September 2012

I’ve been thinking about light and darkness, i’ve been forced to.  This is the time of year when the light is being chased away by the rolling in of the autumn.  A friend said to me today that he couldn’t live anywhere without the seasons.  Then we tried to choose our favourite time of the year but instead decided, in a very irish way, that we could choose no favourite; but we liked the autumn best of all.

The air is slowly cooling and the green of the hedges is dissolving into rust.  It is the time for preparing and preserving.  The butter, our crude cottage thermometer, has lost it’s summer soft spread.  The bread is taking longer to rise in the evenings, and I am taking longer to rise in the mornings.

Tonight I was cutting strips of wood and framing the inside of the  storage doors in the loft conversion.  A squall was passing over and I was glad to be blocking up the drafty points with the tiny cloud of wintery weather passing over.  The growing winter dark is not really a thing to fear.  We often need the dark to rest, to sleep deeply at night.  We find it difficult to wake from it when it starts to eat into the working day.  Right now a little soul is softly sleeping in the dark, curled up and growing in it’s guardian; the lovely Sharon.  Of course the dark is nothing to fear as long as we have the light.  Seasons. Change.  The turning of things and the slow and steady path of the earth, and us all.

A bubble inside a drop of water, on board the space station.

by André Kuipers


This evening I held the chicken in my hand and paused, then paused some more. Then the moment became too long and a little awkward.  I had dispatched a chicken twice before without any real hesitation.  The first time I simply got on with the job.  The second time had to be quick to ensure the already injured and distressed bird did not suffer any longer.  This time it was for food and somehow that changed everything.

Earlier that evening the lovely Sharon came home from work claiming that one of her colleagues thought we should simply release our excess cockerels into the countryside.  The lovely perplexed Sharon pointed out that they would not last long, but her colleague said that at least they would have a chance, and instead we should just buy a chicken from the store.  This strange logic did not sit well with us at all.  Why would we give them a chance….to be eaten by a fox? And why would we buy a chicken when we have these ones of our own that we have looked after, cared for and have had a happy life (until now)?

The moment standing in the woodshed had dragged on embarrassingly long.  The chicken was so much larger and more majestic that our other hens, but they are not pets and the males need to be culled before they begin to fight.  I got on with the job.

After the plucking was nearly complete the lovely Sharon and the little man were taking their evening walk around the cottage.  She called to me from around the wood shed door, “does it still look like a chicken?”  “No, I think we can risk it.”  She continued around the corner with the little man in tow.  This was a dangerous moment and the tension was in the air.  He looked at me, “DAAD Deeee.” Then he looked at the carcass hanging from the roof, then he looked back to me with a look of deep thought.  Slowly he lifted his pointed hand and raised it to his head declaring, “hat”.  One of two things happened in those few brief seconds.  Either he comprehended the situation fully, the circle of life, animal husbandry, and then chose to diffuse the situation and demonstrate his maturity to his mother and father.  Or, he was proud of his hat and wanted to share one of his new words.

Later that evening a friend of ours called round with a selection of knives.  She is our culinary mentor and enthusiastically taught me how to cut up a chicken.  I am ashamed to say that this is something I have never done before as we never buy whole chickens.  I tried to impress her with my precious Global knife, but it was not the tool for the job and was put to shame by her fillet knife.  Mine just didn’t cut it (sorry).  During the gutting and filleting we discussed meat quality, ligaments and knife doctors.  Our local Spar has a knife doctor in residence and our knives, and our mentors knives are due a check-up soon.  For a while we pondered the stock; with or without chicken feet?  We opted out this time, maybe next time we will be more adventurous.

A reprieve has been declared.  Not through any sympathy or softness of heart, simply through practicality.  The first of the cockerels destined for the pot has been given another twenty four hours on death row.  It was placed in isolation for two reasons.  One reason was to empty its crop.  The second reason, a more important one, is to make its capture a less stressful event when the time comes.  However, the twenty four hours has now become forty eight as we have found ourselves with little time today.  Not enough time for two amateurs to attempt to slaughter, gut and roast a whole chicken.  So, we fed it another meal this morning and I have another evening to consult my mentor Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his books.

There is a little wooden handle that I have to wind.  It squeaks so much that the noise invades me to the middle of my brain, but it is a squeak that I will never oil for fear of contaminating the honey.  The sweet golden distillation of millions of summer flowers.  As I have seen the bees feeding on the underside of the beech tree I also suspect that honeydew is blended into the mix.  Honeydew such a lovely sounding word that hides its true nature; aphid poo.

