August 2011


Our neighbours have a dog which they sometimes politely apologise for. They apologise for its barking and the lovely Sharon and I scratch our heads and try to recall hearing it bark at all. It must bark sometimes, as that is what dogs tend to do. But it blends into, and enriches, the sounds around us that we absorb unconsciously.

About a week ago I heard it bark at night. I don’t really know how to explain it but I knew the bark was different; the first hint was probably the fact that I registered it at all. It is a strange link between a dog and man and it is one that goes back thousands of years; a link deeply imbedded in our blood.

The following night I heard it again. The dog was trying to tell us all something and I had a suspicion that I knew what it was. I wanted to pat the dog and tell her that it was ok and I knew, I understood and that we would all keep a watchful eye out. Two days later and my suspicion was confirmed when I arrived home and spotted this:

The sly fox had been on the prowl and had his eyes on the hens. I tried to assure the lovely Sharon that he probably just wanted to say hello to the hens and maybe just give them a cuddle. She didn’t believe me and instead insisted that we reinstate the very strange habit that we have for collecting my pee. This is not a joke and I have heard from several people and read in several books that it is effective. Every couple of days or so I collect my pee in a bottle, and we are led to believe that it only works with male pee, and the bottle is left by the back door. Then it is up to whoever carries out the closing of the gates to add the pouring of the pee around the coop to their nightly chores. We had gotten a little lax with this disturbing duty and this may have given the fox enough courage to investigate further? We cannot be sure.

A different, less potent, mixture was made up today. A mixture of two parts sugar and one part water was made in huge quantities to begin the autumn feeding of the bees. They need the syrup to replace all the honey that we have stolen if they are to have a hope of surviving the winter. Over the coming weeks they will be feed as much syrup as they desire for them to carry into the hive and store in the comb.

Earlier today we ventured into the forest to see if autumn was truly here or not, to see if we are being foolish feeding the bees too early. We are not; the leaves on the trees are already beginning to turn on a few species like the horse chestnut. I wandered through the trees with the little man strapped to my back making strange noises and the lovely Sharon getting a little frustrated by my walking style. She wanted to walk and I wanted to stop and wander off the path and look at all the mushrooms.

We spotted what we believe to be a young puffball

The day had the feel of late September more than late August and the mushrooms had sprung up everywhere due to the cool air and heavy showers. Hints of fairy rings could be found in the dark shadows and we even spotted a mushroom that I always love to see; the fly agaric. It is eye catching and iconic, and I often see it many times in the illustrations of the little man’s books. It appears bright and playful but is of course deadly. It is poisonous. However, this did not deter some brave foolish souls many years ago. Some attempted to eat enough to give hallucinations and not death. If that was not weird enough other people would then consume the pee of those who consumed the mushroom and receive the hallucinations without the toxic chemicals. This practice is believed to be the origin of the practice of people getting ‘pissed’.

The deadly and hallucinogenic fly agaric – the stuff of children’s books

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The day started with the cutting of the lawn.  It was a job that was well overdue, this fact turned it into a mess.  The grass was so long that the middle setting on the mower made it splutter and stall with even ridiculously short distances.  Instead I had to settle with giving the garden only a light trim.

Throughout the trimming the bees looked a little unnerving as they crawled over the front of the hive several hundred strong per hive.  The reason was their medical treatment in the form of a very strongly smelling chemical called thymol. When the thymol is in the hive they prefer to hang outside and enjoy the fresh air when given the option.  The thymol was even strong enough to be detected as I cut the grass near them.  The bees need another three weeks of their medicine as a prophylactic.  At least the feeding will start soon and they do say that a spoonful of sugar will help.  Ten kilograms of sugar should help even more.

After the garden I moved into the garage and began work on a fridge freezer that we are looking after for a few months.  We intend to put it to use while it is with us but it is broken and in need of repair.  It is a shame that, as with this freezer, most fridges and freezers that end up on scrap heaps usually have fully working refrigeration systems.  It is usually just a seal or hinge that needs fixing to restore its purpose.  In this case the hinges were broken and two pieces of angle iron and some screws were all that was needed to get it back on its feet.

 

Its ugly but it works.

