Archive for January, 2010

giraffe of the day

I received an email yesterday that made me smile from ear to ear.  ‘I loved your giraffe so much I blogged about it’ wrote Ola of One Million Giraffes, having named my sunflower giraffe as her 234th Giraffe of the Day.  Back in September when I uploaded my photo it joined 267,350 other giraffes and today the figure stands at 547,792.  If you’d like to help Ola reach 1,000,000 there’s just one simple rule:  you have to create your giraffe with your own hands (without using a computer).  If your creation features more than one giraffe it counts for as many giraffes as featured.  Like the addition of a baby giraffe making two.

I love the way this project has sparked people’s imaginations all across the world.  Will you be creating a giraffe that’s one in a million? 

Lili Tupili’s knitted giraffesFernanda’s cork giraffe faceGrobuonis’s toothpaste giraffe, Funky Lunch Man’s giraffe sandwich, , Sunni’s champagne top giraffe, Gunnar’s 13 foot snow giraffe, Ingvill’s honey giraffe, Bjorn’s matchstick giraffe

January 31, 2010 at 5:43 pm 8 comments

keeping bees in the city

Jon’s an archeologist and a bit of a digging dynamo by all accounts.  I’ve heard he’s rarely happier than when he’s sifting through soil.  I’m not sure that’s entirely true these days having seen his face light up when talking about beekeeping.  His is a smile of sheer pleasure if ever I saw one. 

Jon collected 25-30lb of honey from his hive in the autumn.  He averaged 50lb per colony when he kept bees many years ago  and once had a bumper yield of over 100lb from a single colony.  With an average bee hive containing 50-60,000 bees in the summer space in a city garden is definitely an issue if you want to increase honey production so he just has one hive for now. 

I asked Jon a bunch of questions about beekeeping and collecting honey and I thought I’d share his answers with you.  Get comfy with a cuppa, it’s along one!

How do bees make honey?
Honey is basically concentrated nectar.  Bees collect nectar from plants (they suck it out of the flowers with their tongues and store it in a special stomach) and back at the hive they regurgitate it into one of the cells on the honey comb.  Nectar is much more liquid than honey so once the forager bees have made their deposit other bees fan the honey combs with their wings to create an airflow and draw the water out of the nectar making it more storeable and concentrating its food content.  When enough water has been removed the bees cap the honey filled cells with wax.  In this state the honey will store indefinitely and the bees only remove the wax capping when they want to eat it.  The flavour and consistency of the honey is determined by the nature of the plant nectar the bees have collected to create it.

How long does it take the bees to make honey?
Bees will begin foraging for nectar whenever there is any about but they are most active between April and September.  The time it takes them to make the honey will depend on the size of the colony and how warm the overall temperature is.  If there are lots of bees collecting nectar, lots of bees drying it out and it is warm outside the whole process  need only take a couple of days (or even less).  Fewer bees and colder climates makes the process slower.

How do you get the honey from the hives and into the jars?  How do you do it without annoying the bees?
The honey is ready when the bees have capped the cells with wax.  By the end of the season in September when the honeycombs are completely capped you remove them.  A bee hive consists of two parts: an upper box where the surplus honey is stored and a lower box which contains the queen, all the eggs and brood and some honey and pollen. The bees like to come into contact with the Queen every day so you contain the Queen bee in the lower box by placing a thin mesh on top.  You then place a board between the boxes which allows the worker bees through (they are smaller than the Queen bee) but only one way, from honey box to brood box.  The honey box will be clear in about 24 hours.

Once you have taken the honey bombs away from the bees you remove the wax capping with a knife and place the frames containing the honey combs in a honey spinner:  a large drum with a handle that turns the central cage  When you spin the cage the honey is forced out of the combs and drips down the inside of the drum. There is a wide tap at the bottom of the drum to let the honey out.  I pass it through a coarse sieve into another tank and leave it for a couple of days to allow any scum and inclusions float to the top.  This tank also has a tap on the bottom and once the honey has settled you can let it pour directly into the jars.

What does the Queen bee do?  How is she chosen?  What happens if she dies?
Pretty much all the queen does is lay eggs  (up to 5,000 a day in the height of  the season).  All other decisions within the hive seem to be made by the worker bees on a sort of collective action basis. The queen isn’t chosen on an individual basis; if they need a new queen the bees can raise one.  All worker bees are immature females and  queens are just ordinary bees who have been reared in a way which enables them to reach full maturity (from an ordinary fertilised egg that is given more space, more protein and more oxygen).  The bees don’t just wait for the old queen to die:  if she is failing in any way they will raise a new queen and then just kill the old one or divide the colony into two by swarming.  If the queen dies unexpectedly they can always raise a new one as long as there are fertilised eggs in the colony.  As queens tend to lay eggs in the spring and summer the death of the queen in winter is very serious as the colony would have no eggs to make a new queen from.

