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A novice's guide to producing his own food


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Bees take a working holiday

Four hives in the back of the car, ready for the short trip up to their new home

Four hives in the back of the car, ready for the short trip to their new home

This happens every year — spring arrives, the clocks change, and all-of-a-sudden I find myself crazy busy. Having had a week’s holiday in late March certainly helped me get on top of stuff, but the big issue this year was the realisation I need to assemble loads of bee equipment.

I was completely delighted (and extremely surprised) to find all my of my hives (four nucs and four full colonies) made it through the winter. But then I was suddenly struck with the realisation that I’m going to need lots of extra equipment — eight nuc boxes for dealing with swarms, and eight supers for all the honey.

With the clocks changing I’ve been hammering away almost every evening until it gets dark, making up dozens of frames as well as constructing nuc boxes. On top of this, there’s still digging to do at the allotment, and seeds to bring on at the greenhouse.

At one point last week, I suddenly got quite stressed with the urgency of it all — and then, just a couple of days later, things peaked and I suddenly saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Five nuc boxes had been assembled, and the greenhouse tables are covered with young seedlings. Relief!

I’ve also decided to move my bees to a more rural site to avoid the potential hassle of swarms invading local chimneys. A local farmer was generous enough to give me a spot. It’s a little windy, but there is a vast field of oilseed rape just a 100 yards or so away. It hasn’t flowered yet, but when it does, I’m confident the bees will go crazy for it.

At first I moved two nucs up, just to see how they’d fare. I was a little concerned that they might not find enough to forage, surrounded by barren fields. But they seemed to find something (there’s a village about a mile away).

So, yesterday I took another four hives. Remarkably the flit went smoothly without a single bee escaping in to the car.

So, with two more hives to go, I’m almost all set for the oilseed rape harvest.

My first glass of Muntons Oak Aged Ale. Just perfect

My first glass of Muntons Oak Aged Ale. Just perfect

Two other things to quickly share. I planted my potatoes this morning. They are always the first thing to go in the ground in the spring, so it felt like a bit of an occasion.

To celebrate (and this brings me neatly to my second point), I sampled my second batch of home brew (Muntons Oak Aged Ale). I should have left it for a few more days, but I couldn’t wait. And, to be honest, I didn’t need to. It was sensational.

Incredible dark (providing you don’t do what I did and also pour in some sediment) with a nice head, it was almost chocolatey in its richness with a bitter after taste.

It was how you’d expect a beer like that to be, and to be completely honest, was as good (if not better) than anything you can buy from the supermarket.

I’ve read a lot that home brew kits have vastly improved over recent years, well, I can confirm that’s the absolute truth. There was nothing “home made” in the way this beer tasted. It was just spot-on.

(As you can probably guess, I’ve had a few bottles while writing this, so now’s probably a good time to call it a day and head for bed, a contented man.)


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Getting hopeful

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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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Where do I begin…

The apiary in January. The hives second and third from the right belong to another beekeeper)

The apiary in January. (The hives second and third from the right belong to another beekeeper)

Nobody told me divorce would be so time-consuming. I’ve spent the last few months chasing my tail, and I’ve had lawyers, a financial adviser and my work’s pensions dept chasing mine —  but they all been working on my behalf, and the good news is I still have my house, my kids, my car, my greenhouse, my bees and my allotment. And it’s almost all over.

Personal problems aside, so much has happened as far as the subject of this blog is concerned that I could write several thousand words bringing you up to the present.

But I won’t.

Instead, I intend to write more frequent, shorter entries — less boring to read, and less daunting to write.

OK, let’s start with the bees. 2014 was a pretty successful year. The plan in the spring was to split each of my existing three colonies into three, so that I’d end season with nine. However, I have eight. Well, to be exact, four full colonies and four nucs (half colonies). However, not all of them came from artificial swarms and splits. I caught two swarms during the season (one had settled in empty brood boxes in my garden), and lost three swarms. That makes eight.

This year I’m going to try a few new techniques to minimise swarming  — clipping one wing of each queen, “locking” her in the hive after an artificial swarm, and not giving her any brood to look after when I transfer her. I need to stop future swarms, not because of the loss of bees (that’s bad enough), but because they always seem to settle in the chimney of a nearby family who are terrified of them. It’s embarrassing and expensive.

Clipping the queens is going to be tricky. I haven’t done it before, and I’m still hopeless at spotting them. Having said that, I did manage to find unmarked queens a couple of times last year (it made my heart race), so perhaps I’ll crack it this season. If I can become consistent in spotting queens, then I reckon that could be the final step in me becoming an independent beekeeper, who doesn’t rely on others for hands-on help. That would be a great thing.

You’ll notice from the pic that not all the hives are mine. I have been joined by two other beekeepers. There are now 15 hives in total at the site, and I’m a little anxious that there won’t be enough forage come the spring. Also, what happens if that family finds another swarm in their chimney? I’ll get the blame, but it might not be my bees. And who will  pay the bill for their destruction? These problems have kinda pushed me to start thinking about another apiary site for myself. Somewhere completely in the country, where chimneys aren’t an issue.

