Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Honey Monster

Have I told you how amazing honey bees are? If you’re not convinced, get hold of a copy of “The Buzz About Bees” and then tell try telling me they’re not one the most incredible creatures on the planet. As my first full season as a “beek” (that’s cool geek speak for beekeeper) draws to a close, I have a new found respect for the honey bee and as daft as it sounds I’m really rather fond of my colonies. It may come as a surprise to those who have the misfortune of hearing my frequent wails and tales of woe (most notably my long suffering husband, parents and parents-in-law), but I’m glad I persevered, and just a little proud of myself for doing so as over the year the rollercoaster ride of beekeeping has seen rather more dips than rises (unless you count the financial investment in bees & kit, in which case it’s a ride with a rise to leave the Blackpool Pepsi Big One in the shade!). There has been many an occasion when the words “give up” have loomed large in my mind, but each time those words teeter on the tip of my tongue, ready to drop as the next disaster befalls a colony, wiser beeks than I insist there are good times ahead. And they were right.

My first colony has weathered some serious bad times. First there was the flood (my grasp of basic physics failed me and I inverted the feeder of sugar syrup over the open hive without waiting for the vacuum to form). Then there was the famine (as I was safe & dry indoors during 2 weeks of heavy summer rain, the colony ate it’s way through all the honey stores & were on the verge of dying of starvation). Then, after the colony pulled through and made it through another long cold winter, all hell broke loose after summer turned up in April, the swarming began, I flapped & faffed and the colony ends up without a queen! No queen, no eggs, no brood, no new bees. Whoopsie. A wise beek came to my rescue, yet again, and lo the colony proves it will not be beaten by inexperience, incompetence, neglect and stupidity. How do I thank them for being so marvellous? I steal their honey!

Give them fields of rosebay willow herb and clover, and let them work their bee magic …

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… sticky hands, sticky arms, sticky everywhere, spin the extractor & out it flies …


…. my oh my, such delicious, glorious, golden honey. Thank you muchly my fuzzy, buzzy critters.

As I swirl this deliciousness on hot buttered toast I feel a twinge of guilt. I’ve never felt guilt over honey eating before. But then up until now I’ve never really appreciated the effort that goes into its production, the miles flown, the energy expended in maintaining hive temperature at just the right level as another Welsh summer lives up to expectations. I feel sadness as well as guilt, for as the end of the nectar flow draws nigh and the bees strive to bring in those last drops to replace stolen stores, my beek rollercoaster plummets down another dip because evil doers await my bees – the wasps descend. Last week, colony 3, my apple tree swarm, was overrun with the yellow peril. I rushed to their aid with jars of jammy water to distract the wasps from the scent of honey. Within hours the jars were awash with drowning wasps, but still they came. Having all but wiped out colony 3, the wasps drifted over to colonies 1 and 2. I’ve squished the wasps with my hive tool. I’ve cursed them. I’ve emptied jar after jar of jam into wasp traps. I’ve washed hundreds of wasp bodies down the stream. Yet still my poor bees are besieged. I fear the worst but dare not open the hives for making the situation worse. Fight bees, fight!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The last major eco project

The final frontier has finally been breached in terms of making Banceithin as sustainable as possible. We have always purchased our electricity from Ecotricity on an 100% green tariff, but we have also always wanted to generate a large proportion of our own energy. The cost of installing a wind turbine or solar panel array was out of our reach and, until we had completed the refurbishments, we didn’t want to risk spending our last bit of capital, but with the majority of work at Banceithin completed I started to look into micro generation again.

The UK government have introduced a tariff scheme for small producers of electricity to encourage more people to install micro generation systems. The tariff pays you a set amount for every kW hour of electricity you generate, which is index linked for 25 years. You also get a dramatically reduced leccy bill, and if you produce more energy than you use, your energy supplier will pay an addition unit rate. All in all it added up to a ‘no brainer’ - with our savings earning under 2% in any bank account, a micro scheme should return between 8-12%. With these facts in hand, we then had to choose which technology would be best suited for us. I always had a romantic notion that a wind turbine would be best for us here in Wales, but on further investigation, the cons quickly outweighed the pros.


  1. We visited a 4 kW turbine near us during a windy day, and were amazed how noisy it was, a really steady high frequency whirr.
  2. Having moving parts, a wind turbine would need more maintenance.
  3. Wind turbines, and especially their installation, are more costly than photovoltaic panels.
  4. The feed in tariff for wind turbines is less than for solar PV.
  5. You need planning permission for wind turbines, and that is a sensitive subject around here…. Solar panels below 4 kW don’t need planning permission in England and Wales.


