bees


There is something in the woodshed; alive and mysterious.

I decided that this heatwave was an appropriate time to chop firewood. As I spent days living with the drone of the chainsaw, chopsaw, and the sweet smell of freshly cut wood, I had time to meditate on the extremes of things. The heat was just barely tolerable with regular breaks to drink pints of dilutable lemon juice and yet, as I stacked the wood I could see the frozen winter in my mind’s eye.

Every time the cutting tools were turned off and my ear protectors removed, the silence was shocking. Except for the drone of a housefly……and that wasp……that’s not a wasp…the penny is in the air.…it moves like a wasp…...penny in the air…..it sounds like a wasp…….but it’s too dark to be a wasp…the penny dropped. It was a honeybee. It’s been a couple of years since we had bees here. We do see them about in the spring on the apple blossom and this means that there must be hives within three kilometres. This would have surprised me prior to actually becoming a beekeeper before discovering, through beekeeping associations, how many beekeepers live and keep hives in the area. Yet this bee was not in the garden, it was in the woodshed. Then I saw another, and another, and another. About twenty bees were buzzing about in a confused way distributed all over the woodshed. All this was happening just after I realised I needed to stop cutting and go and get washed before heading out to dinner with the lovely Sharon. It was our annual date night in celebration of our wedding anniversary. I left the woodshed scanning every corner and wooden beam for a cluster of bees. Then outside I continued to look everywhere; nothing. Completely confused I washed and dressed into something more presentable than saw-dusted old clothes and ear defenders. Then I remembered where to look, the most obvious place, the old hive I left out as a bait hive in the garden. And there they were; bees. I glanced at the hive and then was off; we were late for dinner.

Later that night we returned home and the lovely Sharon and I found ourselves leaning down over the hive with our stethoscope. There are two easy ways to establish if a bee hive is occupied. The first option is to use a stethoscope pressed against the side of the hive to hear the air conditioning hum of the bees. The second way is to give the hive a good thump while loudly inquiring if anybody is home and holding an ‘about to sprint’ stance. I tried the stethoscope first; silence. I tentatively tapped the hive and whispered, “Anybody there?”. Nothing.

Were they just shy? Were they scouts for a swarm bivouacked on a tree half a mile away?

The next morning the hive was, well, a……hive of activity. Are they a big swarm? Small swarm? Are they friendly or nasty? Are they here to stay? All of these are mysteries at the moment. All I can say is that they are here. We have bees.

 

It has changed. The day length has changed; the darkness is winning.  It’s the fastest rate of daylight change. The air has changed, the leaves are changing. Autumn has arrived.  Even the word “Autumn” is believed to come from the Etruscan word “autu”, meaning change of season.  I used to think that I enjoyed all seasons equally; no favourites as a policy. I was wrong, this is it; a winner by a mile.

Now I feed and water the chickens with a head torch on and the air around the cottage has the faint smell of wood smoke.  With the darkness the evening sky is now my seasonal clock as I walk down the lane.  Cygnus, the swan, is beginning its annual migration across the night and, if its dark enough, marks the arc of the milky way. The swan reminds me to keep an eye out for the skeins of birds in the sky. I usually spot the during the commute to school.  Sitting in the static traffic gives me a chance to look up.

It’s strange to have an autumn without bees.  No syrup feed, no honey harvest. The hives were left empty in the hope that maybe a stray swarm might move in; no joy.  To add insult to injury I found a wasp nest in one of the old spare hives.

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Then there is the apples. The trees are older and the pruning, feeding and weeding is beginning to bear some fruit. James Grieves, McIntosh Red, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Katy, Russet and some other unknown varieties. Although the Russet is not really a Russet. We bought it five years ago and planted it as a thin sapling.  Five years latter and we discover that it had been mislabelled. Should I have kept the receipt?  This is the consequence of growing trees, proper slow food.  The taste and textures of the apples are quite different and we eat apple and cheese sandwiches, baked apples, fried apples on toast (which is quite nice; thank you Nigel Slater), apple crumble and simply eat the apples. We have even filled a couple of boxes with apples individually wrapped in newspaper and hidden away in a cool dark place.  Yet, a little while a go I went looking for apples to buy at the market.  I wanted Russet apples as they add to the flavour of autumn for me.  I intended to buy them for my A Level class to try and convince them to branch out (sorry) and try other varieties that the supermarket keep hidden from them.  The market didn’t have any.  Later that day there was a knock on my classroom door in the middle of my A Level lesson.  It was a past pupil with a bag of twenty five russet apples. She works part-time in a fruit shop and when they arrived in, she knew I would like them; a thoughtful and wonderful gift. After they were distributed there was still one or two left to set on my desk.  Although it is nowhere near as neat as the clichéd teacher’s desk.

