Thursday, 18 May 2017

Dragonfli Bumble Bee Beepol and 2017 Villa - unboxing and review

The Dragonfli Ltd Beepol and Villa

I wrote a review of the first Dragonfli Beepol and Villa back in 2011, and I really wanted to share my thoughts of the new 2017 Beepol Hive and Villa with you.

This will be our fourth Dragonfli Beepol. This year the Villa (the pretty wooden hive that the Beepol goes in) and the Beepol itself have been thoroughly redesigned, taking on feedback from customer experience, especially with regards to pest control and colony strength.

Bumble bees are at the mercy of many enemies, man being one, destruction of habitats, mono-culture farming practices, poor weather, pesticides,Varroa mite and Wax Moth. A large, strong, healthy colony is better at surviving these perils than a weak, small one.

The delightful thing about being able to keep and observe Bumble Bees is gaining an insight into their life, beginning right from the moment they arrive.

Unboxing the Dragonfli Beepol and Villa

Dragonfli Bumble bee Beepol Villa arrives two boxes
Our Dragonfli delivery arrives!
MrPB lifts Dragonfli Bumble bee Villa out packaging
MrPB lifts the Dragonfli Villa out of it's packaging.
Dragonfli Bumble bee Beepol colony outer box
The Bumble bee Beepol is revealed
Inside the box marked LIVE BEES is a white cardboard box (above), containing the plastic Beepol hive, with the colony already thriving inside. When you lift the hive out, the bees will be active and buzzing noisily. They are responding to the light and movement.

Dragonfli Bumble bee Beepol hive
The colony are contained in the Beepol Hive
Under the Hive is the new liquid feed chamber. Leaving the chamber in the white cardboard box, the cap is removed from the sponge (cylindrical creamy coloured wet thing, top centre of the chamber - see photo below) and the Beepol is clipped on top of it with the sponge poking up through the hole into the Beepol.

Previous Beepols have not come with a feeder, but should the weather be inclement after release, making it difficult for the bees to forage, this liquid feed will serve as a backup supply to keep the colony strong.

new Dragonfli Beepol liquid feed chamber
The new Dragonfli Beepol liquid feed chamber
The Beepol is then placed inside the wooden Villa. The white cardboard box should touch the back wall of the Villa, but there will be gaps on each side, and a large one at the front. The bees will be able to negotiate this gap when they leave the Beepol entrance (temporarily sealed with a yellow sliding door), to exit the villa by the wide open slot machined in the wooden Villa.

Dragonfli Bumble bee Beepol placed inside Villa
The Beepol is placed inside the Villa
Dragonfli Bumble bee colony look fit well good nest built
Sneaky peek at the Bumble bee colony, looking fit and well with a good quantity of nest built
We sited the Hive under a Fatsia japonica, with the entrance facing east. The garden is filled with excellent pollen and nectar sources, though this doesn't seem to matter, as the bees always fly off eastwards towards the North Downs.

Dragonfli Bumble bee Villa sited under Fatsia japonica raised flower bed
The Dragonfli Villa located in a raised flower bed
Within moments of opening the sliding yellow door we saw the first Bumble bee leave the hive. NB, the Beepol has been pulled forward in the Villa to allow MrPB to open the sliding door and release the bees. It was pushed back into position after this photo was taken.

first Bumble bee come out Dragonfli Beepol
The first bee!
We only had to wait 20 minutes for the first bee to return to the hive, with its pollen sacks bulging. That's the fastest yet!

We're thoroughly enjoying watching the comings and goings of our new furry friends.

Dragonfli Beepol Maintenance

Dragonfli treat every Beepol and Villa against Wax Moth before it leaves them, and while it is advisable to leave the colony as undisturbed as possible once it arrives, you will need to respray the whole set up with Wax Moth repellent every 3-4 weeks from date of arrival to the end of the colony's life (end of July-ish). Failure to do this could result in the Wax Moth larvae eating all the Bumble bee larvae, and leading to the total devastation of the colony. Signs to look for are cobweb like threads inside the Villa and Hive, and the appearance of greyish brown larvae. These larvae are capable of burrowing into the wood of the Hive, you may see these tunnels when you clear out the Villa at the end of the season.

Dragonfli Beepol and Villa Review

The online ordering process with Dragonfli is very simple, and if you have any queries, the customer service is excellent.

Delivery is by courier, on a specified day. Remember these are live creatures, so you need to be on hand to take delivery.

The packaging is really sturdy and beautifully sized for the contents. there is no excess space, or need for padding, and the bees have good ventilation round them.

