April 2011

Today, and yesterday, have been filled with DIY. We have floored a bedroom, fitted toddler gates, window limiters and planted lots of plants amongst other things. When doing such tasks we find that the hours whirl past. The last job of the day found me on ladders cleaning out the guttering. I filled two buckets with the detritus that accumulates over what must be a couple of years. When I started the job a pair of house sparrows seemed very perturbed that I was interfering with their nest building. They seemed to have found a small cavity in the corner of the eves just big enough to start a family in. As the task progressed I discovered that the corner cavity was not unique and by the end of the job I had disturbed four couples of sparrows that correspond to all four corners of the cottage. I hope that tomorrow they have found it within themselves to forgive me and return to build their homes.

Tonight I did not even have time to put away the tools tidily before it was time for the little man’s bed time. After his feed and his cuddle-to-sleep, the lovely Sharon and I decided to have dinner outside. We used to have dinner ‘al fresco’ a lot in our old house in temperatures regarded as insane for most people we could be found in our fleeces at our patio table. Since the move to the culchieside we have not found the time to dine outside until now. To be honest the preparation time required seems no different.

Tonight there was one obvious difference to this evening’s dining when compared to our usual outside dining; the monitor. A 25meter extension cable and a video baby monitor provided us with a constant update on the little man’s snoozing. While he slept we enjoyed our meal under a clear blue sky. Instead of watching television we had a conversation. We talked about the day, about our family, about life and about the nature that seemed vibrant all around us. We started by watching the swallows dart about manically plucking chains of insects on the wing. After the meal we consulted some cooking books and I boldly committed to making a lovely Italian themed meal for tomorrow evening (I think the wine and the fresh air were kicking in at this point).

After the sun had set and the sky had slowly darkened we began to see the stars slowly appear. We vowed that we would not retire to the cottage until we had spotted our first bat in our new home. This gave us enough time to spot Capella, the twins of Gemini and then the plough starting to take over the sky. Eventually a bat did arrive and swoop around hunting. It was just in time for us as the chill was setting in and a roaring wood stove was inviting us in from the dark.

At the weekend I did another hive inspection, my second.  The first inspection was accompanied by the lovely Sharon as a spectator.  She is up for all kinds of crazy things and she had little fear for the bees themselves.  However, her mild claustrophobia meant that I felt like I was supervising a child.  I got her all sealed up in the suit as she muttered quietly to herself; “I don’t like this, I don’t like this”.  Then I put my own veil over my head and spent a minute or two sealing myself up only to turn around and find her with the veil unsealed and off her head.  She assured me that she only wanted to prove to herself that she could get out of it easily.  For a second time I made sure she was sealed up and bee tight.  I could now light the smoker which I have discovered is a bit of an art.  With the smoker sort of smoking I was happy and ready to look at the bees when I turned around to find the lovely Sharon veil-less again.  She explained that she wanted to make sure that it was easy to get out of and not just luck the first time.  As I sealed her up for the third time she told me there were no guarantees that it would not happen again.  So, I made sure we headed straight for the hive to make sure there was an incentive to not remove her hood and veil.

At the hive she became quite distracted by her first sight of the inside of a beehive (and only my own third sight of one).  It is an amazing thing to experience.  The noise, the sight of thousands of bees, the structure of the comb, the honey, the pollen, and most surprisingly; the smell.  It is like a sweet concentration of wild flowers, the type of scent that you just want to keep smelling.  My main objective was curiosity and my second objective was to find the queen.  She alluded me completely and after three looks through all the frames the lovely Sharon observed the bees getting a bit angrier, and I had to concede and begin to put them all together again.  Just as I was sliding the last frame in I caught a glimpse of what I thought was the queen running along the floor of the hive.  It was only a glimpse but her long body caught my eye and I was seventy percent certain.  So, not certain at all.

That was all a week ago.  This weekend I did my second inspection and stopped when I reached frame seven of eleven frames.  I stopped because I found the queen.  She is the sort of creature who is easy to miss until you see her and then she is hard not to miss.  I have yet to see any eggs but I have not really looked closely for them and I am a little happier that at least there is the egg layer.  I will leave them alone now for two of weeks or maybe three?  I have no pictures of these inspections and I will probably not have some for a while as I have broken my camera.

