Wow, what a day for us in the apiary.

To say our hive is full would be a gross understatement – our hive is so jammed that when we tried to do the hive inspection last week, the bees were about 3 deep on the combs and trying desperately to build more comb despite the lousy spring weather so far.  It started in March/Early April with a gorgeous week which got all of England aflutter and talking about summer – how wrong could we be???? VERY!  Then it went back to winter during April and was colder now than during our mild winter at 2 degrees celsius at the start of the day and only managing to get to 3 degrees all day, with nights in the negative figures.  How to confuse the bees and all my flowering espaliered fruit trees.

The big questions therefore was – To split or not to split? When? and How?

There is plenty online about splitting a colony if you have a national or langstroth hive, but not so much about Topbar hives.  Then we have the additional problem that we couldn’t find our queen and panicked because how do you split a topbar hive without having seen the queen?

So many questions and so many different answers – a typical day for a beekeeper!

​Trawling the internet I found out about walk away splits and although all the write-ups were for national hives, it seemed that it was possible for a topbar hive in a similar way.  It sounded simple enough….

Just take half the colony with eggs, brood and stores and move it to a new hive- shake in some bees – and walk away!  The foraging bees will fly back to the old hive and the nurse bees will continue to care for the brood in the new hive.  The hive with the queen will continue as it was before but with some extra space, and the other hive will realise they are queenless and raise a new queen from an egg or very young larva.

Okay, sounds simple, but what if we can’t find our queen AND we can’t see eggs?

mmmmm…..look again – harder this time and with a magnifying glass!

Wednesday afternoon we had a break in the weather and it was expected to continue for another few days….plenty of opportunity for the Poppy hive to swarm  – just what we needed to avoid.

We had to make a decision!

We weighed up all the pros and cons and then asked the questions “Now we understand the good and bad, should we do it today?” AND, “Are we just delaying because we are too scared to do our first split and potentially harm our bees?”  The answer was “Yes”  So we just decided to do it scared!

Kitted out in our beekeeping regalia, buckets, water etc. etc. we headed out with our hearts pounding in our throats.  The plan was this…

Move the lefthand topbars out of Poppy over to Ethan.

Suspend the combs over a bucket to ensure we don’t loose the queen is she drops off while walking across the two meters between the hives.

Remove a few empty topbars from Ethan.  Shake off as many bees as possible from the Poppy comb and check that you have a good supply for eggs, larva, brood and stores.  If yes, place this into the new hive.

Repeat until the hives are half and half, and if necessary shake a few more bees off the Poppy frames into the Ethan hive to ensure they have enough nurse bees to care for the brood until a queen hatches.

It was all going really well, when hubby shouted “I’ve found the queen”! What? after all our inspections and trying, now she appears!  What amazing luck.  We caught her in a queen trap and marked her to help us in the future.  She was safely tucked away into a pocket until we were finished the transfer and then we returned her to Poppy to continue her good work – and hopefully NOT swarm anyway because there are still a LOT of bees!

On the left is a picture of Poppy and right is Ethan.  We have a system of pins that we use each inspection to show what is on each comb….

Green = New Comb or New Topbar

Blue = Brood

Yellow = Stores (Honey or nectar)

Clear = where the queen was spotted

Each week we photograph the hive top and print it for the file and then we can see how the hive changes over time.

Here the bees are madly fanning outside Poppy because they realised at some point that the queen was missing and now she had returned and were letting the rest of the hive know…..


One of our beautiful girls having a well deserved rest and clean on my hand…..

A view through the new window on Ethan.  What a joy to see them already busily repairing comb and feeding the larvae.  I placed an empty topbar between each comb because they were very fat and touched each other…..

A really proud moment.  After all the worry our job is done and it is now up to the lovely bees to do the rest – raise a queen, gain strength in numbers and keep pollinating our plants – and if you can spare any, a bit of honey would not go amiss 🙂

Hubby enjoying a moment of quiet contemplation with our bees.  Thank you bees for being so patient and understanding.  

The landing board on Poppy with a lot of fanning going on…..the bees raise their tails and excrete a pheromone which tells the other bees where to go…..

We will have to keep an eye on the nightime temperatures because the hives are now smaller and we wouldn’t want them to suffer from the cold when a few layers of insulation can help.  The new hive has enough stores for a while and soon the nurse bees will move onto foraging duties.

