Stewart’s Bee Blog – September 2014

There’s an autumnal feel today, isn’t there? The prophets of doom will be the first to say it, and indeed, they have already started. What an excellent summer we have had though. It wasn’t as hot as last year and it certainly wasn’t as wet as 2012. It was a real summer with all the necessary ingredients: some rain and lots of sun.  Our plum tree bent under the weight of its fruit and the majority of bee species have benefited too – and not before time. We have had a record crop of honey, making up for the poor crops in 2012 and 2013. In fact, we have five times the amount of honey that we got last year and the year before.  Why? It wasn’t that incredible weather wise. The truth is that it doesn’t have to be. A fair amount of sun and a fair drop of the wet stuff and you have ideal conditions to produce good nectar flows and that is what the bees want. Although most flowers have stopped producing nectar now, there are two that are still on song.  One is controversial, as it is an invasive species. In this neck of the woods, the banks of ditches and streams are lined with Himalayan Balsam. English Nature hate it, and pull it up by the roots on all their nature reserves, but the bees love it and it is always apparent when they have visited it because as they return to the hive with their backs coated in white dust they look like ghost bees. This is caused by the pollen of the Himalayan balsam which rubs off the stamens as they enter and exit the flowers.

Bees on fallen plum

Bees on fallen plum

I explained last month how wasps crave sweet substances at this time of year. Well…! they are not alone. This photograph is of just one fallen plum adjacent to one of my hives, and yes, those are bees with the flies on the plum.  After the honey has been taken away from honeybees, they have only small reserves of food in the hive, and if the weather is cold or wet, they could easily starve, so as soon as we take the honey away, we feed the bees to build up their stores again. Don’t forget, the honey was to have been the food that would see them through the winter. We give them a solution of straightforward white granulated sugar, which is primarily a sugar called sucrose. The nectar that the bees collect is also primarily sucrose. They add enzymes to the nectar, or sugar, and convert it to glucose and fructose, which are also sugars but more easily digestible for the bees. Ultimately, then, we don’t deprive the bees of their food. We take away food which has been flavoured by the pollens of the flowers that they have visited, and replace it with unflavoured food. There is plenty of pollen in the hive, because bees collect that too, and most beekeepers don’t take that away.

It’s an old tradition, here in Somerset, to wring the last possible honey crop out of the bees and this is done by taking the bees to moors covered with heather. Our only real option is Exmoor. By the time the heather is producing, there is precious little other forage for the bees and so it’s comforting to think that they enjoy the trip.  We shut the bees up the night before setting off and the alarm went off way, way too early at 5.50am. By 7.15am, my bees were in the car and we set off.

By the time we had travelled about 10 miles, I was aware of about 20 bees in the back window. Had an entrance block come loose? We went on a bit further and the number increased. By the time we had travelled 20 miles, there were about 50 bees desperately trying to get out of the back of the car. After some discussion we decided that as the number had not dramatically increased, it wasn’t a case of a loose entrance. If it had been, the car would have been filled with bees. It was assumed that some of my bees (why mine?) had spent the night under the mesh floor and the vibration and warmth had brought them out. If we stopped and opened the door, they would be lost forever, so we drove on. The traffic entering Taunton was horrendous and although the number of bees in the back window had not increased lately, the occupant of a car right behind us was taking considerable interest in the rear of our car. By this point, the bees had started a community song. ‘Oh, what a wonderful thing to be, a healthy grown up busy, busy bee………………….’

A few moments later and only a few feet further on, a BMW pulled up beside us, the driver gesticulating violently. My wife rolled down her window and the driver of the BMW, now frantic, shouted ‘Your back window’s full of wasps’. We thanked him kindly, but did nothing else. He must have thought us to be deranged, driving around with wasps in the back of the car, and all the windows closed. The bees were no trouble at all. When we arrived at the designated site, shown to us by the farmer whose land we were allowed to be on, we were presented with a magnificent view over the Bristol Channel one way, but a glorious and rewarding view of swathes of purple heather covering square mile upon square mile of moorland in the other. At first we were slightly concerned that the heather seemed a bit distant, but we needn’t have worried. On the next visit, because the weather had been a little cold, and to ensure that the bees had enough stores, we were met by the unmistakable aroma of heather as we opened the hives.

Beehives close to Exmoor heather

Beehives close to Exmoor heather

We have yet to go back and collect the bees, but this will be in the near future, as the heather season is short. I am really looking forward to harvesting the thick gelatinous crop of honey that smells and tastes so different from our general flower honey that we get here in the heart of Somerset, but, from the west end of Exmoor, it will be Devon honey.

The heather that abounds on moors is also known as Ling (Calluna vulgaris) and is a single species. There are no variants. The other heather on the moors grows only in small areas and is known as bell heather (Erica cinerea), and is the originator of the vast majority of heathers that we now grow in our gardens. It does produce a honey, but not in such huge quantities because it isn’t so prolific in the wild.

Using Copper foliage in the garden (…and why it is it copper anyway?)