It’s early yet to work out how many hives will survive the winter. I’d be extremely surprised if all eight make it, but if six or seven do, then I’ll try to stick to that number for this year. When it comes to the swarming season, I’ll try my hand at making up some nucs to sell.  Whereas last year, I focused on building up the number of hives, this year I’d like to make as much honey as possible. The plan is to sell it all in one go at the Flower & Food Festival come September. I need the cash. Divorces don’t come cheap ….


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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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What a weekend!

The quail -- well five of them -- safety at home in our garden

The quail — well five of them — safety at home in our garden

It’s Sunday evening, and I’m reflecting on a weekend that was a bit hectic, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. The rewards are starting to reveal themselves after all the hard work I’ve put in over the last few months.

Saturday began with an 8am start. Janek and I were driving to the village of Dollar (almost 55 miles away) to collect six Japanese quail. My three boys had decided to get them for me as a Father’s Day gift. Janek had seen an allotment holder with quail, and reckoned I’d like some too. A nice thought.

The sun broke cover by the time we left Dundee, and most of the day was gloriously hot. The drive to Dollar was quick as Janek and I chatted quite a bit (I rarely see him). We found the farm easily enough, and collected the quail in a pet carrier. Lovely little birds, and they make a soothing cooing noise. Although they are ground-dwellers, you look after them in the same way as chickens.

Back home, I transferred my new wee pals into an ark I had bought for the chickens (but never used). After cowering in the shade for a bit, they soon ventured out.

In the afternoon, I visited the pet shop in Monifieth, and bought the quail two little houses (which are meant for small rabbits). They seemed to like them, as they provided more cover. I think I’m right in saying that quail traditionally live on forest floors, so they like being out of the sun.

On Sunday, Janek accompanied me again. This time to check the bees. It was his first-ever visit , and he was (naturally) quite wary. But he did OK, remained calm and didn’t get stung.

My main hive is absolutely chock-full of bees. I’ve never seen so many. And they’re bringing in more honey. The super is getting heavy for a second time — something that has never happened to me before. I’ll keep this honey for the bees, and let them use it over the winter.

The nucleus hive at the apiary (the other is at the allotment) is also doing well. Plenty of bees about to hatch. I’ll have to “upgrade” the nuc to a full brood box soon.

On our way home Janek and I decided to drop in on the allotment. All of a sudden everything seems to be becoming ready at the plot. The two of us spent the next two hours harvesting, and between us gathered the first potatoes (purple majesty), red and white onions, two types of garlic, courgettes, broad beans, two types of peas, a few raspberries, even fewer Tayberries, but a massive 5lbs of strawberries. Oh, and an absolutely huge bunch of sweet peas for Sue.

The strawberries have been stunning this year (they’re even good from the shops), and I think I have harvested about 7lbs so far. There will be more to come, but I suspect today was the peak.

Back at the house, I spread the onions out to dry, and gave Sue a hand as she shelled the beans and peas.

After tea (and an amazing snooze), I zipped back to the allotment to check on the nucleus hive there. It’s also doing great. Although it has not grown as strong as the other nuc, it does have sealed brood. That’s a sign that I can move it back to the apiary. Mission accomplished!

This evening has been spent preparing the strawberries to make jam, making potato and courgette soup, and using a couple of bulbs (yes, bulbs) of garlic to make guacamole.

That’s the end to a perfect weekend. Time to put my feet up and pour myself a whisky.


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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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Stepping up a gear

On the left and right of the fruit cage are the rasps. The strawbs are in the middle.

On the left and right of the fruit cage are the rasps. The strawbs are in the middle.

All of a sudden the allotment seems have entered a new phase. After months and months of digging, mulching and sowing in bare earth, the plants are now roaring ahead, and I’ve even been able to harvest something.

The winter onions were an unsuccessful experiment. Despite being planted before Christmas, they’re only a few weeks ahead of my main onions, so (as I need the space) I’ve decided to dig them up  for use in salads. The lettuce in the greenhouse is also ready to eat. At last, the hungry gap is over.

Although there is substantial growth at the allotment, the biggest change is probably in the greenhouse. Up until now, it was being used to bring on as many seedlings as I could. Hundreds of peas (Alderman and Hurst), beans (Blauhilde and Wisley), leeks, lettuce, chillies and tomatoes have all been brought on under glass.

Gradually, however, most have been hardened off and replanted in the allotment, leaving only the tomatoes and chillies. The toms are getting too big for their pots and need to be placed in grow bags. This means a complete clear-out of everything in the greenhouse – three staging benches, plant pots and bags of compost. From this weekend on, it will devoted to growing only cucumber (they arrived in the post today), chillies and, most importantly of all, lots and lots of tomatoes of varying colours and sizes. Nearly all have been grown from seed, but I’ve also acquired about seven freebie plug plants.

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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!