Archives for the month of: June, 2012

If you have been out and about in the countryside over the last week or so you probably can’t help having noticed that the Elder is blooming for all it is worth. I know I posted on this last year, but its one of my favourite hedgerow treats, so I reckon it was worth revisiting.

Whilst camping on Exmoor recently with a freind who is a fellow hedgerow brewer we discovered that a few of our brews had definitely passed the “not compltely awful” benchmark. Maybe its time to start setting the bar a bit higher? “Not at all bad” might be a bit of a stretch, but we reckoned we were getting there!

Elderflower champagne though is one of the real highlights of the hedgerow year, not to be missed. It is ready comparatively quickly. If you make some now you could be drinking it with friends in the sunshine in late July.

The following is Dave’s method for 2012. It has been adapted over the past few years from the myriad of recipies out there on the internet. It changes a bit every year, sort of a champagne evolution.

Gather 35 or so nice big elderflower heads. Make sure you leave plenty behind for the local insects on each bush.

You will need a vessel in which to ferment the champagne, a sterilised clean bucket will do if nothing else is available.

Boil 10-12 litres of water and allow to cool in the bucket. Add 2.5 kg granulated white sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the juice and zest from 5 lemons and 1 lime. Add 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar. Give the elderflowers a good shake in the garden to remove the small insects that have hitched a ride and then add these as well. Add a sachet of either champagne or general purpose wine yeast. Cover with a clean cloth.

You can use the natural yeasts which will be present on the flowers, but they seem to me to be quite weather dependant and this year we have had so much rain I have decided to go for the champagne yeast option.

After a week or so the fermentation will start to slow, strain into demijohns leaving the flowers and lemon zest behind. This will let you monitor the fermentation more easily so you can see how its doing. The aim is to bottle just before the fermentation has completely finished, it will finish in the bottle, and thats where the bubbles come from. Last year in the end I left it for a further week in the demijohns and it was plenty fizzy enough.

Elderflower champagne comes with a warning, ignored at your peril! Depending on the point when you bottle it can be very, very fizzy. I have exploded a number of glass bottles over the years and would recomend caution. For some reason they always seem to explode very early in the morning, not the most popular thing with some people! By far the safest is a plastic fizzy drink bottle, when the pressure builds up too much you can crack the lid open a bit to release pressure before it splits. If you do choose to use glass bottles make sure they are strong ones and keep one bottled in plastic alongside so you can see when to release the pressure.

I have been reading up on elder brews a bit this year and discovered a few people out there recomending using a hydrometer to check how close the fermentation is to finishing and bottling when the reading is between 1004 and 1008. I am going to give that a go this year and see if it results in a few less expolsions. Will report back later and let you know how it went. If it goes well I am hopeful of a few fizzy brews. Last year I made rhubarb champagne by accident, I must have bottled the wine too early and discovered it when the bottles started popping their corks under the stairs. It was really tasty though, and might be on the agenda for later this year too.

The Elderflower doesn’t keep for more than 3 or 4 months, give it about 6 weeks in the bottle, wait for a perfect summers evening, chill and then enjoy!

This is the time of year when the honey bee’s are thinking of swarming. Sometimes people get worried about it, the sight of several thousand bees on the wing crossing the landscape can be pretty awe inspiring, so I suppose it is understandable. But while they are swarming they are very gentle, and are far too intent on finding a new home to worry about bothering any humans they come across.

It takes place during mostly during May and June and is really their way of reproducing. They have two methods of reprodction, the queen lays an egg and that hatches, pupates and eventually emerges as an adult bee, but without a second colony scale method of reproduction there would only ever have been one colony of bees in the world. Swarming is evolutions answer to this problem.

This is how it works. Inside the colony in response to a number of external stimuli the worker bees start to draw out queen cells. You can see one of these cells below.

Several of these cells are made and the queen lays an egg in each, when the egg hatches the grub is fed excess quantities of royal jelly (a special kind of bee food or “milk” secreted by the worker bees). All bees are fed royal jelly as they are developing, but the excess quantity fed to the grubs in these special cells is what causes them to develop beyond an ordinary worker into a queen with fully functioning reproductive organs.

When the cells are capped over the old queen (seen above surrounded by a retinue of workers) leaves, she takes with her half of the workers from the colony, with those who remain left to keep the colony running until a new queen emerges. This way the colony has divided (or reproduced) and two colonies have been made out of one. The old queen and the several thousand workers who have left usually cluster together in a low lying tree or bush while scout bees find a new home for them, they are looking for a hole in a tree or building and will move on once a suitable spot is found. Unfortunately while they are waiting they often come into contact with people again, and here is the problem, people don’t like playing host to thousands of bees in a big mass.

This is where I often end up getting involved. As a local beekeeper I end up getting calls from all manner of people in the area who have a swarm in their garden or on their house and would like it removed.

Now, it used to be said that a swarm in May was worth a load of hay, and a swarm in June was worth a silver spoon. Sadly the presence of a number of bee diseases mean that is no longer the case, and often it takes quite a bit of effort to turn the swarm into a productive colony. Sometimes they just don’t make it, but, it can be done, and as bees are having such a hard time at the moment I like to try and do my best for them.

