Eek! Spider Mites

I’ve spent the whole of December back at my parent’s house whilst on break from uni, which meant bringing my plants home so they didn’t die from being unattended for a whole month. A lot of them are quite unhappy this winter and certainly didn’t enjoy the change in scenery. My Ficus was dropping leaves rapidly and looking really droopy, which I put down to under watering. One of the benefits of being home is access to a bath, so I dedicated a whole afternoon to watering my plants in the tub and giving them a good spray down with the shower. This is when I uncovered something terrifying whilst taking all the plants out of their pots…Spider Mites!!

One very sad Ficus

I’d coincidentally been reading up on plant care the night before and came across spider mites for the first time, giving a sigh of relief that I didn’t have to deal with any pesky bugs on my (many, many) houseplants… little did I know what was coming for me. I was having a good look at my big Monstera, which is my pride and joy, and upon inspection of the roots, I noticed a little fuzzy white ball. And then two more in the plant pot.

Thinking back to the previous nights research, I immediately went back to consult google and decided to look for more evidence of the minuscule monsters. No sign of anything sinister on the leaves but when I used my phone torch and looked very carefully at the roots I found the incriminating piece of the puzzle: spider webs.

My first wave of attack against these pesky little bugs commenced: hosing all of the plants down to try and dislodge any mites from the roots and leaves. This is often enough to stop an infection in its tracks as they don’t stand much of a chance against the powerful force of the water stream considering they’re so small they’re barely visible to the naked eye. Then came the lengthy task of wiping every leaf (front and back) of all of my 20 houseplants…some with many, many leaves. This is also a great physical measure to remove the bugs which negates the need for any chemical use and is free! I isolated the Monstera and Ficus to areas high up away from the rest of my jungle in order to prevent the spread if this wasn’t quite enough to fully eliminate the mites.

Spider mites like the hot, dry conditions that often accompany UK households in the winter so I’m not surprised that I’ve had a run in with them this Christmas. A great way to prevent this ever happening is to make sure your plants are kept at conditions sub-optimal for the mites; keep them well watered, regularly wipe the fronts AND backs of leaves and even perhaps invest in a humidifier to increase the humidity around your plants (which they’ll love you for anyway if they’re of a tropical origin).

Shower time is a great way to prevent spider mite infestations

Unfortunately when I checked a few weeks later, the Monstera had webs on its roots again! I’ve rinsed and repeated this process (quite literally) and bleached the decorative plant pot it lives in; I was also very excited to receive an air humidifier for Christmas so hopefully that should do the trick. Failing this, I’m planning on upping the ante with a more intense plan of attack by using neem oil. You can use this diluted as a spray or use it on a cloth and it also has the added bonus of being a common method of polishing leaves for an extra bit of TLC. I’ll keep you updated! To be continued…

The Oil Palm Debate: Fatal Chop or Wonder Crop?

Oil Palm Plantation in East Asia

A lot of you will have been watching the new David Attenborough documentary series: 7 Worlds One Planet. It highlights a lot of the depressing realities that the natural world faces as a consequence of human action – one of the more profound scenes that stuck with me was in episode 2, where the orangutan tries to fight off the digger cutting down the trees for an oil palm plantation in a futile attempt to save his home.

Orangutan seen in Seven Worlds One Planet attempting to protect its land from the digger

Oil Palm has recently become an issue that’s moving towards the forefront of the public’s concerns. However it can be difficult to know what you can do as a consumer to prevent adding to the problem. Do you cut out palm oil altogether? Do you just buy sustainable palm oil products?

Surprisingly, however, oil palm gets a really bad rep when it is actually the most productive and efficient vegetable oil crop! Many products require palm oil for preservation and consistency as it’s a solid at room temperature, allowing us to have things like margarine, cookies and even lipstick; in fact, palm oil is in a huge 50% of packaged supermarket products. It’s also present in almost every soap, shampoo and detergent due to its ability to remove oil and dirt. WWF has a great interactive site where you can see why Palm Oil is present in so many everyday products.

So oil is essential in the products we use in every day life – why don’t we just cut it out and buy products with say, sunflower oil? Palm oil is an incredibly productive crop, with roughly 7,250 litres of Palm Oil produced PER HECTARE per year. Whereas you’d need a lot more land to produce that much sunflower oil.

However, in Europe where most of the land is purposed for agriculture already, fields full of sunflowers are a beautiful and welcome sight; especially when compared to miles upon miles of oil palm trees cutting up the rainforest views. The land that was covered by forests in European countries was converted to farmland long before our life time so we have no emotional connection to it. However the horrors we’ve witnessed on adverts, documentaries and the news occurring from habitat destruction have all already haunted our own lands and we’re living off the benefits from it. These countries still with thriving forest land resent Europe for having already profited off the destruction of their own land whilst trying to prevent others’, meaning less income in those potentially poorer communities.

Sunflower field for farming

However we can still support these communities AND enjoy the benefits of this efficient crop. Sustainable Palm Oil is something becoming more common in products (although still difficult to find) and through the public voicing these environmental concerns, is something that companies can recognise will attract consumers. Sustainable Palm Oil is where the oil is “produced by plantations which have been independently audited and certified against the RSPO – Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil standard”.

The RSPO was founded in 2004 and 40% of palm oil producers globally are members. This is an excellent standard that protects, conserves and manages the land, it’s employees and the production process in order to have as little environmental impact and as high a quality of life to employees and surrounding communities as possible. RSPO prides itself on being completely transparent and promoting transparency within the palm oil trade. Their full standards are available here.

The RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil symbol shown on packaging of products containing sustainable Palm Oil

Because the Palm Oil issue is a relatively new concern for the general public, companies don’t tend to advertise whether they use sustainable Palm Oil or not. You can look for the RSPO symbol on packaging (image above), although this isn’t always displayed and usually will be very small in an obscure place on the product. Hopefully as companies realise this is a priority for consumers, this will be better advertised and it will be easier for us to buy products with peace of mind and without a bunch of research beforehand. Until then, Chester Zoo has compiled a great shopping list, breaking down brands that source their palm oil sustainably by food type. I was going to include this list as an image but it’s actually too long for me to do that, which makes me proud that so many companies are choosing to be agriculturally and environmentally responsible. Furthermore, anything you buy from M&S, Waitrose or Lush will be sustainably sourced as well as any own brand food from Iceland.

Using certified brands and products won’t solve this issue completely and there are, of course, problems and controversy with sustainable Palm Oil, but it’s a step in the right direction and a way to make a difference as an individual.

If this post interests you then visit these websites for more information surrounding Palm Oil and Sustainability: RSPO, National Geographic, WWF, GreenPalm.

Palm Oil production figure:

Oil Palm Plantation image:

Orangutan image:

Sunflower farm image:

RSPO Certified Palm Oil Logo image:

Beekeeping: Winter Feeding

Rainy beekeeping isn’t ideal but sometimes is necessary – in today’s blog I’ll be discussing winter feeding as I visited the bees this morning (in the cold and rain) to do one of the most vital tasks to ensure the bees make it through the winter – feeding. So I’m sat writing with a cup of tea as that is probably the most vital post-beekeeping task to ensure the beekeeper makes it through the winter too.

Early Autumn feeding which I’ve already done for the year involves giving the bees liquid sugar solution in a feeder placed on top of the super or brood box. This can be Ambrosia bought from a beekeeping supplier or homemade sugar solution – both have their perks. The issue around this time of year is that the bees will form a cluster within the hive and will become less active to keep warm. This means that if the food is all the way at the top of the hive, they won’t be bringing it down into the frames as they’d have to break away from their nice warm cluster. I found out the hard way that October is too late in the year to be feeding sugar solution as I fed them about 8 litres and it went mouldy (this is the main downside of using homemade sugar solution – Ambrosia lasts much longer but is also much more expensive).

Whoops! – 8 litres of mouldy feed

To get around this issue, winter food is solid fondant! There is debate within the community as to whether this can be as simple as fondant from a bakery or whether it is better to use inverted sugar fondant from a beekeeping supplier. The argument is that the bakers fondant may have additives, preservatives, colourings and flavouring in that aren’t good for the bees. We used Ambrosia fondant from Abelo (local Yorkshire beekeeping supplier) as my beekeeper friend/go-to-expert had some spare and very kindly donated it to us. We fed each hive 2.5kg which should be enough to keep them fed and happy all winter, but we’ll still be checking them throughout the winter using a technique called Hefting; this is where you simply lift one side of the hive up, tilting it backwards in order to see how heavy it is. This prevents having to open the hive up when it’s cold and breaking up the cluster by going through the frames to check stores. It takes a little bit of practice to know how heavy it should feel but my general rule of thumb is that they’ve got plenty if I can’t/really struggle to lift it. Both of my hives aren’t at that point but they should still be okay for the winter.

So it’s too cold for syrup and you’ve hefted your hives and decided they need food. What next?

  1. Obtain your choice of fondant (bakers, beekeepers, homemade or otherwise)
  2. Using your (ever-so versatile) hive tool, score the fondant in a + shape and peel the corners a little to give the bees access to the fondant.
  3. Place scored side down on top of the top bars of the super or the brood box if there’s no super. If you can see that your bees have clustered then try and place the fondant over them.
  4. Put your eke on and close up the hive (we use an empty super as we don’t have any ekes yet)
The bees in their cluster
Fondant on!

We also only had one super spare but the second hive had a super on anyway, so we just removed the emptiest frames and placed the fondant in the gap and popped the queen excluder on top so that the queen doesn’t get left by herself in the brood box.

And that’s all! I’ll be going back out to the hives again when the temperature drops a little more to put the polystyrene floors back in for warmth so more pictures then. Other than that I won’t be seeing the bees ’til spring which I’m sad about but I’ve got a Christmas job working in a beekeeping shop so I’ll hopefully be posting about other bee related topics like candle making and honey jarring! Until then, happy beekeeping!

Welcome! – First Post

Welcome to The Beecologist, where I’ll be posting about all things ecology! As a new beekeeper I’m going to be updating this blog on the struggles and growth that I encounter within this wonderful hobby. I currently have two hives all tucked in for the winter ahead and am doing plenty of research on how to best ensure their survival.

I’m also narrowing down on my interests as an ecologist and am exploring into some new pretty cool areas so will be writing about anything new I learn about, particularly to do with conservation, behavioural ecology and rainforest biodiversity. Due to my love of rainforests, I’m giving it my best shot to recreate my own little jungle haven with houseplants. Houseplants are nowhere near as complicated as bees to keep but different species can require very different conditions which can be difficult to maintain.

I’m proud to be living in this new age of environmentally conscious living and am trying to revolutionise my life with less plastic, less waste and more responsible decisions as a consumer in the cheapest and easiest possible ways as a student.

Keep an eye out for updates as I get this blog up and running and feel free to comment if you have any similar interests!

Checking the hives earlier in the summer

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