I woke in the middle of the night, dragged sleepily to semi-consciousness by thousands of bees.  The dream was one of worry; will they survive? A few days later I peeked into the hive and found them dead.  They had no stores left.  They had plenty of fondant, but it simply was not enough for them.  They starved in the local county Antrim definition of the word; they got too cold due to lack of food.

Did I dream their death through some spiritual connection as a beekeeper? To be fair, I dream this dream every spring and this is my first year of winter loss. Of course I am sad and I will miss having bees about the home. That said, looking after them last summer was problematic.  I had less time for them, and I promised myself that if they did not make it through the winter; I would take a year off beekeeping. In a fight between the bees or the little people; the little people win. I told the little man about the bees and he knew I was upset. He gave me a hug and told me it was going to be ok, we could buy honey from ASDA.

I’m shrugging beelessness off and refocusing my efforts into the garden and growing things to eat. The old buckets and bricks are already on top of the early rhubarb shoots, the potatoes are chitting on the window ledge and the seed packets are all purchased. I have plans. In the autumn I bought eighteen more raspberry canes to fill a vegetable plot that we normally grow lettuces in.  For the last two years all we have seem to have done with this is feed the slugs. These raspberries were supposed to be planted in November. The sodden cold earth and the winter darkness put a stop to that.  They are in little pots and have been added to the list of things to do.

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Last night I sat down with netflix intending to start House of Cards.  Then I remembered that Gardener’s World had come back to TV and iPlayer. Monty Don won and Francis Underwood lost my vote.

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This morning I stole away some time as the little people sat eating breakfast and feasting on saturday morning cartoons. I made a dent in some of the items on the gardening list: mulched the redcurrants and blackcurrants, split and spread the snowdrop bulbs, cleaned out the chicken coop, and had a fight with an unruly cottoneaster. Ever since we lost the pear trees to canker I have been keeping a close eye on the apple trees and clipping and burning any little signs of disease.  The little man’s tree seemed to be infected on the main trunk at about shoulder height.  I was a bit hesitant about doing anything harsh as it is called the little man’s tree as it was a gift for his birth from some friends.  All the little people have a tree of their own now. I pondered trying to spray it and then thought WWMD (What Would Monty Do?)  I cut out the disease and this resulted in a dramatic pruning of it’s height.  It had to be done and it does still look alright.  It seems to have opened it up quite a bit. I just hope I won’t have to hug the little man and reassure him by telling him we can buy his apples in ASDA.

No time for this, no time for that. Time spent, time valued. Time flies, then it is time for change; time for spring.  It’s fair to say that the three little ones are my time now. Time playing lego, time feeding, time talking and answering questions. Time holding hands and learning to walk.

 

I took a little time out to order up some raspberry plants with the intention of investing some time in summer and autumn raspberries.  Ideally they should be planted, according to the literature, in November.  There was a day that I set aside for just such a task.  Then I was sick on that day and the window passed. The raspberry canes have been stored in damp soil in the greenhouse and I intend to plant them out soon.  Yet things happen. Fences get blown down in storms, chicken coop roofs get blown off and scattered around the garden.  These things need mended and fixed.

 

The first signs of spring are here and this is inspiring me to make time for growth. The snowdrops are out and the daffodils are beginning to flower.  One hive of bees is all that has survived from last year.  Their stores are desperately low.  They seem to be breaking their winter huddle every so often to feed on the fondant I left them.  If they hang on then the willow and dandelion will be out soon.  Hang on.

