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

source – jameshance

unknown source

source – exploding dog

unknown source

The girls are still being treated for their little mite infestation that I won’t dwell on too much.  They seem to have also eaten their way through their stores due to being confined to their little box by wind and rain.  A few days ago I threw together a little food for them in the form of sugar and water to see them through the bad weather.  I put a feeder on top of their house through which they can access the syrup through the inside of their hive and feed in the comfort and warmth of their own home.  Two days of even worse weather found them not touching the food at all.  The entrance to the feeder was at the top back of the hive due to the hive’s backwards tilt on the ground (hives should not sit perfectly level) and I wondered if they just don’t like the back of the hive as they have not even built comb back there.  Lazy bees.  So, with a crow bar and little chocks of wood I re tilted the hive the other way and turned the feeder around to the front area.  I then trickled a little down to them to wake them up and entice them into the feeder.  Today I prised back the cover to see bees trotting back and forth up and down from the feeder.  Feeding the bees might be the way of things for the next while as we head into the ‘June gap’.  It does seem strange and hard to believe but June is a period of nectar drought for bees even if the weather is fine.  It is a time when the bee numbers in the hive will reach maximum with up to sixty thousand bees in a single hive.  It is also a time when nothing that produces substantial nectar is flowering copiously.

When I returned to the cottage to play and read to the little man I discovered a bee on his play mat and he got quite upset about it….

….when it stopped playing its tunes and I had to re-start its lullabies.

Feeding honey bees in late spring, and the position of the hive.

I have been stung by wasps on numerous occasions and I have a vague memory of being stung by a bumble bee, but I have no recollection of ever being stung by a honeybee.  The honeybee is the one that dies when it stings with the wasp and the bumble having the ability to sting again and again.  The wasp’s sting is its vital tool used repeatidly all day every day as a method to bring home the daily food for the cute little baby wasps.  The honeybee leaves behind its sting as a pumping sack of venom leaving the bee lacking in a little part of itself that will lead to its death shortly after.  It is rare, but some people are highly allergic to bee stings.  Even for most people who are not allergic I have read that it will take just over two hundred stings to kill a man, or woman.

one of my honeybee’s sting under the dusty old microscope

the venom sac

Beekeepers are said to develop a gradual immunity to the swelling reaction of stings with some not showing any reaction at all.  I have seen this myself as I watched another beekeeper casually remark that the bees have been stinging him a few times on the hands, this was just after he had been giving us some instruction and teaching through which he showed no sign whatsoever that he was being stabbed by kamikaze bees.  However, sometimes, the reverse can happen and a beekeeper can develop the reverse of immunity and two of these people I met at the beekeeping exam.

After the theory exam we moved to Baron O’Neill’s residence to the site of the association apiary.  The chief examiner for the practical exam began proceedings by enquiring if any of us had a bee allergy.  No-one put up their hands or spoke.  Then he informed us that he was allergic and so was the association member who had opened up and prepared the apiary for the exam, and both carried epipens.  The chief examiner told us that he had only developed this allergy in recent times after a very bad reaction to a sting on the neck.  He then added that he was stung a while ago on the hand and seemed to have no reaction at all.  Such is the mystery of the human immune system.  The older gentleman who had opened up the apiary was a different matter entirely.

In the nervous moments before we were called out to the assessors, he told a handful of us his story.  He used to have many hives and had decades of experience under his belt.  Having been stung hundreds of times over the years he had shown no signs of allergy at all.  Then one day a bee got under his viel and stung him on the temple.  After 2 hours of rash, itching and difficulty breathing he bowed to his wife’s advice and then went to hospital where they ‘sorted everything out’.  At the time he thought nothing of the incident and carried on as normal until his next sting when it was worse, then the next after that which was worse again.  There was no other option be to give away all his hives (well over a dozen of them) to suitable and caring homes.  This caused us a little confusion as we suspected he still kept bees.  “Ah yes” he replied, “Then the spring came and I felt like a drug addict”.  He now tends his bees with his son in law and sets out his epipen in a handy spot while inspecting hives.  He has been told that he has thirty seconds to administer the injection once he is stung. This apparently has happened since he ‘gave up’ beekeeping.  When he was last stung he swiftly administered the adrenalin and has no recollection of his trip from the bees to hospital.

In the back of my mind, and sometimes at the front, have wondered if I am allergic to bees, and yesterday I got my answer. I was standing in the garage doing a little DIY, hammering nails and that sort of thing, when I felt a little sting on my upper leg.  As it began to feel a bit more stingy I scratched it and wondered what could have stung me.  A closer inspection of the area revealed a pea sized lump that felt very much like a incredibly sore spot.  But, I was in the garage and nowhere near the bees?  The next day revealed that it probably was a bee.