I do have one of the last beehive images taken with it.

Chiot’s Run has some lovely pictures from a hive inspection to give a sense of what can be seen in the hive itself.

Today I slept in a little.  It was the first day of the holidays and, in my biased opinion, I thought I deserved an extra hour or so.  Later that morning, after a leisurely breakfast supplied by the chickens, we went for a short walk.  It was meant to be a stroll down the lane with the lovely Sharon and the little man to check the mail box.  In truth we knew that it was far too early for the mail man but we simply wanted to dander a little in the sunshine and the growing hedgerows.

We walked further than the lane and a little further again.  We admired the flowers and spotted wild strawberrys in their beginnings and violets that looked like little orchids. Then we spotted what we thought were our followers; the weird black flies. It is a strange thing when you notice something and suddenly your eyes are opened to it so that you now see it everywhere.  This little, not so little really, black fly was everywhere and we could not ignore them for the rest of the walk.  Our curiosity was sparked and the books were promptly opened when we returned to the cottage.  It was Bibio marci or ‘St Mark’s Fly’, a fly that lives for only a week around St Mark’s day; 25th April.  The few days of dancing of this creature seem to mark the end of spring, and the old Irish calendar marks the beginning of summer as Beltaine, only 9 days away from now.

bibio marci from donegal wildlife by Stuart Dunlop

Some would say that summer has already arrived.  The lovely Sharon’s father was pottering around the garden today, although his pottering looks more like hard graft when compared to my pottering.  He was pulling up ancient soup celery from the vegetable patch with the lovely Sharon while I was potting young tomato plants in the greenhouse when he stopped me and pointed out the arrival of swallows above our heads.  To him summer is here.  I looked round in the sunshine and smelt the warm scented air and I had to agree.  It felt good to be working the soil today.  What made it even better was that I could here the little man babbling in his pram and summer hat.  The little man, or as we have known him recently; ‘squirty boy’, has been sick with an intestinal virus for nearly a week.  We faced dehydration, trips to casualty, endless nappies and weight loss (his, not ours).  And now he seems to be bouncing back and now appears to be endlessly hungry.  My own sister claims that it is only now that we can consider ourselves real parents.

source: abstruse goose

It is has not been a pleasant weekend.  The sun may be shining and the birds singing but the little man has a stomach bug and is not himself at all.  We have been fighting to get fluids into him to avoid dehydration but at one point we had to take him to the hospital.  After that he felt better for the day but today he has been off his food and drink again.  When I say that we took him to hospital what I mean is that the motherly Sharon did and I was many miles away in the mountains.  Thankfully we were well staffed and I could slip away when I found out he was on his way to hospital.  It should have been a beautiful day in the mountains but the anxiety and the desire to be near the little man made the long lonely walk out feel like a longer and even lonelier one.

I have been trying to find distractions to try to relax a bit.  One of them was a few moments today when I just leaned over the fence and watched the coming and going of the bees for a little while. It was strangely calming for a minute or two.

we found a lonely bee on the gate

I don’t know them all that well yet but I think her name is Susie number 573

Tonight we think the little man has held down maybe half his milk based on a guess of the volume deposited over my shirt and jeans.  As he sleeps the motherly Sharon and I have found another calming distraction in the form of the beautiful moonrise and the arc it makes out the living room window.  It is full and the sky is clear; we spend half our time looking out instead of at the television.

the full growing moon rises over the apiary and coop

It feels like, at times, we step out of our normal lives for things.  Sometimes I leave the lovely Sharon and the little man to head for the hills and try keep safe some teenagers as they push themselves both mentally and physically in the mountains.  But this weekend a friend is doing his own mental and physical challenge.  He is running a marathon.  You could think to yourself that loads of people run marathons all the time.  But could you?  Could I?

A marathon is the distance beyond what is normal endurance.  It is beyond ‘the wall’ when your body has run past its short term reserve and the long term reserve.  Personally I think I have only ever felt the wall once myself.  It was a moment when I suddenly felt exhausted and very cold in a remote mountain valley.  This was when I was walking…..down hill, not running up hill.

