Browsed by
Tag: beekeeping

A January to forget

A January to forget

I know January is only two thirds over but we’ve had enough already! Although not as bad as the UK, we’ve had rain, rain, rain, culminating in storms this weekend which knocked the power and water out for three days. And there are more thunderstorms to come. Every cloud has a silver lining and I think we were lucky to escape much of the damage. We had an olive tree fatality and a tile off the roof but the polytunnel and the shed survived (thanks to a high quality build I reckon!) and the well is now full to the brim. And our chest freezers full of pork managed to avoid defrosting.

The local bus stop was not made of sterner stuff however…

ex local bus stop
ex local bus stop

However, our bees have once again absconded. They disappeared this time last year and it is just as perplexing this time around. Last week they were still out and about collecting pollen ( I posted photos here) and there is plenty of pollen and honey in the now empty hives. We think that living in rural Portugal we have ‘got away from it all’ but I guess even here we cannot escape man’s degradation of our natural resources. They are saying that the honey bees abscond because of pesticides and I have to say that the locals seem to use them indiscriminately here. Perhaps that is the cause, we just don’t know.

We also had a bit of a shock with Betty. Previously known as Lucky – as she was saved as a puppy wandering lost in the forest, she was very well named. She certainly has a wild spirit about her as she likes nothing better than to tear off out of the garden chasing after goodness knows what, only to come back three or four hours later covered in goodness knows what! However, she always comes back, eventually. Even if it is three in the morning when she announces her return by howling outside our bedroom window. This time was different. After she had been gone for two days we thought the worst. However, on the third day there was a scratching at the door. She was filthy and half starved but of more concern was a huge gash around her stomach. We think she had been caught in a javeli ( wild boar) trap, which is made of thin wire. We cleaned her up as best we could and took her to the vet. Suffice it to say, after a coarse of antibiotics (intravenously administered by our good selves!) and some tlc, she is already back to her worst.


Despite all the doom and gloom it’s not all bad. After all, during our electric-free nights, I managed to beat Jackie at scrabble and cribbage and we have our first daffodils of the year – in fact they’ve been in flower for over a week, as well as a clutch of pretty crocuses.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year

I can’t believe this is our 4th New Year in Portugal! Our first new year was spent awaiting the builders to start work, our second saw the hens lay their first egg, our third we were looking forward to operation porco, and our 4th? Well, our house is built, we’ve had over 2000 eggs and operation porco has been and gone and we will be enjoying the pork for quite some time.

As our ‘to-do’ list continues to grow, this year I think, will be one of consolidation. Hopefully the laydies will keep on doing their stuff and no doubt we will get a few more roasties for eating. The bees are still here so hopefully more honey and of course Jackie is already busy ‘na horta’ making preparations for this year’s crop of goodies. Having said that, we still haven’t finished the spuds from last year and the caulis, calabrese and leeks are still going strong.

Talking of bees. Yes they are still here (they buggered off last year and I had to restock the hive). But nevermind that: they are still out and about foraging for pollen as can be seen below.


Interesting that they’re collecting orange and yellow pollen. I don’t know where from.

I’ve been busy with the hammer and nails. I took apart a couple of old pallets and made a small table cum footstool for the lounge and a storage box for the bathroom .
Jackie has also been busy and although a bit late for Christmas, here I am proudly wearing my new jumper. Very nice it is too.


Invasion of the bee-eating hornets!

Invasion of the bee-eating hornets!

OK, not quite an invasion, but the other day while I was inspecting the hives, I noticed a large wasp and while I was watching, it swooped down and snatched one of my little ladies from outside the hive! I later found out that it was a large European hornet which is carnivorous and eats many insects including bees. I’ve only seen one so far and it is hardly decimating the colony (apparently up to 1000 bees can die per day at some times of the year!) and I’m hoping that it will disappear for winter. I didn’t get a photo of the snatch but here he is waiting for an opportunity and here are some bees returning home. You can see one of them with her little suitcases full of orange pollen. So they are still building up stores.

European hornet and honey bees

In better news when I opened up the hives, the ‘weedy’ bees seem finally to have made a fair amount of honey and the hard-working bees which produced all of this year’s honey crop have almost refilled all their frames! I could therefore take some more honey but as we’ve got enough and I want to make sure they have enough for winter, I’ll let them bee.

