Snow day. Slow day. This was a day with no objective, no plan, a day untethered to the holiday routine.  We woke up early as the lovely Sharon had to return to work and the little people had to do what they do. The little people always get up early. 

It was cold. The first thing to do on such a day is to light the wood stove, begin to build up the heat. Around the stove is a cosy sanctuary for drying after bath time, for drying wet gloves and boots, for warming hands that build snow men. Ice men? Slush men?

The breakfast circus was next; a bit of everything, all sorts of delights.  Here I admit that, when the lovely Sharon left for work, I was not up as early as I should have been. Some things had already been served; brioche and bowls of dry cereal (cheerios). I made porridge, mostly for me. A spoonful of local honey was added. When I say ‘local’, of course I mean from about a dozen metres away. One jar left. One of only three jars this summer. The beehive split into three queens during the spring and summer. With so many mouths to feed, not enough foraging was carried out. One jar is empty. One jar was paid to my parents; a jar that was a minimum requirement in lieu of them having brought me up and provided a childhood*.  

*and a young adulthood*    

*who am I kidding, they are still looking after me, and out for me

Back to the breakfast circus. I made pancakes and dressed them with maple syrup. Then one of the little people demanded a bowl of granola and special K.  The kitchen was out of special K. The customer was placated by the chef (me) and assurances that an alternative of Mummy’s Christmas present berry muesli* was a more than adequate replacement for special K. 

*don’t tell Mummy

During a very long breakfast the little people peeled their eyes away from tablets and the xbox to look outside and scream “SNOW!”  Yet, they did not move.  They assessed and waited, and judged.  Then the moment came, and they decided it was time to slip on thick socks, boots, coats and waterproof gloves.  The littlest man could not find his gloves.  After some sleuthing we discovered that they were in the back of the lovely Sharon’s car, and far from us. We then discovered that the lovely Sharon’s very expensive winter mountaineering gloves were an acceptable alternative* as they were the only waterproof gloves that were the closest to fitting. 

*surely it’s her own fault for driving off with his gloves

After building snowmen/icemen/slushmen we had some more time by the stove.  We unboxed more Christmas presents. Jigsaws, puzzles and art. We drew, stuck and puzzled. Then the dark cloud in my mind that was the pick up of the click-and-collect grocery shopping, hovered in my thoughts. I was determined, decisive, motivational!  EVERYONE IN THE CAR, LET’S GO!

A blizzard stormed around us. The car coasted over a layer of snow and ice. There was some traction down there, under the layer of white that was continually getting thicker. We drove on through the snow that looked like light-speed in the millennium falcon. Then we dialled the lovely Sharon on speaker phone.  She was leaving work and would pick up the groceries on her way home. We turned the car around. We actually skidded the car around as snow was lying thick where I turned. Then the blizzard broke to blue skies and I began to feel a little guilty for not carrying on.

There was still enough light when we returned home. Still enough play time in the snow.  Still enough heat in the stove to warm us.

Eventually the lovely Sharon returned home with bags of food and the weekly delights of the ‘big shop’. Then we returned to the routine. Although, it was still broken by looking out into the dark to see more brief snow/hail/slush storms outside.

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.

 

My old friend autumn has returned to me.  I felt it a few weeks ago as the air began to cool and the horse chestnuts began to put on their yellow and rust.  There are many things that mark out this season here. The tomatoes are harvested from the greenhouse as often as we can, before the exhausted golden plants drop them wearily.  Tomato soup, beetroot soup, tomato and beetroot soup. Then the bees need fed again, and some of their honey sits in the corner still to be extracted and destined for porridge on dark mornings.

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There are many things that add to the feeling of autumn, but tonight it felt closer than ever.  The darkening evenings and the ritualistic closing of the gate are two things that synchronized tonight.  As I walked down the lane the quarter moon hung low in the south west.  Earlier that evening we added the ‘see the moon’ game to the little people’s night time routine.  Bath time, milk, clean the teeth, hang out the window in the roof and find the moon, stories, prayers, then bed…..then IT’S TOO DARK!…then THAT WARDROBE LOOKS SCARY…..then the torrent of random questions that flow from a five year old mind unfolding: “Why do flies die in winter?”  “Is it possible to go to sleep and still count all the stars?”  “Who will look after all the baby flies in winter?”  Tonight the little man found the moon quickly and declared that he could see the hare in the moon; “just the beginning of it”.
With the little people filled with stories, I rumbled a bin down the lane and closed the gate.  The clouds left big holes for the moon and hints of autumn constellations to shine through. Sygnus migrating. The air was cool and the fields were filling with the thin fog that clings to everything gently and begins to make the moon and stars really feel like they are up there and you are down here; grounded.  The sights and smells of the night filled me and I could not shake the autumnal feeling and the thought of halloween not being far away.  To be honest that was probably because the lane runs beside a few acres of turnips.

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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