Friday, 18 July 2014

Bees settling in

This little toad was sitting in a seed tray. I haven't been posting much, largely because the plot is in cuch a humiliating state after being off with a bad back for much of last year. I'm getting it sorted slowly, but meanwhile I've no energy for the bits I'm not working on, and much of it is a jungle.

The broad beans have been a success in the main, and the direct planted ones did a lot better than the transplanted ones. I planted 17 varieties this year, and they should be well mixed up in the next generation. Many of the peas have also done well, though some of the last ones I planted are a bit stunted. I wonder whether that's down to summer heat? This one is Carlin Pea, the oldest known variety. It was first recorded in 1562, four years after Elizabeth I came to the throne, and may well be a lot older than that.

The Daubenton's and Taunton Deane Kales are planted out, and the tree collard x Daubenton's cross is now chest high, and buried in weeds. The one that flowered hasn't set much seed, but I'm hoping for a little once it matures out enough to harvest. Right now the flowering stems are all in a hessian bag hanging in the shed.

Butterflies are doing quite well this year; I just wish my camera was better adapted for that sort of thing. I have to get too close to get shots like this one of a small tortoiseshell, and it doesn't work too often. The next one needs to take something like the old-fashioned close-up lenses, so I can get them to fill the frame from further away.

The bees are doing well. I've acquired four swarms in the last month or so; three moved into empty hives of their own accord, and one came from another beekeeper. I'm still working on a video about them, but it's almost done. I've found and marked all four queens - the last one today - and all four have capped worker brood. I'm fairly happy with three of them; the last is a follower, yellow, with a broodnest shaped like a horizontal oval. That's not siomething I see much of; at the moment it's only using the top part of my 14x12 frames. Overall, I think it's one for requeening. I can't stand followers, and they'll scare my neighbour if they start bothering him on the other side of the hedge. They buzz about your head without provocation, in the most distracting way. I assume it's a type of threatening behaviour designed to intimidate and drive away large animals like bears and humans, and it's most unpleasant when they I'm on the plot and some wretched bee starts!

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

A swarm arrives... and leaves again.

Bees have a mind of their own, and this wasn't the first time I've had a swarm that wouldn't cooperate. I don't know why it is; I can post my own Youtube videos properly like this, but I can't get it to work with anyone else's.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Perennial brassicas

I spotted this during a very wet visit to the plot this morning. A Daubenton's kale x tree collard cross is coming to the end of flowering, and strong new shoots are appearing below the flowering stems. A biennial brassica would die back at this stage.

Meanwhile I have flourishing seedlings from HSL Daubenton's seed, and cuttings of green Daubenton's and Taunton Deane kale are well rooted and growing strongly. The variegated Daubenton's I moved suffered a bit in that very sunny spell, but it's now recovering well.

Daubento's is a quite a low growing kale; I'm told Taunton Deane is twice the size, and it certainly looks it on this video:

The kale is on near the end; I can never get videos to link properly for some reason. I find that the best way to propagate these is with small cuttings about three inches long, taken at this time of year. The sort of long cutting shown in the video will certainly root if it's taken in the autumn - I haven't tried at other times of year - but it's expensive to send through the post, and unnecessary. Small plants need protecting from harsh winter weather.

The good thing about the tree collard cross is its height and shape; it's a tall plant with space for another crop underneath. These have grown since the pic was taken, and are now level with the highest flowers on the one that's blooming. There's plenty of leaf there, and no doubt it's there all year round!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Plot Update

My bed of Negresse potatoes is thriving, for the moment. It's a late late, like all very old varieties, and it's vulnerable to blight. I didn't get any last year thanks to the dry weather, and I'm hoping it'll stay away this year. The disease has been dreadful for a few years, as it thrives in a wet summer, then overwinters in the tubers people miss then they lift their spuds. It spreads from the next season's volunteers, which are often left by plotholders. After a dry year, however, there's a lot less of it around.

The broad beans are just beginning to flower. The bed above was sown directly after pigeons had most of my original transplants. These are doing better, but they're obviously behind the first lot. The bean above is a Crimson Flowered Bean; I've put in sixteen varieties and mixes, and one thing I'll be looking for is the red flowers. I've just planted 'Cote D'or' favaroles, which should flower after these have finished, and give me seed to add to the mix next year. Favaroles are BB's, but the size of a large pea. This particular variety is a mixture of mottled and near-black beans. 

