Thursday 26 September 2019

Books and Bees

On Sunday 13 October at 6.30 I shall be taking part in an event at the Cheltenham Literary Festival (full details on the Festival website). It will be chaired by Dominic Sandbrook. The other participants will be Lara Feigel, who will be talking about Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (and also about her own memoir Free Woman, Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing) and Laura Freeman, who will be talking about Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and also about her memoir The Reading Cure, How Books Restored my Appetite). I shall be talking about William Golding's Lord of the Flies.
Bee news is good on the whole. We are ending the season with three strong colonies, the most recent being a swarm hived by John Heathcote who spotted it just at the end of Lyneham village street in June. We have harvested about 200lbs of honey.
There was an interesting incident in February. Some neighbours in the village have a field where they keep a couple of horses. Last summer a swarm of bees made a nest between the inner and outer walls of a wooden shed in the field, and proved ill-tempered. The neighbours asked for help, and I advised leaving things till February when the colony would be at its smallest and the honey store (which cascades everywhere if you try opening up a wild colony in summer, and the bees drown in it) would be depleted. This proved good advice. When John and I and the neighbour, who is a carpenter, cut a panel out of the shed wall to reveal the colony, there were relatively few bees and almost no store. The bees has cleverly fitted four long strips of honeycomb, fanned out like a hand of playing cards, between the inner and outer walls (a space not much more than 6 inches from back to front). Using a good deal of smoke, we cut the combs out, put them in a cardboard box, and took them up to an empty hive in the apiary, hoping we would manage to have got the queen. We had not, and the remaining bees died out. But at least the neighbours could tend their horses unstung.

Wednesday 2 January 2019


The drought in the summer was bad for bees. The nectar flow stopped and we found ourselves having to feed the bees on a light syrup in midsummer. Ridiculous. Also one colony died - not, I think, the result of varroa because we had used the oxalic acid treatment in the winter. So the honey yield was small, not much more than 75lbs. On the other hand we hived a couple of swarms. one of which was small and may not survive the winter, but the other seems healthy and vigorous. So we seem likely to start the spring with two colonies. or three at best. We plan to treat them with oxalic acid, using the electric wand method, next weekend.

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.