Although nnoodl is all about getting people slightly out of their comfort zones, it's never my intention to have people terrified or fearful of ever coming back to any of my adventures. With this in mind I ask people to fill out a short form to let me know of any fears, phobias or allergies they may have, and to let me know anything they absolutely would not do. There is usually a bit of a common theme amongst people I find: snakes, heights or very enclosed spaces, like caves. So although my next venture hadn't come up in any of my nnoodl members' forms, I was aware that it may border on the slightly uncomfortable. This particular experience, however, is one that truly is a bit of an exclusive, so much so that numbers were strictly limited to 8 people. Our successful group were advised to meet at Victoria station, where tickets were handed out for the train to Sutton. Hmmm, not to offend any of my friends who live in Sutton, but this did have people puzzled. What special thing could be happening in Sutton?? This coupled with their 'pre event instructions' where they were advised to wear or bring long trousers and covered over shoes or boots and I know they were envisaging some big yomp in the country. As we arrived at Sutton to meet our taxis, however, I advised them we were on our way to Mayfield Lavender, a family run Certified Organic Lavender Farm, situated just outside Banstead in Surrey. I find it hard to believe that so many Londoners have not yet discovered this gem - as the visitor numbers every weekend are testament to it's popularity with tourists.
I am lucky to be good friends with the Head Beekeeper at Mayfield Lavender, Tracey Carter, who is a real authority on all things bee related, so much so that she runs her own podcast, the Beehive Jive.
As the group would need to be split into two smaller groups, I had also taken the opportunity to enrol photographer Vanessa Lees to run a short photography skills course in this beautiful location.
There were gasps of awe and stops for photographs as we made our way to the top of the 25 acre lavender farm, where we were met by Tracey and Vanessa. This really is an assault on the senses in the best possible way, as you are overwhelmed by the never-ending carpet of purple and the amazing smell of lavender. Tracey began by giving us an overview of the lavender field, which was a real labour of love by husband and wife team Brendan and Lorna. Read their fascinating story here.
Then it was decision time, who was ready to step into the lions den, ahem, I mean bee hive area first? There was slight apprehension as the first group got suited up, but everyone was suitably put at ease by Tracey who explained how people might feel with so many bees in front of their face, and highlighted the importance of staying calm. Before they entered the area where the hives were, Tracey talked briefly about the products which come from a beehive: not only honey but also beeswax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly and venom which is used in medical treatment for arthritis. Honey is also used in medicine because of its antibacterial properties. Pollen and propolis are favourite health supplements. And royal jelly, which is what the bees feed the Queen (produced from a gland in their head/jaw) is famous for cosmetics and is also very widely used as a food supplement for racehorses! On the day that we visited the bees were busily collecting nectar from the lavender and also from blackberries.
Tracey has 10 production colonies and 11 baby colonies which she is growing on for next year (they are called a nucleus colony or a nuc for short). There are around 75000 to 80,000 bees in each of her large colonies and about 40,000 in each of the nucs. When opening the hive, first we assessed the hive from the outside, looking at the different components and explaining their function. We then observed the activity at the hive entrance, looking for pollen going in (this means there are babies to be fed), volume of bees coming and going (indicating the size and vigour of the colony) and also looking at general behaviour e.g. scuffles that happen when bees from neighbouring colonies are trying to get in and rob the honey at this time of year. We then gave the colony a few gentle puffs of cool smoke at the entrance and, after waiting for a couple of minutes for this to disperse through the colony, we quietly lifted the roof off. On top is the crown board which is a flat piece of wood that is like the ceiling of the colony. And we took that off and, lo and behold, the wonders of a beehive are revealed!
A few people asked why we use smoke on the beehives. Smoke simply masks the natural alarm pheromone that bees release when the colony is being invaded. It helps to keep them calm so that you can inspect the colony with a minimum of disruption to the bees. It does not burn them! We make sure the smoke is cool and if it isn't we put green leaves of grass in the top of the smoker to cool it down. Beekeepers consider that smoking is like knocking before you walk through the door of someone's house.
We gently went through the frames, lifting them out to check amounts of stored honey and brood (babies) and also to search for the Queen. The queen is vital to the colony as without her, there are no new bees to sustain the colony. She looks different to the other bees, she is longer and larger with a higher thorax and can run quite quickly so she often catches your eye. Although she is the egg laying machine in the colony, and people think she's really important, she is actually completely helpless and can't feed or groom herself. The worker bees have to do this for her and they push her around, often head-butting her or jumping on her to get her to move where they want! Because she is so important we mark her on the thorax with a special coloured marking pen so that we can identify her easily and protect her while we are inspecting the colony. Sufficient honey to feed the colony is also vital especially at this time of year when they are storing honey to feed themselves through the winter. There is always enough honey left to feed each hive through the winter. The alternative is to feed them sugary syrups or pastes which lack the natural vitamins and minerals that are present in nectar.
sWe looked at the worker bees, the female bees who comprise most of the colony there are around 70,000 of them during summer. There are also male bees in the colony during the summer breeding months. They are known as drones and are there only to breed and do not contribute to the colony in anyway. There are only a few thousand rounds in a colony even at the height of summer. At the end of summer the worker bees throw them out, chewing their wings as they evict them from the hive to ensure that they can't fly back in and gorge themselves on the precious honey which the colony needs to survive the winter. It's a pretty ruthless world! Worker bees rule and run the colony and each bee carries out a series of roles and jobs during her lifetime, from cleaning up, to feeding the baby bees and the Queen, to building works, to storing honey, to guarding the hive and then to foraging for nectar water and pollen. They are completely amazing.