Now it is a waiting game – about 4 weeks from now we will hopefully see eggs again and that means the new queen has hatched, flown, mated and returned to her hive.

We were very successful in building a couple of new hives without spending any money on timber. The hives cost us the grand total of £4 each for the glass viewing panes – a great result.

Even our building site did not have sufficient timber of the right quality to build a decent hive that would last outdoors in the weather. Luckily our children were redecorating the boy’s bedroom. This included a new bunk bed which meant that the wooden bed we built them 8 years ago was no longer needed and it was made of really good timber and a perfect opportunity to upcycle it into the new hives.

This went better than either of us expected and making more than one at a time saved a lot of time and effort.

All four sides were made from the two bunkbed mattress slats.  They were glued together to create larger sheets and then cut to size.  A great plan for a topbar hive can be found at Biobees.com; this is Phil Chandlers website and he has great advice and help for topbar beekeepers.


Unlike our first hive ‘Poppy’, these ones were made with a full width viewing window because the one thing we really miss on that hive is being able to see all along the entire hive. 

The inside view with the glass still to be fitted, but with the inspection door installed.  The mesh bottom of this hive is also different from Poppy, because we had trouble finding a decent small mess without spending a fortune.  In this case, we used the plastic tapestry or cross-stitch fabric which I had in my sewing room.  A few joined together and cut to size is perfect….

A view of one of the topbars.  These have a small rebate at each end to prevent the topbar slipping off either end of the hive.  In addition, we are testing out a way to create a bee-highway.  The only thing on hand were these cable clips which were nailed to the centre of the topbars and this will hopefully be left open by the bees to give them a quick way to travel between combs without having to go all the way down or round; we will see how/if it works…..

Each topbar was going to have a piece of tongue cut off a tongue & groove board to create a guide for the combs.  Instead we changed this by using string dipped in wax and stapled to the combs – another test…..

Here are all the exterior parts of the hive being painted with a marine varnish to hopefully give us the longest wearing hive we can.  The legs were cut from the 4 main bunkbed legs and were a great size for a very secure hive stand…..

Our favourite part of the hives?  The stickers and writing.  Over eight year our two grandsons had done a fine job of ‘decorating and personalising’ their bunkbed with stickers of all sorts and quite a bit of writing – names too!  We varnished over all of this to retain them and to add character to this hive…..

Three holes drilled into the side for the bee entrances – and a beautiful early picture by Ethan – I hope the bees appreciate the artistic workmanship…..

A view inside the hive with the inspection door open and the retaining chain in view – this will prevent the door opening too much and snapping off the hinges…..

Legs all varnished and ready for assembly.  This hive certainly has character…..

This new hive has been named ‘Ethan’, in honour of grandson number 2 who autographed it when he started school last year.  We used this piece of timber especially at the hive entrance for a landing board so that the bees knew the name of their new home 🙂

All the topbars ready for installation – here you can see the string with wax which we pressed to the surface of the topbars and stapled at the ends…..

Installing the glass viewing pane….

A quick feeder in case the weather turns on us again this year.  It may not be pretty, but it does the job admirably until I sort out my new idea for an external feeder…..

And here is Ethan ready for the great outdoors – and some bees!

One of the brass catches holds the inspection door closed and the other will latch the roof of the beehive securely against high winds…..

Here is Ethan set up and waiting for his new occupants.  Poppy has been left in the corner with her entrance facing the garden fence, and Ethan has its entrance facing the opposite direction (the grey on the sides are insulation sheets which we will take off as soon as the temperature gets above about 12 degrees…..

Lid installed with hinges and a safety chain.  All the topbars in place as well…..

It’s all done for Ethan and we have just the varnishing and window to install on ‘Travis’ – hive number 3.  Now all we need is more bees please…..

It is a relaxing Monday evening in Hesketh House and hubby and I are chatting over a lovely cup of tea after work.  As with so many of our chats they start with anything interesting we may have heard or seen recently and like a greyhound out of the starters gate, take off at high-speed all over the place….you never know where these conversations will find you and what they will pick up along the way.