 
It’s at times like these that I turn to Monty.  I’m re-watching Monty Don’s Fork to Fork and getting inspired. No; I’m getting reminded that summer does actually happen if we choose to believe that it will. So, I will plant out those raspberries.  I will turn over the soil, and I will get those potatoes ready for chitting. I will make time for these things. Why?…  The littlest man may be only learning to walk now, but in time, I hope he will be walking through the garden eating all the raspberries with his brother and sister, and me only half-heartedly complaining that they are spending more time eating than picking.

A last minute present was delivered by the postman this morning; fondant laced with pollen.  Under a full moon I slipped this package onto the bees tonight and whispered that they are not to eat it until tomorrow morning.  It’s said that you must always tell the bees the news.  The news is that we have made it past the solstice.  A few sleeps ago sunrise caught me after  I woke up. I have an image of it in my head, a vague echo; a memory imperfect yet feeling like perfection. I hadn’t seen the sunrise for weeks even though it had been hanging around on the edges of my mind. At this time of year there is always the thoughts of the local standing stones lining up with the winter sun, and thoughts of chambers like Maes Howe.  Why?  Why did they do it, and why does it haunt my winter thoughts.  Maybe it’s obvious when the nights are so long and the days are so short.  Maybe it’s obvious when I am dragged from my warm bed on a cold winter morning with the little lady screaming, “Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet!” The pancakes still need made and I am groggy with winter dreams.  It seems routine until I am walking the little lady down the stairs and I look out the window.  The hills, the sleeping bare trees, the stone grey sky, and then the sun creeping over the forest reminds me there is nothing routine in any of this.  The epiphany charges me with enthusiasm; time for solstice pancakes.  
There is no point reminding the bees about the solstice as they are far more tuned in to these things than I.  Instead, the news is that the house is bursting with excitement.  The little lady and the little man are dreaming of santa.  They are full of the hope of presents under the tree.  The littlest man is too small for such things and a bowl full of breakfast and the sight of the lovely Sharon will probably fill him with equal delight. Happy solstice. Merry Christmas.

The sudden need to harvest and make jams and jelly puts us under a certain strain this time of year…

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We noticed the redcurrants were ripe and needed picking.  I dragged out the our huge fruit net and tried to throw it over the redcurrants to give us time. I mistakenly tried to unfold it all in front of the little people who found the net to be a wonderful game.  The net gave us a few more days in the game we play with the birds.  Eventually we threw ourselves into the fruit plants with colanders and buckets in hand.

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The redcurrants surprised us as they seem to have taken over from the blackcurrants.  This must have happened over the autumn and spring by some sort of plant stealth.  Last year we harvested three kilograms of redcurrants; this year we have at least ten. Lots of redcurrant jelly and a bit of redcurrant wine is on the menu.

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Then there is the bees…. I marked the unproductive queen for death and waited for her replacement to arrive by post from a local breeder in Belfast. When he told me he was ready to post her it was the trigger for me to go in and kill the old queen. It is said that sometimes a hive roars when the queen is killed.  I had never noticed this and often put the queen aside in an empty box during inspections without any sign of loss or concern from the bees.  Yet, whenever I lifted her with the intention of killing her the hive roared. The sound of it caught me off guard and startled me.  It was as if I was under the bonnet of an engine and the driver dropped down a gear and floored it to overtake. The queen was dropped in some vodka (to become swarm lure) and the new queen arrived in the post, but the roar would come back to haunt me.

 

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The better queen, the good hive, filled two super boxes with honey. When the Mayflower (Hawthorn) was in full ‘flow’ I made a habit of going out to the hive in the evening.  From a few feet away the smell would hit me and then I could stand beside the hive and listen to the hum, like standing beside an unusually fragrant air conditioning system.  Then, as the tide of summer carried on, the good hive showed signs of swarming. I carried out the standard artificial swarm, yet took it a step too far. There was once wise advice that I heard and I try to live by with respect to beekeeping; If there is no decision or action to take based on a hive inspection then don’t do the inspection. Leave them alone. If is just about satisfying my curiosity and there is nothing actionable, then leave them alone.  I don’t know why I ignored this but I did.  I wanted to see that the queen was doing well and I carried out an inspection on her hive after the artificial swarm.  I also don’t think I was in a good state of mind during the inspection and rushed things, and got clumsy.  They roared. I heard the queenless roar that I had recently discovered.  I gently closed them up and naively hoped for the best.  A week later I went in to check the honey and they were very grumpy; flying off the comb and pinging my veil.  All this behaviour from a normally gentle hive just confirmed what I already knew; they were queenless. A few weeks ago I deliberately killed a queen and gone to great effort to achieve it, then I accidentally killed another queen in a fumbled moment. Now I really will follow the wisdom and leave them alone in the hope that they raise an emergency queen.

