Reappearance of the Bees

This May it’s been a busy month in Transition. Plant swaps, carbon conversations, Strangers’ circles, blogs, bulletins. And yesterday afternoon, bees.

I’ve recently joined the Bungay Community Bees project (Britain’s first bee CSA) and twenty five of us converged at Gemma’s in Flixton to help build frames for the new beehives in time for the arrival of the first queen bees in June.

There really was a buzz as Elinor and Gemma reported on the progress so far. As well as getting our three hives (one of them donated), two more people are already being trained up as beekeepers and there are more and more offers of land where the bees can be kept…and of course, there’s the bee blog. Meanwhile, Charlotte and Eloise are going to map out all the local wild and garden bee-loving plants and trees throughout the coming year.

Then we all got down to some serious woodwork. Luckily enough we had an experienced carpenter present – I haven’t done any woodwork since school – a very long time ago – and I was not good at it!

People feel very strongly about bees. And particularly now with the loss of so many colonies here and abroad. Our neighbour Julia, who we bought the first hive from, lost hers in London. Waveney Valley beekeepers are reporting losses of about a third. And even the most experienced beekeepers say there seems to be no single, simple explanation. Keeping bees and providing organic, pesticide-free land with plants that bees love (like White Clover, pictured – pink when young and later turning white) has to be one way forward. See Sustainable Bungay’s website for excellent bee links and information.

Yesterday I brought along Anise Hyssop and Mexican Hyssop for Gemma and Elinor. These are two of my favourite bee plants. I talk and fuss about them so much that Charlotte can’t bear it any longer so don’t tell her I’m writing about them on the blog! Anise Hyssop is also called Licorice Mint and the whole plant has an amazing smell of anis or licorice as its names suggest. The leaves make great tea. Mexican Hyssop has a more minty smell and is an ingredient in herbal medicine for the heart in Mexico. They are closely related and cross-pollinate so it’s best to grow them far apart – especially as bees love them both madly and visit them with great gusto when they flower – which is over a long period in the summer. The seedheads are attractive, long-lasting and smell amazing. Enough! Enough of this encomium!

But the plant of the month must be Lemon Balm, which Andy talked about in his Deadly Resistances post. Also in the Mint family, its Latin name Melissa means honey bee. Both the smell and the tea of Lemon Balm really revive flagging spirits and cheer the heart. And bees really do love it.

Pics: Bungay Community Bees people get to grips with hives, frames and foundations, and young white clover in a bee friendly field; Anise Hyssop or Licorice Mint on either side of Mexican Evening Primrose, July

First BCB Meeting: 30th May 2010

Sunday 30th May- The Old Rectory, Flixton

Bungay Community Bees had its’ first meeting on Sunday 30th May. Several members have joined as families or couples, so the room quickly filled up. After the all-important tea and cake, introductions were made, most people appear to have honey-bee numbers, rather than honey production, as a prime motive for belonging to the group.

After a short discussion some future ideas for the group to think about emerged:

  • Queen rearing (to start new colonies) versus honey production
  • Presentations and talks to schools, interest groups, and in the library courtyard
  • Trying 2 different types of top-bar hives (long box and Warre) as well as British National hives
  • Future events: hive visits, honey extraction, preparing for the winter, top bar hives, disease, opening up in spring
  • Bee friendly gardening / food plant mapping project (Charlotte and Eloise are leading on this)
  • Using the Sustainable Bungay section in the library for our resources (bottom shelf near the computers)
  • A reminder that we are ‘blogging’ on the Sustainable Bungay website (
  • Dorcas and Georgie are currently attending the Waveney Beekeeper’s beginners course, with a view to looking after hives next year and are thoroughly enjoying it.

    There was a trip to locate a suitable site for two hives: we found a good location in a sunny spot, near some water and protected from the wind.

    The afternoon ended with some enthusiastic volunteers having to be prised away from their hammers and 20 frames filling 2 supers (honey boxes).

    If you have any thoughts on the topics above, or have a driving ambition to see something particular happen please let us know. The group is for all of us to do the very best we can for the honey bee, in any way we can.

    Third Hive

    Thanks to Beechwood Bee Supplies we have a third hive. Imagine my surprise when on opening the box to find some donated frames (as I thought), I found a whole British National hive alongside them! So – many thanks to Hugh at Beechwood Bees, and here’s hoping for a swarm!

    Preparing the hive with linseed oil

    We are treating our hive externally with raw linseed oil to help protect it from the elements, prior to assembly time. We have made a right angled board so we can keep everything as square as possible. The hive has fitted together OK on a dry run, so glue and nails (I am extremely bad at nailing straight, not sure if the astigmatism or clumsy-ness is to blame) are the next step. Then it will just be the small matter of building frames and filling them with foundation, I think we have approximately 72 to do, so all those at the meeting on Sunday will be put to work!