With the bees still collecting pollen you might suspect that it is still warm and sunny here (like October last year). Not at all. We’ve had a fair amount of rain and it’s been cold enough at night to have the wood buring stove on. And it has led to a reappearance of mushrooms after the absence of last year.

We have plenty of poisonous Jack O’lanterns around the base of the olive trees but also we’ve managed to pick quite a few field mushrooms. Together with our free range eggs, and home produced bacon (Yes!), we can have winter fry-ups – just the job!

Jack O’lanterns
edible mushrooms and walnuts

One harvest which hasn’t been so good is the walnuts. However, it has to be said, there are more than enough for the two hairy ones, who love them and have no problem cracking the nuts with their teeth.

Now autumn has arrived with a bang a few typical seasonal photos:

return of grass!


We finish 2011 with some sad news – our bees have buggered off. Or, to put it technically, absconded.

When winter started they were very quiet as expected but some of them were still out and about foraging as normal. We were very lucky as there was plenty of food available as our rosemary bushes were still in flower as was a large eucalyptus tree in the next field to us. Then yesterday they seemed to be very active, chewing up their wax and dropping a lot of it just outside the hive. This morning I checked again and all the bees had disappeared!

Every one had gone leaving behind a healthy-looking hive with plenty of honey and pollen stores. After a bit of web research it’s still not clear what has happened. The presence of wax outside the hive and some telltale signs inside the hive, indicate robber bees – i.e. bees from other hives stealing the honey. But I think they are just opportunistic, stealing the stores after my bees had already skipped off. So I think the bees I saw yesterday were not mine but these new scavengers. Mine had already gone, maybe some time before.

healthy looking comb - a ring of pollen stores and some honey in the corners

Apparently absconding is rare but it does happen – the strange thing is, it is usually a result of some kind of disturbance or when there is a lack of food – neither of which has happened here. I have to say I’m absolutely devastated.

I won’t be defeated though, it’s just back to the drawing board. In the new year I’ll ask around and see if I can find out what has happened and get some more bees. Every cloud has a silver lining however, as there is a fair amount of honey in the hive I can harvest and I can render down some wax to see if we can make a candle or two.

In better news, in the winter sunshine, which we’ve had plenty of, we managed to spend some quality time enjoying the garden and doing some bird watching. What started it off was a rare sighting of a great spotted woodpecker on the walnut tree. It stayed for ages which was great. Then we started to notice loads of other birds. In all in about an hour we saw 14 species: blue tit, great tit, meadow pipit, thrush, goldfinch, greenfinch, chaffinch, sparrow, robin, blackbird, black redstart, pied wagtail and serin. And that’s not including a buzzard which we saw the day before soaring high above the garden as well as long tail tits which often fly through the olive trees in small family groups. No pictures here but they are all on our bird page

I’ve also been busy in the kitchen. I used up some spare tiles to line the kitchen shelves. I have to say it makes cleaning them much easier and looks a lot better too.

tiling the shelves

Of course Jackie has been busy in the garden as ever and here she is doing some weeding ably assisted by the hairy one.

As you can see the veg patch continues to feed us over the colder months and although we’ve pulled the last of the (delicious) turnips up we still have swede, chard (partly grown for its amazing colour), beetroot, leeks and some sprouts on the go. Soon some calabrese will be ready and with luck, some peas. Jersey new potatoes were planted yesterday and Jackie’s also busy planning next year’s crop hoping for an even bigger harvest. The almost daily sunshine this month has meant lunch outdoors but with only a few days rain we’re hoping January will be wetter to water the newly planted trees (shade for the hens) and fill the well but the weather forecast is sun for the next 10 days (we’re only slightly complaining!).

We mustn’t forget the hens who laid a total of 1064 eggs this year and gave us wonderful eggs benedict on Christmas day.

Meanwhile the oranges are growing bigger than ever and we’re both looking forward to new projects we’re planning for 2012 – come and visit and see for yourselves!

So here’s to a Happy New Year to our friends and readers and hope it’s a good, productive and peaceful one!

Feliz ano novo!

Food for free

Food for free

Aside from all the veggies we’ve planted and the animals we’ve introduced (bees and chickens), there are plenty of things growing around here that we inherited, some that have sprung up like weeds and some that are growing wild in the lanes around here.