Bee communication is an absolute wonder. They are able to communicate in amazing and fascinating ways ranging from pheromones, to vibrations and buzzes, and to what we describe as dances in which worker bees tell each other where to go for good nectar. The most famous of these is the waggle dance which is where a worker dances in a figure eight shape on the face of the claim, shaking her abdomen. The different parts of the dance represent different pieces of information including how good the forage is, where it is and how far, even taking into consideration its angle in relation to the sun at that time of day. They do this in the darkness of the hive and when you lift out a comb while you are inspecting the hive and see the bees dancing, they are surrounded by their sisters, who face them in a ring and sense what they are doing and then follow the instructions.
Pheromones are like chemical signals, the closest word we would use is smells. The Queen gives off a very special pheromone called queen substance which is transmitted through the colony and let's all bees know that she is there, keeping them together. It also suppresses the ovaries of the worker bees and stops them from developing so that the queen is the only bee that lays eggs. There are also alarm pheromones and a pheromone from the sting which alerts are the bees to staying at the same place! There is also a "come here "pheromone which they release to let each other know where they are.
The other thing people were interested in was how bees regulate the internal environment of the hive. This is called homoeostasis. By shivering their wing muscles they are able to heat the hive and keep it at a constant 35° throughout the year, even in the depths of winter. It needs to be this temperature so that the Queen can continue to lay eggs and they can raise babies. They also collect water drops and hang them around the hive when the weather is hot. The water evaporates and cools the hive. The bees also stand at the entrance and fan hot air out of the hive with their wings to cool it down.
Whilst our beekeepers were ensconced in their activity, our second group gathered in the gazebo with Vanessa to talk through some tips and tricks for good photography. Vanessa explained composition and framing of photographs as well as lighting, by showing some examples. She also told the group about the Mayfield Lavender photography competition which served as a good incentive to go out and put their theory into practice. And so off they went into the purple haze to capture their prize winning images. I was really impressed by how they managed to capture some great shots of our friends the bees at work gathering the pollen. As the groups swapped over it was great to hear them enthusing about their experiences, and in particular from those who had been slightly apprehensive about being so close to so many bees.
As with all nnoodl activities, we round off the experience with some food and drink - always a great way to bring people together. Carrying on the theme of the day, we settled down to some lavender infused goodies including lemonade, cakes and sandwiches, all served up in the sweetest little hamper.
Our adventurers shared their experiences and bought some lavender souvenirs before our taxis picked us up to take us back to the station and onwards to London. Well, via a little Sutton establishment for a celebratory drink! Look out for the next nnoodl experience on Saturday 16th September!
Sometimes when I am promoting nnoodl events it can seem like hard work - I know it can be difficult to reach the right people and to tell them about the joy involved in being out of your comfort zone. Then I am reminded about how it feels by things I do myself and I approach it all with a new vigour and enthusiasm!
I wanted to tell you about how I have found myself in a few challenging situations recently where it would have been easy to walk away, or choose an easier option.
This involves my new found passion for triathlon. Let me start by being clear that this is my own way to challenge myself, and nnoodl events will never involve this level of extremes! Well triathlon sounds like a difficult challenge in itself I hear you say. Of course the main thing here is that you have to train for 3 sports, although to me that is part of the appeal. If your legs are tired from cycling, do your next session as a swim. Running injury? Do the lower impact cardio workout on the bike etc. The thing I have really noticed though is that being a 'triathlete' is whatever that is to you. Perhaps you want to try a short distance event, or maybe you are at the other end of the spectrum and have your sights set on an Ironman! Then again, maybe you would like to just join a club for the camaraderie and some training tips. For me, I joined Hampstead tri club for various reasons, and mostly to improve my weakest of the three disciplines, the cycling.
How ironic then that I signed up for the run sessions and the swim training with the club, but still felt freaked out at the prospect of joining the club for any cycling sessions! I was encouraged to come to 'Sportive' events throughout the early part of the new year, but still couldn't work up the courage to do them. My big break through opportunity came when one of the ladies at the club told me about the Liv cycling group which ran out of the Giant bike store in Kentish Town. This is a cycling group for women set up under the cycling brand of Liv. I was told that they did a ‘ride out’ on the first Saturday of every month where they welcomed new members. This seemed like the ideal introduction to me. On my first ride a group of about 18 of us met at the Giant store and were given an introduction to Amy and Sandra who would lead the groups. They did a great job of giving us an overview of the various hand signals and etiquette involved in group cycling. We did a trip of around 60k to Shenley including a pit stop at a great little tea shop.
And so my initial fear was set aside and I was well and truly hooked in!