I lifted two super boxes (they are actually called supers) of honey. The only problem was that they were not fully capped. Capping is the bee’s way of sealing the honey for storage and it is a sign that the honey is ‘ripe’.  If a beekeeper just harvested the liquid in the combs there is a large risk that it is nectar that the bees have not removed the water from yet.  If nectar if put in jars it eventually ferments. From my regular evening visits I knew that the bees had stopped their ripening of the late spring flow.  My instinct was that the honey was ripe.  Geeky bit:  Using a refractometer confirmed my suspicions and I extracted 18 out of the 20 frames (two frames passed the ‘shake it does it drip test’ but failed the geeky refractometer test).

Last year we got no honey at all and I missed it. I can buy honey, I can even buy local honey. I missed the extraction. I missed the magic of it.  Previously I shared the experience with the little man as a two year old.  Now he is two years wiser and bursting with questions. How do they make the honey?  How does the extractor work? Why did you squash that dead bee?  And that one? And this year there was the addition of the two year old little lady perched near the honey tap and demanding that everyone feed her honey.  This year I had the little why man and the little diva lady and it was a celebration of spring, summer, boiling jelly, nectar and the harvest.

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(more…)

In between the midwinter madness of tiny ice snowmen, chickens tricked into laying eggs by car batteries, and sleeping hives of honey bees…….I paid for my chickenfeed and received the docket to take to the feed yard.  Then the man behind the counter passed me a thick brown envelope.  I looked confused, I must have.  I asked incredulously, “what’s this?”  Then the man looked humbly confused and questioned, “Sir?”  Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a lady accept a similar envelope by reflex with gratefulness.  Then in an instant I put it all together, the time of year, the local farm supply business, the lady, the man behind the counter, my inexperience of it all.  I replied, “of course, yes! Thank you very much.”  That was it, that was the moment.  I the townie had just received a token towards my transformation into culchie. I had just been given the farm supplier calender.  We now have the tractors, the chickens, the balers, and the snow covered sheep to mark the march of time.

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I threw my suit and a roll of duck tape in the back of my brother in law’s car, then we drove off in search of his new bees.  It must have been half five when we found the beekeeper and his bees, “Sure you’re too early. The girls will not be in for the night yet.”  A short stroll through a narrow wooden gate confirmed that the ‘girls’ had no intentions of resting yet.  As we squeezed back through the gate in the hedge the beekeeper told us he was showing his grandson the bees last week.  “After we went through the gate I old him to close the gate to keep the bees in.” His mischievous chuckling revealed this man’s character and we knew we were in for some stories.

The beekeeper dragged three old high backed chairs in front of the kitchen range and we settled in to wait for the bees to think about flying home for the evening.  Around us sat food buckets filled with freshly harvested honey and a neat tower of empty supers; boxes filled with the honeycomb that was just emptied of honey. A big kettle of water perched continuously ready for tea on the range and we settled down for some stories.  “My father gave me my first hive at the age of seven.”  This meant that this man was a beekeeper of more than eighty years experience.  Yet, with all this experience he admitted more than once that he was still learning.  He shared many stories as we waited for the evening to cool down.  My brother in law says I interrogated him with questions.  I couldn’t help myself; as he was keen to share, I was keen to learn.  I noted that some of his advice contradicted itself from time to time.  Maybe some of it he was certain as fact long ago but recently the bees changed his mind.  They say if you ask two beekeepers the same question you’ll get three different answers.  On the topic of hive inspections, he was convinced that it set the bees back a bit and wasn’t good at all.  I feel the same but do know of an alternative to prevent a swarm without a weekly inspection.  I pushed him further.  For the last five years he has settled on a technique that he feels is the right one.  He says that March is the toughest month for the bees, and if they make it through in good shape he takes out a couple of frames of bees, including the queen, and makes up a nucleus hive in April.  This nucleus if taken to another site at least three miles away and looked after with feeding.  Then the original hive is left to raise a new queen with little risk of swarming.

