Words from the Wild

Starting soon, a weekly (ish) short tale of the wild. Expect stories of hares, buzzards, newts, deer, boar, bees, flowers, trees, of sky and field and water. A country diary of sorts, delivered to you by email. Sign up below.

Enter your email address

powered by TinyLetter

There was always going to be a first to go. This new life of ours is full of firsts; first animals, first floods, first taste of homegrown aubergines. All new, all delightful or difficult or frightening. And there was always going to be a first to die.

Like many fledgling smallholders, our initial foray into livestock-keeping was chickens. Cheap to source, easy to look after, daily eggs. So four chickens were purchased from the local market, brought home, and installed in the brick shed we converted to a chicken house. Two more were added a few months ago, taking us to a flock of six. And, for the most part, they have been a delight; weird grumbles, engaging behaviours, and the best eggs. The occasional escape aside, they have been constant in their easy company.

For our part, we have given them excellent lives. Free-ranging over the whole place (except the veg patch), they have had more space than they could wish for, a diet supplemented by wild scurrying wriggling things, and a house kept clean and dry.

The heat for the past few weeks has steadily climbed. We are now in the high thirties every day. The sheep hide away in the stable, cool earth walls keeping them protected from the worst of the daytime scorch. The chickens have shade under the oak, where they dust-bathe and scratch. We top up water for sheep, chickens, and bees regularly throughout the day. It is too hot to work outside for very long, so tasks are undertaken early morning and late evening. The garden wilts, despite daily soakings, and the fruit trees’ leaves yellow and shrivel. The only creatures that are abroad in the day are the metric tonne of wasps and hornets that have taken up residence seemingly everywhere.

Yesterday ML spotted one of the red chickens was a little lethargic, and did not flee from attempts to handle her. Putting it down to heat, ML moved the chicken inside to the pantry – the coolest room in the house – and gave her cool water and an ice-pack wrapped in a towel. When I returned home, she had perked up a bit. We returned her to the cooling evening air, where she drank a little, and scratched a little.

This morning when I opened the chicken house, she was slumped in the corner. Her eyes were milk white, some kind of discharge hung from her beak, and her breathing was shallow. I once again moved her inside, but held out little hope. My fear was that I would have to put her out of her misery; a task I would not find easy.

She settled a little in the hay at the bottom of the box, thrashed her wings for a few seconds, and stilled. And then was gone.

A conversation with the vet suggested heat stress was to blame. A lot of chickens in the area are, apparently, succumbing to the burning days and hot nights. There was nothing more we could have done.

As a precaution I will dispose of the body safely, then clean and disinfect the chicken house; if disease rather than heat was involved I need to prevent it from spreading. I will burn the bedding and wooden nest boxes, a weirdly funereal thing to do.

The chicken had a good life, and suffered little – less than twenty-four hours from first mild symptoms to death. Nonetheless I am sad. The first to arrive, the first to go, and young. I now worry about the rest of the flock, and feel a bit helpless in the face of the too-bright sun. Goodbye, chook. Thanks for the eggs, and for your company.

 

 

I’m standing in the meadow behind the house, clutching a stack of buckets. Before venturing outside, I pulled on a pair of shorts and stepped into my wellingtons, leaving a gap for my knees to peek through so they are now wet with dew from the damp morning grass. Drops cling to my eyelashes and to my beard, though the rising sun will soon see them off.  I will gently steam dry in the warm butter-yellow early hour.  The chickens – six now, with two new arrivals – scratch at the ground in their pen, muttering about things I cannot see.  The chicken pen, my first attempt at construction, is beginning to collapse as the repeated besieging by five greedy sheep takes its toll.  I have patched up the wire where they have forced their way through either in an attempt to get in, to eat the chickens’ pellets, or to escape when I have used the pen to corral them when foot-trimming or treatment have been required.  Two of the wooden posts have come loose, and it is barely fit for purpose anymore.  I will have to rebuild, make it stronger.

I shake the buckets, a handful of oats in each, to tempt the sheep from their shelter.  They are bright white, freshly sheared.  A neighbour, half a mile down the lane, came and picked them up and took them to his farm, where he was shearing his flock.  They were herded into his trailer, fat woolly barrels, and were returned a few hours later lighter, smaller, cleaner.  With the temperatures reaching the low thirties some days, they are happier now, and there is less chance of fly-strike (a most unpleasant and painful affliction).  They bound through the long grass toward me.  Or, rather, toward the sound of rattling breakfast. 

They do not really need feeding in these long summer days.  The meadow provides more than enough forage for them; grass, clover, wild herbs, even thistle and dock fall to the relentless mash of teeth.  However, they are such skittish creatures that a daily beckon with the bucket helps to reinforce the association of man with food, and I am able to (eventually) steer them where I want them (nearly every time).  It also provides an opportunity for a close inspection each day, make sure they are in good health.  Eyebrows, the queen of the meadow, comes last, and slowly.  She is the oldest, at seven years.  When she arrived, last September, she was the biggest, the fastest, the nosiest, and the most stubborn.  She would stamp her foot at me if I approached with anything less than complete subservience (and some food).  She was both the easiest to handle, because she was not particularly scared of me, and the most difficult, because she was of her own mind, and stronger than me.

DSCF6408

Today, sheared and svelte, she moves slowly, a little stiffly.  She does not limp.  Her feet are fine, recently checked and gently trimmed where needed.  She eats with gusto, and grazes with the others, though often lies down when doing so.  She is not sick.  She is getting older.

