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A novice's guide to producing his own food


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Getting hopeful

photo 4

Spring. I know it’s not here yet, but I’m starting to sense signs of it in the air. All that promise of great things to come makes me so impatient. So last weekend, when the sun was winter bright but there was some heat, I sneaked off down to the apiary hoping to see evidence that spring was around the corner.

Sure enough, the bees were flying (despite the thermometer only registering 7C). Peppered around the hives were substantial clumps of snowdrops — and my bees were exploring.

I couldn’t wait to check each hive. Just quickly lift off the roof and peak inside to see if bees are still there. The first one was OK. So was the second. And the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth. All my colonies were hanging in there. So far none have died. Could I possibly make it through winter without losing a single colony? It seemed almost too good to be true that I tried not to think about it too much.

Everything on that day was as well as I could hope it to be. Plus it was just so nice to see the bees out flying that I spent an hour or so just watching them, pleased that they were able to get out and do what they like to do. Most were on “clearing flights” (doing a crap), but some were actually returning with pollen. Bright orange from the nearby snowdrops.

When bees collect pollen that usually means there’s a queen laying eggs. I could just picture her slowly getting into gear, squirting out more and more eggs each day. It’s another sign that my hives might be turning a seasonal corner.

After a while, I happily trotted off to inspect the clumps of snowdrops. At first they looked devoid of bees, but once you focused in  you could see them feeding and collecting nectar. A lovely sight after all those long months of them huddled in a ball to conserve heat, barely able to move.

But it’s too tempting to get complacent. I reminded myself over and over again that March is the month when most colonies die due to starvation. I must remain vigilant. When I hefted the hives, they all still seemed reasonably heavy with stores, and most had plenty of fondant icing as well. That’s good. But it’s important I keep a close eye on things at this stage, and constantly check for starvation. Then, when temperature rises above 10C, the bees can really fly — and the fun begins.

 

 

 


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Tripping the Glut Fantastic!

Peas and runner beans

Peas and runner beans

You are going to have to forgive me if I sound a bit pleased with myself. That’s because I am. I’m in the midst of what is by far my biggest glut – and it isn’t over yet.

Behind me in a box, as I type this, are jars of strawberry jam, raspberry jam, rhubarb and ginger jam and honey.

In the kitchen are a box of eggs, a bowl of tomatoes, a bowl of onions, three cabbages, a spindly lettuce and a food-grade plastic bucket with what I hope will eventually be sauerkraut.

The freezer in the shed has two drawers with courgettes, raspberries, spring onions, cubes of pureed basil, broad beans, runner beans, peas, and vegetable soup,

Beside the freezer are two sacks, each of which contain 28lbs of potatoes (first and second earlies), with the main crop still to come.

And, finally, next to the shed is the greenhouse, where are four racks of onions drying in the heat before I string them up.

This substantial store of food means two things — we will almost certainly be eating food I have produced daily until at least until Christmas, and I reckon this is the first time since I started the allotment, that the money I have saved has exceeded money spent. That’s not, of course, the reason why I do this, but, still, it’s a wee bonus.

 

 


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The year of the bee

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Goodness, has it really been three months since my last post? Doesn’t seem that long since we were emerging from winter, and already the longest day has been and gone.

Of course, I’m sure this is a common feeling among all allotmenteers. Spring and summer are the busiest times, and almost all daylight hours are spent planting, weeding, watering or harvesting.

But it is the bees that have taken up an increasingly large slab of my time this year. I am slowly making the transition from a novice beekeeper who spends all his time in crisis management, to one who is starting to feel in control of his bees. And once you get to that stage, you can start playing about with your colonies, manipulating and experimenting with them in all sorts of ways.

I began the year with three colonies, had hoped to get nine by the end, but have eight, so I’m quite pleased. I had split each of the original hives three times, but two swarms escaped (incurring the wrath of a neighbouring family whose house also became a home to some of my bees), thus leaving me with seven. However, I managed to catch a swarm from a garden  about six miles from the apiary. As you will hear in the video below, that colony had a marked queen, so it belonged to another beekeeper. (Finders keepers, is the rule here, but if I hear of someone with a missing colony, they can have it back.)

So, that makes eight colonies. Not bad. About half are fairly weak, so  my next goal is to try to build up their strength, so they are as healthy as possible as they go into winter.

Aside from losing two swarms, my main shock so far this year has been  a hive which toppled over. Check out the video.

Another major bee development is I passed my Basic Beemaster exam — with distinction! OK, so it is one of those tests that just about every beekeeper passes, but not everyone gets a distinction. It has given me further confidence that I have a good grounding in the subject. It also means, however, that I should really plough on with the rest of the modules. There are eight or nine of them, all a lot tougher, so it’ll take a good few years.

Oh, it’s become almost incidental, but I also got 38lbs of honey from two hives. That’s the thing about beekeeping — you start keeping hives to get honey, but, in the end, just become obsessed about bees.

 


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video update no.2 2013

My second video of the year is actually a first! It’s the first time I’ve done an update on the bees.

Usually by this time of year, I’ve kinda had enough of being stung and making mistakes, and I abandon the idea of a wee video. Things are different now. I’m a much more confident beekeeper, and have made no major errors (another first!).