Then there is the training.  Dedicated runners, like my friend, push themselves in training.  They push themselves beyond what is necessary for the relaxation of exercise.  They go out and run in all weathers and whenever the strains of work and family tell them they do not have time.  Why?

Because there is a cause and a purpose; Cancer.  We inevitably are all touched by cancer, either personally or in our family.  It is not easy to forget about the effect of cancer but unfortunately the charities that help cancer patients are easily forgotten.  They need support and that support needs to be hard cash from our own pockets.  Please support 3xmarathons for cancer as he heads over to London tomorrow and get ready to push himself beyond the limit for a good cause.  Please visit his site and give to Friends of the Cancer Centre and Pancreatic Cancer UK.

For a few weeks now I have noted the stories that people have told about finding bees. Bees in their kitchens, living rooms and even a class room.  This is the time of year when people are shocked at the massive size of the bees they find.  These are more than likely the queen bumble bees.  The queen is the only bumble bee that survives the winter.  She hibernates in warm places that she can find such as kitchens, living rooms or classrooms.  These bees should now have some worker daughters that can be found buzzing about with deep base notes.  They bumble about everywhere but are usually quite gentle creatures, although contrary to popular belief, they can sting more than once.

Wasps are also beginning to be seen out and about.  They are usually the most common stinger that people come across.  They can sting again and again and again as they ae not a creature interested in flowers and nectar, wasps are carnivores and pure hunter killers.  Their sting is a weapon to bring down spiders and flies.

I am lucky enough to have obtained some bees to try and care for.  These are honey bees and number in their thousands in the hive.  The honey bee is not a creature that people often recognise.  When people do recognise it they usually see this….

..The Italian honey bee, or this…

…the Buckfast honey bee named after Buckfast Abbey where it was bred by Brother Adam.  These are not my bees.  My bees are a strange little creature being slowly brought back from the edge of existence.  They are the Native Irish Black Bee.

This little bee comes from a breeding program by dedicated bee keepers in the Galtee area of Ireland.  It is just smaller than the average wasp and has very little in the way of any sort of yellow banding.  It is said to be a hardy little beast that is better adapted to life in the dampness of Ireland.  It does sting and may not be as gentle as the Italian or Buckfast bee but it is not in its best interest to sting as it will die as a result.  Tonight I read that the bee also releases an alert chemical as it stings and the chemical is the same molecule that is the smell of ripe bananas.  This is a little fact worth remembering as it is just like me to take a summer evening stroll in the garden while munching a banana which is overripe; the best kind of bananas.

The first Sunday after the full moon after the spring equinox.  The celebration of the resurrection of our Lord is not an exact event in our modern calendar.  It was a day in a year nearly a couple of thousand years ago but today it is moulded into our lives with the echo of the old counting of time.  Years ago the equinox was a special event and not a passing mention on the radio.  The full moons were meeting times of family, clans and people.  Now Easter is the special event and it still is tied to the pulse of the heavens in motion.


The link of Easter with the movements of the moon means one fickle thing for me now; it is a long spring term.  Teachers are weary and feeling low in momentum.  Students are weary too and feel disheartened by the exams ahead.  This is the time of year and the time of life when they feel truly overwhelmed by the tasks ahead.  And then a strange depression is bound to set in for them as they lock themselves away behind a desk and the sun shines outside and the rest of the world enjoys life under (occasional) blue skies.

This morning I inspected the front of the hive and found one dead bee lying at the entrance on the landing board.  This did not help with my concerns for them and their hour long journey in the back of my car last night.

the sign was not really that necessary, just a lot of fun

Ninety percent of me knew that they were all right.  Ninety percent knew that they had found one of their own expired and simply dragged them out of the hive ready for disposal with the morning air too cool to fly the body the regulation two hundred yards that the ‘undertaker bees’ are supposed to do.

the tops of the posts still need cut off .  I will borrow a sabre saw from my brother in law for that.

By eleven o’clock I had still seen no signs of activity at the hive.  The other pessimistic ten percent of me began to try and increase its foot hold.  It was a warm day and other buzzy creatures were about themselves and happy.  Logic told me that things like the humble bee (or bumble) are built for the cold air with their internal heating and bumbling.

