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.

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