The bees in the training apiary (including the FreeBees) are located in the middle of an old orchard which is absolutely perfect for the bees. It’s warm and sheltered with a little stream nearby and lots of local forage, and we use it rent-free in return for helping to restore and maintain the orchard. The orchard is planted exclusively with apple trees, but none of them produce apples that you might see in a supermarket. They are clearly very old, but how old? What varieties are they? and how do we look after them?
Well, to find out we contacted Gerry Edwards, fellow beekeeper, Chairman of the RHS Fruit Group, apple guru and all round top chap to give us some advice. Gerry is passionate about the preservation of old orchards and estimates that most of the trees in the orchard were planted in the 1890’s using many old varieties. He first visited the orchard in March to advise us on how to manage the trees as they had not been pruned of otherwise maintained in decades.
So yesterday, myself, Gerry and Lisa the landowner had a wonderful time going through the orchard tree by tree, mapping their location and attempting to identify each variety by picking sample apples for Gerry to look at. This was not easy as many of the trees are only producing fruit at the top of the tree, requiring the use of an apple grabber deployed on a long pole.
As the trees are so old, most of the fruit is a bit deformed and so it took time to find a suitable reference apple from each tree in turn. Gerry can identify most varieties by their shape, smell and taste, but some required reference to his apple book and he also took away a carrier bag full of apples for further research.
It turns out that most of the apples are cooking varieties and it’s likely that this was previously a commercial orchard, providing fruit for local markets. The apples he has so far identified have wonderful names such as Warners King, Laxton Superb, Lord Derby, Ashmead Kernel and the Rev William Wilkes. There’s a great website here with descriptions and beautiful pictures for those that want to know more