After the passing of an unknown amount of time we decided get the bees.  We took a drive to one of his sites down winding roads and past the run-down stones of old farms.  We found the first hive hidden in an old farm yard beside forlorn looking tractor machinery.  The hive was carefully sealed up, covered with an old bedsheet, then strapped down in the back of the car.

On the way back to the beekeeper’s cottage the stories kept coming.  Beekeeping, histories of old farm cottages, and the local history of the Six Mile Valley.  Driving around with bees brought back a story.  He told us not to worry if a few bees get out into the car while on the move as he believed they would not sting in such a predicament.  Once long ago, several hundred bees got out when he failed to seal the hive properly.  He kept driving with them all flying around the inside of the car.  Turning a corner he found a police checkpoint ahead of him and a policeman with his hand held high.  As he slowed down he saw the look on the policeman’s face quickly change and his arm suddenly wave him on franticly.

We arrived back at the beekeeper’s cottage to carefully seal up and wrap the second hive.  This time the back seats went down to accommodate the second hive.  We said our thanks, paid him for the hives* and listened to a few more stories before heading back home.  As we drove back we fell silent for a moment when some of the quiet buzzing in the back got louder and a single bee flew up beside us in the front seats.  We looked at the bee, we looked at each other, we laughed.

*The wisdom was free.

Actually I have written posts in the last couple of months, but the internet doesn’t like them. They are still black lead on bleached wood pulp, folded away in a notebook and far from the digital.

So, the solstice passed and the sun came back. Even the chickens are feeling the barely perceptive march of daylight over darkness.  During the darkest of days we were reduced to a single egg every other day, until the unexpected happened. One dark evening we found a tiny little orb. Boiled the next morning we confirmed it was an egg. As small as a banty hen’s egg, packed to the edges with orange yolk and a creamy flavour. This has to have been from the one vorwerk hen, apparently a rare breed; producing a rare treat.

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Now they are slowly building up the daily egg count.

We seem to have let the days of Christmas pass us by. I think we all forgot about keeping our eye on the sun and just assumed the days will get longer and the new world prophets, the scientists, would let us know if anything is wrong.  But they did.  We could easily ignore it, or find it interesting but important; the sun is going to sleep.

It seems that that it is getting more and more likely that the sun’s activity is diminishing. The pulse that is the regular eleven year cyclic pulse of the sun has not behaved as expected for a couple of decades now. The scientific prophets have been running their computer models and analysing their data from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the lonely spacecraft brave enough to hover too close to the sun for our comfort.  Confidence is growing that we are heading towards another Maunder Minimum; a period of solar slumber three hundred and fifty year ago that was called the little ice age. Ironically it is only likely to slow down global warming for us, but only for a while. This little news was quietly rolled up in the rest of the news.  I guess there is this earthly source of life, and then there is just getting on with life.

In the hope that the sun will be bright enough as we received our first packet of seeds for the coming spring. We even added a packet of fungal spores. It’s always fun to keep an experiment running.  In the freezer I have a few kilos of used coffee grinds from our friendly local cafe.  The intent is to sterilise them and attempt to cultivate oyster mushrooms.  I’m not confident it will work, but i am confident that it will be interesting attempting it.

The honey has nearly all gone.  One single precious jar remains for medicinal use. We have resorted to buying honey for the morning bowls of porridge and using the home honey for sore throats. The little man tries to convince us he needs more honey for his imaginary sore throat every few evenings.  This reminds me, I should feed the bees their spring candy soon.  I wonder if they have survived this far? A few weeks ago I dreamed that the hive with the older queen was just a pile of dead bees, while the hive with the younger queen had made it through and were busy being…. bees. If I believed wholeheartedly in logos, then I would shrug off the drew as utter nonsense.  If I think instead of the world of mythos and our spiritual connection with the earthly world, then I shrug it off as nonsense anyway; I’m sure I’m not that good a beekeeper to be in tune with the bees.