One of my Daubenton's Kale x Tree Collard crosses is flowering. It's a perennial, so I'm hoping it'll survive the experience. These are big, tall plants which could potentially be undercropped with something that wouldn't mind a bit of shade. As you see, they produce plenty of leaf when they're not putting all their endergy into flowering.

 I'm getting some very useful help from a horticulture course, getting this area dug over. It's all going to be raised beds; health permitting (right now I'm recovering from a thoroughly unpleasant virus), I hope to have another seven raised beds done by next year's growing season.  The beds are making a real difference, as plants like shallotts, which I could never grow before, suddenly start flourishing once they're well above the water table, and it's a lot easier to keep them weed free. It's likely to take three or four years, but the plan is to do the whole plot.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Getting Sorted

It's going to be a long haul after seven months away from the plot, but Ive started getting things sorted.  The three raised beds I managed to build last year have been cleaned, topped up, and planted. The one closest to the camera has my racist potato, Negresse, in it.

This is a 200-year-old (or thereabouts) French variety, with deep purple skin and violet flesh. I haven't had any luck with it so far; I grew it for several years, or tried to, but blight, which is endemic on the site, hit it year after year. Like all very old spuds it's a late maincrop, and the tubers don't begin to swell till October. So blight coming around midsummer meant that it barely produced tuvbers big enough to survive at all. I wrote it off.

Last year, we had a dry summer, and no blight. The few plants that managed to survive being swamped by massive rat-tailed radishes produced enough tubers to plant up a bed, so I'll see how it does this time. After a dry summer, there should be a lot less blight on the site this year, other things being equal.

The other beds are planted up with alliums. I'm now digging as fast as I can go, trying to get two more beds done in time to get the broad beans planted out in them. These are already started, in pots. Sixteen varieties and mixes, with a tremendous range represented. Big seeds and pea-sized seeds; red, green and almost white seeds. One variety has deep red flowers, and one pure white. I'll see what I end up with in a few generations!

Friday, 10 January 2014

Back to the Plot

I did a little work on the plot today, for the first time since I did my back in last June. It was a very little; I forked over a couple of square yards of a raised bed, and got home knackered. It's a start, anyway.

As you can see from the above photo, the rough ground across the lane from my plot is completely waterlogged, with standing water. The level on my plot is a little higher, and there's no water showing, but I know from experience that if I tried to dig it now, there would be water at the bottom of the trench. This is why I need the raised beds; the waterlogging makes it impossible to grow some simple crops, like shallotts, successfully without them, and a really wet summer can wipe out a great deal.

It's the first time I've been on the site for a month or so, as I really haven't been well, and I was relieved to see the brassicas have remained untouched by pigeons. Once they lose the habit, they don't touch them until we get a spell of hard frost or snow, and then they don't stop till things start growing the following spring. Occasionally, they keep at it all summer. I didn't have the energy to net them after doing a little digging.

It's going to be a slow process, but at least I've made a start. Next time I'm down, I should get some pots and a seed tray, and get some true potato seed started on a windowsill. The earlier the better as far as I can see.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Beans and Bees

My problem at the moment is that I've damaged my back somehow - I don't even know what I've done to it - an I can't do any work at all on the plot, which has become a complete jungle. It's embarassing. I force myself to go for a walk every day, often round the local reservoir, and get to the plot to pick beans and harvest seed. That's about all I'm fit for.

Hive 2 has superseded successfully. Four weeks ago,I found a single supercedure cell, as they raised a new queen. A week later, I opened the hive again, and found an act of regicide in progress. The cell had hatched, and the old queen, dead or dying, was in the middle of a mass of bees. Crawling over them and stinging repeatedly, was a fresh virgin. She's now mated and laying.

It wasn't a particularly strong swarm, and as a result it had a brood break of a couple of weeks, during which eggs weren't being laid, and it wasn't building up. A hungry bird could have eaten that queen on her mating flight or flights, or she could have failed to mate in a spell of bad weather. In either case, of course, the colony would have been doomed. Swarm survival in their first winter is marginal in our climate, and anything which prevents numbers from building up lessens its chances without beekeeper assistance. With our dodgy climate and long winters, murdering the old queen as soon as the new one hatches is not a survival characteristic.

It's easy to see why it's quite common for colonies to keep the old queen going; it removes the brood break, and provides insurance. If the first virgin fails, another can still be raised. This is why two-queen colonies are found. I suspect it's a lot more common than we realise, but not many people keep on looking for a queen after they've found the first one.

