Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Bees and Books

It has been a strange bee season. Wet weather in June and July kept the bees from foraging. In our area the farmers now sow oilseed rape early in September, so that it flowers in April or early May, which means that the bee colonies have not built up enough strength to take advantage of it. Consequence, low yield.
I used MAQS against varroa early in the season and it worked well on a strong hive. But a weaker hive, later in the season, alarmed me because the queen stopped laying and I thought maybe she had not survived. It was too late to requeen, so I resigned myself to losing the colony. But last weekend I checked and there was lovely newly capped brood - a big regular slab of it. Much relief. I wonder if anyone else has found MAQS having this effect. I have misgivings about using it again.

On the book front - I've thought for a while that it's a pity no one reads Milton's Paradise Lost nowadays - no one, that is, except academics. So I had the idea of shortening it - keeping just the very best and most powerful bits, and joining them up with a commentary explaining what happens in the omitted sections. It will be called The Essential Paradise Lost and Faber and Faber will publish it in the spring - March, I think. My shortened version is novella length - a bit shorter, on word count, than Orwell's Animal Farm. I'm hoping it will be good enough to lure readers back to the complete poem.

Sunday, 17 April 2016


It was wonderfully sunny today (17th April) after a sharp frost last night. I went up to the hives at midday and found them all busily foraging. The colony bought from Paynes last year is particularly big and vigorous. Also very good tempered. i took the mouse-guards off each hive to give them free access. The fields around are full of oilseed rape, which must have been sown over a longish period, since some of them are in full flower and some just starting to show a glimmer of yellow here and there. i guess this means it will be a long honey season - provided the rain keeps off. The track up to my hives is flooded and has been for weeks. I have to wade to get through. It will be tricky getting full supers down unless things dry out. Fortunately the Cotswolds go from being flooded to being cracked and arid within a matter of days.

Sunday, 1 November 2015


A joyous November 1st. Bright sun in Oxfordshire and very warm, and all three of my colonies were booming at midday - bees soaring out of the hives and returning loaded with pollen - a light orange colour, I don't know what it was from, maybe Michaelmas Daisies, but it was obviously a plentiful source and the bees couldn't get enough. Scrambling up through the entrance with their little loads, and tumbling over one another in their haste, they seemed gloriously happy. I've been feeding them syrup with half gallon contact feeders, which I have not used before. They are difficult to up-end without some spillage but I find if I do it over a plastic tray then any syrup that spills can be used again. The internet is full of beekeepers complaining that contact feeders are rubbish but they are fine once you get knack and because they hold a lot of syrup they save journeys to and from the apiary.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Bees and Books

The bee situation got worse but has now improved a bit. My one remaining hive swarmed, while I was not there, and when I looked at the brood chamber in early June there was no sign of a queen or any capped or uncapped brood. I thought that maybe they had an unmated queen, so I waited to see if any brood appeared. It didn't. So I sent off for a queen, who came by post, and I put her in the hive, hoping the bees would accept her. When I looked a couple of weeks later there were wonderful broad slabs of capped brood on five frames. I have been feeding them candy since then, as there does not seem to be much forage around.
Last week I bought a 6-frame nucleus for my second hive from Roger Payne's Bees, which came by overnight delivery. They are now safely installed and are very beautiful, with golden stripes that glint in the sun. Also very gentle.
I shall collect a nucleus for the third hive from Mr Jakeman in Staunton, Gloucestershire, on Saturday. So with luck I shall start next season with three colonies. The honey yield this season from my one operative hive was miserable - not much more than 40 lbs. Fortunately I have some boxes of last year's honey left
In October I'll be at the Garden Museum Literary Festival at Hatfield House, talking about gardening in Eden in Milton's Paradise Lost. The Festival is on 3-4 October. Then on 11 November at 7.30 p.m.  I'll be interviewing Claire Tomalin at the Richmond Literary Festival.

Monday, 4 May 2015


I have put off writing this blog out of sheer despair. In my last I was hopeful the hive that had been attacked by mice had survived. But next time it was sunny enough to open it I found it had not. The mice had eaten virtually all the brood chamber - bees, brood, store, wax. Devastating. So now I have one active hive. It, however, is doing well - boomimg with bees and gathering honey. I checked yesterday and the top super is filling nicely. There are huge fields of oilseed rape in gorgeous full flower all around. What's more, the field next to my hives has been sown with field beans which are just coming through. So there should be a harvest from them in July. Thank you Corinne for your sympathy about mice. i share your opinion of them entirely.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Bees and Books

In the spring sunshine yesterday I went up to the hives and found the bees jubilantly coming and going. So at least they've survived the winter, and they really looked - and sounded - glad to be alive. None of them seemed to be taking pollen in, which was a bit surprising as there are a lot of crocuses out, but maybe they had decided to concentrate on something else.  A bad moment was when I found that a mouse had climbed up under the roof of one hive and made a nest for itself by nibbling off the corner of a plastic quilt so that it could creep inside. I can't work out how it got in - the hive had a mouse guard on from early in September, and surely even a mouse can't squeeze through the mesh of a mesh floor. It's easy to think of mice as innocent little creatures, but the stink they make is disgusting, and I felt sorry for the bees for being forced to put up with it. Maybe what they can and can't smell is determined by some sort of filter which shuts out the really noxious stuff. I hope so.
On Thursday (5 February) i was at the Bath Literary Festival talking about the joys of beekeeping in one of their "Bliss" lectures and in conversation with Sarah Le Fanu. There were quite a few beekeepers in the audience, so the question-and-answer session was fascinating - for me, anyway.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Book Festivals

Tomorrow Sunday 5 October at 1.00 I'll be at the Wimbledon Book Festival talking to John Walsh about The Unexpected Professor. On Tuesday 7 October at 2.30 I'll be at the Cheltenham Festival talking to Peter Kemp; on Sunday 12 October at 2.30 at the Durham Festival talking to Peter Guttridge; on Monday 13 October at the Ilkley Festival - I'm not sure who the interviewer will be - and on Saturday 18 October at 5.30 at the Thame Festival talking to Beaty Rubens.