Monday, 29 April 2013

Rearing Queen Bees

We are rearing queen bees in the woods of Tŷ Hyll (the Ugly House) to sustain local bee-keeping in the Conwy valley.  To explain the process we need to set the scene as to what goes on in the hive and who does what. If you know all this already just skip to the final section.

There is one queen bee in each hive or colony of honey bees and all she does is lay eggs, maybe 2,000 a day for her 2 to 3 years of productive life. Fertilised eggs will become workers (females) or queens; unfertilised will be drones. Within a typical hive in summer there are about 2,000 drones, whose sole purpose is to mate with a virgin queen, and up to 60,000 workers, who do everything else in organised social harmony.

Image courtesy of NASA
The life of the worker bee
When a worker emerges into the darkness of the hive she will instinctively clean out her cell ready for another egg to be laid or for food to be stored. Learning by touch from older workers, she will help clean the hive, preparing cells for new eggs (brood) or for nectar and pollen (stores).

At 3 days she is a brood nurse, using stores to feed newly hatched larvae, and taking her turn to feed queen larvae with royal jelly, which she is now old enough to secrete. She will also attend the queen, guiding her to stores to feed and to newly cleaned cells for her egg laying.

At 6 days she is ready to receive and store food and water brought in by older bees, producing enzymes to process nectar into honey, and fanning with her wings to reduce the water content.

By 12 days she can secrete wax to repair or make new comb cells, to cap brood cells when larvae are ready to pupate or store cells when full of pollen or nectar.

By three weeks she is mature enough to explore the world outside the hive, initially guarding the entrance to warn off intruders. She takes short trips to familiarise herself with the surroundings, before finally becoming a fully fledged forager, venturing further and further afield.

After about 6 weeks the female bee has literally worked herself to death, possibly having flown 500 miles in her foraging lifetime. She will die sooner if she is forced to use her sting in defence.
Margaret and Pete with the first hive

Rearing Queen Bees
Eggs, from a colony at the National Beekeeping Centre for Wales, are grafted into artificial queen cups which look like queen cells constructed by worker bees. Up to sixteen of these on a special frame are put into a hive where the workers will feed the hatched larvae with royal jelly before capping the cells. Artificial protectors are then placed over each cell as protection from the colony queen and from each other.

Each newly hatched virgin queen is brought to Tŷ Hyll and placed in a mini-hive (apidea) with a handful of workers, mini-frames and a supply of food. The queen remains within her protection for a couple of days until the workers have accepted her smell, otherwise they would attack her as an intruder. Once we release the virgin queen from her protection she is eager to mate and start laying eggs to build up her colony.

Meanwhile we have been creating a plentiful supply of drones by placing frames within our hives which have the larger size cells into which the queen knows to lay (unfertilised) drone eggs.  Once hatched and mature these drones roam around the woods until a virgin queen detects their pheromones and flies up to mate with as many as possible on this one and only occasion. Their work complete, the drones die and we transfer the mated, laying queen to a nucleus hive, holding frames with stores of food plus workers from the main hives, ready to be supplied to local beekeepers. Alternatively, the laying queen can be supplied on her own for hives without a queen.

The vacated apidea are then prepared for the next batch of newly hatched virgin queens and the whole process may be repeated six times per season, creating up to ninety queens, each of which is capable of producing over a million eggs!

For more information about the work visit

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Entertaining visitors

A pair of newly arrived pied flycatchers outside their nest in an old oak, I thought that would impress them, but small birds in the distance had little impact on our city friends. The scenic route with commentary via Beddgelert and Capel Curig to the foot of Tryfan was well received. Then straight up the north ridge testing everyone’s ability to stretch and scramble but none of us dared the Adam and Eve leap. 
Sunshine left as we approached the summit of Glyder Fach for the obligatory cantilever pose. Strange feather formations of ice clinging to the rocks then down towards Devil’s Kitchen with playful detours through snow drifts. Geoff had said purple saxifrage was in bloom and sure enough, there were many plants; a huge bushy clump on the cliff and lots of compact plants alongside the path. These sometimes bloom in February so maybe everything is a bit late this year.

