Posts Tagged ‘bees’


One of the associated pleasures of developing a new kitchen garden in the heart of County Wexford is the wildlife. With Tacumshin Lake and Lady’s Island nearby

Three cock pheasants playing hide and seek in the long grass where the veg patches will be.

Three cock pheasants playing ‘hide and go seek’ in the long grass where the veg patches will be, Tacumshin, Wexford.

, the birds, bees and bats favour this area in particular. The large number of wood pigeons provide ample food for peregrine falcons. The buzzards look out for rats and mice. A merlin, Ireland’s smallest falcon, has been chasing smaller birds around here recently too.

The meadow in front of the house will have vegetable beds in it soon. In the meantime, pheasants have been running through the long grass. One wonders if they realise there will be no shooting permitted over this patch come the pheasant open season which begins in November. For their sake, I hope they hang around here or on lands adjacent to Tacumshin Lake which is a Special Protection Area No. 004092.


POND IN A POLYTUNNEL – 1st wk in September 2013

I always look forward to a visit to The Organic Centre min Rossinver, Co. Leitrim. The place is full of unusual ideas – unusual to me, that is. On my last visit, the polytunnels were all looking well, mainly growing all manner of fruit and vegetables. One polytunnel, however, was chock-a-block with flowering plants, grown for cutting and arranging. Needless to say, these flowers were also attracting all manner of pollinating insect, which, in turn benefitted the fruit and vegetable plants also.

In the corner of the floral polytunnel was installed a pond. It was in itself were decorative, but I suspect the organic minds behind the idea, were first and foremost thinking holistically. This pond helps to sustain the pest controlling insects and frogs.


The pond in the floral polytunnel at The Organic Centre, Co. Leitrim.

The pond in the floral polytunnel at The Organic Centre, Co. Leitrim.

bees in particular need water and a pond amongst flowers makes for an ideal bee environment.


Dabbing a male courgette flower with a damp fine brush to pollinate the newly opened female flowers

Dabbing a male courgette flower with a damp fine brush to pollinate the newly opened female flowers

I had the pleasure of talking with Fionnuala Fallon, The Irish Times gardening writer, about courgettes recently in Balbriggan. Unlike last summer, this fine weather is helping my five courgette plants to thrive. The leaves are huge, the flowers are well formed, all seems fine. However, the courgettes are not as numerous as the number of flowers. Am I being impatient. Is there a shortage of insect life to pollinate the flowers? Should I get out an artist’s paint brush or a cotton bud and dab each flower centre to transfer pollen from flower to flower by hand?

Sensibly, Fionnuala gave thumbs to manual pollination. It can’t do any harm, and who knows, it might help! It seems the courgette plant produces male flowers first followed a few days to a week later by female flowers. If weather is too hot for copious bee pollination activity or if bee and other pollinator numbers are low, then hand pollination is required. To do this, dampen a small brush or cotton bud. Dab the male flowers to collect some yellow powdery pollen. (The male flowers are on the end of the stems coming from the centre of the plant.) Then dab the female flowers which are attached to what look like baby courgettes. If that baby courgette starts to grow, bingo, we have lift off! At this point, I am hopeful. An update will follow in a couple of weeks!


It is still possible to sow many seeds given that spring has been so late in arriving this year. Mine are sown in a small greenhouse to bring them on  until they are a couple of centimetres high. At this point in mid May, seedlings are sturdy enough in most cases to withstand slug predation and the weather will hopefully be largely free of frost.

A number of seeds which don’t like being transplanted such as radish, carrot, parsnip and potato, are sown in situ outside when the soil has warmed up to over 7 degrees centigrade atleast to ensure good germination. The majority of the seeds I have sown for this growing season begin in modules in seed trays (see pp 88 – 91 ‘Trevor’s Kitchen Garden’, or most good bookshops).