The Beepol hive is a lovely bit of design engineering, balancing ventilation and protection needs very carefully.

The Villa is robust pine wood with filtered vents at the back, a wide entrance with landing platform, and this year a felted roof. Now I know from chicken-keeping experience that the space between roofing felt and the roof itself can provide a perfect place for pests to set up home. We will need to see if this is the case with Bumble bees.

Not only would I highly recommend Dragonfli as a company, which we have personally used since 2011, I would also highly recommend giving a Bumble bee colony a home in your garden or on your roof terrace. The hive takes up only a small space, and the colony size is a fraction of a honey bee colony, so you won't ever be surrounded by a swarm, so long as you respect them and don't bang the hive. They are fascinating, educational, docile and absolutely vital for pollination - and, lets face it, for the continuation of life as we know it on Earth.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Pet Owners Have to Take the Bad with the Good

Always be Vigilant with your Pets Health

When you've got 13 pets in your life, there are bound to be health issues cropping up from time to time. For ages there'll be nothing, then suddenly everyone needs extra attention.

As we go into the month of May, here are some of the things going on chez Pumpkin Becki.


Felicity has been dreadfully broody, so she hasn't been taking care of herself with regular dust baths, eating, drinking, having grit, so it's been up to us to make sure she's getting out of the coop to eat drink and poop, inspecting her (and the others) for lice, treating with a spot-on type ivermectin (prescribed by our vets) if necessary, plus dusting her manually with diatomaceous earth. This is good, because you pick up each bird and can also get a sense of it's weight and overall condition. It's also important to thoroughly clean the coop with a red mite treatment, as warmer weather and hot. broody hens can cause a population explosion before you know it!

Hetty Orpington Hen
Hetty is such a sweet girl

Hetty is a natural midwife, when someone goes inside the coop to lay, she sits with them until they're done. With Felicity broody, Hetty has also not been looking after herself, but we thought she was midwifing and hadn't realised how bad she was until she began holding her tail was down.

Picking her up you could feel she was lighter than before, she had a few lice too but not in significant numbers. she got a spot-on treatment and a dusting. Then she pooped...well it was more of a squirt than a poop! Bright green bits in a watery white splat. This was NOT NORMAL! The ivermectin should clear up external and internal parasites including most worms, but not all. We'd been dosing the layers pellets with Flubenvet, but with Felicity and Hetty not eating properly, they probably weren't getting their proper dosage. Felicity has now come out of her broody phase and is back to her old fabulous self, but Hetty is suffering. We are now hand feeding her a mixture of growers and layers pellets, plus Verm-X Poultry Zest, softened in apple cider vinegar and water, with a sprinkling of corn for added appeal. The cider vinegar is said to be beneficial to poultry, reducing bacterial infection, and acting as a wormer and digestion aid by reducing the pH level in the chicken's digestive system.

Hetty Orpington Hen being handfed tempting mixture
Hetty being handfed a tempting, mushy mixture
On day one Hetty was silent and disinterested, she had to be encouraged to keep lifting her head up as we carefully syringe fed her. When we put her back on the ground she was very unbalanced and though she now had fluids and food in her we were desperately concerned.

On day two she allowed us to syringe feed her a little, but as I re-mixed the mashy concoction, she started pecking it off the spoon! She took little but often and we were really pleased with how much she managed to consume. We fed her three times over the day and she began standing up for longer and making her sweet little cooing sound again.

On day three she seemed a little brighter still, she had three feeds of her special concoction again, was more active in the run, pecking for her evening corn with the others, but being very submissive to them, and her droppings were definite squirts still.

Day four (today), she only ate a little of her mush this morning, but was keen to drink when she was put back in the run, and she put up a bit more of a struggle to be caught - always a good sign. By lunchtime she was coming out of the run on her own to peck for some scratch treats and beginning to stand up for herself again. Hopefully we've turned the corner, but we still need her poops to improve.

Hetty Orpington Hen being handfed
Action Shot: Omm nom nom nom


Fingers crossed, all is quiet on the hamster front.

Pip Roborovski Hamster awesome whiskers
Pip the Roborovski Hamster has awesome whiskers

Guinea Pigs

Rosie developed a bald patch on her rump last week. I suspect it's lice related, as she is quite reluctant to be touched near it. Alternatively she may be suffering from barbering at the hands (or teeth) of Phoebe or Tilly.

