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.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Miserable Broad Beans

 These are the broad beans I planted at the begining of March. As you see, they're a fraction of the size they ought to be, owing to the dismal weather. I put in seven varieties; the tougher ones have survived well, and are flowering well considering their size. The weaker have done nothing but sulk. A lot were finished off by slugs, but every variety has produced at least a couple of plants with flowers. So the plan is to save seed from every one. The stronger varieties have the bulk of the flowers, so everything can be expected to have crossed with them. Next year's seed should preserve 90-odd percent of each genotype, while at the same time hopefully being tougher, which is one of the characteristics I'm looking for. I'll add a couple more varieties to the mix, save seed, and comtinue the process the followint year. Meanwhile, I'll have at least some beans to eat!

A dog rose in the hedge. 

A Small Copper butterfly sunning itself when the yellow god in the sky made a brief appearance.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Yellow Flag Iris

When they dredged the local canals about 15 or 20 years ago, they did a certain amount of planting along the banks. These irises are brightening up the view on the way into the city centre.

These baby orb web spiders were in a hedge I pass on the way to the allotment. I think they must have been affected by the carbon dioxide in my breath - I know bees react to it - because they were clumped a lot more tightly, and began to scatter as soon as I took a close look.

And here's variegated Daubenton's kale flowering on the allotment. It flowers rarely, and it's propagated by cuttings, so it's interesting to have a few flowers - it's a very weak flowering stem for a brassica - a year after I planted it. It's right next to some Ragged Jack kale which is flowering like mad, so it should produce some interesting crosses.

Wednesday 2 May 2012


 Orange tip butterflies mating in a sunny spell. If this weather continues, it'll be another really bad year for flying insects.

This is more like the current norm. There's a lot of waterlogging, but this is the only plot I could see with standing water.

And the flying rats have been at my felderkraut. Brassicas are an easy meal when they're hungry, but it's the first damage I've had since that last very cold spell in February.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

The bees were flying this afternoon, until a heavy hailstorm put a stop to that. I had a look at them; there's very little uncapped brood, and most of the capped brood I saw last week has hatched. The queen must have been laying like mad through the warm weather a while back, but she's done very little since it turned colder. That's no bad thing; a colony with a large broodnest in bad weather is in danger of starving. I had a train like that years ago, and every time there was a bad spell in May, a lot of brood was thrown out of the cells, since the bees were unable to feed it all. There were quite a few drones in the hive.

The broad beans are coming up, along with the first of the peas. I'v planted three varieties of leeks, and several kales and other brassicas. There's not a lot happening in this cold weather; I'm continuing to clear ground, and the pears are in flower. The plums are almost over, and the apples are starting to show a little colour.

Saturday 31 March 2012

Some pics

Coltsfoot growing in industrial wasteland by the canal.

A coot nesting on Edgbaston Reservoir

Crown imperials. They like drought and heat in summer, and this is the only place on the plot where I've ever managed to get them to grow. It's probably a little dryer in winter than the rest. They suffered badly in those two very wet years we had not long ago, but they're coming back slowly.

Trillium Kurabayashii, flowering two or three weeks earlier than usual.

A view over the site. 

The row of pines was planted when the railway was built, on the insistence of Lord Calthorpe, who owned the land, as he wouldn't let it go through without a screen.

Friday 30 March 2012

Swarms to come

The signs of spring are all around us, like the wonders in Conan Doyle's 'Lost World'. Plum blossom is coming out, and the sycamores round the flat are in full bloom. The bees are booming, with six and a half frames of brood, and patches of capped drone brood. That's where I'd expect them to be in early May, not the end of March.

There's a noce frams of brood developing here. You can see the capped brood - the brown areas - with very few holes, and flat capping, indicating that the queen is laying fertile worker eggs, in a nice pattern. To the left, if you enlarge the pic, you can see uncapped honey, which is coming in from willow.

This one's mainly honey, with yellow, greenish or brownish pollen (depending what plant it comes from) in some cells.

With colonies so strong so early, we can expect swarming, especially if the current weather continues. I've heard one swarm report already, and I've seen bees around my empty hives, suggesting that a colony not far away may be making preparations. The interesting thing is that I pick up swarms every year, then those colonies don't often prepare to swarm out of my hives. You'd have thought a lot of swarms would be from swarmy strains, but it doesn't seem to work like that.

A lot of the swarms go on to fill the broodbox with brood at the height of the season, and that may be the key to some of it. There are many different factors which affect swarming, but one of them is space. If the queen runs out of cells to lay in, the colony usually swarms. I use 14x12 boxes, which are significantly bigger than a standard Nations, which uses 14x8 1/2 inch frames. I think some of those colonies run out of space because beekeepers are using boxes which are too small for them.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Spring has sprung

I always feel spring's arrived when I see the bees bringing in significant quantities of willow pollen. You can see the several incoming bees are quite yellow-looking, and have yellow parcels of pollen in the pollen baskets on their back legs. Nectar and honey are nothing but carbohydrate; bees get everything else from pollen, which is loaded with protein and fat. For the first time in five or six months, assuming the weather's warm enough for them to fly, they have a supply of fresh feed. They respond by feeding the queen better, causing her to lay more eggs. They have food available for the resulting larvae, and the colony soon expands, as bees begin to hatch out faster than the old ones die off.