    Frame making

    Library courtyard progress report (I)

    May 30th: Josiah and Richard installed 2 waterbutts on downpipes in the courtyard. Nick brought along the tools and offered support. We appreciated the contribution of Dharmaja who came along to help and was introduced to the project and some of the team members.  A third butt will be installed along the passageway once a suitable connector has been sourced. Coley revisited the site last week and estimates that we need around 500 bricks so we are a hundred or two short – please keep your eyes and ears open for more. With a fair wind it won’t be long before the 200+ bricks at Kate’s house are transported to the courtyard and the raised work can begin.

    Give and Take Day 2010

    Poster for 2009 Give and Take Day

    Last year’s Give and Take day was a huge success so we’re going to run another one!

    This time it will be at the Chaucer Club (rather than the Community Centre), and we’ve just fixed a date: Saturday the 14th of August with a collection round for heavy items on the 13th.

    In addition to the Give and Take we’re hoping to show some short (ten minute) films about waste and recycling and provide more information about the four Rs of consumption (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rethink).

    A small group has come together to organise the event – if you’d like to help us organise and / or volunteer on the day please do get in touch via our contact page

    Two new bee keepers in the making

    Bungay Community Bees has two members on the current Waveney Beekeeping Group course for beginners. They’ve attended their first meeting and both have been filled with enthusiasm (and the feeling of needing to swot up a bit!). A little later in the summer they will be able to tell you some more of their experiences in person.

    Waveney Beekeeping Group (WBG) has a record number of beginners on their course this year, probably due to recent media interest and their commitment to providing an affordable course. They have recently been awarded funding from the Broads Sustainable Development fund to set up a training apiary, including, hives, bees and smocks at Grange Farm, which will greatly assist us all locally.

    It is thanks to the WBG that Bungay Community Bees has been able to develop and afford to train some of our members and populate our hives with bees. We also owe thanks for being able to ring up at the last minute and have Bob Spruce meet us at Grange Farm to be filmed for Look East opening up Mike Learner’s hive whilst Sally was entertaining my baby…

    Waveney Beekeeping Group

    Hive parts have arrived!

    We have taken delivery of a flat-packed National Hive, comprising a brood box, 2 supers, roof, mesh floor, queen excluder, crown board, frames and foundation.   A contact feeder, hive tool, bee brush, smoker and cartridges were also included.  As far as clothing goes, we have 2 smocks with veils, 2 pairs of gloves and 2 ‘observer’ smocks with integral veils.

    A National Hive is constructed (from the bottom up):

    • Stand
    • Mesh floor; allowing any varroa mites (I will talk about these another time)  to drop through onto the ground and out of the hive
    • Brood box; where the Queen lives and lays eggs for nurse bees to raise, some easy access stores of honey and pollen are also kept here
    • Queen excluder; a slotted metal screen that the Queen is too large to fit through, preventing her from travelling to the supers
    • Super; a shallower box where honey is stored
    • Crown board; sits on top of the super and has holes to allow a feeder housed in an empty super  to be used
    • Roof

    Our bees will arrive soon, the first ones are for this hive in mid June and the second for the other hive (same construction but minus frames as yet) in late June.

    The next challenge is to assemble the brood box, super boxes and the floor.  At a recent Waveney Beekeeping Group meeting we were taught that the key elements are to maintain a ‘bee space’ inside around the frames and to ensure that all is absolutely square.  I will let you know how it goes!

    Give and Grow

    Sustainable Bungay Gives and Grows

    Last Sunday (2nd May) we held our Give and Grow seedling and plant swap in Bungay library courtyard . The place was transformed inside and out with a constant lively buzz as people gathered, swapped plants and talked about everything from beekeeping to heritage bean varieties – in spite of the rain and the cold.

    We’d all been patiently (very patiently this year) growing our seeds for allotment and garden in homemade newspaper pots, toilet rolls and even ordinary pots. The tables were laden with vibrant healthy lettuces, currants of all colours, tree saplings, cosmos, mints, aloe vera, grasses, lemon balm, foxgloves, snowdrop bulbs, wild flower seeds, seed potatoes, cucumbers, the list goes on. And you had to be pretty quick as plants swapped hands even before they got on the tables. Especially the sturdy tomatoes which several people said they’d been having difficulty growing so far.


    By the way, don’t be misled by these photos into thinking only a few people came. I kept getting into plant conversations with people and forgetting to get the camera out! Here I am with Daphne, Josiah and Nick discussing the merits of ‘Totem’ dwarf bush tomatoes.

    Burgeoning fennel with Josiah’s hand and Charlotte’s boots

    Inside the library Gemma had set up a table of the homebaked cakes and biscuits from the cafe she runs in a local garden centre. (She also gave me an amazing chocolate cake for my birthday).