I've now harvested almost all my broad bean seed. I planted nine varieties, some of which had already crossed, and let them hybridise. I'll grow out the seed next year and see where I've got to. The aim is to produce a grex (variable variety) with red flowers and red, or 'black', seeds.

 I planted five longpods; Aquadulce, Red Epicure, with red seeds, Dumont's (a Californian mix), Fava Lunga Della Cascine from Italy, and Karmazyn, another red seeded variety from Russia. None of them did particularly well, but the pods they did produce were full of beans. Red Epicure is now on the F3 generation. I've ben selecting for red seeds, and they don't look that different from the originals. The obvious difference is that the seeds are half the size of the originals. That could be down to soil or season, but I plant a lot of smaller seeded varieties, and they do better.

The Crimson Flowered Bean is an old one, aparently identical to the Red Blossomed Bean described in 1831, and probably older. It was originally very variable in colour, and Robinson's Seeds sell an apparently unselected strain. Real Seeds are working on a sport with chocolate coloured flowers. This may not be quite so surprising, given that there are 'black' (deep brown) beans. I have some in the freezer waiting to be grown out. It produces lot of small pods, with plenty of beans when it does well. This is the first time I've had any success with it.

Oldambster Wierboon,  a Dutch variety, has pure white flowers. It grew well, but cropped very lightly. 

Kaulion Valkea, from Finland, did well, as did Wizard, a very reliable variety from Real Seeds which crops a little later than the others. Both have masses of small pods and small beans.

I'm now trying Luz do Otono, a day length neutral longpod from Spain. in a mild autumn, it's supposed to prodice a November crop from a July sowing. It's not doing well at the moment. Whatever it does or doesn't manage, I'll add it to the mix next spring. Meanwhile, I've got little jars of bean seeds everywhere. That's one drawback of plant breeding; you have to save a lot more seed.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Settling in

I had a bad attack of migraine last night and didn't manage to write. but I checked both hives yesterday. They're looking good. Both have plenty of worker brood, at various stages of development, eggs, and lively-looking queens. Hive 2 has two frames of brood, and Hive 6 has four. Hive two has a supersedure cell.

Swarms are sometimes headed by old queens which are past their best, and it's not too surprising that the workers are trying to replace her. However, this is a bad moment, as I have no drones. The weather has been ideal for large-scale drone assemblies to form, but from what I've seen, the vast majority of queens mate close to home. I've never had one mate successfully unless I had the drones myself. I'd be much happier if they kept the old queen. Bees usually know what they're doing, far better than beekeepers, though, so I'm leaving them to it.

 The rat-tailed radishes are now triffid-like, and sprawling all over everything. Apparently you harvest them when they're about 5mm thick. They're nice and peppery, but are going to be fiddly to deal with. 

The runner beans are now in full flower; the French beans are well behind despite being planted at the same time. There are three varieties here; Black Magic, Mrs Cannell's Black and Black Pod. I'm going to let them cross and see what I end up with.

Meanwhile the broad beans are well developed, and I need to harvest what I want ASAP, if I can just bend down to get at them! A few weeks more and I'll be harvesting for seed. Then I can build some more raised beds in that space. I've already treated the planks.

The day length neutral broad beans are up, and looking a bit wilted in the heat. I'm waiting to see how they get on; if they don't do well, no matter. They'll just go into the mix next year.

I'm harvesting peas for seed, and I've lifted onions and garlic. They're no good, but the shallotts are by far the best I've ever had. I've never been able to grow them at ground level, but they thrived in a raised bed. If my back would just recover from whatever I did to it, there's loads to get on with.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Hive Inspection

Rat-tailed radishes are now in full bloom. I haven't grown these before; it'll be interesting to see what they come out like. The whole of a radish plant is edible, but these are bred for the seed pods rather than the roots.

I inspected both swarms today. The first one - in Hive 6 - is the larger. It has a big patch of eggs on one frame, and a small patch on another. There's no brood yet that I can see. I've found the queen and marked her with red paint. That's last year's colour; I doubt whether she was raised this year.

The second, in Hive 2, has no eggs or brood that I can see, and I couldn't find the queen. It's a lot smaller than the first, but quite strong enough to grow and flourish. It's early days yet, and I can see nothing wrong.

There were mobs of bees round Hive 3 this afternoon, so there could be yet another swarm on the way.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013


Last year I tried some shallotts I'd been given by a neighbour who shows them. They didn't do much, but it was a ghastly year, and I've never had any luck with the things anyway. For years, I didn't bother growing them. However, I tried again, in one of my raised beds.