Rosie's bald patch

Barbering is where a guinea pig's hair is pulled out/ chewed off by itself or a cage mate. It shouldn't be treated lightly, and you must establish whether the hair loss is self inflicted or not. If self inflicted it could be the sign of a skin infection or infestation, and that must be dealt with. As with the chickens, it's the right time of year for a population explosion of creepy crawlies, so you must be vigilant for signs such as excessive hair loss, clumps of hair falling out with skin attached, scurf and bald patches. You may even see the lice wiggling around near the skin. they look like tiny fawn-brown...insects (sorry, I gave up trying to find a better description!).

If Phoebe or Tilly are barbering Rosie, it may be because she has long hair that looks a little hay-like (sorry Rosie, I'm not suggesting your hair looks like straw, honest!). If that's the case I may have to cut it shorter, but the patch is very localised, my instinct says it's lice.

I'm treating Rosie in several ways; she, Tilly and Phoebe have all had a spot-on treatment of ivermectin, then about five days later Rosie had a Gorgeous Guineas CocoNeem Melt treatment and a lather, rinse, repeat in Gorgeous Guineas Lice 'n' Easy shampoo. She is due for a follow-up bath one week later.

Rosie also has ongoing earwax issues. I've never known anything like it! Cotton wool buds don't really remove it, it needs emulsifying with something first and then wiping off. The internet suggests a mineral oil, but I also emailed Chrissie at Gorgeous Guineas to see if she has anything in her range to suggest. She doesn't have anything specific, but recommended an off the shelf product Otodex drops, or repeat applications of her CocoNeem Melt over three days.

Rosie is bright in every other respect, eating and drinking well, so if I don't see any improvement, including hair regrowth after all that, she will be going to the vets.

The Moral of this story is:

Always be vigilant with your pets, their health and well-being is your responsibility and yours alone. Changes happen quickly, particularly with 'prey' animals, who tend to hide their symptoms until the very end. Quick action on your part can reduce the chances of long term problems or fatality.

If you've experienced any of this issues too, do let me know in the comments.
Pumpkin Becki xx

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Stoneacre National Trust House and Garden Visit

Several years ago at a party, someone mentioned they had visited a charming National Trust property called Stoneacre not far from our village. Despite my extensive childhood visits to National Trust properties, I'd never heard of it, so looked it up online. The NT website shows a stunning Medieval Hall House with garden, it's described as small, and being tenanted is only open on Saturdays and Bank Holiday Mondays between April and the end of September.

What with one thing and another, it's been a long time since Mr PB and I have been out for a proper jaunt, and this May Bank Holiday weekend we took the opportunity to drive over to Stoneacre, in the village of Otham, near Maidstone, Kent, an absolutely beautiful area of the county.

The journey to Stoneacre

Otham is off Junction 8 of the M20 motorway,  then travelling along the A20 Ashford Road towards Bearsted and Maidstone. The turning (Otham Lane) is marked with a brown tourist sign for Stoneacre.
Otham Lane becomes Green Hill and both are very narrow and twisty. There are lots of passing places, but oncoming traffic comes up on you very quickly, so do take care.
Turn left down Stoneacre Lane. Again this is narrow and twisty, but also drops very steeply. Concentrating too hard on oncoming traffic and the ford at the bottom of the hill, I completely missed the NT car park sign tucked in the hedge on the right hand side**

The car park is a small field below the house and gardens, but you have to walk back to the road and turn right out of the gate, over the wooden bridge crossing the ford, and on up the steep hill. There is no footpath.
There are disabled car parking spaces in a tiny stable yard immediately opposite the black iron gates of the house, but probably only fits 2 or 3 very well parked cars.

I had to just catch my breath for a moment before drawing level with the gates, only to have it taken away again by...

Stoneacre house

Stoneacre National Trust property garden front facade
The front facade of Stoneacre NT
I'm a huge fan of half timbered, Medieval/Tudor buildings and this one is really special. This is the view from the iron gates on the roadside, so anyone could enjoy this view on any day.

Walk down the path to the archway, turn right, MIND THE STEP! and you are inside the building where you pay your entrance fee. Compared to other NT properties, entry to Stoneacre's house and gardens is very reasonable, and in keeping with the size of the property. When we visited it was £5.50 per adult and £2.60 per child (inc optional gift aid, so a little less without).

Most of the house is kept private for the tenants, but visitors can access the main hall, parlour, ante-room, library (tea room), the spiral staircase and tower (a 1920's addition), plus a bedroom (see 1st floor windows in the front gable, on far left of photo above).

