May 2011


It has been a while since I have found myself in the hills but I did make it into my favourite valley for a day, a night and a day.  I headed into the mountains via the ‘tourist route’ to the col of Slieve Donard.  I was mostly on my own for the start of the trek through the forest and by the river, until I caught up with the walkers just past the trees.


the forest path

I looked out of place with my full pack among the day trippers in jeans and trainers.  Breaking away from the crowds and over the Mourne wall found me on the brandy pad where I was thankfully on my own for a while.  The familiar Annalong valley looked a little different than normal.  The east side of it was lush green, as it should be this time of year but the west side was a dark burnt.  The meandering river marked the point where the recent gorse fires burnt to and did not cross.

the normal left and the burnt right

I made my way to a high point half way along the brandy pad where I stopped and put on all my layers in preparation for a long wait.  From this position I watched the rain fronts come in from the west.  They moved quickly and brought cold air and hail.  When the fronts moved in I stood up and sealed myself in waterproofs with only a thin window to view out.  Between fronts the sun shone and I lay back and dug out a book to relax with.  After over and hour I spied the two small groups appear at the gap at the other side of the next valley.  They were moving slowly after a long walk up valleys and over a couple of mountains.  I stood for a long time (another hour and a half) on top of a small cairn and was reminded of the inuksuk; piles of stones shaped as the outline of man that are placed on the edges of ridges and mountains by the inuit.  They are said to be used to aid hunting but I remember reading that Farley Mowat asked what their true purpose was; that they do the job of man.  Mowat thought this was vague and all encompassing, but when he was alone and hundreds of miles from another human he discovered what was meant by this definition.  The inuksuk are a comfort when they are spied on the horizon.  They are a symbol that man has been here and you are not truly alone.  Part of me hoped that I was a sort of inuksuk for the groups to spur them on towards me and closer to their camp, rest and food.  In reality they probably wondered why the idiot on the horizon was just standing there.

the view from the cairn

After what seemed like another period of forever, they eventually arrived as we spied a lonely figure also on the path.  Moving much faster that the groups was their instructor.  I wondered if he was also enthused by my presence.  Not by me as such, but by the meal of (very heavy) fresh chilli con carne I had brought with me and a tent.

When we eventually set up camp it was on burnt ground where the grass had begun to recover through.  I have heard that the fires have damaged wildlife here including the lizards that live in this valley.  I have only ever seen a lizard three times in Ireland and every time has been in this valley.  The hundreds of empty, exposed and burnt rabbit holes are a sad sign of the devastation here.

the camp on burnt peat

Over a pot of hot chilli we closed ourselves in the tent as rain, hail and thunder briefly rolled over.  The weather did settle down to gentle breeze and a cloudy sky.  No stars came out and Meg the dog curled up at the open entrance of the tent and made sure no hungry foxes visited to steal left over chilli.

a titanium cafetiere is the only proper start to a mountain day

At last, bursts of sunshine that seem to last longer than fifteen minutes.  This gave me a chance to do a much needed hive inspection.  During swarm season the advice is to do an inspection once every week to look for queen cells.  That is nice in theory, but I am inclined to not open them up in cold or rainy conditions as they do not like this at all and it is not good for morale in the hive.  As a result of the terrible weather I have not done a full inspection for quite a long time.  I have had a wee look a couple of times, but not a full examination of all the frames.

 our bees

Today I got the chance and I am glad to say that I saw no signs of any swarming.  There was quite a bit of capped brood (bees about to be born into the world) but very little in the way of larvae (little baby bees).  The most likely explanation is that the queen went off the lay during the bad weather.  The last few frames were the most intimidating to inspect as they got a bit upset about the whole thing by that stage.  The air was filled with angry buzzing around me and there was the constant pings of the bees battering my veil.  Inspecting them now requires a little more nerve than it did in April.  However miffed they seemed by it all, I must admit that they behaved themselves enough not to sting.  They will get a feed again tonight as stores are low and lots of comb needs to be built.  I will not tell them the real reasons but will instead tell them that they are good little bees and they deserve a wee treat.

He probably woke at dawn as his mum and dad never close the curtains.  He then played with his teddy ‘mr giggles’ and chatted to himself.  The mobile that spins and plays music probably got switched on a few times in the early hours if the big coloured buttons were in reach.  Then through the bars of his cot he watched his mummy sleeping.  And as her eyes slowly opened he watched his mummy waking and could not contain his joy as he laughed out loud.