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the noisy one; the ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’

A death that I am certain has taken place is that of our rooster; the ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’, as the little man calls him.  I think we missed his sickness for a few days as we never seemed to arrive home in anything but darkness.  All we saw of the chickens was them perching in their house. Then he wasn’t perching anymore. Lifting him up revealed a weakness in his legs.  The days went by and he got progressively weaker.  Soon he could not even leave the hen house to get water.  We tried leaving him water of his own but He did not seem interested.  I could see no other sign of illness apart from lameness. I can only guess that some sort of injury had been sustained. Being quite a large and heavy bird it was proving too much for him to make a recovery.  He’s gone now.  We told the little man that he has gone away, as euthanasia is too big a word for a three year old.  It’s too big a word for any of us. The little vorwerk cockerel who usually stayed quiet and hid himself away is now finding his voice.  He rules the roost now, and boldly stands proud in his new domain.  In the mornings he sort of crows, ish.  He’s not there yet, but he’s getting there. He is the little man’s new Crakkkk-a-crakkkkk-a-aghhhhh.

149480_10150968886164488_958088999_nThere is a one in three chance that this chick is the little man’s ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ a few years ago.

My father had a pile of wood lying in his driveway after a kitchen renovation.  I inquired about his intentions knowing full well it was for the bin.  I sized it all up and settled for as many drawer fronts as I could manage with a car already packed with the double buggy and its accompanying passengers.  I had plans for those drawer fronts.

This year we are heading into the winter with two beehives instead of the usual one.  Two hives had to be constantly fed thick sugar syrup over the month of September until they could take no more.  It is our hope that they took enough for the long dark nights and the cold winter storms.  One hive had all their honey stolen from them, while the other didn’t have a chance to make any at all.  They raised a new queen only to have her fail to mate in what should have been good weather for bees to do that sort of thing.  After much too long I gave up on her and replaced her with a mated queen.

Some of the kitchen drawers were chopped up accurately to make a square frame.  Two big squares of knigspan insulation board were pushed neatly to make a little extra addition to the new hive.  I think this insulation is the norm now for beekeepers.  Instead of a closed box with a small entrance hole and a roof, we now hive the bees in a box with an open floor.  The floor has only wire mesh with holes small enough to stop other bees, mice or wasps from getting in, but big enough to allow the dreaded varroa mite to fall through.  Thick insulation is then added on top of the hive to reduce heat loss through the roof where most of it is usually lost.

Tonight under a fattening moon and a clear autumn sky, I added the kitchen drawers to the new hive.  I also added an extra layer of insulation to the old hive.  They had their winter feed, they had their varroa medicine.  With gold and yellow leaves spilled all around them and the scent of the cottage wood stove in the air; I wished them all the best. The earth is turning  through the seasons and I told them that I hope we will all find each other well in the spring.  Then I lost myself in the moment and told them their honey tastes great with my porridge in the mornings.  I realised my mistake and slipped quietly, and quickly, away before they had time to think about it.

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So there I was standing at the checkout of a discount food shop. The queue was long and it shuffled along slowly. Directly in front of me was an older couple. The man neatly placed a some coffee, tea bags, biscuits, and then a single bag of sugar at the checkout. The plastic divider* was placed just after the man’s modest shopping and the place was set for me to place my bag of sugar, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another. I have always wondered what people think when they see me buy so much sugar, maybe thinking I am making a ridiculous amount of jam? Until now, no-one has ever voiced their thoughts. The man looked at my sugar and then looked at me, “Are you feeding bees?” Caught a little off guard I simply replied, “yes.” He nodded knowingly and admitted he was feeding his at the moment too. We briefly shared our winter/summer news regarding our hives, and then the moment was over as quickly as it began. We, two beekeepers, simply moved along and carried on as if buying insane amounts of sugar was perfectly normal.

*As a side note I should say that I have been trying for years to buy one of these plastic dividers, but the checkout staff keep putting them back.