I had a little helper with me today as I spun the frames and squeaked the handle.  The little man would periodically arrive beside me and demand “MORE, MORE!” from the tap that pours then drips into the filters.  I gave in to his demands, even encouraged them.  I think this melliferous overdosing is forgivable at this  special time of year when the cottage is thick with the heavy scent of beeswax and honey.

I remember the day distinctly.  It was a beautiful summer’s day of sunshine and blue sky.  Even though this day was a rare event in the distant part of the early summer, the unfolding of events is still fresh in my mind due to its singularity.  At first I noticed the excitement in the bees.  Then I noticed the large repeating circles of flights around the hives.  These flights are a usual event just around late lunch time on a bright day as bees unfamiliar with flight and navigation try to memorise their surroundings at the start of six weeks of foraging until their wings are torn and ragged.  However, it was only ten o’clock in the morning and all four hives all seemed excited.  Then it dawned on me; love is in the air.  Due to a combination of incompetence and bad luck I found myself with four hives, all queenless, but with emerging virgin queens.  I did a quick calculation in my head and concluded that on that particular Sunday the first of the virgin queens was due to go on her nuptual flight.  The other three hives were not due for another couple of days but the fronts of those hives were quite excited too.  No doupt they were chancing thier arm by trying to entice the newly mated queen back into thier own hives, maybe out of desperation or maybe shrewdness. Once I realised what was happening I decided to leave them straight away in case the queen might catch sight of me.  It is said that if you are present when a queen emerges from the hive then it is best to stay standing where you are for a half hour or so,  as she might have used you as a navigational sign post.

After that one day of bliss the Irish summer returned in all its damp and drizzly glory.  The other three queens had a window of only a few days in which to mate and the miserable weather robbed them of this, and a productive life.  This in itself was a tragedy.  Then it was compounded only a few weeks later when we lost the only mated queen we had.  I tried to unite this queen with the bees from one of the failed hives and the result was a disaster.  I had carried out a successful uniting last year, but this time they fought with each other and the queen must have been lost in the epic battle.

At this bleak stage of events I decided to try something different, something desperate.  I sent for a new queen in the post.  Only one was available, so I set up two hives.  In one hive I placed a frame of eggs for them to rear a new virgin queen, and in the other I placed our new mail order queen.

This was something I was apprehensive about.  It is a gamble that requires boldness and a hope that the bees have some sense.  The new queen arrived in her cage with a small entourage to feed and clean her.  I secured the cage with insulating tape and placed her far from the brood nest in the hive.  Twenty four hours later I removed the tape and placed her deep in the brood nest and left her.  All that kept her from the thousands of angry bees that smelt her unfamiliar aroma was a small block of hard sugar that sealed her entrance.  As I placed her there and the bees immediately began to eat her out of her cage, I felt like a gambler.  I had just waged thirty pounds on the whim of the bees.

After that we went away on holiday and left the bees to fate.

Now the year is turning and the autumn is beginning.  It hasn’t been a proper summer but the sun and the moon do not care about the weather.  As it is the time to harvest the honey and begin feeding the bees I had to open them up and see how the gamble went.  The transformation was amazing.  Our bees are not particularly aggressive, but with their new queen they were amazingly calm.  They nearly reacted as if I wasn’t really there.  The signs were all there, the mass of bees, the neat brood frames, and then the queen herself; jackpot.

The second hive was a little more, strange.  I lifted the lid on the hive to release a horde of angry male bees.  They are big and fat and had somehow got trapped above the bars of the queen excluder.  Below the excluder I found evidence of a laying queen but I did not linger to investigate further.  After giving it some thought i think that a queen got herself trapped above the excluder and another queen was below her and successfully mated.  The trapped queen could not have left the hive to mate and, in an ironic twist of fate and strange bee genetics, could only lay eggs that developed into male bees.  The very bees she was unable to meet when she really needed to.

Yesterday I removed a modest harvest of honey, then I cooked up the beginnings of their winter feeding.  The moon is still full and the new queens are in their respective kingdoms.  Their entrances are reduced down to help them guard against the wasps and the mouse guards will soon be in place.  Autumn is here and the world is still slowly turning.