They flourished. I'll be keeping these for planting, to give me a good crop (I hope) next year. It's amazing what a difference a few inches elevation can make. I've long suspected the things failed due to wet soil all winter, and it looks as though I was right.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Peas and Broad Beans

This strange looking little pea, known to me as PI 269787 Umbellata, is one of several I got from the States over the winter. As you see, it's very dwarf, very umbellate - all the flowers and tendrils are together at the top - and the white flowers come one at a time, and don't fully open.

I've got several more interesting ones, and I'll post pics when they flower. The only other umbellate pea I have pics of is Salmon Flowered, which has been circulating over here for years.

There's very little record of individual varieties, but the type, which is generally a little sweeter tasting than earlier peas, was popular from the late 17th to the early 19th Century.

Crimson Flowered Bean, an old English variety known from the 18th Century at least, and Oldambster Wierboon, from Holland. I rather wish I'd grown the latter out separately rather than putting all the seeds i had into a mix.

I can't believe the broadies have been in since March, but they're in full bloom at last, and beans are starting to form. I've just planted Luz de Otono, a day length neutral variety from Spain, which is supposed to produce a crop in a mild autumn if it goes in at this time. It'll be interesting to see if it works!

 Sarracenia flava. I have a few Sarracenias growing outside; most of them are fine, though plants grown from seed which originated in the southern States don't do so well/

An old rose I grew from a cutting.

Lastly smoke rising from the biggest fire ever recorded in the West Midlands, last week. A Chinese lantern ignited a waste dump in Smethwick, a few miles away. It's not unique; there used to be a used tyre dump in Lozells which went up in smoke regularly, and there have been others. I don't understand why these things are allowed in urban areas where large numbers of people can be affected by poisonous smoke.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Progress at last!

I've been neglecting this blog badly, thanks to the endless winter, and sickness. It's high time I got back to it!

I've got three raised beds filled and planted now. The latest, in the foreground, has rare peas which I'm growing out for seed. Several are umbellates I got from the States; I'm really excited about these. They're probably all or mostly British varieties, since our peas were popular over there in Victorian times, but they've disappeared on this side of the Atlantic. They all have to be netted against pigeons, first when they're small and the shoots are accessible, and then when the peas start swelling.

These are peas I planted earlier. The nets should really have come off before now, but I haven't been well, and it's been a real struggle.

Many of the broad beans are flowering at last; I can't believe I planted these in March. I've planted nine varieties; Crimson Flowered Bean in the foreground, with the all white Oldambster Weirboon from Holland just behind. Those two look far more interesting than the conventional varieties, which have white flowers with a black spot. They didn't all germinate well, and the slugs got a few, hence the gaps.

Everything's growing fast now, and it looks like a good year for the top fruit. Several of my trees need thinning, but that will have to wait till the autumn. I don't want to summer prune them, as that weakens the plant and slows  its growth. Winter pruning will result in good growth next year, hopefully where I want it. I've thinned the crop a bit on the Bramley's, partly because I don't want all the vertical branches bent down by the weight of the apples, and partly because it's developed biennial bearing, and I want fruit every year, rather than a glut one year and nothing the next!

Monday, 15 April 2013


A summary of what I've planted so far..

So far it's been mostly round-seeded peas, which are a lot tougher than the sweeter wrinkle-seeded varieties. I've still got to get my onion sets in, but I haven't been well all week. At the beginning of the week I just about managed one tray of peas and ended up with my head spinning. I'm getting a bit better each day, so maybe next week.

The list so far:


Kent Blue
Dwarf Grey Sugar
Carouby de Mausanne

Umbellata PI 269788
Umbellata PI 269787
Mummy White

Serpette Guilotteau
Robinson's Purple Podded



The first five are all mangetouts. Kent Blue is excellent, very sweet, and best harvested when the peas are almost full-grown. Goldensweet is possibly very old, possibly imported from India. Carouby de Mausanne is a giant sugar pea with five-inch pods. These were widely grown in Victorian times, but have almost disappeared.

 Salmon Flowered, the Umbellatas and Mummy White should all be umbellate; Salmon Flowered is the ony one I've gown before, so it's going to be interesting to see what they all turn into. Serpette Guillotteau is a round-seeded French variety which I find very productive, and Robinson's Purple Podded is as the name implies, a purple podded variety from Robinson's Seeds. Again, it's very productive.