Black elder

Black elder

Contemporary gardeners often use dark colours…look how the ‘Queen of the Night’ tulip has become ubiquitous, or the black grass Ophiopogon planiscarpens nigrescens (I don’t know how to pronounce it either)…pops up in urn plantings or as a contrast to pale paving. There is something fascinating about the pool of shade that sombre colours cast to set off bright, hot colours or cool pastels. I love copper or purple foliage in a garden. My father always maintained that one should never see more than one copper beech in a view and although that is a judgement that is only relevant to a very large garden, there is some truth to not overdoing the amount of copper or purple foliaged plants in your garden because their main impact comes from their contrast with the rest of the garden.

I have always wondered how copper coloured foliage photosynthesises so that the plant can survive. Plants photosynthesise using chlorophyll, a green pigment found in chloroplasts in leaves, which traps sunlight to enable the plant to convert carbon dioxide and water to the sugars that it needs to grow. Chloro is Greek for green and the only part of the light spectrum that chlorophyll does not absorb is the green part which is why we see most leaves as green. The by-product of this reaction is oxygen. Copper leaves also contain and use chlorophyll but the green colour is masked by the stronger colours of other pigments that in a normal green leaf only become visible in autumn when the chlorophyll begins to degrade as the days shorten. Anthocyanins are bluey-purple and are celebrated in foods like blueberries where they are accorded super antioxidant status. Anthocyanins predominate in purple leaves. Other pigments like xanthophylls are yellowy and carotenes (yes, as in carrots) are more orange-red. Some of these pigments are able to photosynthesise but less efficiently than chlorophyll.

Fagus sylvatica Purpurea

Fagus sylvatica Purpurea

The largest and most obvious copper plant is the copper beech Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea’ or which looks fabulous next to the bright lime green of a Gleditisia or Maple Cappadocian Aureum but for my money I would plant something like a pink horsechestnut, Aesculus carnea briottii for a full-on techni-colour experience. Equally, copper beech make a fabulous and unusual hedge which, in spite of being deciduous, holds its leaves during the winter and makes a great backdrop to an herbaceous border full of pale or lime green flowers. But my real love of copper plants comes less from the Downton Abbey end of the spectrum than to trips to Japan.

No Japanese garden worth its salt would be without its Acer palmatum – named for its hand-shaped leaf – and its Barbara Cartland confection of cherry blossom. Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpurea’ or ‘Garnet’ have wonderful coppery, burnished leaves. Sadly for me I have yet to find the right spot to grow them. They originally hail from woodland and forest and so do not like a draught and require soil that is full of organic matter. My heavy clay on top of a hill is far from ideal. It is possible to grow Acers in pots but growing anything in a pot requires lots of tlc and watering and bubble wrap in the winter to prevent frost damage so I am loathe to do so.

Less temperamental and great for a smaller garden is the fascinating Smokebush, Cotinus coggygria ‘purpurea’. If you can resist clipping it back Cotinus produces clouds of feathery flowers that really do look like the smoke signals that the Apaches sent up in the Westerns of old. The flowers are so ethereal that I want to stroke them.  An alternative would be Sambucus nigra. I am never quite sure whether I like its frilly, granny-pink flowers that remind me slightly of dodgy lingerie but there is something that makes me keep it in the garden nonetheless. Probably, having failed with the Acers, I view the Sambucus as a poor man’s version that I can actually keep alive. Or maybe it is the curiosity to try to make elderflower cordial with the pink flowers and see if it comes out pink. Digressing wildly, my top tip when making elderflower cordial is to use oranges as well as lemons when you leave the elderflowers macerating in the sugar syrup. Somehow the taste is less cloying and I am yet to meet someone who does not prefer it. And if you feel that all of these copper options would make too large a statement in your garden there are always crabapple trees, like Malus ‘Profusion’ or ‘Red Standard’, Heucheras – I love ‘Plum Pudding’,

Purple leaved dahlia

Dahlia Bishop of Llandaff

the wonderful ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlia and many others. Any of them would look great in June when everything is at its greenest. I am not sure why I said that as it is August and the “Bishop” is looking better than ever….

By Georgina

Copper Beech – a hedge for all seasons

Copper Beech

Copper beech hedging is one of the most elegant hedges available to the British gardener. It has all the qualities of green beech hedging; it grows almost anywhere where there are reasonable light levels and where the ground is not waterlogged. Continue reading

The great cold store deception!

One of the things that is generally not considered when thinking about plants and trees is how easy they are to deceive. Most people would acknowledge that the average plant needs water and sunlight above all else to survive and grow. This is certainly true but even plants can have too much of a good thing. In the laboratory, plants that are normally dormant in winter can be persuaded to grow non-stop, in some cases for up to 3 years, by ensuring that they have plenty of light, water, food and warmth. The problem is at the end of this they are so exhausted that they die even though their normal life expectancy is several hundred years. Less dramatically, chrysanthemums are persuaded to flower at unseasonable times of the year by reducing light levels.
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Goat’s cheese, pear, walnut and lavender honey salad

Goat's cheese, pear, walnut and lavender honey salad

Lavender honey has such a beautiful flavour that we didn’t want to spoil it by mixing it with anything. Instead it is drizzled on top of its perfect partner – goat’s cheese, to make a simple, but delicious salad. The perfect way to ease yourself into eating lighter foods as the temperature warms this spring.

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