Today I hammered together a bracket and mounted it outside on the woodshed.  It was for a hive.  It is not an ideal location to keep bees as it is not suitable for inspection and it would bring bees near to our everyday coming and going in the garden.  However, it is a perfect location to catch bees.  I don’t want to just keep bees, I want to try and catch them too.  When bees swarm they send out scouts for miles around to find a new home.  A bait hive set up with a bit of old comb and a drop of lemongrass oil is the equivalent of the front page of property pal.  As I set up the bait hive a bee wandered into the garage, then another, then another.  The old comb still had a cell or two of honey and the bees knew it.  This was why I had been stung in the garage; one of them had been attracted to the old bit of comb.  Today I set up the bait hive and my bees found it and seem to have been robbing it of the last drops of honey all evening.  I am sure they will leave it clean and tidy for potential new tenants.  It is a remote possibility to catch a swarm but it is still a possibility and it does happen, so fingers crossed.

the bait hive mounted with a view and ready to catch the morning sun.

Monday is shaping up to be a stormy day.  The weather people are viewing it as a January storm in May.  With leaves on the trees some of them may feel more of a force than if they were bare in January.  Put away the garden furniture and batten down the hatches.

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

Part of ‘the man watching’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

Earlier this week, for preparation for the practical aspect of my beekeeping exam, I opened up the hive for practice.  I had hoped to get a full inspection in but it was getting too cold for them and I had to cut it short and did not get a chance to see all the frames.  The amount of bees in the hive was a little intimidating too.  Ideally the inspections should be carried out in the middle of the day when all the flying bees are out and about foraging.  So the weekend and in good weather are ideal, not when I get home from work with the threat of passing rain showers.  I must admit that when I am standing beside other beekeepers who are experienced, the amount of flying bees and bees crawling all over me during an inspection does not bother me.  However, it is a different thing when I am on my own.  When it is just me against about thirty five thousand bees it is a little too easy for me to think they are getting angry when they are only just getting a little miffed.

nice picture of a hive inspection by badly drawn dad

One thing did amuse me when I was looking into the hive; a visitor.  For a few years now I have trying to de-soften myself.  I used to have an aversion to handling raw meat, but now I think I could easily dispatch and prepare one of the chickens if they stopped laying (they are still young and therefore safe).  I used to hate the taste of fish, but now I eat it four times a week and the guys at the market fish stall sometimes feed me a small bite of breakfast with their ‘experiments’.  Years ago, if I heard the buzz of a wasp I would dance manically and run, now I stand my ground and try and get a curious good look at the little predator.  But the instinct of fear always seems to kick in, if only momentarily, when I see a bumble bee.  They are said to quite gentle but they are a little erratic in my mind.  So there I was with my head over the hive having a good look at the frames and a bumble bee appears in my vision and I suddenly become more alert, “ahh, a bee”.  It must have been attracted by the sweet aroma of the hive being opened and been curious about all the fuss.  My reaction was surprise and the wariness began to kick in until I had to catch myself on.  There I was in a full beekeeping suit with thousands of bees infront of me and hundreds in the air around me.  Why should I worry about one little humble bee bumbling its way about.

The meeting began at 10am. As classes in school begin at 9:30 there was little point in going to school before the meeting.  Instead I went to the University area for breakfast.  I thought my colleagues in work might be missing me so I took a picture of my breakfast and texted it to them to reassure them that I was ok.  I think they appreciated this.

eggs benedict on a bagel, OJ and the first coffee of the day

The meeting was an interesting one.  Very rarely will you hear me say this about meetings but it is actually true in this case.  The meeting ran over time which meant I had to skip lunch to ensure I made it back to school for my last class.  The thermal decomposition of metal carbonates is not a lesson to be skipped.  The meeting closed and I made my lunch apologies and left.  What happened next was defiantly the most surreal moment of the day.

I made my way out of the building by catching the lift down.  Then I must have just began to daydream.  Maybe it was the lack of sugar or even ‘meeting blindness’ induced by a three and a half hour meeting of listening and concentrating intensely.  The doors opened and I stepped out to meet Jackie Fullerton who stopped me in my tracks.  He said in his radio voice and television smile; “this is the forth”.  I had no idea what he was talking about and he clearly knew it.  Maybe he spotted my visitors pass or maybe he was an angel sent to find me lost (technically if he had not called the lift I would not have gotten lost anyway).  He comfortingly assured me not to worry and guided me back into the lift.  Back in the lift, the meeting blindness cleared and I put 2 and 2 together; I was coming from the fifth and needed to go down to the ground.  A little embarrassed, I had to fill the silence; “I think I have not had enough coffee yet today”.  This was massive lie, but he did not need to know the truth.

