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.

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.