A week or so ago I got called to a swarm just down the road in Camelsdale. It was clustered in an oak tree at the back of a garden, the owners were particularly keen to have it removed as one of them is alergic to bee stings.

The way they were clustered on the side of the tree (and about 15 foot up it) made this one a bit of a challenge.

But a bit of effort with my trusty pillow case sewn onto a pole soon had most of them (literally) in the bag. The trick then is to tip them into a box you have set up nearby and get the lid on sharpish! If you have the queen the bees in the box will soon realise it and start to send out pheromone signals encouraging the other bees remaining in the tree and in the air to come and join them.

Of course if you don’t have the queen the bees you have in the box come straight back out bringing with them a bit of an attitude about having been treated so rudely! But, all went well and they signalled away to their fellow workers, who over the course of the rest of the evening (while I went away and cooked some tea) came down and joined them in the box.

Then it was relatively simple to go back at dusk, collect the bees (not forgetting to block up the entrance!) and take them back to my apiary where I could put them into a new hive and beging the process of turning them into a viable colony.

Last year we started up a new beehive here at Swan Barn Farm with a small colony of bee’s, over the winter I was really sad when I discovered that they had unfortunately died out. As many of you will know varroa (a small parasitic mite) has been giving bees a really hard time in recent years, I am not completely sure if it was solely because of this or other factors combined with it. I guess it was just one of those things, I was especially gutted as the colonies I keep in my own apiary came through the winter unscathed, it might have been easier to bear if it hadn’t been the new Swan Barn Farm colony that had died out. I guess thats the thing about looking after any creature or animal, it teaches you about the cycle of life, and sometimes the lessons that brings are pretty hard to swallow.

We have restocked the hive at the basecamp now, and the new colony seems to be doing well so far. I am hoping they will do better this time. The reason I got involved in beekeeping in the first place was because it is such a fascinating hobby, it gives you the cance to see the natural world from a completly different perspective, and marks the passing of the seasons as the bees go through their life cycle in time with the passing of the year.

I have all my fingers and toes crossed for the Swan Barn Farm bees this year, I will be doing my best for them, and hoping that some of the people who come here will get a chance to learn about them and their fascinating life cycle. I am still fascinated by the bees, for me over the next few weeks that will mean some of my evenings will be spent collecting swarms and providing them with new homes where I am able to.

Our spindles have been going in on the veranda recently, they were cut back in the winter in one of our Sweet chestnut coppices on Black Down, we peeled the bark off them and put them to one side so that they would start to dry and shrink in the spring and summer sun. The aim of this is to try and ensure they don’t fall out after they have been put into place.

We used a hollow shoulder tool, supplied by Ashem Crafts (usually used for chair making) to shape the ends of the spindles to a consistant size. It works a bit like a giant pencil sharpener.

Several hundred holes of the required dimensions were then drilled into the veranda floorboards and the underside of the hand rail. The use of much baler twine and head scratching was chosen as the appropriate method of working out the spacings to try and ensure the spindles were going to look right.

We are really pleased with the finished result. Its a long and laborious job, as there are several hundred to do, and due to the nature of the building each one has to be hand made to fit.

Originally we had thought of weaving strips of chestnut or hazel in between the spindles, but on reflection decided that the spindles would look nicer on their own, that way they provide a space that feels safe and secure but they let the light and views flood through.

The landscaping work around the building is going on at the moment as well, you may have noticed the digger in the background in the pictures above. Its such a relief to see the place changing from a building site and starting to become a home.

Progress in the veg patch has been steady as well. The presence of large numbers of potentially pilfering rabbits and deer at Swan Barn Farm meant we had to fence it off if we were to get anywhere.

In the winter a large sweet chestnut tree fell over in the field next to the Speckled Wood building. A few weeks ago with the ground around it starting to dry out we could finally get to it to clear it. The main stem was about to become our new fence. It took quite a lot of work to convert it on the sawmill, and then for Richard and his team to turn put up what we had processed.

We were really pleased with the results though. It has been constructed with rabbit netting at the back to keep out pilfering bunnies, and the raised pales on it are at sufficient height to make deer from thinking twice about jumping in, ordinarily they would need to be higher, but here the shape of the fence and the fact that they have no clear landing spot should be enough to deter them (I hope!).

Over the last few weeks we have been growing on plants from seed inside the basecamp, and then planting them out into the new vegetable garden. Its a fantastic time of year in the garden, with everything so full of potential and new green shoots stretching for the light.

A couple of weeks ago we were lucky to be able to host a group of candidates who were looking to be the first to get the opportunity to move in to our new building. Competition was pretty fierce and it was a difficult choice, they spent a day working in the building beeswaxing the window seats and shelves and then a day out in the chestnut coppice processing some lengths of timber for hurdle making.

Thanks very much to everyone who came along, it was just a shame that there wasn’t a place to offer to all of you. In the end we managed to choose our successful candidates and we hope they will be joining us within the next month or so and moving into the new building. Better get a move on and get it finished for them!

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