Carlin Pea is the oldest known variety, recorded from 1562, four years after Elizabeth 1 came to the throne. The peas are apparently about 25% protein, while modern varieties are more like 5%. Latvian looks rather similar, and they both have speckled seeds, which are unusual in a podding pea. It may be another very old one, but there's no written history.  Biskopens has deep, reddish chestnut-coloured seeds, and that's all I know about it. The varieties I've grown before are all quite tall by modern standards. Kent Blue and Salmon Flowered are relatively short at around four feet, the rest average about five feet.


Ragged Jack Kale, saved last year. It's the first time I've tried saving brassica seed, and I'll be interested to see whether it comes true. It should do. It's an old British kale, quite small as these things go, which looks much like Red Russian. I've read that it may once have been a perennial, but was  reselected as a biennial by Victorian seed merchants.

Daubenton's Kale, ex HSL. This perennial rarely sets seed, and is normally propagated by cuttings. I already have a variegated variety.

Eewige Moes kale. Via a seed swap; it sounds very much like Daubenton's; there are about twenty known perennial kales. I'm told:

'Perennial kale, very old Dutch heirloom dating back to 1800's and some suggest maybe even as far back as the Roman era. Grows 3-4'' high  with dark green leaves which can be harvested year round, young leaves are good as a spring type cabbage early in the season. Grow in full sun although will tolerate some shade, can be grown from seed or cuttings.'

Kailyard Kale. From eBay, this may be the same as or similar to Cottager's Kale. It's a hardy Scots varietiy, and I know no more about it than that.

Couve Tronchuda. This is an old Portugese type of cabbage. The particular variety, which is nameless, comes from Thomas Etty, and should be hardy, unlike Portugese varieties. I've tried these, and failed to get them through the winter, so I wasn't able to get seed.

Violetto di Sicilia cauliflower. This is via a swap. Seeds of Italy do a similar or identical purple variety, and I believe it's similar to an old British one, Purple Cape.


Drunken Woman. Looseleaf, with red and green leaves. And to continue the misogyny,

Fat Lazy Blonde.  A large loose butterhead, which has been around since at least 1850.

True Potato Seed

This is seeds, not seed potatoes, which are small potato tubers. It's used for breeding.

Skagit Magic This line has some blight resistance. It's a late main, which could perhaps be either selected or crossed for earlier cropping. Some tubers are white, some have purple markings.

Blue Belle. Purple marked tubers

Russian Blue. I don't know anything about this one.

EDIT Biskopens appears to be a Swedish field pea with red or purple seeds. It's going to be interesting to see what this turns into!


Friday, 5 April 2013


I can only remember one shed burning on the site before, and that was someone with a grudge against the plotholder. We've had several plots vandalised, doors broken, a polytunnel slashed, and one shed incinerated.



Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Broad Beans

I haven't been feeling well, but I was a bit better today - a two-day attack of migraine has just about died down - so I managed to get to the allotment. The last bits of snow are melting fast. The bad news is that by last bee colony has died out. I haven't investigated, but it was going strong before the last cold spell,  and it had food available, so I'm pretty sure it'll be isolation starvation. The bees will have clustered around the brood, and it's been too cold for them to break cluster. They may all have been crowded on frames with no food.  Never mind; there are very few years when I don't have a swarm or two move in. Give it a couple of months, I'll probably have bees again.

I managed to start nine varieties of Broad Beans, in pots. Last year I started working on a grex; you plant a lot of different varieties together, let them cross, save the seeds, and keep selecting. In the end, you get your own, rather variable, variety.

Last year I planted seven varieties, but the waterlogging was so bad only three of them produced any beans. These were Wizard, a field bean type from Real Seeds, Red Epicure, a red-seeded longpod, and Dumont, a Californian grex which turned out to be extremely hardy. I've planted the hybridised seed from these, and added six more varieties.

There's Aquadulce - I was suprised not to get a single bean off these last year, as they're really tough and it's never let me down before - Fava Lungs Delle Cascine from Italy, Karmazyn,another red-seeded variety; all of these are longpods, with large seeds, and a lot of them in each pod,  and three more small seeded varieties. There's Crimson Flowered, a tender variety with, as the name implies, red flowers. This one's probably been around since the 18th Century at least. Oldambuser Wierboon is a Dutch landrace, and Kaulion Valkea is from Finland. Let's hope the rain lets up this year and gives them a chance!