When we did reach the ground floor he did not even hesitate to guide me to the exit with his smile and witty banter, he must have instinctually known that this building always seems to confuse me.  I put it down to it not having enough windows.  When we both reached reception I handed in my security pass to see him walk off to find, and help, another lost soul.  He didn’t need a security pass; he is a legend in this building.

Don’t put away your childish things,

Save them for your children.

I know it shouldn’t but it really does annoy me when I see empty coffee on TV.  I mean the takeaway coffee cups that the actors use as props.  It seems obvious to me when they are empty and they are pretending.  I realise it might be an issue to be concentrating on acting with boiling hot liquid in your hands but it could be filled with water.  It is so sad, but I even notice when the actors are using full coffee cups and it pleases me.

endgame – good show, bad coffee

Tonight I dusted off the beekeeping books and my notes from the classes, the exam is approaching rapidly.  Flash cards on diseases were written with the intention of learning, but there is one card I feel I could write without consulting notes; varroa destructor.

For a couple of weeks we have been noticing a few dead bees on the ground in front of the hive.  With a population in the thousands, maybe tens of thousands at the moment, a few casualties in the game of life are expected.  However, the numbers of dead bees has steadily increased to more than to be expected; not good. Some of the bees have deformed wings caused by a virus called…..wait for it…..deformed wing virus.  And a few seem to have just decided to give up, with pollen or honey interesting them no more.  These dead bees have been coupled with an increased count of a devastating little nasty that sometimes drops to the hive floor where it can be see.  Varroa destructor.

an amazing picture of the varroa mite by Gilles san Martin

Varroa destructor is a tiny mite than has never been seen by the European honey bee in the hundreds of thousands of years that it has gone about its honeybee business.  Then man introduced the mite to the bee accidentally and it has been a downhill story from there.  Varroa destructor is said to be the reason why the wild population of honeybees in Ireland has been reduced to zero.  The mite pushed the bees to extinction by attaching itself to the bee and sucking its blood.  Then it reproduces and brings up its little baby mites in the bees larval stage by…sucking its blood.  If this was not bad enough, it also is a host to all sorts of nasty viruses including… deformed wing virus.

I dusted off my old microscope and took my own image


The only way beekeepers can keep the mite in controllable numbers is to intervene with an arsenal of chemicals and methods that try and maintain a minimal population.  The population of mites in our hive was minimal when we got them and minimal for the first few weeks, then it exploded.  Its just one of those things.

Yesterday I got a delivery of one of the few viable treatments for this time of year (some treatments can ruin any possible honey harvest).  I myself am also infected with a virus and was in no mood for doing any sort of beekeeping last night.  I do not have deformed wings but a cold, and the vector was not a mite but the little man and the nursery he attends.  Luckily the hive treatment required nothing more than opening the hive and dropping two strips of medicine into it.  I added a bit of sniffing, snorting and sneezing that was not required.

the hive floor debri scooped up and still alive with mites – the stuff of nightmares

Today I pulled out the hive floor to see if the treatment had any effect, it did.  I estimated* 2237.29 about 2200 mites were on the hive floor in both dead and half dead states.  It seems to be quite a serious infection.  We are not hoping for honey this year, in our minds it was always a possibility, but only a bonus.  We didn’t even want to keep bees to help with pollination.  To be honest, Bumble bees are far better pollinators than honey bees in Ireland.  We just wanted to keep bees for the joy and fascination.

*If you were wondering if I counted all the mites on the floor of the hive you would be wrong.  Like any good scientist I took a couple of 10 by 10cm squares and counted the mites in these with a magnifying glass.  Then I measured the total area of the floor and extrapolated.  Although I did once do a bit of silly counting. A couple of months ago I was waking around the garden and thought that there was a ridiculous amount of daffodils. I wondered how many there were and then a little inner voice said, “Don’t ask the questions unless you are prepared to find out the answers”.  So I counted them and there were seven hundred and twenty three daffodils in the garden that day.  Sometimes I catch the lovely Sharon looking at me with a look of curiosity mixed with unease and I don’t need to ask her why; I know she is remembering the day I counted the daffodils.

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