After lunch we found ourselves pushing the little man around town and that is when the incident happened that found the lovely Sharon looking at me in confusion wondering why I was not ripping off my shirt in Holland and Barrets.  She was at the counter paying for some cardboard flavoured cereal bars and I was just standing by the pram making strange noises at the little man.  Then I felt a sharp pain on the left side of my chest.  My hand instantly clutched my chest in a move that must have looked like a heart attack, but I knew straight away that it was more like the attack of a bee.  It felt exactly like a bee sting.  Seconds passed as I just stood clutching my chest with a look of confusion.  Then the pain came back again, and again, and again all down my arm.  It was then that I knew that this was no bee but its carnivorous cousin; the wasp!  My hand slapped the area of the last sting and I could definitely feel a lifeless wasp sized lump under my palm.  It was then that I raised all the decorum I could muster and politely informed the lovely Sharon that I had to leave and find a toilet as I had a wasp under my shirt that had just repeatedly stung me.

It turns out that my reaction to the stings was worse than any of the bee stings I have had so far.  I have also been stung by wasps on several occasions in the past but this time each sting had swollen up quite a lot and each had a large radiating rash in a circle around each sting.  The wasp was found and disposed of mercilessly as I wondered how it got inside my shirt and how long it had been there.  The stings have all settled down now so much that they cannot be found just by looking.  This has not pleased the lovely Sharon who swells up into week long lumps when a mere midge fly even contemplates biting her.

After work, yes I was at work today, I headed out to pick up another load of jam jars after the honey harvest took most of what remained. Then I picked up the little man from nursery before heading home. Every time I pick him up I think I am on the generation game trying to memorise the list as it is read out on the debrief. Breakfast was blah, then this much milk, then this for lunch and then that for smack, x number of dirty nappies and sleeping from then till then, a colour TV, a suitcase, a cuddly toy. When I relay this to the lovely Sharon I try my best to be accurate, but I am sure she thinks I make half of it up……she is probably right.

When the little man and I did arrive home we found that the lovely Sharon had not picked any blackcurrants at alltoday. Instead, she had painted the frame on the garage door, a downspout, and then she had finished painting the little man’s toy boxes. This was good news to me as I hate painting. I hate it with a passion. It also gave me an excuse to don my beesuit and throw myself at the wasps. After half an hour I gave up on the hood of the suit as I could hardly see thought the veil. Wasps buzzed around me as I hunted blackcurrants. It turned out that although they got very close they did not have the slightest interest in me. Even when they ventured into my ear I remained as calm as I could muster and stayed still. They always seemed to lose interest and find a way out.

In the end I was covered in stings though. The nettles shared the same ground as the blackcurrants and they lurked hidden in the shadows. Some swearing alleviated the pain and I rose from the bushes as a grumpy man half undressed (the bee suit half undressed, not my clothes) and covered in stains of squashed blackcurrants. However, my work was not done.

Ever night I feed the little man his bottle and read him a story (if he does not immediately fall to sleep). Tonight our roles were reversed and I found myself in charge of the dinner as the lovely Sharon read the story. This meant that I had to stay in the garden and pick the peas. I have no experience of picking pees for dinner and ended up picking more than twice the quantity required. Then I had to do something with them. So…..

A little salad leaf and a dressing of: 2 teaspoons of mustard, 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, 6 tablespoons of olive oil and salt and pepper.

Fry some small strips of bacon in olive oil

While simmering peas (not too long; 3 min or so)

When the bacon is crispy put it on a plate and leave the oil in the pan and add some torn up bread.

Then when the bread is slightly golden fire it all together on a plate.

Now I just have to do something with the surplus peas. Is there such a thing as pea jam.

The full moon was rising through the clouds here tonight as the last of the honey was poured and sealed into jars.  For us it’s name is the honey moon, and we hope to have a honey moon every year now.

pooh fainted

We started off with one hive here and now we have found ourselves heading into the autumn with it split into three.  This means that the expectations of a honey harvest were lower than what would be normal for a single hive uninterested in swarming.  However, we are more than happy with our forty two jars of honey (coincidently the meaning of life if you are a scifi fan).

There are still a few empty jam jars left for the blackcurrants but the wasps have now felt the turning of the year and are hunting for their fix of fruity sugars. This makes for a strange turn of events, as the lovely Sharon will probably be wearing her beekeeping suit tomorrow to harvest the blackcurrants in a cloud of wasps, the bee’s carnivorous cousins.

After spending some time away on our holidays we returned to the cottage keen to harvest the honey. Apparently the end of August is the usual time to harvest for most people here but we felt that the ‘flow’ was tailing off and we need to treat with anti-varroa medicine before even beginning the winter feed.