Friday, 8 March 2013


I've really neglected this blog recently, but never mind. Hopefully this year will be better in terms of both weather and health. The allotment's been a sea of mud most of the winter, when it wasn't covered in snow, and I haven't managed much at all. Three bee colonies have died out, two due to nosema (I should have changed their comb last year), and one probably thanks to a badly mated queen.

I've reached the point of trying to make up my mind which peas to grow.

As you can see, I've accumulated a lot of varieties, some of which are vanishingly rare. I'll grow several of the ones I have plenty of seed for, to produce a crop, and as many of the others as I can, to save seed. I'm particularly interested in some umbellate varieties I've managed to get from the States.

These are one of the earliest types of sweet-tasting pea, bred in southern Europe in the second half of the 17th Century. The earlier field peas were grown for animal feed and savoury dishes like pea soup and pease pudding. They crop abundantly, and are full of goodness - the oldest known variety, the Carlin Pea, which was recorded in  1562, is said to be 25% protein - but they're not sweet tasting unless you pick them when they're immature.

 The new types caught on, and were introduced to England by Charles II's court; they remained popular until the early 19th Century, when they were superseded by the first of the modern wrinkled types. As far as I know, the only umbellate, or crown, pea currently being grown in the UK is the Salmon Flowered pea; it's about four feet high, and crops lightly. Like the others in thes group it has a growth defect known as fasciation; the stems are thick, and the flowers and tendrils are borne at the top of the plant. All the flowers come out together, unlike most peas.

I've got two packets of 'Umbellata' with accession numbers; they presumably came form a seed bank. There's 'Mummy White' and 'Mummy'; 'Mummy White' is said to be umbelliferate, of it's the same one I've read about, and I know nothing at all about 'Mummy'. There was a craze for all things Egyptian after Britain siezed the country during the Napoleonic Wars, and one of the tourist scams of the day was to 'discover' peas while unwrapping a mummy. They were sold to the unsuspecting at suitably inflated prices, and inevitably turned out to be just like any othe pea of the period. A similar craze followed the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1924, and produced a rash of peas with names like 'Tutankhamun' and 'King Tut'. Going by photos I've seen, some 'mummy pea' varieties are umbellate, some aren't. I can't wait to see what these come out like!


Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Raised Beds

It's been a while since I posted; between the weather and a nasty bug, I barely saw the plot in the last few weeks of last year, let alone did any work. But when I've had the chance, as you can see, I've been working on my raised beds. They're made of old scaffolding planks, which I get free, treated with creosote substitute. They're the full length of a plank, whatever that is, by three and a half feet wide. That way I can reach the middle; if you've got long arms, you might manage four feet without stretching.

Filling them is several days' work, as I don't want to do my back in again. I've used autumn leaves, decayed leafmould, and topsoil. The snowy one in the background is topped off with grass cuttings - actually it's about fifty percent moss, and will probably grow - with garlic and saffron planted. This one's going to be planted with various alliums. They can be lifted around midsummer, giving me a chance to do whatever topping up turns out to be necessary.

If I can manage one more this winter I'll be satisfied; two and I'll be happy. It's not my favourite job, but I should be able to do a fair few over a couple of years.

Saturday, 10 November 2012


I haven't been posting much, mainly because it's been such a horrible depressing season. The latest is that my climbing beans were held back so much by waterlogging that most of them flowered too late for the beans to ripen, and they've rotted. So I've got very few to plant next year. The only one which did reasonably well was Kew Blue, which I'll be growing masses of next summer.

I've built and filled a raised bed, and planted two rows of saffron and two of garlic in it. Saffron used to be grown commercially on quite a large scale in Britain (hence Saffron Walden), so it should do well. Like most crocuses, it doesn't like waterlogging, so it had to wait till the bed was finished. This has taken ages thanks to a bad attack of flu. So it's gone in very late, and I'm not expecting any saffron this year, but I should get some in twelve months or so.

However depressing the season's been, there's nothing like a bonfire to cheer you up!


Saturday, 15 September 2012


I had a look at that hive which split itself yesterday. The queenright part is going great guns. The part which was queenless has a reasonable amount of stored honey and pollen, eggs and open brood in a good pattern, and capped worker brood with a lot of gaps, as though some of the larvae are being removed. They're obviously not happy as they have three classic supersedure cells.

This isn't my pic - the bees are blacker than mine, and that cell's hatched - but this would be a typical supersedure cell. The bees build very few, typically in the middle of a frame. If they're preparing to swarm (highly unlikely in September!), then they build a lot more cells, usually along the bottom and edges of the frame. 

