Sweetness and Light

Reflections on rural living and faith

Holy Mystery,

As the days lengthen and the air warms                                                                                            I give thanks to you for the fulfilment of your promise of life forevermore!



Hazel tree by the Exe

Well, it is definitely moving towards spring.

We’ve got frog spawn in the pond, the Hazel catkins are out, there’s a lot of otter activity on the river, and not a sheep to be seen…I think they are all in the lambing sheds.

The Exmoor Beekeepers  beginner’s beekeeping course has started again. They run one this time each year, and it was good to be reminded of why I am so interested in bees. The first session was a simple introduction to bee anatomy, life-cycle, hive life, and what the Exmoor Beekeepers Association (EBKA) does.

There will be practical sessions starting near the end of April – by then it will be warm enough to open the hives without worrying about the temperature. It is very important not to open the hives until it is warm, as opening a hive on a cool or cold day may kill an over-wintering colony.

The practical sessions take place in an apiry (the place you keep the hives) that the EBKA maintains. These sessions allow the students some hands-on practice with experienced beekeepers. If we do well with these there is an option to look after a hive on-site with less supervision and if all goes well, at the end of the season, we may be able to purchase the colony and take it home!

So, it sounds like it will be at least May or June before I can get my hands on my own hive, and even longer before I can set one up at home, but I have been already been offered a corner of an unused field to keep my bees on. It is a lovely small, flat and square field, tucked well-away from the road, and next to the old railway-cum-footpath. There are lots of trees, a river and the accompanying streams/drainage, and it is fairly sheltered. Also, not many people about.

The owners has several fields of this size that he rents out for various uses, but this one is kept in reserve for his own use… and as he doesn’t have a use for it at the moment, he is happy for me to set up in one corner. I am very grateful for this.

bee field

Could this be the site for my bees?

The only drawback is the field is a mile or so from the house, so I will need to use the car to travel there and back with a box of stuff for looking after the bees. I am thinking of asking if I can set up some kind of storage box on-site to save me taking everything each time.

Next week’s class focuses on hives – parts of and different models. I am going to ask about using polystyrene hives. This is a risky thing to ask, I think. I have come to believe that these beekeepers don’t like polystyrene hives because they never mentioned them last year (I did take the course last year; this year is a refresher for me) and they didn’t mention them this week when briefly introducing the class to the various types. They have said they all use National style hives (which are wooden) and they encourage us to do the same: beekeepers like to share bits and pieces, and sharing is much easier when everyone is using the same model of hive.

Traditional modern hives are made of wood. Before that skeps (upside down baskets, woven and dome shaped) were used, but the only way to get the honey out of a skep was to kill all the bees first, then scrape out the honey. Polystyrene hives are a relatively recent development and are supposed to have a few benefits over wooden: they don’t rot, are much lighter (this is the most important thing for me with my lupus) and they insulate better than wood.

Bees spend a lot of their time and energy on temperature control and ventilation. Damp is deadly, and extremes in temperature require the bees to expend extra energy warming up or cooling down the hive. They do this by fanning their wings. When it is hot outside the fanning helps the air circulate thus bringing the temperature down, and when it is cold outside the fanning creates body heat which brings the temperature up. Polystyrene keeps the temperature more uniform, allowing the bees to use their energy on things like foraging and feeding and making honey instead of heating and cooling. This, in turn, improves productivity in the warm months and survival in the cold ones.


I have seen a few bees in the garden on the recent warm days. Most of them have been bumbles, but one or two have been honeybees. I have learned of the location of two sets of hives within a couple of miles of us; it is most likely that the honeybees have come from one of these. The bumbles have been feeding on the heather, gorse, violets, and primrose in our garden, and though I have not seen any bees on the Hazel catkins (which are everywhere), I understand that catkin pollen is an essential food at this time of year.

Pollen is high in protein and the bees need this in the spring to get themselves into top shape after the long winter. Though bees only live for 6 weeks in the summer months, the over-wintering bees – the ones that keep the Queen alive – live up to 6 months. They survive on food stores over the winter, and often need to be supplemented by their keepers with fondant or something similar.  So when a few warm days come along….these bees take flight and start looking for fresh food.

In addition to pollen, bees eat nectar – for carbs – and they drink water. They also collect a resin-like substance from flowering plants called propolis. Propolis is used to fill in any gaps or holes in the hive that ought not be there. It is very strong stuff and can weld a bee box shut if it is not scraped off when the hive is examined. Propolis also has strong anti-bacterial properties, so perhaps it helps keep the hive healthy.

Adult worker bees eat pollen and nectar, but they also feed it to the larvae and the drones. [Queens are fed royal jelly…more about that later.] The larvae and drones are fed by the workers because they are unable to feed themselves. This makes sense for the larvae, but the drones are adult bees. Why don’t they feed themselves? Watch this space.


Is it spring or winter?

I have been a little worried that the early warm days have brought the bees out before the flowers are ready for them. If the bees begin foraging before there is much to collect, they may use up energy reserves that they do not have. This will lead to death and may make it harder for the remaining bees to tend to the increasing number of new larvae. It is up to the winter bees to last long enough to get a new crop of workers up and running for the spring so a warm spell of weather can be dangerous.

There are some who put out sugar water for bees when there is not much natural food available (2:1 ratio of white granulated sugar to water). This may be an OK thing to do as a one-off, if you find a flagging bee, but it is not a good idea to do it over time as the bees will keep coming back even when there is natural forage available.  So, fingers crossed for longer spells of warm weather and less cold, wet and wind.


And the chickens? They are doing quite well! We have twizzled the hutch around to catch more light in the front and get more wind protection from behind, and we removed the tarpoline. I can see them better from the house this way which is good. We get four eggs most days, thank you, ladies… but the folk at church are beginning to tire of me pushing eggs. It must be time for an egg stand out front!

spring chickens

Spring Chickens

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