Once you've paid you can either cross through to the other wing of the house, or go out into the garden. The whole house has undergone a lot of modification and restoration during its lifetime, mostly during the 1920's when a building historian and restorer bought it, and began removing the smooth plaster covering all the frame timbers, inside and out - can you imagine! He also added the little stair tower, spiral staircase, fireplaces and more. He bought and demolished a similarly aged building in Chiddingstone, and used much of it for the renovations on Stoneacre, including the oak spiral staircase. This feels like a very mercenary, almost vandalistic (I think I made that word up!) way of 'restoring' a house, but it's almost a century too late to cry over spilt milk. Much of the decorative paneling, the paintings and furniture appears to be from other properties as well, bought in by Aymer Vallance during his 1920's restoration. Whilst it all looks sympathetic to the house, some of it doesn't quite look like it belongs there, more like stage props.
Stoneacre NT property garden rear courtyard
The rear courtyard with the 1920's brick built stair tower, contrasting the mellow half timber of the original medieval hall.

Stoneacre garden

We may not have picked a perfect time of year to see the garden, but you could see how it was gently easing itself from early to late Spring. The first flush of tulips and hellebores were making way for late season tulips, aqueligia and euphorbia.

Hellebores tulips and aqueligia
Hellebores, tulips and aqueligia

Some flower beds were a subtle blend of deep purples, mauves and pinks, but other beds, such as those at the front of the property, were an exuberant riot of colour, a precursor to the blousier summer planting inspired by Great Dixter and Christopher Lloyd. The garden planting of tenanted National Trust properties is in the hands of the tenant. Physical structures,trees or important plants must remain, but herbaceous plants, bulbs and annuals are bought, paid for and tended by the tenants, so the garden is free to evolve and develop with time .

A beautiful collection of trees provided a canopy over much of the garden, the polished red bark of the Prunus serrula was a definite highlight, as was the stunning white-blossomed tree along the front wall of the garden with a welcoming bench underneath. Sadly I can't remember what the tree was called, even though the lovely volunteer gardener did tell me. He was a delight to talk to, and clearly relished being able to garden in this amazing place.

Prunus serrula tulips tower house
Prunus serrula forms a canopy over purple and white tulips at the tower end of the house.
In contrast to the vibrant Spring flowers was the lush Kelly Green growth of the Shuttlecock ferns, planted in a huge swathe next to a moss-clad stone wall.
Shuttlecock ferns stone wall
Shuttlecock Ferns
The scent of this Chocolate Vine (Akebia quinata) in full flower over an archway, was rich but not overbearing.

Stoneacre Chocolate Vine Akebia quinata
Akebia quinata aka Chocolate Vine
The house is never out of view as you wander round the many twisting garden paths, and your eye is always drawn back to it's mellow solidity.

Stoneacre viewed woodland path
Stoneacre Hall House viewed from a high woodland path
Stoneacre Wealden Hall House Garden
Stoneacre is a collection of additions on a classic Wealden Hall House

I am almost guaranteed to find a small fluffy creature wherever I go, and Stoneacre was no exception.
This little chap must belong to the tenants but is clearly very used to strangers in his garden.

Tenants Stoneacre sweet little dog
Cute dog! :)

Stoneacre accessibility

Unfortunately there are quite a few areas of the house and garden that can't be accessed by wheelchair, but it is still possible to enjoy some of it.

Stoneacre visit in summary

I thought Stoneacre was beautiful, and very well worth the visit. It is on the smaller side, so 2-3 hours is more than enough time to look round everything thoroughly, as well as speak to the guides and gardeners.
You don't need walking boots, as everything is very close by, but I wouldn't recommend wearing heels either.
The car park is a field in the bottom of a valley, sited next to a pond and stream, so probably gets rather soft in wet weather.
Would I go back? Probably not to see inside the house, but I'd definitely like to go back and see the garden at other times of year.

Have you been to Stoneacre? Let me know in the comments.
Pumpkin Becki xx

**If you should miss the turning for the car park like I did, you will drive over the ford at the bottom of the hill, follow the road sharply right and upwards again. A few moments later you might glimpse the black iron gates of Stoneacre, set into a stone wall which runs along the right of the roadside, with a tiny yard of four stables opposite (Disabled parking). Immediately beyond these is a farm yard, with the road continuing through it. The road narrows to single file and becomes a horrible, bumpy, rutted, stone-laden dirt track. This track is soul and car destroying, but does eventually bring you on to Honey Lane.
Clearly I do not recommend contact with this section of 'road', so if you overshoot the car park, drive up to the farmyard, turn your vehicle round in it, and try again.
I have emailed the National Trust asking them to review the car park signage for the sanity of their visitors and the farmer, but I am yet to hear from them. Personally I did not find that a disagreement with a stressed out MrPB was conducive to an enjoyable visit to this rather lovely property.