Today we started out with the simple topic of the Persimmon, or Kaki, an apple size fruit with a lovely shiny yellow skin – we bought one at the store to give it a try.  Not simply being happy that we now knew its other names and varieties found all over the world e.g. Sharon fruit is a variety from Israel, we also learned of its many health benefits, drinks uses, timber used etc, etc.  However, like most things, the over consumption can have some negative effects as well.  In the case of the humble Persimmon, you can apparently, if rarely, get a Bezoar (sounds like bee-zore); a build up of various indigestible substances that create an almost stone-like ball in the stomach – yuck!

For anyone with long hair a few years ago, you may have been told by someone older and apparently wiser than you, that if you chew your hair it would create a hard ball in your stomach which could kill you.  Well my 10-year-old self may have occasionally played with my hair in such a manner (again – yuck), but thought ‘oh, how ridiculous, an adult trying to scare me – again’.  WELL, who knew that this supposed old wives tale has an edge of truth to it because Bezoars can be formed from hair too.


Since medieval times, it was believed that Bezoars could cure you of almost any deadly poisons as it was meant to absorb the poison from your body and therefore cure you.  This was disproved by  a ‘scientist’ who fed one to a chef that was given poison as his sentence for theft.  Sadly he died a very long and painful death – I am sure that his original sentence of death by strangulation would have been preferable.

Bezoars are sometimes carved and buffed to a high shine for jewellery – yuck, yuck, yuck! Go online if you don’t believe me and see some images for yourself.

Naturally leading on from stones in the stomach hubby wondered if the nice smelly stuff in a whales stomach was also a form of Bezoar.  Alas no, this is ambergris or grey amber, a substance produced to protect the whales stomach from the hard and sharp beaks of squid.  Ambigris can be burned or used in perfume.  It is almost as valuable as gold.  Occasionally someone makes their fortune finding it in a whale carcass, but I presume much is found as part of the madness that is whale hunting.

If you’re expecting to find a dead whale on the beach with a few kilograms of ambergris, you may want to consider another pension option, as this happens very rarely and fights have broken out amongst Ambigris hunters for less.

By now, the time has been steadily ticking by and from starting our tea at 5.30pm, we realise that it is 7.30pm and the dinner is waiting downstairs.

I could tell you that chasing stories and information down a rabbit hole is a rare thing for our family, but that would be a vast exaggeration because we all spend many happy hours hunting, investigating and churning up weird and wonderful facts and information of no particular use other than to broaden our general knowledge.

Therefore, the question that I always posed to our children as they were growing up was “Do you want the long or the short answer?”  If they wanted a quick succinct answer they came to me; if they wanted the thesis and the rabbit hole, then they went to Daddy.

Nothing has changed to this day – and that is how you get from Persimmons to Ambergris.

Happy trails everyone!



The Lake District in Cumbria is a special place, much of it a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and home of the remarkable herdwick sheep, Wordsworth, Fletcher Christian and many other famous and infamous characters. There are countless breathtaking drives, walking routes and properties, one of which is Hardknott Roman fort on the perilously steep and sinuous Roman road that traversed, more or less, what is now the Hardknott and Wrynose passes. My late friend and spiritual mentor, Dave, loved the Lake District and on one of our first trips to the area together in circa 2007, I recall traipsing up the hill to the fort trying unsuccessfully to shield myself from the driving, horizontal rain,our wives having decided that we were on our own, Dave looked as unfazed as if it were a a summers day (in Northern England it probably was): what wonderful memories.

Today the wife and I returned to Wrynose Pass and the Roman fort. Who would have guessed, it was raining, but with infinitely less ferocity though. The fort is still there, and will be in another two millennia but sadly my best friend is not; here’s to you Dave, I know you are at peace with our creator in a place so amazing, it eclipses even the staggeringly beautiful Lake District you loved so much. 

A bountiful weekend….

This weekend, with the help of the family, I managed to get quite a bit of preserving done. 

Here are some of the results as well as an apple cider vinegar I made a couple of months ago….

Mixed berry and apple jam made from freeze dried raspberry, strawberry and blackcurrants. 

What is going to prove extremely popular, and as a German winemaker told us last year “the only way to get your wine fix at breakfast” – an apple and Pinot Grigio wine jam – or jelly because it is clear and smooth. 

A glorious jam made from freshly steamed apple juice and a hint of fresh pineapple juice. 

A pear shrub waiting for apple cider vinegar to be added before leaving for a week to ferment and strain, then enjoy as a cordial or mixer. This one is going to Cardiff with our son today. 