Tonight I planted two small rowan trees in the dark, by the light of a growing moon. There was a purpose to the darkness. It was not some strange custom, simply pragmatism. The trees were planted beside the bee hives and the darkness ensured they were all tucked up in bed. I planted these little trees that we received as wedding favours. One tree for the lovely Sharon, and the other tree for our american friend who spent her holidays with us. She, wisely, was unsure how the american customs would react to trying the bring a tree home.

It is said that rowan trees will keep witches away. It is also said that you are supposed to tell the bees all the news. I’m not sure about the trees, but I do enjoy the strange custom of talking to the bees. As the hives hummed away in the still evening air I told them the news. I first thought it only fitting to apologise for recently stealing thirty five jars of honey from them. Then I told them that two of our friends were married and gave us these trees to keep the witches away. Then the ridiculousness set in; of these two boxes of seventy thousand venomous insects needing protection. Then the real ridiculousness set in; of me whispering to bees in the dark.

It felt ridiculous looking out the window in April and seeing fields covered in winter snow and trees naked and still dormant. The cold weather dragged on and all the life slept on, with dwindling reserves. Even the St Mark’s fly got confused, emerging from the ground by some hidden signal for a brief day or two of hanging about and looking for mates. The flies appeared, on mass, a full two weeks after the expected time; St Mark’s day.

Now that the green has finally poured over the land I can begin again the rhythm of keeping the bees. I don’t see myself as a beekeeper, I simply see the bees as a wonderful part of the life here at the cottage. If I am to tell the truth I should probably have started looking at the bees weeks ago, as swarm season officially started at the beginning of May. I think I took a calculated risk by leaving a full inspection until today. A week ago I opened them up just to take a peek in and see how many frames they covered; much less than this time last year. Today I put the suit on, fired up the smoker, and dived in. I even spoke to them for the first time ever. I have read that it is a very old custom to talk to the bees. In folklore this is taken to the extreme of actually making sure to tell the bees of important family events and news. Talking to the bees is said to calm them. I can see some truth in this if it calms the beekeeper. The bees can smell fear. If there is any nervousness in the keeper’s decorum or movement, the bees respond with their own nervousness and I have found that this can lead to unhappy inspections.

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Today the bees were calm. As I discovered last year, this queen gives rise to a very calm and controlled hive. The inspection was a joy, the bees are rapidly expanding, the queen was spotted and there were no queen cells. There were a couple of play cups, one with an egg in it, but no obvious signs of swarming. With the sweet smell of the smoker’s burning straw in the air, I closed up the hive and just watched them come and go for a while. Then I pottered around the garden for a bit until a cherry blossom tree caught my ear. The whole tree hummed with honeybees. I even spotted a humble bee or two mixing in with the excitement. So, I stood and watched for a while as the thick smell of cherries, even though there were only potential cherries, joined the noise in the air.

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Later I found myself doing a more unconventional beekeeping job. I unpacked the top trays of the deep freeze so that I could haul a bit of a beehive out of the depths of the freezer. I lifted out a ‘super’ to let it defrost in time to put it on the hive in the evening. With the job of placing a super on the hive comes the prospect of the summer, and even the autumn harvest of distilled cherry blossom.

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.

This morning I had to fit in a hive inspection, it is a routine weekly event during swarming season. I had to check through the frames and make sure there were no queen cells being built. It felt a little like a chore and I had to stop myself before I did it and remember that at every inspection at this time of year, I have to be ready to act if I find queen cells. It was just as well I prepared myself because the third frame I pulled was covered in swarm cells all charged with eggs and royal jelly. Unfortunately this is also the hive in which I have not marked the queen. I spent some time trying to find her until I committed to the decision of carrying on regardless. I set them to the side a little and set up an empty hive. Then I carried out a sort of shook swarm where I shook all the bees into the new hive. With a queen excluder over the shook swarm I placed all the frames and the old hive on top. With all the bees having been shaken off it was much easier to find all the queen cells and destroy them all but one. The frame on which I left a single queen cell was treated with care. I made sure I did not shake it; instead I brushed the bees off with my boar’s hair brush. I never thought I would ever need such a brush.