In another week or so I will do a proper inspection and transfer them into one of my new hives and keep the one they came in as another spare.

At two o’clock I returned to see lots of bees all over the front of the hive.  Obviously they were ok and beginning to enjoy the hot day and hopefully their new surroundings at the cottage.

This weekend I left the work at work. It is a busy time of year with coursework and revision classes and preparing the students for the upcoming exams.  After a hectic couple of weeks and another frantic week on the horizon I decided that I needed a break for the weekend, I needed something different.  I had plans to spend time with the lovely Sharon and the little man, plans to relax and read and sip fine coffee in cafes.  All these plans were dashed by a phone call and I ended up doing something very different.

The phone rang on Thursday and the lovely Sharon found it difficult to decode the accent on the other end.  It was a confused conversation that the lovely Sharon was convinced was a wrong number until bees were mentioned, then it began to make sense.  ‘The Bee Man’ wanted a chat with me.  It is still too early in the year to buy bees as they are normally sold as ‘nucs’  which are composed of a queen and a couple of thousand in her entourage.  Instead of a nuc in a few weeks time I was being offered a whole hive now.  This basically means that I have a better chance of them surviving the winter and a good chance of getting some honey this year.  If I went for the classic nuc option I would have to wait until next summer to get any honey.  This was an offer I could not refuse, but some preparation needed to be made.

On Friday at the end of school I ran about trying to sort out tents for an upcoming expedition.  Poles and pegs were everywhere as 30 pupils tried to figure out what equipment they needed.  It shocked me, every year it does, that some pupils realised that they have bits of tents at home for months that they had not returned.  Amongst the mayhem I simply wanted to get home as the weekend’s tasks for me seemed massive on the horizon.  I had to start the apiary.

For a couple of weeks the wood has been lying in the driveway.  Enough wood to construct a fence that will help define boundaries for the little man.  Outside fence = good.  Inside fence = bad.  He is still far too impatiently small for the need for the fence.  However, building a fence around bee hives is a lot easier when there are no bees.  I shuddered to think of the prospect of hammering together a fence near an active hive.  When I left the tents and pegs and poles I went home to trim the lawn for the first cut of the year.  Then in the longer evening I had enough time to dig a hole and sink one fence post.  It was one post out of the ten that needed to be sunk but it was a start.

This meant that Saturday began early.  Getting up at 7am is technically a lie-in since I am usually up at six mid week.  The early light helps with this.  I threw myself into the fencing right from the start of today.  I dug, hammered, dug, hammered, dug and then hammered until I was weary and could hammer no more. At four o’clock I finished the apiary fence.  In fact it still needs a gate to be built but I don’t think the bees will mind.  This left me just enough time to tidy up before I put on by bee proof suit and jumped in the car to head up to the Roe Valley area to meet the bees.

My first meeting with the bees could not have been better.  It had been a hot day and the air was slowly cooling.  By the time I arrived at the hives they were ending a day of gathering.  They were belly full and basket stuffed.  The beekeeper selling me the hive wanted to give me a complete look at the stock.  All went well until we went looking for the queen.  Three times we went through the whole hive playing a game of ‘where’s Wally’.  Then we decided to close it up and let a few more bees come back from foraging.  Maybe the queen was hiding in the dark corners?  We gave her a little time to relax as we chatted and admired the views on this halcyon evening. We went through the hive one more time and spotted the queen on the last frame.  She marked the end of the inspection and all was sealed up and packed into the back of my car. A couple of stragglers back late from the day were denied their home as the boot was shut.

All windows were wound down for the long voyage home.  Bees are not happy in transit, they panic and super heat themselves running the risk of a literal melt down of wax and baby bees.  As darkness drew near I felt very cold with all four windows down.  When driving fast I felt the chill.  When slowed down I smelt the sickly sweet scent of bee panic hormones.

As darkness drew around I pulled into the lane to the cottage.  Straight away I dragged the surprisingly heavy hive out of the car and set them into their new home.  I removed the seals and they stayed in their safe shelter.  Tomorrow they will emerge in the morning sun and find themselves far from home.  They will find their new home and I hope they will be happy.  Time will tell.

Laboratory Rules of the 1950’s

source – a colleague’s father