The café at Ogwen Cottage was still under construction so no celebratory ice cream. But a stop at the Ugly House tearoom for Lapsang Souchong, with real tea leaves, and cream scones was no disappointment. The finer points of the excellent compost toilet made good tea time conversation. And when it came to settling the bill I enjoyed a 20% discount as a member of the Snowdonia Society. I could have carried on down the road for the Society's 20% discount at Cotswold Outdoors but it was time to go home for a hot shower.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Natterjacks at Talacre

Fifteen years ago BHP Billiton got planning permission to pipe gas ashore from its rig off the north coast of Wales. The pipeline comes close to Talacre lighthouse, then under the dunes to the terminus, and onwards to fuel Connahs Quay Power Station. As part of the agreement BHP bought the SSSI sand dune system and reintroduced Natterjack toads.

Tin Man on Talacre Lighthouse
BHP is a massive ‘global resources’ company employing 100,000 people one of whom is Kim Norman, the ecologist at Talacre. I enjoyed attending her briefing and survey in late April 2013 from which I have learnt that Natterjacks are widespread in Spain and France but absent from Italy and scarce in Britain. Their distribution is something to do with retreating ice and the Alps blocking the spread to Italy. The UK is their northern extremity with about fifty sites mainly along the coast in northwest England and southwest Scotland.

Within Talacre dunes there are ‘ephemeral ponds’, ponds which dry out making them unsuitable for most competitor species, but this is where Natterjacks can excel and their numbers have grown considerably in the last couple of years. Our job was to count, sex, weigh and measure the toads. On 24th April there were 106 active in the ponds; this was the first recorded night of breeding for the season, some three weeks later than in recent years due to the cold weather, and the following day there were 13 spawn strings. This is what the beautiful toads looked and sounded like:

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Spring is sprung - for Purple Saxifrage at least!

We have certainly been waiting a long time for spring this year. At last, things have warmed up and migrant birds are arriving. Today, it rained for a couple of hours in the morning. As it eased off, I walked up the road to Nant y Coed (Llanfairfechan), hoping to hear a Pied Flycatcher sing. No luck, but by the stepping stones a small bird was flitting about, dropping down to the ground to feed. A female Pied Flycatcher, no doubt finding aerial food hard to find. I wonder whether they will be late nesting this year.
After lunch, the sun came out so we drove up through Bethesda to Ogwen Cottage, where the new Visitor Centre is still being built. Then up into Cwm Idwal, finding a few Wheatears beside the track and a pair of Gt Crested Grebes on the lake.  Halfway up the steep path leading to The Devil’s Kitchen (Twll Du) we found what we were looking for – a small clump of Purple Saxifrage, in flower. Bill Condry always made an annual pilgrimage to Cader Idris to see this plant - Chris Fuller describes this in his tribute to Bill in Natur Cymru 4 (2002). I don’t suppose they flowered in February this year. 
Snow still showing in the Nameless Cwm


Ras y Moelwyn 2013

Not only does the sun shine on the righteous but also on the runners of Ras y Moelwyn. It’s got to be the most atmospheric of all the Welsh mountain races and is always held the day before the London Marathon.  Just over a hundred set off on the 10.5 mile route rising 2,800 feet before plunging back down to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The winner was home in 79 minutes. Thanks to Antur Stiniog, all the marshalls, first aiders and members of South Snowdonia Mountain Rescue for making it a great event. 

If you fancy having a go, this is what the 2013 race was like:

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Glaslyn’s so blue, so blue .....