The high rise system is to be left for another twenty four hours before splitting it up. I think that I will now make it my life’s ambition to mark and clip the queen in this hive. If only to make it easier to find and cull her before heading into winter. Her daughters do not seem to produce as much honey as the other hive, and in her first year she should not have felt the urge to swarm. It seems cold and heartless but I am told that it is the accepted fashion to only keep a queen for a couple of years before buying in another from queen breeders. Whatever the outcome, it has left me a little anxious as the artificial swarm has used up all the spare equipment. If the other hive decides to do the same then I will have a serious problem. An order from a supplier is on the way but the delivery is an unknown. I chose to use a supplier who is a cottage industry. The craftsmanship is part art and the wood is sourced locally. I don’t regret this decision one bit, I regret not having the wit to put my order in earlier.

I’m thinking about time again. It all started a week ago when I did something that I felt loathed to do; I signed up to a gym. I believe that exercise should not be an exercise; it should be a part of our natural interaction with the world. A gym is the reverse of this; it is isolation away from the world. There is no bird song to be heard on a running machine. That said I have failed to fit proper exercise into my life since the little man arrived and it has been a hard fact to face up to. So, the gym is part of my time now as it can be slotted in and allocated its portion of me.

I got hold of a copy of Earthlines and I was reminded of Jay Griffiths. I was reminded of her book; Pip Pip, a sideways look at time. This has prompted me to think about our interaction with time again. This morning I slowed myself down to bee time. The bees actually operate at a faster level to us but they are sensitive to our normal speed of motion. I moved slowly during the inspection in order to convince them that I mean no harm. My motions were smooth and sluggish. I removed the frames at a bee’s walking pace and I relaxed into a persona of calm without fear. To be honest, the sun was shinning and the air was warm, this meant the bees were quite calm and relaxed. In the second hive I spotted two play cups which had eggs in. Play cups are a normal part of the hive, they are the beginnings of queen cells which are part of the preparation to swarm. Play cups themselves are not a sign that a swarm is imminent, but eggs in two play cups are a hint in that direction. They are a sign that I must make preparations for swarming and the possibility of tricking them with an artificial swarm.

As it is swarm season now;

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly.

This means that weekly inspections are part of the flow and pattern of chores here at the cottage. The chores have been increased too. Where we had a few hens to look after we now have a few hens, a few older chicks in a coup in the garage and a lot of new fluffy chicks in the brooder in the utility room.

The cats have slipped down on the list recently. In my mind I have made their welfare a priority in terms of their food, water and accommodation, but I have let their affections slip away from me. I have been so busy that I can’t remember when was the last time I sat down with one of the cats and scratched them under the chin or gave them any kind of attention. So it pleased me tonight when I scratched under Tillie’s chin. She just appeared serendipitously as the little man and I finished earthling up the potatoes. To be honest I did most of the earthing up as the little man sat and watched while occasionally thrusting his had into the dirt and muttering something that must seem comprehensible to him. Tillie approached and I scratched her under the chin as the little man sat down on my knee and looked at the sunset. Tillie was the first ever animal that the lovely Sharon and I took into our care. She was thrust upon us unexpectedly and we loved the challenge of looking after, and loving, an animal. As I scratched her under the chin I thought about how many animals we are caring for now.

A few days ago the little man and the lovely Sharon and I were walking down the lane and I jokingly asked when we were going to get the little man a puppy. The lovely Sharon’s response took me by surprise; she said it would be nice to have a few more animals around the place. With goldfish, cats, hens, chicks and about sixty thousand bees, I had to give her the look. The look that said, “really?”

I found the queen, the one that I have never seen.  I found her, reached for the crown of thrones, then lost her again.  Then I spent five minutes hunting the one frame for her.  When I eventually did find her I bottled out of trying to use the crown and tried a queen clip instead.  I reached for the queen clip and lost sight of her again.  When I eventually did find her, she ran up my hand then jumped off it and into the dark interior if the hive.  At least I spotted her.

Once the inspection was finished I went into the other hive and found the queen in seconds as she is marked with a big white spot of paint.  She has been laying eggs and seems well enough after I nearly squashed her during the last inspection.

I closed it all up and was left thinking that I might have to add another super (box for honey) to this hive as the first one is half full and covered in wax building bees on the other half that isn’t full.  A spring harvest?  That would be super.

***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.

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