Dye bed progress

The dye bed is looking like a… dye bed. Liz has done a magnificent job of raising from seed coreopsis, Japanese indigo, woad and a field’s worth of hollyhocks – which might end up taking over the whole site. We’ve also got safflower which I’ve sown but which might be a bit tender for our rough climate. The weld I sowed last year (it was very reluctant to germinate but has stormed ahead this year) is nearly ready for harvesting. We’ve also got dahlias, beetroot (a variety called Bull’s Blood which has deep red leaves and – at the moment – promisingly bright pink roots. Oh, and of course the calendula, which makes an orange border along the whole length of the bed.

Next to the bed we have sown a stand of flax which seems to put up with all weather conditions. It is a wonderful plant. Not only can you make linen thread (or, more likely in our case, the less refined, but equally important, string) from it, but it is also attractive to us and to bees and of course produces linseed, which is full of Omega 3, which is Good. My ambition is to process the flax, turn it into string and dye it red or blue or yellow…








Dream Bee

Last night I dreamt that I’d taken our newly installed hive to my childhood home and removed the hive roof to expose the frames. I hadn’t smoked the hive first, so the bees weren’t terribly happy and were buzzing manically around the bedroom that I’d shared with my younger sister.

I knew I shouldn’t have taken them there. If you transport a colony of bees, it takes them a while to work out where their new home is. If you move a hive – unless it’s just a few feet – the bees that are out foraging will never find their way home. Using a mix of pheromones and waggle dances, the bees ‘talk’ to each other – communicating everything from ‘the queen is happy and laying’, to where to find the best forage and ‘this is where we live now’.

Back to the dream then: I had to tell the other members of my family to take care and especially to avoid the sort of arm-waving that you’d normally associate with seeing a load of angry bees buzzing about. The next thing to happen in this nightmare scenario where I had no control over anything, was that the bees swarmed – half the hive just took off and hung, in a buzzing cluster – off the stair rail. I didn’t know what to do…

Thankfully, as in all the best dreams, our bee teacher, Ian, showed up with his smoker. First he calmly captured the swarm – experienced bee-handlers simply tap the cluster into a box and transport them to their new home. Then puffed the smoker over the hive. Smoking has the effect of confusing the guard bees’ receptors so that they can’t alert, and so panic, the rest of the colony. Once smoked, the bees inside the hive started gorging on honey; this is in anticipation of moving to a new hive if threatened by, say, a forest fire, and induces a sort of post-prandial torpor.

‘So what was that all about then, oh dream interpreter?’

A standard anxiety dream, I’d say. I’m a new beekeeper, a child in the world of beekeeping. We’ve only just got our hive and colony at Cordwainers and, on delivery, Ian told me that the bees weren’t entirely happy with their queen. Who knows why? And, more importantly for me, who knows what to do? I did a hive inspection the following weekend and thought that the queen had, in fact, already done a moonlight flit. Ian came to take a look and confirmed it, advising that we needed to allow the bees to make themselves a new queen. Clever things, bees. They take an egg from an ordinary cell, pop it in a newly made ‘queen cell’, feed it royal jelly and, Bob’s your uncle… a new queen.

Another worry for our colony is the weather – so much rain has meant that the poor bees haven’t been able to get out enough to collect pollen and nectar to feed the brood and make stores for winter. As we get closer to the summer solstice, when the queen’s laying starts to slow down, it’s possible that the colony won’t be strong enough to survive the winter. Having spoken to other beekeepers, there are any number of such events that can affect the survival of a colony. This is just the start…

So, it’s our first beehive and it’s tough to consider that they may not make it, but now we have them, I’ll be doing everything in my power to help them through… Jan


Borage Pesto


Borage is more versatile than just an addition to Pimm’s. Bees and other pollinators love it and it is a herbal remedy which has been used for centuries. It was thought to dispel melancholy and impart courage; Crusaders were given borage-laced wine when they left for war. The flowers can also be used for a dye – as well as to repel insects. It is also edible. Borage seeds are a good source of omega 3 oil (often sold as starflower oil) and can make an alarmingly blue oil or pesto.

To make a borage pesto, treat the flowers as you would a normal basil pesto: put the petals in a mortar with some sea salt and pound them to a paste. Gradually add sunflower oil (milder than olive). Use it with pasta.

Other edible use: Borage and Spring Onion Frittata.

Thanks to the wonderful Plants for a Future and Frances Bissell’s book, The Scented Kitchen