Now the greenhouse shelves are packed with rows of seed trays labelled with date of sowing and variety of seed sown. These include 1. Tamar Mixed Lettuce – 2. Broad Bean (Vectra from Seedsavers) – 3. Runner Bean (Black Knight from Seedsavers) – 4. Mange Tout (Sugar Dwarf Pea) – 5. Purple Sprouting Broccoli – 6. Leek (Musselborough) – 7. Beetroot (Avon Early from Seedsavers) – 8. Rainbow Chard Leaf Beet – 9. Courgette (Nero di Milano from Seedsavers) – 10. Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia) – 11. Nicotiana – 12. Cosmos – 13. Viola (Tricolour) – 14. Tomato (Gardener’s Delight). I cheated with the tomato and bought an organically grown pot plant grown in Sonairte’s organic walled garden up the road in Laytown. I only need two plants so hardly worth the effort of buying a whole packet of tomato seed for the sake of growing two plants!

Some of the seeds listed are for flowers, essentially food for the bees, other pollinators,

Watering a tray sown with tiny seed using a large jar of water with a perforated lid which drizzles water so seeds are not dislodged.

Watering a tray sown with tiny seed using a large jar of water with a perforated lid which drizzles water so seeds are not dislodged.

hover flies etc, all of which benefit the food crops and make the whole business of kitchen gardening more attractive. Some of these flower and veg seeds are tiny. The rose head on the small watering can is clogged up at this stage. Necessity being the mother of invention, I set about creating an even and gentle watering system for these trays of tiny seeds. Multiple tiny holes in the lid of a large jar made for a very fine and even watering device. Naturally this only applies to small scale kitchen gardening, but it works for me! May the sun and rain help you garden in the weeks ahead.


Weather is more like June than January to the bees, except the flowers of June are absent so the hives could starve if they are not fed now.

Weather is more like June than January to the bees, except the flowers of June are absent so the hives could starve if they are not fed now.

The weather today was an unusually warm 10 – 14 c. In ways the mild weather  is welcome for doing the outdoor jobs like tidying the shed or sowing onion seeds in trays or carrot seed in the greenhouse soil. However, the temperature is noticeably higher than many days were in July or August last year. If this is bizarre to humans, imagine the effect it has on other animals. These temperatures trick them in to behaving as if it was spring or summer already.

In the case of my beehives, the bees should be clustered for the winter at this time. By clustering in a ball a hive of honey bees can maintain a steady temperature in the hive of 37 c, even if the temperature outside was to plummet as low as minus 37 c. This is not likely in Ireland as long as the Gulf Stream keeps warmer water from the Caribbean lapping our shores. However, the weather is remarkably mild and more like spring or summer as far as Irish bees are concerned.

The advice I read about in ‘An Beachaire;, the magazine of  FIBKA, the Federation of Irish Bee Keeping Associations, (see,) is to visit the hives and feed the bees on such a mild January day as this. Before my visit  I prepared a few resealable freezer bags, filling each with some ‘bakers’ fondant’. A bucket of this white sugary thick goo I bought in Superquinn at the in-store bakery in Swords. Before opening the hives I cut two slits crossways in the middle of each feed bag. Open side down I placed a feed of fondant gently on the top of the frames, between opening and closing the lid of each hive as quickly and gently as possible. I’m glad I wore the bee suit, even for this quick operation, as the bees were wide awake and ready to defend the hive at a moment’s notice.

Even if the bees have enough of their own honey in store, the presence of fondant will do no harm. As Philip Mc Cabe, the FIBKA (Irish beekeepers’) PRO is wont to say: ‘Better for the bees to be looking at the feed, than looking for it’! Handy as the mild weather is, I do hope we get a bit of a cold snap to kill off a few of those slug eggs lying in wait in the soil. Last year’s mild winter was a big boost to the slug number, making it difficult to protect young seedlings in spring especially.


First step when planning to open the hive is allow smell of smoke to waft across the entrance of the brood box. It masks human smells and distracts the bees into thinking a fire is more of a threat than the beekeeper.