I suppose the dreaded brambles are the main things that spring to mind. I spent months and months trying to eradicate them from the main part of the garden but they have still thrived around the edges. Last year the blackberries were dry and shrivelled but the cool summer we have ‘enjoyed’ this year has been a boon for them and plenty have ended up in various deserts. The common accompanyment to blackberries is of course apples. We do have an old apple tree in the garden which has been here for years. It produces plenty of apples (there are plenty on the ground that’s for sure) but they are all tiny and mostly inedible. Fortunately there are plenty growing wild in the lanes around here, as well as pears, and often on my daily walk with the hairy one I manage to snaffle a few for my knapsack.

oranges and apples

Two of the trees that were also here before us are the orange trees in the courtyard. Fortunately they seem to be doing very well and have plenty of fruit which should be ready at the turn of the year. We also have our fingers crossed for our small lemon tree which has two lemons and our new lime tree which has quite a few microscopic fruits clinging on for dear life.

I suppose quite naturally for these parts we have grapevines sprouting all over the place. Most have had a poor summer with few grapes but we have an enormous bush in the lane by the house. Although the grapes are only small at the moment and not of high quality I am hopeful for at least a few glasses of grape juice for next month.

grapes and blackberries

Aside from the flora, the fauna still continues to thrive. I took another frame off the bees which they seem to be fine with. This gave another two and a half jars which is just as well as we seem to be giving plenty of the stuff away. I won’t be taking any more so let’s hope that we’ve got enough for ourselves over the winter (I’m sure the bees will be thinking the same). Other fauna is also doing well. The collared doves must like it here as they’ve had a second brood and the fledgelings have just left the nest but are staying close to home for now. I wonder how long parents and kids will stay for?

another baby dove

We’re in the honey

We’re in the honey

As Jackie mentioned in the last post, we were rather chuffed to recently harvest our first batch of honey.

It was quite straightforward to remove the frames, I just had to be careful to brush the bees off the frames and quickly put them in a sealed box to take away. There are nine frames in the top box which contains the honey (the lower box contains the brood – eggs and larvae). For the first harvest I took four full frames and left the rest which were not quite full. We may take two more a bit later but there is no rush. We must remember to leave some honey for the bees to eat over winter.

Here’s a photo of a frame packed with capped honey – about 1.5kgs worth.

It’s accepted that most of the honey should be capped before extraction. The frame below is only about three quarters capped but should be fine. Basically the bees mature the honey and reduce the water content to below 17% before capping it.

Generally beekeepers use a dedicated mechanical extractor to get their honey but for just four frames it wasn’t worth our while so we did it manually. After a bit of messing about and some very sticky fingers it all went surprisingly smoothly. I cut the honeycomb out of the frame and then put it in a sieve to drain out. As it was a particularly hot day the honey was very runny which made it easier. The honey that came through was amazingly clear and wax free which was good and of course, it tasted delicious!

Mel de flores silvestres

Mel de flores silvestres

Hot on the heels of our roast chicken success, well more for us than for them as all 8 have now been dispatched, we are now harvesting our first honey. As the bees are Richard’s project I’ll leave him with the details but suffice to say we are feeling rather chuffed (again!) having filled (so far) 12 x 500g jars of the darkest, richest and most delicious honey!

Right now I’m baking a honey cake which not only uses some of our most recent produce but also our eggs and olive oil *smug*



We’ve now had at least 2 weeks of blazing hot sun with temps in the mid to high twenties. Surely it can’t go on? One thing we are already worried about is our water bill. With no rain in (April!), July, August and September and with loads of thirsty veggies, it soon mounts ups.

We do have a well, but it only stores water and doesn’t access any groundwater. It’s over 5 metres deep but the pipe, which feeds it with rainwater from the roof, comes in quite low down and leaks water out, so my first job was to get down there and cement up the hole. This should mean we can get more water in. Fortunately the ever reliable Luis had a ladder long enough to go all the way down. I can tell you that water was cold!

So with that done, next up was getting the water to the veggies. For that I bought a pump to get water from the well and into a tank on top and then a system of pipes from the tank to the veggies. In addition, I needed small plugs which drip feed the water to the plants. I can tell you, that stretched my Portuguese to the limit (I now know these plugs are called gotejadores – I think. Difficult to spell but impossible to pronounce). Only time will tell whether it saves us any money and whether we get any more rain to replenish the well.

notice the ladder coming out of the well opening.
pipes going to the veggies

Still, with all this gorgeous weather, the plants are loving it.


Couldn’t resist another photo of that great, Naked man orchid!

