April 2012

Sit back, relax, it’s caturday.

unknown source

I have read that among some cultures it is a bit of a competition to find the moon.  It is a thing to seek after and share that you spotted it first; the moon renewing its cycle.  By the time the new cycle is spotted, it will have spent some time hidden from us all.  And before that, hidden from most of us who are not mad enough to be looking at the sky before dawn.  I imagine to myself that long ago it was probably a habit of most of us to try and find the moon.  It should be on its way back now.  It should be on its usual steady and ageless plod through the heavens. It is now be starting to reveal itself to us again if we care to look for it.

waxing crescent moon by Glass_House

When I came home this evening I spotted the first cracks in the egg.  I was expecting the crack to slowly spread over the hours.  I don’t know why, but in my mind I imagined a slow and laboured chipping away at the shell until the chick encased inside would slowly emerge.

The reality of the first hatching was a little more startling.  One minute it was a crack and the next minute there was a little baby chicken cheeping away and staggering its way about the inside of the incubator.  We had been constantly taking  quick looks at the eggs every time we walked past until it all happened within the blink of an eye.

***CAUTION:  Do not read if you are of a squeamish disposition***

The chickens are loving the cool spring sunshine.

They wander around the whole garden and keep sneaking up on my when I am doing the chores.

I imagine the bees have also been loving the bright weather, but they are all early to bed and on these evenings I only ever seem to catch a few late ones fly home.

The eggs have only three days until their due date.  I was chatting with one of the school caretakers about the eggs hatching and he told me that the first time his brother-in-law tried to hatch eggs it did not work quite as well as expected.  He told me that a lot of them hatched with their bowels on the outside.  I did not thank him for that erasable mental image.

We are definitely in the middle of spring, but there are still no little fluffy chicks.  The hatching is expected to happen on Friday or Saturday.  That is, of course, if they are viable little chicks.  It is really hard to tell what will happen.  Last night we candled the eggs again to find things progressing well for two of them with the third egg remaining enigmatic.  We have to prepare for the best with the eggs and therefore set up the brooder box.

The brooder consists of some scraps of wood set up as a box with a drinker, feeder, and the all important source of heat.  The one thing we are missing at the moment is the chick food.  The feed that we use for the chickens in specially made for hens that lay and egg a day every day.  The levels of calcium in this feed is set for the construction of massive amounts of egg shell.  Such feed would destroy a chick’s kidneys if their heart did not fail first.  We need to get the chick food sorted soon.

On Sunday I decided that the conditions were right to dive into the other bee hive.  I have put off this moment as the ‘other hive’ has always been a little on the feisty side.  It is not just their attitude before the winter that I have worried about; it is also the condition they are in now.  When watch the hive entrances the ‘other hive’ always seems to have less than half the traffic.  There are also more dead bees dumped at the front of the ‘other hive’.  The extra piece of information that saddens me about this hive is that they refused to fly on bright, but cold, winter days. In my head I had all sorts of ideas about what could be wrong; a lost queen, a poorly mated queen or disease.  So, I opened up the hive to expecting to find a pitiful sight.  Instead I found it bursting with bees, much more bees than the hive I checked only a few days earlier.  It turns out that the hive is thriving even though they don’t seem to like to be out and about in the cold weather.  I had no option but to put on a super.  A super is the box used to harvest the honey that the bees make.  It does seem so very strange that this time last year I obtained my first hive which only had half as much bees as any one of my hives now.  It also means I have to keep a close eye on these hives.  Lots of bees mean they may have a mind to swarm.  Last year my fear of swarming was a terror of the concept of it.  Now that I have been through the process, and thoroughly enjoyed it, I now see it as a potential loss of my precious bees.  A loss of productivity.

The beekeepers creed in spring is to not look into the hive when you want to. Instead you must have patience and wait until you need to. It is said that if there is no purpose to opening up the hive other than curiosity then leave it shut. With that said, I felt I needed to see how healthy the colonies were and have a go at marking and clipping the queens. It is easy to say it, “marking and clipping”, but it strikes me with nervous apprehension. The aim is to delicately manipulate the queen into a little cage, put a little paint on her thorax and then clip one of her wings with tiny scissors to stop her flying away in a swarm. All this needs to be done without touching her with my hands, covering her in paint, cutting her legs off, or damaging her in any way. Before all that, I have to find her.