How do the worker bees find their way back to the hive?
They find their way back by remembering where the hive was in relation to the sun’s position in the sky when they left.  Pretty clever when you think how much the sun moves around the sky and isn’t always visible on cloudy days.

Do bees ever stop working or is the phrase ‘busy bee‘ entirely true?
Bees never stop working.  The jobs they do in the hive depends partly on circumstance but is also determined by age.  When they first emerge from the cells as adult bees they start to look after the brood (the immature eggs and grubs) and keep the hive tidy.  When they get older they go out and collect nectar and pollen and  the older bees tend to act as guards (which makes sense as bees die if they sting you).  The male drone bees don’t really do any work around the hive as there only job is to mate with a queen (not the one in the hive who is their mother)  and they die once that task is completed.  The queen mates with a number of drones in the brief period at the beginning of her life when she leaves the hive.  When she returns to the hive and she spends most of the rest of her life laying eggs

What do bees do when it rains and do they ever sleep?
Bees can carry on working in the rain although they stay in the hive if it’s torrential.  There are plenty of jobs to be done and they don’t ever sleep.

How can I identify a honeybee?  (I don’t usually hang around long enough to get a visual on the buzz just in case it’s a wasp!)
Honey bees are about the same size as a worker wasp and a similar shape.  But a honey bees body is less pointy and more furry (for collecting pollen).  They tend to be black and orange rather than black and yellow and they also have black heads.  They are not as round or as large as bumble bees.  Individual honey bees are usually too busy to bother people so if an insect is buzzing around your head in an annoying manner it’s unlikely to be a honey bee.

How long have you been beekeeping and where did you get your bees from?
I first started keeping bees about 20 years ago.  I’ve always liked insects but don’t particularly like gardening so bee keeping seemed a good way of masquerading as a self-sufficient son of the soil without having to grow things!  I had a break of several years but couldn’t bring myself to part with my equipment.  So when Pat and Robin asked me to remove a swarm of bees from their garden I fell happily back into it.  The laws governing ownership of swarms are medieval:  if you lose sight of your bees and someone else collects them then the rule of ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’ applies.

How did you learn about bee-keeping?   Where did you buy your equipment?
I went on a short course at Hartpury College and read a lot of books.  I used to be a member of Newent Beekeepers Association and and attended their meetings.

I bought my first stock of bees from Maisemore Apiaries, and then reared new colonies from those over time.  I’ve collected swarms on occasion and the bees I have currently started are third generation bees now.  I’ve tended to make most of the equipment.

Were you scared initially?
The first time I ever saw inside a bee hive I was on my own and had only read about what to expect (I did my evening class in winter so it wasn’t particularly hands on).  I don’t think I was scared but I was certainly a little anxious.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been scared of the bees but there have been times when I have been bee keeping and would rather have been doing something else!  I always treat bees with healthy caution and wear all the kit if I going to open a hive up.

How many times have you been stung and what was your worst sting?
I don’t honestly know.  I used to get stung a lot more often with the bees I had in the early days.  The bees I have now are very gentle or perhaps I’m better at it.  You are less likely to be stung if you make calm deliberate movements  and don’t just crash about with the hive.  Top tip: never combine beekeeping and alcohol!

If you keep bees you tend to build up an immunity to the stings so although it still feels like a pin prick you don’t get any of the swelling.   My worst stings were probably the early ones before I’d got used to it.  You can still get stung through protective clothing but the stings don’t penetrate as deep and are likely to fall out.  It’s important to remove the sting as soon as you can because the poison sack continues to pump poison into you after the initial sting.  Stings on exposed skin can penetrate quite deeply making them harder to remove and increasing the painful effects of the sting.

Where is the most likely place a bee will sting you?
If you open up a hive without  protective clothing the bees will go for your face.  Very nasty and why you should always wear a veil.  I’ve been around bad tempered bees in the past and even though you know they can’t get past your veil it’s a bit disconcerting knowing they’re trying.

The most likely place you’ll pick up a sting as a beekeeper is on your hands.  A bee sting can penetrate through leather gloves and many beekeepers don’t even wear any. I used to go bare handed too but tend to wear gloves now to keep my hands clean and to stop the bees crawling up my sleeves. 
‘Westgate Honey’ label designed by Cedric

January 29, 2010 at 10:17 am 24 comments

spuds rule!