Naked man orchid

…and other wildlife…

empty dragonfly cases
frog in small pond

We think this is a toad – and toads only go into the water to mate (which is why we kept finding a big toad in the courtyard last year)


The butterflies are also here, this one is as pretty as a picture underneath too.

southern festoon

We also continue having guests over. Jackie knows Rosie and Debbie from her time volunteering with VSO in Malawi so it was great to have them visit for a few days especially as they hadn’t met up for years.

Jackie, Rosie, Debbie and the hairy one

We’ve also been down the beach, which was glorious and not a soul about.

The bees seem to go from strength to strength. I have a look in the hive every now and then and everything seems to be OK. I have even managed to spot the queen which was great. No more stings either which is a bonus.

This photo is quite interesting (for apiarists only maybe). In the top left there are cells filled with honey, in the bottom right, sealed brood (baby bees waiting to hatch out) and in the lower middle you can just about see small white grubs in the base of the cells. This shows that everything is operating as normal. Now the bottom box is pretty full – of brood, grubs, pollen and honey, they should now turn their attention to filling the top box just with honey!

Buzzy time

Buzzy time

Spring has well and truly sprung. The last few posts have been about how rapidly everything in the garden seems to have taken off. With the plants sprouting, so have the number of jobs I have to do. We plan on getting some more chickens – this time to eat, so I need to build another henhouse for them, we need to fix the well and get some sort of irrigation system ready for the baking hot summer, the barn needs renovating, shelves still need to go up, the list is endless. However, some things are getting done – I repaired the potting shed roof and strimmed the garden – a big job which takes at least a couple of days. I have left some areas unstrimmed however. My excuse is that these areas should be left to nature, encouraging the insects, wild flowers, birds, pest predators etc.

We have also got one of our next major projects up and running – bees!

We’d got word from a friend of ours that there was someone in the Dornes area, not far from here, who had bees and hives for sale. We headed down there with great anticipation and came back with a hive full of bees and all the necessary equipment. We were also quite proud of ourselves in conversing with this guy all in Portuguese (we are still very ashamedly poor at the local lingo). As instructed, we set up the hive in a good place at the bottom of our garden and let the bees settle for a couple of days. Only then were we to inspect the hive.

We have a beekeping guidebook and it explains what to do on this first inspection: try to spot the queen (she is slightly longer than the normal ‘worker’ bees), see that she is laying i.e. try to spot eggs in cells and grubs in various stages of growth and also to see if there was any honey. Basically just to check that everything seemed OK. The book also said that when you buy a nucleus – which is a starter colony containing only a queen and a few attendant bees, you don’t need to smoke them as they will be very calm.

We chose to inspect them first thing in the morning as we knew they would be still asleep (or whatever the bee term is). So, Jackie settled at a safe distance, camera in hand ready to record the moment.  I must admit I felt a bit like Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak approaching the hive all suited up.

And then our troubles began.

We had not actually bought a nucleus, but a pretty full hive. Morning is not a good time to open up the hive as everyone is at home rather than out foraging. We had Iberian bees which have a reputation (well warranted I will vouch for already) for aggressiveness.

While I was gingerly taking out a frame to inspect it, clouds of bees took off in front of me. I could see them all over my veil. I almost felt they were going to bite through the gauze. However, I maintained my calm. Then, I heard a scream. It was Jackie running down the garden. “It’s in my hair, it’s in my hair. Arrrrrrrrggggghhhhh!” I didn’t see her for a while but she had only suffered superficial wounds. One sting to the scalp which was not painful. I carefully put the frame back in the hive and then replaced the top. Unfortunately there were bees all over the rim, so a few got squidged, which also makes them angry. I then retreated. I didn’t find the queen and am not even too sure what I saw.

But the story doesn’t end there. Later, in the afternoon, I was strimming the garden quite some distance from the hive and I heard a buzzing followed rather quickly by a sharp pain in my hand – one of the blighters had got me after all!

The bees obviously are not going to give us their honey without a fight but we remain determined. Next time we are using the smoke!

We also made a video for our English teaching site Unfortunately (perhaps) most of the more exciting moments were not captured on film and the section with me examining a frame is necessarily ‘artistic’ (and accidental) as by this stage Jackie, the camerawoman, had dropped the camera and retreated to the safety of the house.

To anyone who knows about bees there is also a glaring error in the narrative. The queen doesn’t lay the eggs in honey but in an empty cell. After it hatches, the other bees then feed the larva with royal jelly and pollen. The honey is put in cells purely as a store for the winter months.