vegging.co.uk

A novice's guide to producing his own food


2 Comments

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.

 

 

 


2 Comments

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 ….


1 Comment

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.

 

 


Leave a comment

The year of the bee

IMG_0065

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.

 


Leave a comment

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….

 


Leave a comment

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.


1 Comment

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!


Leave a comment

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.

Continue reading


5 Comments

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!


Leave a comment

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