    When the top of the huge tea flask got stuck and seemed set to stay that way, I turned half jokingly to David, who is a craftsman and maker and said, ‘have you got some tools round your belt to fix this?’ Actually he had, and immediately produced an impressive looking penknife he never goes out without. We laughed and I turned away to talk to someone else. Two minutes later he handed the fixed flask back to me. Then he showed me how he had done it and I can now fix seemingly irreparable tops of hot water flasks. Reskilling on the spur of the moment! And everyone could have a hot drink.

    People are always talking about community in Transition and suddenly I realised: here it was! parents reading books to their children, conversations about what we might do for the honeybee and Elinor (who runs Bungay Community Bees with Gemma) said she loved the look of the datura I’d brought along, but maybe she’d wait till she was about fifty and the kids were grown before she had one at home.

    As we left, Kristian, library manager and fellow plant lover, gave me a bottle of his delicious home-pressed apple juice – another birthday gift!

    What also came home with us: rocket, lettuce, chives, pot marigold, lemon balm, lovely black grass and a rowan sapling

    PS Don’t forget Transition Norwich’s Plant Swap on Saturday 15th May at the Playhouse.

    My Entry Into Transition and a Medicine Jelly

    Cleavers succus

    Here is a copy of the post I wrote on the Transition Norwich blog after our Give and Grow Seedling Swap in Bungay, (which explains some of the obscure references!) At some point I’ll sort those fonts out. (Note 12 Dec 2012: Never did sort those fonts out!)

    Two years ago I went with Charlotte to see the documentary What A Way To Go – Life At The End of Empire, which Sustainable Bungay were showing at the local Fisher Theatre – one of a series of films for bringing attention to peak oil and climate change. I almost left in the first half hour, feeling trapped in my seat whilst a monotonous American voice droned on about the end of the world of the American dream, accompanied by images of the mining, burning, deforesting, bombing and drilling of the earth. Something compelled me to stay, however.

    Afterwards the lights went on and Kate led a discussion, which the whole audience joined in with. No one left. Some people found the film depressing. But more than a few of us, myself included, felt liberated by it in some way. As if suddenly we weren’t on our own.

    The central image is of a train that’s headed for disaster, whilst the genteel passengers in smart clothes chat away and have food served to them, unaware of anything beyond the train. The solo voice of the writer-director gives way to interviews with other writers, artists, psychologists, friends and relations who all see or sense our predicament. At the end of the film, Tim Bennett walks out into the land, down to the shores of Lake Michigan in the rain, where he joins a group of people. His messages for the times ahead: build lifeboats, get to know the land in your area, the medicinal plants; find your people.

    We are the people we have been waiting for.

    This was my entry into Transition.


    Medicine Jelly

    Recently I’ve been making what I call medicine jellies, using a basic vegetarian jelly mix and adding all sorts of herbs and fruit. Here there is peppermint, lemon balm, ground ivy, mugwort, slices of lemon and blackcurrants stored from last year. Only the lemon and the jelly mix are not from the garden.I made the first one for Charlotte to help shift the remnants of a cold which had affected her sinuses. They taste (and smell) really good, not at all medicinal. And they’re really fun to do. Just drop the chopped fresh herbs and lemon into the liquid jelly right at the beginning and stir once or twice before it sets (I use the handle of a wooden spoon). I put the (cooked and defrosted) blackcurrants in slightly later than the rest of the ingredients.

    The jelly in the picture I took along to the Strangers’ Circle on Wednesday. It was a great digestive after our celebration feast. I took it as a good sign that it disappeared without trace almost before I’d put it on the table.

    Talking of jellies, the picture at the top is of a jelly bag with the remains of a bunch of cleavers, which I chopped up fine and squeezed first into a bowl, then into this jar before adding some runny honey. This is called cleavers succus. A friend showed me this marvellous green medicine she’d made after the Bungay Plant Swap. When I tasted it I got so excited I had to go and make some myself. The recipe can be found in the excellent book Hedgerow Medicine. Cleavers, or clivers, or goosegrass, is a lymphatic cleanser and general tonic. It’s scrambling everywhere now in the lanes and garden. It’s best used before it flowers, so now is a good time to gather and squeeze – or brew – especially as you can’t use it as a dried herb. Cleavers is related to coffee, which might explain the electric zing I get when I drink the tea or take a teaspoon of the succus.

    News on the scale of US bee colony collapse

    Fears for crops as shock figures from America show scale of bee catastrophe

    (The Observer, Sunday 2 May 2010, Alison Benjamin)

    The world may be on the brink of biological disaster after news that a third of US bee colonies did not survive the winter. Disturbing evidence that honeybees are in terminal decline has emerged from the United States where, for the fourth year in a row, more than a third of colonies have failed to survive the winter.