Yesterday the sun was out and the temperature was hovering around twelve degrees and I decided to inspect one of the hives. I suited up and pushed down my nerves. I had to be confident and gentle as the bees can smell fear. I’m not kidding, this time last year I remember doing some of my first inspections and it was obvious from their reactions when I was either calm or freaking out. I removed the roof and unfolded their quilt that rests over their ceiling. The unfolding revealed a plastic carton that I had filled with sugar fondant for them. The carton was now filled with the creamy yellow of built comb. If they are building comb then it is usually a good sign. I gently broke the seal on the ceiling board (crown board in beek lingo) and lifted it to reveal the bees and frames. Lots of bees! The slow and steady movement of the hive inspection started; a frame of stored honey, another frame of stored honey, another frame of stored honey, then a frame of brood. The brood was healthy looking with baby bees at all stages, but no queen. Another frame of brood and no queen, then another frame of brood and no queen. I tried to apply all the techniques to spot her. I looked on the dark side first and then looked for a circle of bees facing in, her little royal court bending the knee to their queen. I even tried to ‘read’ the frame from right to left and not from left to right. This is supposed to make us more observant and is a technique used by pilots to spot for other aircraft. It is said that our brains have been rewired by reading so that our focus skips and jumps too much, a consequence of the words on a page. Still no queen though.

I worry that she has inherited her mother’s strange habit of darting about the hive and hiding from me. Eventually I paused at a frame of mostly eggs as a thought drifted into my mind, “the most likely place to find her is on the frame of freshly laid eggs”. I refused to put this frame down for a moment longer and tried again. I can only describe it as a Where’s Wally moment, there she was. The bees look like bees, the queen looks like something else. Her body is unusually long and slender and her wings are folded up on her back to exaggerate her length. What followed was a period of intense concentration while I zoned out the bees in the air around me, the bees crawling all over me and the bees threatening me. It was only me and the queen, this tiny little creature that I must not damage. A damaged abdomen could jeopardise her thousands of tiny eggs. A damaged leg could harm her ability to size up the honeycomb cells to see if they meet with her approval. And any sort of damage or human smell could cause her servants to turn on her and kill her. To them she is not the queen, to them she is the egg laying slave and they have high expectations.

I painted her with a drop of white paint. The paint did not dry well at all and very little seemed to stay on her. I completely bottled out of clipping her. I think I should practice first. They say it is good to try clipping a few of the male drones first, no one cares about the males. I slipped the queen into a match box to keep her safe while I carried on with the inspection.

Was there a point to all of this apart from a queen with bad make up and an adrenaline fuelled game of Where’s Wally? In the end there was an unexpected purpose; the hive was packed with bees and in need of some space. I did not expect so many bees at this time of year. Nearly eight frames of brood means it is time for a super. Will there be an early honey harvest? Will they swarm? The queen is in her first year, it is said that this means they will not swarm. Then again, if she is anything like her mother…

I cannot remember how I found the book ‘Findings’ by Kathleen Jamie, but I am glad I found it long ago. I am glad I read it, and then read it again, and then read it again to my son as he settled himself to sleep in my arms. Kathleen is not so much a writer of books as a sculptor of words. Her words end up being unpretentious and uncluttered. Her words seem to highlight the life in things and the life in us. The book ‘Findings’ has been categorised as nature writing that has broken the mould. In my eyes it is because it is not nature writing at all. It is about life and our experience of it.

Yesterday I took delivery of Kathleen’s next instalment ‘Sightlines’. So far I have found myself immersed in an arctic voyage and visits to a pathology lab. These two different glimpses do not do it any justice. You have to sit still and absorb yourself into Jamie’s prose. So far not a single word has disappointed.

It was a sad event at the cottage tonight, when we decided to stop the incubation of half of the eggs. We are both very inexperienced about these things but we hope we made the right decision. We have delved into what little books we have on the subject and then used the internet to give us the confidence that we needed on the matter of the candling of eggs.

Candling eggs gets its name from the use of candle light long ago. In a dark room the egg is viewed with the candle source of light behind it. The development, or lack of development, of the embryo can be viewed in this way. We could have bought a modern candling device which emits a very bright cold source of light. Instead, we opted for or LED head torches which are bright enough to have  stickers all over the package saying ‘do not stare in beam’. At this point I don’t think I need to mention what the lovely Sharon and I both did upon reading these labels.

Three out of the half dozen incubating eggs showed the outline of the spidery veins of a developing embryo. And two of these three visibly moved about on their own under the bombardment of intense light.

The sad news is that the other three showed no signs of the beginnings of life. Two of them had no shadows at all, and were instead mottled with the dots of a large pore structure. From our research we have been led to believe that this is not a good sign.

The last remaining egg showed signs of a well defined ring inside the egg. This is a bacterial ring which is essentially a ticking bomb. This one bad egg must be removed to ensure that it does not detonate and spread contamination to the rest of the developing eggs.

We knew the risks when we started on this adventure. Our egg supplier admitted that the fertility had not yet been tested and invited us to have a go with the eggs at half the price. Even if the fertility had been tested, the fertility can never be guaranteed. However, we do know that we if we get two, three or zero little chicks from this little experiment; we will be trying again. Unfortunately it is all about the struggle for life, and it is not a Disney film.