A clear view from the Cob is always spectacular but fishermen, and I don't mean the ospreys, just gave it that extra something today. High tide was retreating and the anglers were settled in for their competition with prizes for the heaviest fish and the heaviest overall catch. Nothing so coarse as would need to be thrown back but tasty sea trout.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Pontfadog Oak - then there were just 73

74 trees made it into Heritage Trees Wales but unfortunately only 73 remain standing; the Pontfadog Oak came crashing down in high winds this week. If that was the oldest tree in Wales, supposedly growing since AD 802, what is the oldest tree today? But then again, maybe it’s not dead yet. There have been suggestions of trimming the top and propping it up. If you missed seeing it in the flesh, you can still read about it in this beautiful book and in this BBC news item.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Carneddau Ponies

Carneddau ponies; so beautiful, tough and hardy, but not immune to Siberian winds, freezing temperatures and deep drifts of snow. Late winter blizzards coincided with foaling, on the back of a bad year for feeding, with devastating effect. Somewhere between 50 to 100 of the 220+ ponies perished. To escape the worst of the wind the ponies seem to have retreated downwards to the mountain walls and sheep pens for refuge only to fall victim to the worst of the drifting.  

I met the graziers, working with National Park wardens under the scrutiny of an archaeologist, as a mass grave was dug deep to bury a pile of about twenty of the ponies. Flesh retreating from jaws of teeth set in a fixed grin and a stench of rotten flesh. Most pitiful the sight of a small leg protruding from a mare which had struggled to give birth or abort before death overcame her.

On the hillside a group of ponies was grazing away, they must have been stronger and fitter. The only possible consolation of this disaster, a stronger gene pool for the future herd of ponies.

Why is the rainbow flat? Now I know

The rainbow spanning the Great Orme to Conwy, as I was driving east along the A55 Expressway at Penmaenmawr, was strangely flat. My memory says that rainbows are big hoops, maybe twice as wide as tall, but certainly tall. So why was this so flat and low relative to the spread? I’ve Googled and read but am none the wiser. Could it have anything to do with the very strong winds blowing it over? The time was 4:30pm on 17th April.

Thank you to Ed Green for explaining. At dawn or sunset a rainbow's centre, the antisolar point, is on the horizon which means the rainbow is half in the sky and therefore a semi circle. As the sun rises the centre of the bow sinks beneath the horizon so that you only see the top of the bow. Lots more fascinating stuff about rainbows on this great website:

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Everest 60th Anniversary

I finally made a visit to the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, just before the 60th anniversary of Hillary and Tenzing’s Everest climb. I’d heard that the names of the expedition members were written on the ceiling and sure enough, there they were, in the Alpine bar.

In the far corner of the ceiling I noted a familiar name, John Disley, who I’d listened to speaking as President of the Snowdonia Society at its recent AGM. A soft-spoken, quietly persuasive man but why was his name here next to Roger Bannister? No Everest connection as far as I can make out but great achievers nonetheless.

Both Bannister and Disley competed in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics with Bannister coming fourth in the 1500 metres and Disley winning bronze in the 3000 metre steeplechase. That same year John Disley set the record for the traverse of the Welsh 3000s ... ‘His time might well have been less than seven hours had not threatening weather prompted him to set off an hour earlier than planned.  As a result he kept arriving at his pre-arranged ‘pit-stops’ too early for his support teams.  He continued, without food or drink, until he finally collapsed on top of Pen yr Oleu Wen.  Fortunately, his support team on Carnedd Dafydd saw that something was amiss and came haring over to revive him....’ (extract from the excellent 14 x 3000 Cymru website).   Bannister went on to break the four minute mile in 1954 and Disley was BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year in 1955.

After shopping at Cotswold Outdoors
In 1981 Disley was co-founder of the London Marathon with Chris Brasher and both were regular guests at Pen y Gwryd. There is a reference in the Daily Post (2003 May 3rd) which says Brasher had a group of walkers called Oboes, an acronym for On the Back Of EnvelopeS, which was inspired by Harold Tilman, the explorer who used to write the details of his expeditions on the back of envelopes. Roger Bannister was a member of this group and presumably so was Disley? At the next AGM of the Snowdonia Society I must ask him.

I’m really glad I made it to this shrine to Everest in the heart of Snowdonia. The 60th anniversary is on 29th May and there will be a reunion at the hotel that weekend for the families of the expedition of which there is only one survivor, Jan Morris, who was the Times correspondent covering the story.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Writing from Nature

Chris Kinsey and Gillian Clarke
How does the natural world inspire and inform creative writing? How can writing about your natural surroundings enrich your writing, as well as your relationship with nature? This course, suitable for both beginners and experienced writers, will seek inspiration from the scenic, wooded surroundings of Gladstone’s Country park in Hawarden. An intensive 4 day course with Chris Kinsey starting: 2pm Thursday 6th June 2013 to Sunday 1pm.