The actual harvesting was today but it began yesterday evening when I ventured out to place clearing boards and bee escapes on two of the hives. The idea is that the bees can move only one way through the bee escapes and therefore they slowly empty the box where all the honey is stored overnight. Our bees are usually quite gentle and I have inspected them without smoke on several occasions. With this in mind I approached and opened a hive and began to clear a little surplus wax away in preparation for the clearing board. ATTACK! Nearly instantly a squadron of a hundred bees went straight for my veil and tried to sting me and relay their anger. I dandered back to my kit box to get my smoker, it seems that an overcast evening near the end of the flow changes my docile little cuddly bees into……normal bees.

This afternoon we collected a nearly-full eight frames from one hive and two frames from another hive. Once we deemed them to be bee-free they were brought into the kitchen.  Just before the harvesting began we had to close up all the windows in the cottage to make sure the bees could not steal the honey back.  Then we had to find the little man’s winnie the pooh bear and lock it in a cupboard for the rest of the evening; we were taking no chances.

When the bees have turned the nectar into honey they cap the cells in wax to seal it up.

The first job is to remove the wax cappings with a knife.

After doing one frame this way we quickly moved on to using a de-capping fork as it seemed more efficient.

Two frames at a time; they were spun in a big drum with a crankshaft. The honey splattered against the side of the drum and ran down to a big honey tap ready for the next stage.

The honey was then filtered through two filters to remove all the floating bits of wax and the occasional, although rare, bit of bee leg and such things. No-one likes bee legs in their honey.

Now we have a big 30lb tub of honey which is having a rest for a day or two to lose its bubbles before it is bottled. Although we do have a little bowl sitting in front of us now. It is resting below a jelly strainer full of honey heavy wax cappings. It is sitting absorbing the warmth of the woodstove and as it drips down we can’t resist the occasional little finger dipped into the bowl.

Click image to enlarge.  Poster on wall in ‘Ground’ Coffee shop in Portrush

When we talk about the bee hives we get a little weary of referring to them as the ‘one in the middle’ or the ‘one on the left’.  As we have been referring to the original hive as Grelder’s hive we thought it only fitting that we choose names for the other queens.  The obvious name for one of the queens was Tooter, but she is lost to us now.  I hope she is hanging on with her tiny entourage in a hollow chimney or a small forgotten corner of a roof somewhere.  Choosing names for the other two hives is not easy as they have no personality to speak of yet, nor any notable history.  Names were chosen anyway.

Tonight I took a look into Danu’s hive and found plenty of sealed baby bees.  The baby bees are all female worker bees and this is a sign that she has probably been well mated.  Danu’s hive is the weakest of the three hives and is the one that is probably least likely to see the winter through, special care and attention will be needed with them.

Beira has now been laying for a couple of weeks and her hive are doing very well.  Although, they have taken drastic action towards the males in the hive.  Today I discovered the area around the front of Beira’s hive to be littered with dead bees.  Initially I was worried until I took a closer look and realised that they were only males.  The male Drones have a strange and interesting life.  They hang around the hive for most of their lives getting fed by the females.  On sunny days they head out to find the Drone congregation areas which are the equivalent of singles bars.  There they wait for a queen to appear and raise their chances of mating.  ‘Get Lucky’ is a term that should be used lightly here as their penis snaps off and they die.  The unlucky ones simply return to the hive and wait for the next sunny day.  As the Drones serve no purpose other than reproduction, a hive does not want to go through the winter with extra mouths to feed.  Therefore, the end of the summer is the time when the drones are dragged out of the hive by the females after having refused to feed them prior to the eviction.

Grelder’s hive may have evicted the males too?  Her hive is not here at the cottage and so we need to wait for a visit to see. She is our best hope of a honey harvest this year and our fingers are crossed for a week or two from now.

This evening was spent with fungus.  First a yeast was mixed in with the most basic of ingredients; flour and water.  Then, after crucial timing and kneading, the cottage was filled with the smell of freshly baked bread.  A different strain of yeast was then put to work in a new batch of wine.  It reminded me that we have a demijohn of elderberry wine still un-bottled since it was made last autumn.  We are curious about its taste, if we get round to it, the bottling stage is the perfect opportunity to sample it before it matures for another couple of months.

Tonight I stood looking at the dead bees by torchlight and pondered their brief existence before shuffling over to the sleeping hens and stealing eggs from them.  The eggs were shovelled into my pockets and rolled in my hands as I watched the moon begin to set on the horizon.  It is filling and will be full soon.  The evenings are longer now and the moon and stars will begin to pull at us again as summer has past its middle and autumn is not too far away.


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