My intention in 2013 was to give honey production minimal attention, but concentrate instead on increasing the number of colonies. I still managed to get two supers from one hive, with the first (from oil seed rape) giving me 23lbs of fairly decent honey. Of course, the weather has been good, but I’ve also managed to split my mother colony into three quite-strong hives.

Astonishingly for me, it all went exactly to plan (as you can see from the video). Early on this year I ditched the idea of taking the hives up to the heather, because my last two visits produced little or no honey, and I also lost a lot of bees.

I’ve been feeding the splits quite heavily, and have added Vitafeed Green. Although, I can’t say for sure that it has made a difference, the hives do seem very healthy. Of course, that could be down to the good weather. Who knows? I’m an inexperienced beekeeper, so perhaps I’ll find the answer to these questions in time. Until then, enjoy the video….

 


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Could this actually be a good year?

A nucleus hive at the allotment

A nucleus hive at the allotment

Ever since I started beekeeping, one thing has been consistent — beekeepers have moaned about the weather. They are, of course, right — over the past few years it has been dreadful, and I could only listen in wonder when they talked about the glory days of beekeeping with supers groaning under the weight of honey.

Not any more. Although 2013 hasn’t been perfect, it has certainly been pretty good. Not only that, but I’m becoming a better beekeeper. For the first time, I feel I am in control of the bees, and I don’t seem to be lurching from one crisis to another. Have I got it cracked? I doubt it, because I’ve been undoubtedly helped by the glorious sun. Had the weather been erratic, then perhaps things would be different.

As you may recall, I started the year with just one colony.  Being in this situation is not good. One mistake, and I could be beeless, so I decided to spend 2013 building up colony numbers, and not bothering whether I got honey or not.

Well, perhaps this is the right attitude, because as it happens my sole hive produced 23lbs of honey — only 1lb less than the two colonies combined last year! Although the oilseed rape was late in flowering, when it did come, the fine weather meant my bees could make the most of it.

There was further good news when it came to the swarming season. This time I was well prepared, both psychologically and equipment-wise, and so I decided to try a wee experiment. Instead of creating one artificial swarm, and getting two hives, I thought I’d try splitting my sole colony into three.

I created two nucs (small hives with only five frames each). Each nuc had a few frames of bees, a few frames of eggs, some honey, and, crucially, a queen cell each. On advice, I kept the two nucs away from each other, putting one on the allotment (pictured above) and one at the apiary.

Then it was just a matter of waiting. After a week, I peaked inside. Although I didn’t see the newly emerged queens, I noticed their cells had been broken down by the bees. That’s a good sign — they probably hatched OK. So far, so good. The next hurdle was to see if they mated. Again, good weather helps because the virgin queens will be able to make as many flights as they need. However, it is still a risky business as they could get scoffed by a hungry bird.

Last weekend, after a two-week gap, I looked inside the nucs. There were eggs! Both queens had mated and were laying away happily. From having only one colony, I now have three. Result!

The next hurdle is to make sure my three hives keep building up numbers, and go into the winter as strong as possible.

So far, everything this year has gone exactly according to plan. It’s a first!


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Down to one hive

nuc floor final

Dead bees littering the floor of the nuc

Paid my first visit of the year to the apiary just to see how things were ticking over.   As expected, the nuc hive  (which consisted of three frames of bees) didn’t make it through the winter. The colony was completely dead.

I wasn’t too upset as I knew its chances of survival were very slim. That leaves me with just one colony. Thankfully, it is looking pretty strong. Five frames of bees all snuggled together.

It might still come a cropper as the time when most colonies starve is just at the start of spring when the weather gets warmer, the bees start to fly, but there is nothing to forage. I will have to remain vigilant, and make sure there is food for them.

In other news, I’m hoping to get chickens next week! A new venture for the new year. I’m blowing nearly all my Christmas cash on buying a second-hand coop and run along with eight one-year-old chooks. They will go in the garden, not the allotment, but exactly where has yet to be decided.

I’m majorly excited about this new aspect of my foodie experiment, and have already devoured a couple of copies of the magazine Practical Poultry. Potentially, I could be getting eight eggs a day. Quite a lot, but I’m sure they’ll get used somehow.

Only seven more sleeps to go!


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My beekeeping year 2012

The bees at Glenesk

The bees at Glenesk

On January 7 I gave a short talk at the Members’ Night of the East Of Scotland Beekeepers’ Association, covering the major highs and lows of 2012. Here it is in full:

The first notable event of 2012 began on May 20. I had two hives and had already noticed that one was bringing in a serious amount of honey, expanding rapidly, and producing queen cells.

It was time to create an artificial swarm  –  my first. I found the queen on the first attempt and popped a queen cage on her and prepared to move her to her new hive.

It was all going well until the cage dropped off, and, to make matters worse, the queen then flew away. That was Crisis No. 1.

Where did she go? Chances are she went back to her hive, but by this time the bees were so disturbed, I had no chance of seeing her, so I shut the hive up.