Chris Kinsey was BBC Wildlife Poet of the Year in 2008. She received an Arts Council of Wales Writer’s Bursary in 2000 and has had three collections of poetry published...... but, even more impressive, she is a previous winner of the Natur Cymru Inspired by Nature writing competition.

Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden is the UK’s only residential library. For more information on the course, including fees and fee waiver scheme, please visit:

Dynasty of the Glaslyn Ospreys

I called in to pay my respects to the pair of ospreys now into their tenth breeding season. Mother was sitting on the three eggs laid on the 6th, 9th and 12th of April and a fish had just been delivered. After the disastrous 2004 season when both chicks were killed, in a storm which broke the nest, the parents have gone on to rear twenty one chicks so far.

What I liked most of all was the family tree showing the records of five of their offspring. Yellow 37, born 2005, was identified in Northumbria last year where she reared two chicks. Black 80, a male born 2006, has taken up residence in Dumfries, where his Dad used to be. So far he has fathered nine chicks. 

If 1 in 3 of the Glaslyn osprey chicks goes on to produce an average of 2 chicks a year for 25 years ...... that’s a heck of a lot of ospreys.

This is the last year of the Glaslyn osprey site being run as an RSPB affair and next season it will be in the hands of a local community venture. Whoever is in charge there is always the need for volunteers and at the moment a few extra hands are required – if you can spare the time for guarding the nest or for meeting the visitors, please get in touch with Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife at

Bringing back rabbits to Newborough

I met up with Graham Williams, senior reserve manager for Natural Resources Wales, at Newborough Warren national nature reserve. Covering a thousand acres it’s the largest dune system in the country but whereas fifty years ago it was 60% bare sand, today it is covered in a dense mat of vegetation down to just 3% sand. You can hear Graham talking about the dunes on Country Focus which will be broadcast on Sunday 14th April and available on the iPlayer for the following week.

Why the vegetation? Warren is the clue - in the good old days there was a huge population of rabbits, trappers catching 15,000 in a year, but in 1953 myxomatosis almost wiped out the population with but a few these days. Thousands of rabbits are great dune managers, grazing the vegetation and burrowing to create piles of loose sand that get blown around to form dunes. Today Graham uses ponies for grazing but sadly they are no good at digging holes.

Increased nitrogen deposition and increased CO2 levels have contributed to the vegetation growth as has the succession of wet winters and summers; also wet sand can’t be blown around.

So what? Bare sand is the lifeblood of a mobile dune system which in turn provides extreme, hot and dry habitats for rare species such as mining bees, sand wasps, beetles, and plants like petalwort. Several of these species are on the brink of extinction so intervention is underway.

Rabbits have been re-introduced in the form of giant diggers and twenty-five-tonne dumper trucks which are stripping and moving the vegetation from a 3 to 4 acre section of the dunes. Hopefully this will create a safe haven for the endangered species and a platform from which dry sand can be blown to smother vegetation, create more bare sand and get the dunes back to my childhood memory of what they should be.

Rabbits seem to be the key but if the rabbits didn’t get here until the Romans, what would the dunes have looked like then?

What I love about blogging is the near immediate response you can get and I am grateful to Mike Howe for the comment below:

Much of the sand body of Newborough Warren post-dates the Roman occupation of Anglesey by about 1200 years. The text below is taken from: Pye & Blott (2012). CCW Science Report 1002.

The timing of the earliest sand invasion at Newborough has not been established. However, there is evidence to suggest that a major episode of aeolian sand incursion occurred in the 13th and early 14th centuries, when significant areas of cultivated land were abandoned (Ranwell, 1958, 1959, 1960a)

Friday, 12 April 2013

Art Competition

Inspired by  Nature

Entries for the Natur Cymru Art competition are coming thick and fast, but if you haven't already entered there's still plenty of time before the closing date of 30th April 2013 - check out the details on our website

Three of our previous cover artists are currently exhibiting their work.

