Sunday, 29 April 2018

Bees and Books

It's a weird season for bees - a mini heatwave, followed by the return of winter. Our two colonies seem to be surviving - so far.
In January we used a new anti-varroa method which entailed vaporising oxalic acid crystals using an electric wand sited under the hive's mesh floor. This seems to have worked well. There was a heavy drop-out of mites. We repeated the treatment after a week.
Book events coming up are:
1.  A Q&A with David Grylls about The Essential Paradise Lost at the Chipping Campden Literary Festival on Tuesday 8 May at 10.30 in the Upper Room of the Town Hall.
2. A talk on "William Golding and Humiliation" at the Cornish Luncheon Club on Thursday 10 May
3. A Q&A on The Essential Paradise Lost at the Chalfont St Giles Literary Festival on Thursday 17 May at 3.30 in the Reading Room on the High Street.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Books and Bees

On Thursday 17 August I'll be taking part in a discussion at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I'll be talking about The Essential Paradise Lost and sharing a platform with John Stubbs whose Jonathan Swift, The Reluctant Rebel was published earlier this year. So this will be a chance to compare and contrast two literary giants. It will be chaired by James Runcie and will take place in the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre at 14.00.
It has not been a bad year for the bees. The hive containing the swarm that John Heathcote captured is thriving, and so is the new  colony bought from Paynes. We did a varroa test on the hives a few weeks back and found that mites were present. So I put MAQS on both these hives, having checked that they had six frames of brood (the minimum for MAQS treatment). The bees did not seem at all disturbed by this. The queen we introduced to the third hive has been accepted and started laying about a week after she was introduced. But the colony is now very small and I am afraid they may not have time to build up survival strength before the winter. I'm feeding all three hives as foraging seems to be almost over for the year. The blackberry flowers came early and have now finished and the ivy is forming tods but is not yet flowering.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Bees an Books

On Tuesday 11 July at 10.00 I'll be talking about The Essential Paradise Lost with Pippa Warin of the Arts Council, as part of the Dartington Ways With Words 2017. The venue will be the Great Hall.
Dartington is a surpassingly beautiful place, and worth visiting just for the pleasure of being there - let alone the events.
My bees are enjoying the hot summer, though I'm feeding them thin syrup (2 pints to a kilo of sugar) as they are not near a water-source and In Oxfordshire we are in the middle of a quite serious drought. One hive went queen-less a few weeks back so we (or rather John Heathcote, who was on the spot while I was in Oxford), introduced a new queen a fortnight ago. We are hoping the bees will accept her.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Books and Bees

I shall be talking about The Essential Paradise Lost with John Cox at the Salisbury Book Festival on Thursday 8 June at 11.30 in the Salberg Studio at Salisbury Playhouse.
The bees are having an odd season with alternating hot and cold and drought and deluge. On the whole they are making out pretty well and I have about 40lbs of honey so far which is reasonable for one hive. The good news is that John Heathcote, driving near Bruern, ran into a swarm a few weeks ago and, more importantly, followed it till it settled on a hedge and then got it into a skep and, later, into one of my empty hives. After a few anxious weeks the queen started laying splendidly and the colony is growing stronger by the day. Last Saturday I drove over to Maisemore Apiaries and collected a new colony on six frames for the hive that the mice destroyed last winter, and the new bees are now installed. They seem good-tempered and industrious.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Bees and Books

My shortened version of Milton's Paradise Lost will be published by Faber and Faber this week. There is a piece about it in today's Sunday Times Culture section. I shall be talking about it with David Grylls at the Oxford Literary Festival at 6.00 on Wednesday 29 March (details on the Festival website).
Bee news is bad. I lost two of my three colonies over the winter. One was destroyed by mice and they seem to have got in through a hole drilled in one of the lifts by a woodpecker - the first time I've ever known this to happen, though I've often read about it. The other I'm pretty sure, from the state of the frames, died of starvation - and yet there was a super on the hive with ample stored honey. I guess that it was too cold for the bees to reach it. The kind of winter we have had, usually mild (so the bees stay active and eat a lot of their stores) with sudden cold spells (when they are caught out and can't leave the central cluster) can be fatal, and was in this case.
However, the other hive is in great shape and taking in loads of pollen. I have a pack of Ambrosia candy on the hive in case they run short of food in March.
On 26 January - just over six weeks ago - I had a hip-replacement operation in the Nuffield Orthopaedic in Oxford. All went well, and I am now getting around with a stick - and a mercifully painless hip. I now have an associate beekeeper, John Heathcote, who lives in Milton-under-Wychwood, and he is looking after the bees at present. He kindly asked if he could help with the bees last year, and he has proved to have a real talent for it. He is an electrician - which means that he is careful, meticulous, and used to handling dangerous things - ideal qualifications for a beekeeper. He is also very observant and has cheered my convalescence with bulletins about the changing landscape. Out near Bruern Abbey a few weeks back e saw a wonderful sight - hundreds of goldfinches gathered in the trees, all giving voice. Apparently this phenomenon is called a "charm" of goldfinches.

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.