That was on a Sunday. On the Monday, I returned to see if I could find her. No sign, despite going through the hive twice. I was preparing to go home when I turned round and saw something that rooted me to the spot. There was a huge swarm in a nearby tree. It must’ve been at least three-foot long.

Crisis No. 2. What do I do? I’d never caught a swarm before and didn’t have the right equipment. So, I phoned my mentor. Luckily he was available to help.

Within an hour, we had cut it down, and stuck it in a spare brood box.

My mentor reckoned it was a belter of a swarm which would work like crazy to bring in honey. Furthermore, it would produce astonishing clean and perfect comb.

This was going to be great, I thought. Three hives all going like crazy, bringing me honey. I might even have some to sell.

The following day at work, I got a very confused message from my son. Someone had a swarm in their chimney, and they thought it was mine. Crisis No. 3.  I couldn’t understand it. I knew one of my colonies had already swarmed, and the other wasn’t ready to. Perhaps they weren’t my bees. Continue reading


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Listen, this is how it is going to be …

I have a plan.

Last year I had a plan too, but it didn’t work out. Neither did the previous year’s. This year will be different, though, because for the first time I am in complete control of the allotment. All I need to do is keep it that way.

There is one major alteration to what I aim to produce. I’m going to start growing flowers (top left, in the salad bed). The idea being, after spending a little too long at the allotment, I’ll surprise my wife with a bunch just to show I appreciate her putting up with my “latest craze” (her words). However, I was so excited by the idea that I immediately spilled the beans as soon as the seeds arrived through the post. Still, it’s the thought.

The rest of the allotment is pretty much dictated by crop rotation. The potatoes go where the carrots were, the carrots where the Brassicas were, and so on.

The spuds, though, will be done slightly differently. Instead of splitting the bed into four sections (salad, first earlies, second earlies and maincrop), I’m just going for the maincrop. The yield is greater, and I’d like to see my potatoes last for at least half a year (we go through a lot).

Oh, and I’ve moved the leeks from their own patch to beside the carrots. Technically, of course, leeks should be in the onion bed, but it’s full, so I’m gonna bend the rules a smidge.

As I write this, most of the potatoes are already in the ground, as are the flowers, lettuces and some carrots. Plenty of work lies ahead, as the onions are sprouting in the greenhouse, alongside the peas, beans and leeks.I just love this time of year and seeing the first plants pop out of the soil. Truly exciting. The icing on the cake, though, is one of my hives is already stuffed with bees, so I’ve put a super on top to collect honey. The Uchman food machine is finally cranking into gear!


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2011: The rise and fall and rise and eventual collapse of the greenhouse

The greenhouse didn't survive the December storm

Looking back over the 2011, it’s clear events have been dominated by one thing – the greenhouse. Money, and even more importantly, time have been wasted on it.

My “big project” of the year was to grow my first veg in a greenhouse, and yet here I am at the beginning of 2011 without one, despite having built one twice and moved it three times. As you’ve probably guessed my year-old greenhouse blew down in the December 8 storm, and is completely unrepairable.

This is the second time it has blown over since I bought it in January 2011. The first time was when it was on the allotment. Then I thought I had lost it for good, along with the £459 I paid for it. However, it was salvageable and so I  brought up to the garden at home.

But, come December, it blew down again. Although it was in a much more sheltered spot, the winds were the strongest in 10 years, and the greenhouse was completely wrecked. However, as it was on my own property, I was able to claim insurance, and got most of the cash back. Good news.

I am still determined to have a greenhouse, and will put the cash towards a proper wooden Victorian lookalikey. This will cost thousands, rather than hundreds, but I am confident it will last. After all, we have two wooden summerhouses and a shed which weren’t at all fazed by the storms.

The fault with my greenhouse was a common one — it used polycarbonate sheeting. This is supposed to better than glass for the plants,  but the downside is it makes greenhouses so light they can’t withstand even moderate winds. After the last storms, it was suckers like me with polycarbonate greenhouses who lost everything, while glass greenhouses stood.

The lesson here is: don’t ever buy polycarbonate. I will never touch them again

But I must’ve be too negative, there was plenty to be excited about in 2011. The harvest (although not large) was at least consistent. Just about everything produced a crop which ended up on the table.

Let’s take a look at each bed  in turn.

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From two to four (and back to three)

The final stages of the second artificial swarm

My beekeeping this year has been characterised by one thing — a lack of preparation. Several times, I have been caught on the hop as the demands of my colonies have forced more than a few urgent trips down to Thornes to stock up on supplies.

The year started slowly enough, and it was May before I had a proper peak inside my two hives. All seemed to be fine. However, when my mentor had a look a week or so later, he noticed one hive was producing queen cells. This means one of two things — either the old queen is dead or missing (she wasn’t) or my hive was going to swarm.

It was time to take action.

Last year when my hives made queen cells, I simply cut them out and killed them. Not only is it unpleasant, it’s also bad practice. Instead, what I should be doing is creating an “artificial swarm”. It’s quite a complicated procedure which is very well explained here. Essentially, you are encouraging your hive to swarm, but in a way that is completely under your control. It should (in theory) stop the colony’s urge to swarm for the rest of the year, plus it you get an extra hive!

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