just as well really, as I must keep clearly in mind that they are Table Birds. even though I do want them to feel the warmth of the sun on their backs and to have as good and as natural a life as possible enjoying a plentiful diet of worms insects and hopefully weeds.

From this.......

to this in three weeks.....


I do so love artichokes, - my son once picked one in a field for me when he was on a cycling holiday in France as a young teenager and brought it all the way back on his bike, ah what a perfect gift that was, and tonight I enjoyed the first one of the season from the garden with dinner. I was quite prepared to share it with David, but he regards artichokes as just an excuse for eating loads of butter, and as he's supposed to be on a diet and can anyway take them or leave them, that suits me just fine as I can have them all to myself.

I prepared this one by slicing off the tops of the leaves, and scraping out the hairy choke in the middle, and then boiling it until tender, about ten minutes in this case as it was quite a big one but very fresh from the garden. When cooked, I drained away the water, and set the artichoke into a dish. I then melted a large knob of butter in the pan, added a good dollop of the garlic scape pesto I recommended to you last week, ~(see recipe) , a good squeeze of lemon juice and poured this over the artichoke. We had this with the last of our venison steaks that our Game Man Sid brought us in the winter, and some of my home made foccaccia style flat bread, spiked with rosemary and more of the garlic scape pesto. I will admit to a certain tendency around this time of year to garlic scape pesto creeping into every dish, it's such s versatile thing to have in the fridge and so delicious, it's hard not to add it to everything, pasta, bread, salad dressing ( just add olive oil and a squeeze of lemon), spring veggies, the list is endlless. It's also lovely on courgettes and we had the first of the seaon tonight, always such a treat. The variety I have grown this year is Nano Verde di Milano, an Italian variety which should give a regular supply of baby courgettes through the season, although no doubt I will forget to pick at some point will find myself with a supply of large marrows for chutney making. Once courgette plants get into their stride they can be so generous in their bounty that they appear on the dinner plate with overwhelming regularity and summertime suppers are referred to by my daughter's boyfriend Ian as "Courgette Surprise" - the surprise being of course when there's no courgette in it.


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