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The main reason not going for solar initially was that we just thought it seemed ridiculous here in Wales, but these modern panels still produce even when it’s cloudy (though admittedly not as much). Maybe it’s something to do with the fact the panels are manufactured in Wales!

So it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we plumped for the wind turbine…… no no, just joking. We went with a local company, who did our electrical work here on the cottages, for the provision and installation of 22 solar panels with a maximum capacity of 3.96 kW hours. We’ve had them installed on the wood shed which is south facing, and the contractor increased the angle of elevation of the panels from the paltry 6 degrees of the shed roof, to 15 degrees, which increases the performance of the panels, and allows the self cleaning coating to work.


The 22 panels on our wood shed.


The ‘Sunny Boy’ inverter (no really, that's what the manufacturer calls it, not us!) converts the energy created by the panels into usable 240v AC power fed back to the house, with excess being sent back to the national grid. Unfortunately the Sunny Boy has a digital display which tells you how much power you are creating at that moment, and how much you’ve created in that day. This means I am continually ‘popping’ up the shed to check on how much we have generated and reporting back to 'er indoors. I have been very impressed with the performance so far. We have an average daily usage of 14.5 kW hours, and with the panels in for a couple of weeks now, we have been creating anything from 7 kW hours to 25 kW hours. The 7 kW hours was produced on a dreadful rainy day here, but that was still virtually half of our daily usage….though it is August…..

One of the the best bits about the install is that the contractor has installed lights and some power points to the shed. My work bench now is fully lit and will allow tinkering long into the night!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

How many bees make five?

Back in May I thought I caught a swarm of bees. Silly me. Turns out that was no swarm, just a few bees out on a jolly on a sunny afternoon. A REAL swarm is really big, huge, ma-hoosive, biblical, of epic proportions. No really, I’m not over-egging this.

Once upon a Saturday I went about my business as usual – changing beds, hoovering, nagging Dave, making cake – before taking Teri for a stroll up the lane. As I wandered back up the drive, dreaming of a cup of tea, piece of cake & some quality time with “Cosmos, Earth & Nutrition” (it’s a book about biodynamics, burying horns, planting by planetary movements and all that jazz), I became aware of a background hum, that became a buzz, that became a roar. Oh me, oh my, the sky was black with bees, a serious amount bees. Think Exodus and the ten plagues of Egypt! Obviously I remained calm and at no point did I suffer flashbacks from a night watching the 1970’s film “The Swarm” and I certainly didn’t run to the front door shouting “disaster, disaster, let me in, LET ME IN!”.

While I fumbled with my bee suit zipper, Dave watched in awe as the swarm condensed into a cloud & slowly drifted en masse over the roofs of the cottages, up the drive, looking for a temporary home. So there they were, tens of thousands of bees clinging in a clump 12 foot above the ground in an apple tree. And there was I, climbing up a ladder, sweating in my bee suit yet again (note to self, must get suit dry cleaned), box in left hand, brush strapped to a pole in right hand, heart in mouth. With every step up the ladder, the tree swayed and the curtain of bees swung & wobbled like a living jelly with multiple legs, wings & stinging things. Urged on by brave Dave standing at a safe distance, I looked a bee in the eye and swiped at the swarm with the brush. And again. And again. “You missed a bit!”, came the helpful cry from the ground.


The bees were now everywhere – the air, the box, the tree. I just had to hope that my swiping had knocked the queen into the box. We bundled the box into a blanket to create an enticing dark space with a wee gap to allow bees separated from the swarm to find their way back to the colony. All we could do now was wait and hope, and greet the arriving guests (of the paying human variety rather than the unexpected non-paying buzzing variety)!


Bees are truly amazing creatures. Word got round that the queen was in the box, and in they came, crawling through the gap in their hundreds, literally a river of bees flowing inside. An hour later, as dusk descended, we had a box full of bees, with only a few stragglers still hanging around the apple tree as the last wafts of the queen’s pheromones dispersed.


A few shakes of the box and some bee spillages into the grass later, the swarm was ensconced in a hive with a sugar syrup welcome hamper to feed on. And lo, two hives become three. I think that means I can now officially call that patch of field an apiary!