“In Western Light”

An exhibition of recent paintings by
Guy Manning
Pendre Arts, Pendre, Cardigan SA43 1JS
6.30-9pm, Saturday 23rd March 2013
Exhibition runs until 12th May 2013

Gallery Tel: 01239 615151 :


Judith Bridgland's paintings of Wales can be seen at the Lime Tree Gallery, Bristol.

Exhibition of Painting

David Bellamy & Jenny Keal at

Art Matters,
White Lion Street, Tenby

from 30th March

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Foster lamb

This time of year the field at the end of our drive is where the farmer gets lambs adopted by ewes that have lost their own. Skinning a mother’s dead lamb and draping it over the lamb to be fostered is a bit gruesome but a trick of the trade that seems to work well. This lamb looked as though she or he was wearing a wedding dress with a long trail. 

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Moel Dduallt on Fire

Six fire crews were out on the night of 9th April dealing with the fires on the foothills of Moelwyn Bach - thank you. Both sides of Moel Dduallt were ablaze with knee high bilberry. I hope the old oaks survive the scorching.

How did it start? I guess we'll never know, although there were rumours. Another rumour says a landowner was stopping fire tenders entering or leaving his land!

Dduallt means 'black hillside' and a few days after the fire it certainly looks like its name.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Bumblebees, Badgers and Briallu

Pushing onion sets into my dry soil it was a welcome sight to see the return of insect life after our mini ice age of a long winter. Not sure what it was, looked like some small kind of a bee. Jazzy bumblebees were focussed on the purple heather and not the close-up lens.

I walked through the woods to retrieve footage from my motion detect camera and clumps of Briallu (primroses) were in bloom at last. Also a few violets. 

As for the film footage; still no baby badgers but the parent, after a ceremonial scratch, was gathering new bedding for the nursery. Interesting technique, bit like a baling machine in reverse. 

Friday, 5 April 2013

Rhossili - a double take

Walking past a bookshop my eye was drawn to a cover, Wales by William Condry, with a photo of a sunny beach. I bought the book because I like reading the words of Bill Condry. On closer inspection I realised it was a book based on the properties of the National Trust as at 1991.

I then realised the reason for the familiarity – that sunny beach was Rhossili Bay (by Joan Gravell) as per the striking painting on the Spring 2013 cover of Natur Cymru (by Judith Bridgland). What a coincidence that our National Trust themed edition of Natur Cymru should feature the same scene as the 1991 book. Or was our editor being clever?

The spring 2013 edition of Natur Cymru can be bought at the National Trust shops at Erddig, Rhossili, Powis Castle, Tredegar House, Llanerchaeron, St David's, Aberconwy House, Dinefwr Park, Dolaucothi, Plas yn Rhiw and Tŷ  Isaf in Beddgelert.

Monday, 1 April 2013

March gales cause devastation at Coedydd Aber NNR

The gales of March 21st/22nd which brought deep snow drifts to North Wales also wrought havoc in Coedydd Aber National Nature Reserve. Many trees (possibly at least 100) have been blown down on the steep slope above the path from the carpark at Bont Newydd to the footbridge crossing the river. Mike Klymko and I visited today to assess damage to the nestboxes used by Pied Flycatchers here; Mike’s photos bear witness to the devastated scene we encountered. One tree has come down onto the footbridge, smashing the handrail on either side, so this section of path will be out of use until the rails are repaired.

Several sections of path leading to the nestboxes in this part of Coedydd Aber are blocked by fallen trees, and this probably means that the lowest 10 boxes cannot be inspected this season. Other boxes are still attached to fallen trees, with others no doubt smashed during the gales. The whole site shows the damage which can be caused by exceptional weather, and I fear that such events may happen more often as climate change really gets going. I suppose the only positives are that the Pied Flycatchers have not arrived yet, and the tits which also use the boxes will have been deterred from starting egg-laying by the very low temperatures.