Various Saturday and Sunday rides followed including cycles to Cambridge, Whitwell and some real challenges in the Surrey Hills. Now here is the thing about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone – it’s like stretching a muscle (to use an exercise analogy). Once you start to get better at it then you can stretch a bit further. My major challenge that came from this small acorn was that about 4 weeks later I decided to attempt what I really needed to do and test my speed on the bike. Some of the Liv group apparently gathered early on a Weds morning to do laps around Regents Park. When I say early, I really do mean just that – meet at 6am (and so get up no later than 5am to cycle there!). What comes into play here is the power of the Whatsapp group. Like most groups of any kind nowadays, Liv are no exception in having a dedicated Whatsapp cycing group for sharing tips, arranging rides etc. It really is a great support network. The key thing for me here though is the commitment factor. Once you have said ‘Yes I’ll be there at 6am tomorrow!’ it is hard to take that back, come rain, shine or, well, early morning laziness. For anyone who knows Regents Park, the road around it is just under 5km and with only one real junction in an anti clockwise direction it is often used by cyclists to gauge their speed relatively uninterrupted. The early start is to take advantage of the main gates to the roads around the park being closed until 7am.
I was given a crash course (excuse the pun) in group cycling. Mainly the instruction was ‘stay as close as you can to the wheel in front’. Eek, this was very non-intuitive for me, as I am generally a bit of a chicken about even going down hills fast, or anything that presents an element of danger. Our group of about six set off at a very leisurely pace from the Royal College of Physicians up to the top end of the park towards the zoo. I should have known that this was not the pace we would be going at as suddenly the person at the front shouted ‘Let’s go!’ and we were off at speed! The plan was that each person would take 30secs at the front and then signal to pull out and drop to the back of the pack. It started well, as I managed to cling on in the middle and then move up to take my turn at the front. I pedalled like mad as I realised I was hitting about 35km/hr – unheard of under my own steam. At a set of lights though, I misread a signal and missed getting back on the back of the group. One of the team tried to pull me back in but by that time we were going up an incline and there was no catching up. I cycled round another 5 laps on my own just barely keeping the group in sight, arrgh, that was a workout and a half. Back home though, and having covered a total distance of about 40k, I was anything but despondent. In fact the support on the Whatsapp group was great as I was reminded that in future I could cycle back round the other direction to try to link back onto the group rather than play the futile game of catch up that I had gone for.
Well that all sounds horrendous, I hear you say. I can understand that on the face of it, this might not encourage you to push out of your comfort zone. However, the happy ending is in sight….I think the second session I did took even more courage in fact, as I set my alarm for 4.50am fully aware of what was ahead of me this time. Well in fact this time I hung on for TWO whole laps. If this is the point where I realised the benefit of pushing myself out of my comfort zone, the real reward was yet to come. I had signed up to do a triathlon at Eton Dorney which had been my first triathlon in 2016. That was a standard (or as I like to call it ‘Olympic’) distance triathlon with a little extra distance on the bike, so 1500m swim; 42.4k bike and 10k run. Last year I had done this event in a time of 3:10 which I was pretty pleased with. My aim of course was to do a bit faster. I realised when I got to the venue that this seems to be a place that whilst it is flat (yay!) seems to be eternally windy (boo). However, on my side was the warm weather from earlier that week which had meant that the lake was a balmy 21deg, meaning that wetsuits were optional. I thought this would encourage many of my fellow competitors to dispense with the evil rubber and avoid the hassle of getting it off in transition. It seemed I was alone in this thought though, and standing at the start in just my tri suit thought I caught the attention of the swim safety man who came over to remind me of the dangers, and to take my race number down. Hmmm…I decided not to mention that I had swum in hailstones in Loch Rannoch at this point, just in case it all went wrong for me in the swim. I had no need to fear though, apart from being just generally hard, the swim went pretty well and I came out around the middle of the pack, and then of course saved about a minute not peeling off a wetsuit and so I was off on the bike. Now HERE is where the benefit of the scary cycling sessions kicked in. With 8 laps of the course to cycle, I found myself overtaking people all along the way, including men! There was nothing so satisfying as shouting ‘on your right’ as I overtook men to see them swerve as they turned around to check that it was indeed a woman’s voice, hee hee. I don’t need to bore you with how hard both physically and mentally it was to do these continual loops, which then led onto 4 laps of a run route. What I WILL tell you is that I completed the event in 2:54, taking 16mins off my previous time! No wonder I look pretty pleased with myself in this photo.
And so the moral of this story, as they say, is simply to emphasise that those moments of discomfort and challenge certainly pay off. Cycling in a group showed me what speed I was capable of and got me through the challenge on the day when things got tough. The word ‘challenge’ I have to remind everyone does not always mean something physical. It can be or trying a new skill, or even just putting yourself into a room of people you don’t know, or going to a new place. And the thing is, the more you do it, the easier it gets, even verging on slightly addictive. I have since agreed to do a ‘singing showcase’ with some other students through my singing teacher. Even as I write this I can’t believe it. This from the person who just 18 months ago was terrified at the prospect of going to a singing lesson. Go nnoodl !!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.