The bees usually understand what's going on far better than the beekeeper. There's evidently something wrong with the queen, and so they're raising a new one. I still have a few drones, though they've chewed out the remining drone larvae, so there's no reason why the queen shouldn't mate successfully.

The local bees are hybrids, with a good deal of native blood. There's a lot of Italian in there, as very large numbers of Italian queens were imported after the First World War. There will be some Carniolan, from central Europe, and doubtless traces of other stocks. The old native British bee is known for its habit of retaining drones late, sometimes keeping a few through the winter, and superseding at this time of year. I've been hoping I could bring this tendency out in my bees, as many strains, usually those with more imported blood, get rid of their drones earlier in the season. I don't want my queens mating with them if I can avoid it. It's going to be interesting to see whether theat colony comes through the winter!

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Teeth on the loose

Something's been going round the site chomping broad bean pods. The toothmarks are quite regular, and considerably larger than a rat's. Maybe a rabbit?

And something - probably the same something - has bitten through most of the stems on this wigwam of Kew Blue French beans. Hopefully they'll grow back, but they'll be set back by several weeks, and they're late enough to start with. I deliberately planted them in a weedy spot; they'll tower over the ground elder, and I can dig that out properly over the winter.

Rosebay willowherb. It's nice and cheerful, as long as it isn't on my plot! It's a weed of damp places and bare soil, but that pretty much describes the site.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Moving Queen

I had a look at my swarm hive today. I've been feeding in a frame of foundation - sheets of  embossed beeswax which the bees pull out into comb - once a week. So every week, I've been taking out a frame, with brood and honey. I've been putting that into a spare broodbox sitting on top of the hive; the brood hatches, the bees move down to join the rest, and the honey eventually gets moved down. It's a method I use every year, and I've never had a hitch. This time, I pulled a frame out of the top box, glanced at it, and there was the queen in the middle. She's supposed to be in the bottom box, busily laying away. So I started cursing myself for moving her up by accident, put her down below, and then statrted thinking. Of course, I'd followed my normal practice, and knocked all the bees off the frame before I moved it up. It's a sensible precaution, since it's so easy to miss a queen.

So I had a close look. In the top box, I found eggs, and one-day-old larvae. In the bottom box, I found two-day-old larvae, but nothing younger, plus capped queen cells. Eggs take three days to hatch, so the queen must have moved up about four days ago. Last time I opened that hive was seven days ago. She must have forced her way through the queen excluder, probably attracted by the smell of the brood in the top box.

It's not impossible; I've seen it before. Some years ago, I was smoking a hive, when I saw a kestrel drop into the next plot, a few yards away behind the hedge. I watched for it, and after a couple of minutes, it rose with a small mammal in its talons. Only then did I realise that I was still puffing away on the smoker. The bees must have been half suffocated. I found the queen, a great fat thing, crawling about on top of the excluder. There were eggs below, and no eggs or brood above. I could only conclude that I'd driven her through myself.

A one-day-old worker larva can be converted into a queen successfully, as the diference is nothing more than an extra sugary and nutritious diet. Older larvae can be converted, but don't make good queens. the cell is capped five days after hatching, so a cell capped after four days can produce a perfectly good queen. Or it might not. the queen was only two boxes away, so those bees will have been getting at least a little of the queen pheromone which, among other things, suppresses queen raising. Under those circumstances, they're unlikely to raise a bad queen.

I've still got lots of drones - no good making queens if there's nothing for them to mate with - so I moved the bottom box across onto another stand, put the top box where it had been, with a couple of extra frames of honey and pollen, and put everything back together. The old queen has some brood on about three frames, stores, and the flying bees. She should soon lay up a decent sized broodnest. The second box has the brood, queen cells and young bees. A new queen should hatch in a week or so - it takes fifteen days from laying - and mate. I may have to feed them, but they're good bees which have been bringing in pollen and honey all through the vile weather, so perhaps not.

Thursday, 19 July 2012


I'm not certain, but it looks unpleasantly like it. I've taken off the dubious foliage and put in in a dalek. We'll see. Meanwhile, on a pleasanter note, the beans are finally showing signs of growth.