I went to China on a work trip once.
To a region notorious for cooking cats, turtles and snakes. Not great for a veggie so after visiting the Buddhist Temple in Guangxiao, and feeling some relief at the number of turtles and cats re-homed there, we happily wandered into a vegetarian restaurant tucked away down a side street.   Handed menus filled with photos of dubious looking fake meat dishes, with names you’d expect to find on any Chinese Take-away menu here, I pointed tentatively, whispered reassurances to myself and tried to ignore the impatience of our waitress who was clearly used to more rapid fire ordering.

me – [pointing] this potato dish please.
her – [nod]
me – this chicken one.  But it’s not really chicken is it?
her – no, mock chicken, made with potato flour
me – this dish here.  Is it good?
her – [shakes her head].  This one is better, pork.
me – what about this one?
her – [shakes her head]
me – what’s wrong with it?
her – made of  potato
me – potato’s good.  We like potato.
her – everything you order is potato.  Try something different.  Have beef

I rest my case for why spuds rule!  Wartime Woolton Pie might have proved more popular with the nation if someone had thought to fashion potato starch into chicken.  Personally I think nothing beats the simplicity of a good old fashioned baked potato.  Robinta’s my skin of choice and I’m in good company it seems after attending the Potato Day event at the weekend.

I almost called this post ‘lunching with Spud McQueen‘ but that wouldn’t have been strictly true.  ‘Pouncing on Spud McQueen while he quietly ate his lunch and chatting for ages because he was too nice to turn me away‘ is a bit of a long title don’t you think?  It was a charming conversation and Andy (that’s his real name when he’s not got his potato guru hat on) is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet (if you spot him at any of the other Potato Day events you must go and say ‘hello’).  I caught him mid chuckle in this picture as he playfully asked ‘Do you want me to comb my hair?’ 

I came away with half a dozen tubers of about 10 different varieties based on Andy’s recommendations.  Much easier than trying to make up my own mind from the 100+ available.  And I couldn’t believe how little they cost – a wallet loving £4.66.  So roll on Easter time when potato sowing season starts.  In the meantime I’m off to look for egg boxes to start chitting my tubers.  I’ll catch up with you later in the week with Andy’s Top 10. 

ps.  If you’re still wondering about those Chinese potato dishes rest assured they didn’t taste of meat at all.  Or potato for that matter.  The mashed potato dish arrived looking like a chicken though – with beady black eyes and pointy beak included!

January 26, 2010 at 2:52 pm 6 comments

Potato days

I love potatoes (nothing new there) and over the last few years we’ve worked out which varieties  fair best at our allotment.  Red skinned Robinta potatoes are our favourite for crispy baked skins and autumn storage and Nicola our early choice for melt in the mouth butter drizzled potato salads (or tossed in olive oil and freshly picked thyme leaves as above) .   No doubt you have favourite varieties to recommend but we stick to what works because the cost in time and money is too great if the spuds we gleefully lift are a disappointment.  I know we might be missing out on something even better so you’ll appreciate my excitement at attending the annual Potato Weekend at Dundry Nurseries for the first time this coming Sunday.

150 varieties of seed potatoes will be for sale by the tuber and veteran potato expert Andy McQueen will be giving talks at 11am and 2.30pm (starts at 9.30, ends at 4.30pm).  Don’t fret if you’re not in Gloucestershire, there are other Potato Day events around the UK.  If you fancy trying different varieties too check out Dundry Nurseries ‘tater’base with 100+ varieties for sale loose.

If you’ve 5 minutes to spare you might enjoy watching the Dig for Victory‘ video here, created by the Ministry of Food when they realised people would go hungry when Britain joined the Second World War.  Gardens, sports pitches and factory grounds, large or small, were given over to vegetable growing and thus allotments were born.  It was estimated that 1.4 million people had allotments by the time the war ended in 1945. 

Potatoes were promoted as a good source of energy and protein and Potato Pete’s recipe book was produced to encourage home growing, harvesting and cooking.  Recipe’s like Woolton pie. It never really took off with the British public and I can imagine why – the ingredients sound a bit beige even for my liking and without fat or flour to make a pastry topping a potato, cauliflower, swede and carrot filling topped with a potato crust is not really deserving of the name pie.