In the early hours the lovely Sharon slowly opened her tired eyelids to see her little man’s bright eyes staring at her through the bars of the cot.  He exploded with laughter and she could not stop herself laughing back.

The birds had been singing for an hour or two now and I was half asleep/half awake when mother and son began laughing at each other.  This was a woman who, in the mornings, is the definition of grumpy and irritable.  I contemplated to myself how we are changed by our children before I smiled and went back to sleep.

EDIT: apparently I am not so jolly in the mornings either.

The weather these last few days has not felt like it should.  It seems silly to think that only a month or so ago the lovely Sharon and I were dining outside in the cool evening air.  Today seems to have been a little better and pleasant enough to try and repair some of the damage from the wind storm a few days ago.  One of the apple trees was blown over.  The damage may not be all that bad as the bark seems intact.  A steak driven deep into the ground is giving it a chance to try again at life.  One of the rowans took on a worrying tilt from the wind.  It is a tree that looks to be in teenage in tree years.  It too now has a thick metal steak driven into the grounds beside it.  The rowan is not a tree I want to loose, it is also called the quicken; a tree of life.  It is steeped in rich folklore in Ireland and is said to be so powerful that it drives away witches.  This is not lost on me and I mention this fact to a friend who visits sometimes.  She is the seventh daughter from the glens of Antrim.  I want to remember to mention it ever time she visits to see how much it annoys her (it won’t).  I want to look surprised and reflect rhetorically, “Oh, you made it?”

rowan tree by troutcolour

The damage of the storm makes me wonder how bad it was.  These trees have stood for years and have stood worse winds in the winter.  The recent storm was out of season and the trees were heavy with foliage and sap.  For a while today I sat beside the hive and watched the bees go about their business.  Pollen is being brought in, in small amounts.  This is a good sign and indicates that young larvae are still being fed.  However, a bad sign was the thirty or so dead bees outside the hive.  Some were nearly dead and looking forlorn, some were dead and showed deformed wings.  These are both symptoms of viruses which themselves are consequences of a varroa infestation.  I suspect that today was good enough weather for the bees to do some housekeeping and clear the floor of their dead that had accumulated over the last few housebound days. They are still being treated with their medicine to fight the mite and I must keep it in perspective as a handful of bees pale in comparison to the likely forty thousand (roughly) bees that live in the hive.  Also, scores of bees are constantly plucked from the entrance of the hive by the sparrows that nest in the corners of the cottage’s eaves.  Although it must be extremely expensive bird food, it is amusing to watch.  They hop down underneath the hive and pluck the bees as they arrive.  Once a bee is in beak they fly away as quickly and as desperately as possible.  I am sure it does not take much bee venom to kill a sparrow. With the varroa, viruses and sparrows I just hope they recover and are healthy again soon.  I suspect that with the extent of their infestation that they will be clearing out their dead for a few weeks to come.  We have noticed that bees have featured a lot in the media recently, and so they should.  They are having real problems and are an essential component of our agriculture, which translates into; food.

a bit of BBC radio Ulster about bees this morning

the hive today

Today we wandered around garden centres.  We slowly pondered weird and wonderful flowers and then had lunch.  At lunch we were entertained by the little man showing us his trick of deconstructing biscuits in the most messily way humanly possible.  We did buy a few plants.  We got a small collection of foxgloves to replace the ones that the destructive  lovely  Sharon disposed of.  A couple of months ago she did a little weeding and got stuck on a ‘weed’ she did not recognise.  She researched the books for a few days before deciding that the unknown was unfriendly and weeded out the mystery plant.  Luckily she missed a few that are now in flower and are unashamedly foxgloves.  The lovely Sharon is not very happy with herself at all.  She has now vowed to leave everything that she cannot identify in place just in case.

Wind, drizzle rain, sunshine, wind, and more rain.  The birds keep singing throughout it all and the house is filled with the sound of laughing and the other strange noises that the little man makes.

coffee by ben cumming

The small dark coffees are made leisurely and the smell is as rich as their taste.  The long weekend starts here.

source – explodingdog

source – abstruse goose

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