Wednesday night used to strictly be ‘Location, Location, Location’ night. No longer so. Now on a Wednesday night you can find me sat in a packed secondary school classroom in Shepton Mallet, listening to powerpoint presentations on apiculture and studiously taking notes. I’ve been curious about beekeeping for a while, so it seemed about time I armed myself with some knowledge. A quick Google and I found the Somerset Beekeepers Association (SBKA). Their ‘Central Division’ had a six week ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ course coming up at a cost of just £30. Without hesitation I popped a completed form and cheque in the post.
So, what did I already know about bees and beekeeping? Very little. I knew I liked honey, I knew bees lived in hives, and I knew there were Honeybees and Bumblebees. I thought I might like to keep some bees and I definitely wanted to help save our dwindling bee population.
The first session was an introduction to the Honeybee. It turns out Honeybees and Bumblebees are just two out of over 20,000 species of bee in the world. There are nine species of Honeybee in the world and just one species in the UK, Apis mellifera. Honeybees are notable because they are social bees, living in fascinating colonies consisting of a Queen, 200-500 Drones, and 10,000-50,000 Workers. The colony is a self-perpetuating unit and survives year-on-year by building up resources of honey to feed on through the winter. For thousands of years humankind has harvested this honey; first raiding the nests of wild bees’ nests, and later developing early beehives.
Interestingly, Bumblebees are also social bees, but they live in much smaller colonies of around 120-200 Workers. Unlike Honeybees they don’t overwinter and therefore don’t produce honey reserves. Instead they produce several queens which hibernate overwinter and then start from scratch the following Spring. Still, what Bumblebees lack in the honey-making department they more than make up for as perfect pollinators. Their fabulously furry bodies are ideal for picking up pollen as they bumble from flower to flower.
This pollinating prowess is shared with the unsung heroes of the bee world; Solitary Bees. They form the majority of the bee population and perform the most pollination, yet receive the least recognition. Whereas Honeybees wet pollen and stuff it into pollen sacs on their legs (corbiculae) for transportation to the hive, Solitary Bees (and Bumblebees) don’t have pollen sacs and most of the pollen sticks to their furry undersides resulting in far more pollinated flowers. In fact Red Mason Bees (a type of Solitary Bee) are calculated to be 120-200 times more efficient at pollinating than the Honeybee!
My first lesson from the Beekeeping for Beginners course then: keeping Honey Bees isn’t the best way of increasing the bee population or pollination. It’s a fascinating hobby and great if you want to harvest your own honey, but there are many, many more types of pollinating bees out there that need our help. So if, like me, you want to preserve the likes of the Digger Bee, Leafcutter and Carpenter Bee — all of which are essential pollinators — the best thing to do is protect their habitats and provide nectar-rich flowers.
It’s Spring, the time of year when toads emerge from hibernation and are on the move towards their ancestral breeding ponds. This often entails crossing roads, and sadly, when toads cross roads, toads get killed. What at first glance may be a stone, leaf, or clod of mud, could in fact be a toad. If you see one, gently pick it up and place out of danger, preferably in the direction they are facing. It is helpful to cup them from their front — that way they can’t leap from your hand.
Where I live in Somerset, hundreds cross our main village lane once nighttime temperatures rise above 5°C. It’s already begun. Last year was a scene of carnage; squished toads littered the lane. It was a disturbing sight, and this year I have vowed to do more.
To me, toads are beautiful. Olive-green with speckled ‘warty’ backs, and shining, ovate amber eyes that stare right back at you. Perhaps its their gentleness and vulnerability that make them special. Every year they return to the same breeding pond, along the same routes. The males are the first to venture out, waiting by the ponds where they piggy back on passing females. Lazy toads… The females then lay long strings of spawn (unlike the clumps that Common Frogs lay) and so require ponds of some depth. Unfortunately though these breeding ponds are being lost, and along with road deaths, this means our toad population is declining. On average toads have declined 68% over the last thirty years in the UK. We must do what we can to help preserve this precious gardener’s friend.
What can we do?
Don’t run them over. Stop the car, pick them up and place out of harm’s way.
If you have toads in your area, raise awareness, put up a “TOADS, SLOW” road sign, make some flyers.
Start a TOAD PATROL — a community effort to rescue your local toads, armed with buckets and fluorescent jackets.
Register your migratory crossing with the TOADS ON ROADS project run by the charity FrogLife.
Make your garden toad friendly with a pond and places to hide and hibernate.
Credit and thanks to Froglife for the information contained within this post.
What’s that buzz of excitement you can feel in the air? Forget the Brits. And it’s definitely not the Oscars. No (brace yourself) The World’s Original Marmalade Awards 2018 is happening on Saturday 17th March. Held at Dalemain Mansion in Cumbria, every year thousands of jars of marmalade are entered and scrutinised by a panel of formidable WI judges. The estimable aim is to encourage more people to taste, make and buy marmalade.
There are not many things I would willingly crawl out of bed for, but the bittersweet pleasure of marmalade is one of them. Paddington Bear was on to something. The perfection of golden shreds of candied citrus fruit in glistening amber jelly sat atop a slice of warm buttered toast and complemented by a nice cup of tea – could there be a greater British breakfast?
Well, actually, although this preserve has placed itself firmly amongst the likes of fish & chips and roast beef as a quintessential British favourite, its origins are somewhat more exotic. At first it was made from quinces which the Romans cooked slowly with honey until they set. In fact the name marmalade derives from ‘malomellum’ which is Latin for quince or sweet apple. It was only in the sixteenth century when ships began importing citrus fruits from the Mediterranean that it became the bright orange Robertsons variety we recognise today.
For me a supreme jar of marmalade has to have that dark underlying flavour of molasses balanced by bright notes of zesty citrus. Cooking time is paramount so that the peel is soft and tender but still with that bite which gives the jelly some body. The goal is a marmalade that allows you to sink a spoon in but is perky enough to hold its own on a piece of toast and not slop despondently. And of course the finest Seville oranges are essential.
I had a free afternoon last weekend and decided to dispel the winter gloom by dusting off the preserving pan and filling my kitchen with the steamy summer scent of oranges. Here is my recipe, settled upon after several winters of experimentation.
Lady Marmalade’s Marmalade
Makes about 5 jars
1kg Seville oranges
2kg caster sugar
Cut your plump oranges and lemons in half and squeeze the juice into a bowl, being careful to pick out any pips. Then remove the peel from each half and place the remaining pith along with any pips into a muslin bag.
Slice the peel into thin strips depending on your preference of marmalade texture. Rough and ready is my preference.
Place the peel strips and juice into a large stainless steel preserving pan along with 2 litres of cold water. Tie the muslin bag with its pips and pith to the pan handle so that it dangles in the water. Bring to the boil on the hob and then lower the heat. Allow to simmer for approximately 2 hours and savour those fresh orangey aromas!
With a spoon carefully pick out a piece of peel and if it is soft to touch then you can remove the pan from the heat. Take out the muslin bag and set it to the side to cool. Add the sugar to the juice and peel and stir in. Put the pan back on a low heat stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. (A tip is to heat the sugar in the oven for 5-10 minutes first as this speeds the dissolving process). Then bring to a rolling boil and squeeze the remaining juice from the muslin bag into the pan as it contains lots of pectin, vital for a good set.
Boil hard for 10-15 minutes and then to test whether it has set spoon a small amount onto a saucer and place in the fridge for a couple of minutes. If the surface wrinkles when you draw a finger across it has set.
Using a funnel ladle the marmalade into sterilised jars and cover with a waxed seal, cling film or cloth.