This is the stream at the bottom of my plot, immediately after a heavy shower. Normally it's about half an inch deep at this point. After a thunderstorm, it becomes quite scary, and half the site may well be under water. I can't complain though; it's only the regular flooding which has stopped the site being built over long ago. Otherwise, it would be worth millions as building land.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Birmingham Organic Gardeners

BOG had a stall in town today; I got a white currant, a day lily and a hardy geranium. You can see my currant, which is quite large, put away at the back there on the right, while I went shopping. I'll put it in as soon as I can get to the plot, and probably prune it right back. The important thing for this year is to get it established, not to get fruit.

Friday 9 March 2012

Planting time

I've started the first little bits of planting. Seven varities of bread bean; Crimson Flowered, Red Bristow (from the HSL), Aquadulce, Grando Violetto, Wizard, a field bean, and Red Epicure, all tp be planted together. I'm going to let them all cross, add more to the mix next year, and see what I end up with. I'm looking for somthing tasty, tough (hence the field bean), red-flowered and red-seeded. I've also put three lines of TPS (true potato seed) in at home; Skagit Magic, which is supposedly blight resistant, only I didn't have any blight to test it last year, Russian Blue, and Blue Belle. Last year I got them in mid-May, and planted then, far too late. This year they've got plenty of time to develop.

My surviving bee colony has far too much brood; four and a half frames of it. That's consistent with what I'm hearing elsewhere, and it's no doubt due to the mild winter. Trouble is, there's no way the bees are going to bring in enough food for that lot in early March. We're going to see a lot of colonies starving this spring, and those tha come through will be unusually strong. All we need then is a dry and sunny May, and there are going to be swarms all over the place. At the moment, they're bringing in a little pollen - a lot for the time of year, but not much in absolute terms - from snowdrops, blackthorn and hazel.

 The first pussy willow is showing, and it won't be long before wllow pollen predominates. It's that time of year; it's often a bit warmer, so the bees can fly for longer, and there are large trees within a few yards. With an ample supply of food for the first time since early autumn, the bees can expand the boodnest, and build up the numbers. They're still vulnerable, though. If there's a shortage of stored food, a spell of cold or wet weather can easily reduce them to starvation.

Meanwhile, the hellebores are in full bloom.


I started the winter with four colonies of bees, and ended it with one. The three which didn't make it all died off after New Year, with clusters shrinking steadily. The survivor is extremely strong. This is due to a gut disease called Nosema apis. At least, it's probably N apis. There is a second species, ceranae, which originated with the Asian honeybee, but we don't know a lot about it yet. The disease shortens the bee's life, so the colony wither doesn't make it through our long winters, or comes through weakened.

I know why this happened; it's because I put colonies onto old comb, which must have been infected. So I need to sterilise all my unused broodcomb with concentrated acetic acid. The fumes are lethal to humans as well as disease organisms, so it takes careful handling. I've avoided concentrated acids for many years, but I can get the stuff on eBay, and I'm going to have a go. Then if I get as much new comb pulled as I can, melt the worst of the old, and medicate the bees in the autumn, that should deal with the problem.

On a pleasanter note, it's time to start planting. I went to an event organised by the HSL last Saturday at Martineau Gardens, a couple of miles away. Unfortunately I forgot the camera, but I came back with some interesting seed; shark's fin squash, fenugreek, a Bangladeshi variety of callalloo, which is darker green than the Caribbean varieties - I don't know whether there's any other difference - and halon, which is apparently a sort of spicy cress.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

First signs of spring

Galanthus caucasicus (I like snowdrops enough to have the odd species; it's about twice the size of the normal snowdrop) coming out.

One of numerous hybrid Hellebores I have round the allotment. A neighbour once used some blue plastic by mistake; it disintegrated due to the ultraviolet, and there are still bits around the place. the only plastic sheeting that should be used on a garden is the black stuff used to smother weeds.

And a crow.

Friday 20 January 2012

Winter's grip

As you can see, I'm digging steadily, and covering everything with dead leaves. There's not much goodness in them, but it keeps the weeds down, keeps the soil damp in dry soells, feeds the worms, and adds humus. The recent frosts finished off the roses, but hellebores are flowering, and snowdrops are showing colour. Not long to the end of winter!

One hive has died out; the other three are looking good. The dead one dwindled away over a period, leaving a very small, very dead cluster, with food available. So they didn't starve. I suspect a bowel fungus called Nosema, but without a microscope, I can't prove it.