Not a good year for my bees. With the frequent showers, the queen bee was thwarted in her efforts to fly high and mate with as many drones as she can in the ‘drone zone’. The drones congregate 30 – 90 feet above the ground. The queen needs good dry weather during the first 10 – 20 days of her life so she can fly high and mate profusely to collect all the sperm she needs for the egg laying season ahead.

Given the lack of good queen mating conditions this year, I was surprised that  I got any honey at all. The more established of my two hives showed a healthy population of bees. They managed to make the best of any dry days to forage for pollen, nectar, water and propolis, with the result that two ‘supers’ ( the boxes of honey storing frames placed above the brood box) had a reasonable weight of honey when I checked them in the last week.

Another downside to the inhospitable bee-weather is that the bees are tetchy and irritable when I have to open the hive. The fact that I am effectively stealing their winter stores of honey is another upsetting factor for the bees. However, I do replace the honey removed with a thick mixture of dissolved sugar in water. After the honey has been (partially) extracted from the combs in the ‘supers’, then these ‘supers’ are returned to the hive to be cleaned up by the bees. The bees will no doubt make good use of any residual honey I have left behind.

The honey extractor is owned by the Fingal North Dublin Beekeepers, . As a member I can hire it for a modest amount to carry out the one day operation of extracting the honey from the frames in each ‘super’. To find out more see for more information about your nearest beekeeping association. In my case Thursday, 6th September in the CBS secondary school, Dublin Road, Swords at 8pm, is my next meeting to help me get my bees ready for the winter. Meanwhile, I hope you can see and enjoy our  video about ‘Getting Honey from the Hive to the House’.


The tomato, beans, courgette and potato plants are flowering. Some of the peas and beans are already fruiting as are the blackcurrants, raspberries, strawberries and apples. As the flowers turn to fruit, a regular comfrey liquid feed will add potassium, an important element at the fruiting stage of a plant.

The comfrey patch in the front garden is cut back to the ground two or three times during spring and summer before is goes dormant for the winter. It has a fast growth rate. If you don’t let it flower, it will produce even more leaves. I am happy to allow comfrey flower as the bees love the small purple blossoms.

I have a couple of water butts at the base of drainpipes to collect rainwater, but the comfrey liquid feed making barrel is in a corner beside the comfrey patch. This is now packed with the last month’s harvest of comfrey leaves which are stewing away in water. In the next few days, I will siphon of the liquid feed into empty screw top plastic milk containers. Sealed containers are best as there is a slight ‘pong’ from the feed when it is agitated, but this disappears quickly in the soil.

A  large watering can of water topped up with a litre of feed is dilute enough to apply around the plants which are beginning to set flowers and fruit. A weekly liquid feed keeps the tomatoes, beans, peas etc fruiting well, although a bit more sunshine would be appreciated! If I have surplus comfrey leaves, they are used as a mulch to suppress weeds and deter slugs or simply added to the compost mix.

The analysis of comfrey is impressive. 1. Comfrey can produce 2kg to 3kg of leaves per plant per season. 2. The leaves and stems contain an NPK ratio of 1.8: 0.5: 5.3 – significantly better than seaweed or compost. 3. Comfrey contains a similare level of nitrogen to farmyard manure and twice as much potash. 4. Comfrey has a carbon to nitrigen ration of 9.1, which makes it a perfect balance for producing great compost.

If you know somebody (like me!) with a comfrey bed, it is easy to start your own comfrey bed with on offset of root and shoot cut from a parent plant. Otherwise try www.organiccatalogue.comto get a mailorder of small comfrey plants, variety Bocking 14. This is the best strain of comfrey for a garden. It is a sterile cultivar that will not seed. Prolific seeding can be a problem with wild varieties.

Comfrey (variety Bocking 14) growing adjacent to the liquid feed making barrel, complet with tap for siphoning off the ‘comfrey tea’.