I had a look at the bees, and finally found and marked the swarm queen. She's a great fat, dark thing, and as always she left me wondering how on earth I managed to miss her for so long. The other hive has most of the bees down below, where I wanted them, with a suffient number in the top broodbox. The new queens should have hatched by now, and they were taking in loads of pollen. There won't be a mated queen yet, but pollen going in is usually a sign that all's well.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Swarm Prevention and Old Potatoes

I opened my established hive the other day, and found a dozen or so queen cells along the bottoms of the frames. Obviously, they were about to swarm. This is colony reproduction. A queen can't survive on her own, so the old one flies off with half the bees in the colony, leaving the young bees, brood, and queen cells behind. A new queen mates, and the old colony carries on. Work in the States, in an area with a similar climate to the UK, suggested that about 25% of swarms would normally survive their first winter. The work was, of course, done before the arrival of the varroa mite, which decimated feral bee populations.

So I went through the colony, found the queeen, caged her, and put her aside. Then I got a spare broodbox, with empty comb. This went at the bottom of the hive, in place of the old one, and I put a frame of comb with brood in the middle of it. On top went a queen excluder, and some honey supers, which are used to contain the surplus honey I get. A hive is essentially a pile of sturdy wooden boxes, and they just sit one on top of another. On that went an intricate and ingenious device known as a Snelgrove board (shown in the pic), and the original broodbox on top of that, with bees and brood. The roof went on, and I ran the queen in through the entrance.

The flying bees would have gone straight back to the original entrance, so the bottom box ended up with the queen and the older, flying bees; pretty much the same as if they'd swarmed. The addition of a little brood is to stop them flying off; they won't abandon it. The lack of brood, queen cells and younger bees will stop them swarming.
At the top are the young bees and most of the brood, with no  queen or older bees to swarm out. The queen cells with hatch, and one or more - the old myth that there's only ever one queen in a hive is wrong as often as it's right - will mate and start to lay. The Snelgrove board has numerous little entrances which can be opened and closed, and can be used to move bees from the top box to the bottom. So I can maintain the population of older workers down below, and still expect to get a honey crop from the hive, as long as the eternal rain finally stops.

This is a very old French potato with the embarassing name of 'Negresse'. Well, you'd be emabaraased if that was a term which would once - and occasionally still is - applied to members of your family! The skin is very dark purple, almost black, and the flesh purple. It's about 200 years or so old, possibly an original import from Peru, Obviously, those were slavery times. If I can get any ripe seed from those flowers, I'll try growing it, and you never know, I might end up with something I could name 'African Queen' or something appropriate.

This is asimilar very old, black, French variety called 'Vitelotte'. The tubers came from the local market, and as you can see, they didn't appreciate being there. It's not growing well at all. However, as long as it produces some tubers, that's all I ask for this year.

The problem is that, like all really old varieties, these are late maincrops. Earlier cropping potatoes are the result of European breeding, and came along later. Endemic blight hasn't given them much chance, though I have managed to keep Negresse going for a couple of years. We didn't get blight last year, due to the drought, but that didn't give the spuds much chance either, and the current very wet weather is creating ideal conditions for the fungus. It hasn't appeared yet, but if this persists, it surely will.


Sunday, 1 July 2012


The water's drained away, though some low-lying plots were partly under water for a couple of days. Nothing's obviously damaged, but the big question is how much root damage has been done. If there's a lot, vegetables stop growing, and the crop's lost.

I had a look at the swarm, and gave it several frames of foundation (sheets of wax embossed with a hexagonal pattern) to draw out into comb. Swarms are good at that. They had several frames of eggs and very young - first day - larvae, which is a very good sign.

Friday, 29 June 2012


Half the site was under water yesterday after a severe thunderstorm. The Association secretary had her hallway flooded, which is worse.

My broad beans, looking even more miserable than before. They were perking up and growing with the warmer weather.

There's a sewer under the lane on one side, and it always blows in a severe flood; this manhole cover has lifted right up. Part of the problem is that floodwater goes down the same pipe as the sewage, which obviously saves a great deal of money, but it means that the system floods. When it gets overloaded, it blows into the streams, so any time we get a flood it's safe to assume it's diluted, untreated sewage, with all the health implications that implies.

This is the culvert at the bottom. The curved line of masonry is the brickwork over a three-foot tunnel running under the railway and canal. Normally the water's an inch deep; if it had been any deeper, it would have started backing up, and the whole lower end of the site can flood.

On a brighter note, a large swarm of bees, bigger than it looks here, moved into one of my empty hives on Tuesday. I've been expecting them for several weeks. Every time the sun came out, there would be excited bees staking out the hive. Every time it rained, they'd disappear. Bees only swarm on good weather, but they moved in as soon as we had a sunny day.