An apple shrub fermenting for another few day before we can enjoy. 

And last but by no means least, my homemade apple cider vinegar made from freeze dried apples. This took around 4 months to brew and ferment and now lives in the cellar where we tap off what we need from the 20 litre keg I made. 

Next years apples will be turned into another batch of apple cider vinegar to ensure a constant supply. 

A bountiful couple of days which I will finish off today with a 2016 batch of pumpkin chutney – because in our house pumpkins are not just for Halloween! 

A small windfall….

My lovely friend Christine has a much larger and older apple tree in her garden than ours and each year she passes me a big bag of apples.

Last year we made wine and a lot of apple sauce…..this year I have gone for smooth jam – or jelly if you’re American.

I start off by getting one of the grandchildren to help chop the apples – core and all, although I really should have, and would have used the apple corer if it could have been found at the time.  The only bit I don’t like to add to the pot are the pips, but the rest, skin and all are chopped up and added to the top of my steamer……

After a couple of hours we have a nice steady stream of lovely clear apple juice to turn into jam.

Basically I weigh the juice and place it into a heavy bottom pan together with 70% sugar and the juice of 1 or 2 lemons depending on the quantity.  In this case I had 1700g of apple juice and topped it up to 2000kg with the juice from defrosted pineapple chunks which I happened to have on hand after defrosting our chest freezer.  In this case it was 2000kg juice and 1400g white sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice.

Allow the sugar to dissolve in the juice over a very gently heat and once absolutely clear and sugar crystal free I turn up the heat and allow it to bubble at a nice rolling boil until it reaches 102 degrees celsius.  Pour the hot jam into hot sterilised glass jars, add lids and submerge into boiling water to cover all the jars and boil gently for 10 minutes.  Remove to a trivet or baking tray and wait for them to ‘pop’ as a vacuum sucks in the disk on the lid.

Label….and enjoy!

Delicious – and an hour well spent last night for a yield of 9 jars of jam….one of course goes to the donor as a thank you.


Today we have something a little different to show you….

How to rack wine from one carboy to another using a vacuum pump.  Racking wine basically means moving wine from one vessel to another leaving behind any sediment…repeating this process leaves your wine clearer each time.

Our vacuum pump setup was created using a lot of bits and pieces of various pipes we found in our wine kit and in the old cellar – one of these days we may set it up semi-permanently by attaching the pipes to the wall and leaving them in place rather than packing it all up each time.

What you need is…..

A racking cane in the sending carboy (the carboy with the wine in),

Tubing from the racking cane to the filter inlet,

Tubing from the filter outlet to the receiving carboy inlet,

Tubing from the receiving carboy outlet to the overflow bottles inlet,

Tubing from the overflow outlet to the vacuum pump.

In between you can also have cut-off valves, but you can also use the on/off of the vacuum pump to control the flow, but bear in mind that once the vacuum has formed even if you switch off the pump it will still continue to syphon because it is a sealed vacuum system by this point.

Points to note:

The sending carboy does not get sealed, you simply place the racking cane in the open carboy or bucket (that’s how I clean my system – we place the racking cane into a bucket of cleaning solution).

The receiving carboy must create a good seal or you won’t create a vacuum environment and it will not suck up the wine.  The tubing we use fits really well over the inlet and outlet 0n the orange carboy bungs and create a good seal.

Please don’t try and do this without an overflow bottle because this vacuum racking system also degasses your wine at the same time and some wines create tons of foam which can easily be sucked up into the outlet tube and into your pump!

You can rack using this system with your carboys at the same height (unlike using a syphon where the sending carboy must be higher than the receiving carboy).  Less moving large, heavy and slippery glass jars around!

Here is a little video I posted showing it in action….

In the future we plan to attach all the piping and the filter to the wall and leave them in place semi-permanently.  We will run cleaning solution through the system after use and then seal the ends to ensure no dirt gets into the system in between uses.  Regardless of whether we do this or not, we always run cleaning solution through it before each use.  The reason I am trying the sealed method is because we live in a 400 year old house and we have on a few occasions found little critters have taken up residence in the tubing!

Here is another great video that Sicilian Prince, another home winemaker, has posted which very clearly explains his process…..

So, that’s another 90 bottles of wine racked, degassed, filtered and topped up ready for bulk ageing in the cellar; a job well done with a minimum of lifting and carrying.


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