    The decline of the country’s estimated 2.4 million beehives began in 2006, when a phenomenon dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD) led to the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of colonies. Since then more than three million colonies in the US and billions of honeybees worldwide have died and scientists are no nearer to knowing what is causing the catastrophic fall in numbers.

    The number of managed honeybee colonies in the US fell by 33.8% last winter, according to the annual survey by the Apiary Inspectors of America and the US government’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

    The collapse in the global honeybee population is a major threat to crops. It is estimated that a third of everything we eat depends upon honeybee pollination, which means that bees contribute some £26bn to the global economy.

    Potential causes range from parasites, such as the bloodsucking varroa mite, to viral and bacterial infections, pesticides and poor nutrition stemming from intensive farming methods. The disappearance of so many colonies has also been dubbed “Mary Celeste syndrome” due to the absence of dead bees in many of the empty hives.

    US scientists have found 121 different pesticides in samples of bees, wax and pollen, lending credence to the notion that pesticides are a key problem. “We believe that some subtle interactions between nutrition, pesticide exposure and other stressors are converging to kill colonies,” said Jeffery Pettis, of the ARS’s bee research laboratory.

    A global review of honeybee deaths by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) reported last week that there was no one single cause, but pointed the finger at the “irresponsible use” of pesticides that may damage bee health and make them more susceptible to diseases. Bernard Vallat, the OIE’s director-general, warned: “Bees contribute to global food security, and their extinction would represent a terrible biological disaster.”

    Dave Hackenberg of Hackenberg Apiaries, the Pennsylvania-based commercial beekeeper who first raised the alarm about CCD, said that last year had been the worst yet for bee losses, with 62% of his 2,600 hives dying between May 2009 and April 2010. “It’s getting worse,” he said. “The AIA survey doesn’t give you the full picture because it is only measuring losses through the winter. In the summer the bees are exposed to lots of pesticides. Farmers mix them together and no one has any idea what the effects might be.”

    Pettis agreed that losses in some commercial operations are running at 50% or greater. “Continued losses of this magnitude are not economically sustainable for commercial beekeepers,” he said, adding that a solution may be years away. “Look at Aids, they have billions in research dollars and a causative agent and still no cure. Research takes time and beehives are complex organisms.”

    In the UK it is still too early to judge how Britain’s estimated 250,000 honeybee colonies have fared during the long winter. Tim Lovett, president of the British Beekeepers’ Association, said: “Anecdotally, it is hugely variable. There are reports of some beekeepers losing almost a third of their hives and others losing none.” Results from a survey of the association’s 15,000 members are expected this month.

    John Chapple, chairman of the London Beekeepers’ Association, put losses among his 150 members at between a fifth and a quarter. Eight of his 36 hives across the capital did not survive. “There are still a lot of mysterious disappearances,” he said. “We are no nearer to knowing what is causing them.”

    Bee farmers in Scotland have reported losses on the American scale for the past three years. Andrew Scarlett, a Perthshire-based bee farmer and honey packer, lost 80% of his 1,200 hives this winter. But he attributed the massive decline to a virulent bacterial infection that quickly spread because of a lack of bee inspectors, coupled with sustained poor weather that prevented honeybees from building up sufficient pollen and nectar stores.

    The government’s National Bee Unit has always denied the existence of CCD in Britain, despite honeybee losses of 20% during the winter of 2008-09 and close to a third the previous year. It attributes the demise to the varroa mite – which is found in almost every UK hive – and rainy summers that stop bees foraging for food.

    In a hard-hitting report last year, the National Audit Office suggested that amateur beekeepers who failed to spot diseases in bees were a threat to honeybees’ survival and called for the National Bee Unit to carry out more inspections and train more beekeepers. Last summer MPs on the influential cross-party public accounts committee called on the government to fund more research into what it called the “alarming” decline of honeybees.

    The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has contributed £2.5m towards a £10m fund for research on pollinators. The public accounts committee has called for a significant proportion of this funding to be “ring-fenced” for honeybees. Decisions on which research projects to back are expected this month.


    Flowering plants require insects for pollination. The most effective is the honeybee, which pollinates 90 commercial crops worldwide. As well as most fruits and vegetables – including apples, oranges, strawberries, onions and carrots – they pollinate nuts, sunflowers and oil-seed rape. Coffee, soya beans, clovers – like alfafa, which is used for cattle feed – and even cotton are all dependent on honeybee pollination to increase yields.

    In the UK alone, honeybee pollination is valued at £200m. Mankind has been managing and transporting bees for centuries to pollinate food and produce honey, nature’s natural sweetener and antiseptic. Their extinction would mean not only a colourless, meatless diet of cereals and rice, and cottonless clothes, but a landscape without orchards, allotments and meadows of wildflowers – and the collapse of the food chain that sustains wild birds and animals.

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