January 22, 2010 at 7:14 pm 13 comments

the vanishing of the bees

‘Imagine half a million adults skipping town and leaving their children behind. Picture an opened suitcase filled with bundles of cash at a bus stop and yet no robber wants to snatch it.  The apiary science mystery known as “Colony Collapse Disorder” displays these very symptoms.  Not only do the bees abandon their hive, but the queen and the brood as well.  Unnatural.  Unheard of.  Even the predators that usually raid the hive for honey stay far away.  At first, this occurrence sounds like an urban legend or an exaggerated tale.  Except it’s not.  The situation is both dire and all too real.  Bees are disappearing all over the planet and no one knows why.’

‘Beekeepers and scientists are still unsure what is causing the loss of so many bees, but the fact is that bees are disappearing at alarming rates all over the world.  In the UK, around one fifth of honeybee hives were lost in the winter of 2008/09.  The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) estimates that if people were to take over the job of pollination from bees in the UK, it would require a workforce of 30 million.  In southern China pear trees have to be pollinated by hand after the uncontrolled use of pesticides in the 1980s killed their honeybee population.’

As a workforce of one down on my allotment I rely on the bees for nearly all of my crops.  Without them I wouldn’t have been able to eat any of these allotment harvested fruits, vegetables and herbs (click here for a full list of bee reliant crops)

While the garden rests over winter the gardener does not.  Pouring over seed catalogue’s and hatching plans for companion planting to encourage bees into your garden takes quite some thought.  So to ensure my efforts aren’t wasted I’ll be visiting Gloucester Guildhall on 28th January to see ‘The Vanishing of the bees‘, followed by a talk from The Global Bee Project.   If you live in Gloucestershire please spread the word and come along. 
For film showings in other areas click this link.

January 19, 2010 at 8:11 pm 8 comments

recycling food waste

How do you like my new year’s gift from Gloucester City Council? (Mrs Green will be mightily impressed).  46,000 homes in Gloucester have received one of these collection bins this week.  And not one bin but two because inside is a small kitchen caddy as well.  Impressive and here’s why…

Last year Gloucestershire had a landfill tax bill of £5.4 million, this year it’ll be £7 million and it’s set to rise to £10 million by 2013.  Then there is the simple fact that we are running out of landfill space.  Nearly a quarter of household waste in Gloucester by weight is cooked and uncooked food waste.  Instead of rotting in the landfill and producing the harmful greenhouse gas methane our brown bins will be emptied every week and taken to a facility called an In Vessel Composter where our leftovers will be turned into high quality compost for use on farms. 

In Vessel Composting is fully licensed to accept all types of food waste including animal by-products.  We already have a firm habit of recycling our food waste but the scraps I prefer not to add to my compost bin at the allotment (egg shells, orange peel, avocado shells for example) can now be recycled too.  Along with the sludgy porridge layer that’s always left on the bottom of the saucepan.  The occasional bone.  Mouldy cheese.  And cat biscuits left languishing in the bowl in favour of a sniff and a lick of all of the above!

January 13, 2010 at 11:24 pm 16 comments

making kale crisps

Kale is not a vegetable on my ‘love and must grow…’ list but I have 5 bushy plants on my plot because I can’t say no to spare seedlings in need of a home.  After planting them out in June they’ve been left to fend for themselves, apart from picking off the occasional caterpillar that had strayed over from the cabbages, while I wondered how I’d eventually cook them.  Kale crisps are the only way to go now.  Not a limp chewy overcooked leaf in sight.  Just gorgeous melt in the mouth crispy frazzle.

I made these crisps for the first time in November when the white fly were still holding their ground (pic on the right).  If you’ve ever tried washing bugs off kale leaves you’ll know that they’re waterproof and have to be scraped off with your fingers (nice!).  You come to accept that a bit of unwanted bug protein is inevitable when cooking kale but if you can’t bear that thought wait until after Christmas.  My snow covered kale was entirely fly free.  There is a down side to waiting though – frozen kale is not as crunchy and doesn’t keep it’s green colour as well (opening photo is January kale, last photo is November kale)

To make kale crisps (1 serving)

  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (375°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof  paper or similar.
  • Pick about 5-10 kale leaves (depending on how much you like your greens!). Wash, de-fly and pat dry.
  • Cut the leaves from the stalks and tear into large pieces.
  • Mix 1 tablespoon of olive oil + 2 teaspoons of you favourite vinegar (I use balsamic) and a sprinkling of salt in a large bowl.  Toss the leaves thoroughly in the dressing.
  • Spread out leaves evenly on the baking sheet and cook in the oven for about 10 minutes (some people recommend turning half way through but I never remember to do that!).
  • Enjoy immediately

January 11, 2010 at 11:52 am 13 comments

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