The time is approaching to decide who to send to the abattoir.  To be killed, let’s not pretty it up.  The original plan, to keep the two older ewes along with one of the lambs to breed from, now seems less likely.  If Eyebrows is ageing, and struggling a little, should we put her in lamb?  Will she carry to term, safely for both her and her lamb (possibly twins, it’s common)?  If she finds it harder now to carry her own weight, how will she cope with the added weight of gestating unborns?  I don’t think it fair, or safe, to do this now.

Equally, we cannot afford to keep a pet sheep.  Winter feed costs, the inevitable mounting vet’s bills, with no financial return does not fit in our strict budget.  The cat is luxury enough (though she does help keep the mice at bay).  I know what needs to happen, if we are to see our ideas through and not end up going broke.  Emotionally and ethically, it is trickier.  I have allowed myself to grow attached to Eyebrows, as we planned to keep her on.  I am fond of her, if she is at best ambivalent to me.  And what gives me the right to end a life based on financial considerations?  Why is this different to sending the lambs to slaughter, as planned?  But it is, somehow.

I battle with these thoughts this morning, as the five sheep munch on their daily oats.  In my mind, I know I have made a decision.  Eyebrows will go, along with at least one of the younger sheep.  My heart rails against this.  This indecision is almost the worst part.  The worst part for me, I remind myself.  Whatever happens here, it will not happen to me.  It will happen to another living being.  Had we not taken her on, she would already have gone to slaughter.  We have given her more life, and a good life at that.  But does that justify whatever decision I make?

The sheep finish their breakfast, and wander off to graze in the brightening morning.  I collect up the buckets and walk back towards the house, to some tea and a towel for my knees.  Eyebrows lies down in the grass, grazing in front of her.  A dragonfly zips past my ear and barrels off across the meadow.  The birds sing, but I do not enjoy their song today. 

DSCF5376

January, so far, has been unseasonably mild, with temperatures rarely dropping below zero.  Whilst this has meant warmer toes and lower heating bills, I long for the beauty of a hoar frost like last year’s, when all was crystal bones.  It has rained persistently and hard, though with careful clearing of ditches and waterways we have been spared the floods of last winter.  The field is inch-deep in water.  The sheep, those cowardly ballerinas, totter en pointe on greedy ground that sucks and gurgles.  As I traverse the meadow in the morning, all is quiet save the tick-tack of the earth as it slowly drains.

The trees and hedges are bare, winter’s veins waiting to be filled with the cool blood of spring, and the nights are silent.  In the day the wind howls warm haunting, and the clouds race each other to sunset.  Over and again.

DSCF5839

I feed the sheep, battling to prevent Eyebrows, the queen of the flock, from bullying breakfast away from everyone else.  She is a horrible old bag, and I am very fond of her.  Our four chickens have hardly moulted, just shedding a few feathers making them look like children freshly towelled post-swim.  They have also continued to lay, with an average of three eggs per day.  As it is the length of the daylight hours that affects laying rates, this is not down to the warm weather.  I like to think it means they are happy, though their grumbles suggest they are never content.

We feed the wild birds every day with sunflower seeds and fat balls.  The lilac tree where we hang the feeders is a battleground of blue tits, great tits, robins, finches, and nuthatches.  With no freeze, we are expecting a plague of flies and mosquitoes in the spring, so the birds are doubly welcome, allies all.

DSCF5760

We are still harvesting leeks, cabbages, carrots, and parsnips from the veg garden, and are still stocked with preserved tomatoes and courgettes, and shallots and pumpkins from last year.  I have bought only garlic and fruit from the greengrocer for six months now.

The year ahead stretches before me, a blank landscape slowly being filled with landmarks and signposts.  Planting, potting on, pruning fruit trees, looking into getting pigs.  And we have sourced our bees; two swarms from a local keeper that, this time, will come already installed in Warré brood boxes.  We hope that this gentler introduction will help prevent the decline and fall of last time.  We plan to add more trees to the part of the field behind the house, and are talking about a forest garden there – trees above, shrubs below, herbs between, vegetables and fruits, an almost self-sustaining ecosystem.

There is one mountain, dark and toothsome, that looms large in my mind’s eye.  We will send two of the lambs for slaughter in a couple of months.  When the time comes, I want to accompany them to see their final journey, make sure it goes the way it should; swiftly.  I hope I am brave enough.  In all things, I always hope I am brave enough.

DSCF5799

DSCF5376

We hadn’t particularly considered getting sheep, had spoken of it in passing but no more.  The grass in the field grew to a metre tall, and hid monsters within the blades.  We asked our old friend Maurice (he of the water-divining) to come round with his mini tractor and cut it for hay, which he did.  We then spent what felt like months raking the hay into rows, only for it to be rained upon, and rendered useless as animal feed.  So we have used it as mulch, expanding the no-dig beds ready for next year.  

Having battled the grass in the field, and called on favours once again, we decided that maybe a sheep or two, as lawnmowers, might be the answer.  The more we thought on it, the more we realised that it might be a way to get something back from the meadow, as our plans for it are long-term, half-formed, and will not be realised for a few years yet.  So, we thought, let’s get some adult sheep, and breed lambs from them for our own consumption.  Easy.

ML has a cousin, Guy, who has a large sheep farm in a village a few miles from us.  She called him up and told him of our ideas, asked what he thought the options might be.  It turned out that he had some ewes, along with their lambs, that weren’t working out for him.  The ewes were tending to lamb too late in the season, and as a result their lambs were not of a weight yet whereby he could sell them at a profit.  Would we want to come see them?  We did.

Guy’s farm is in an idyllic setting, atop a hill with a view across the fields and forests in the valley below.  Fields full of sheep surround the farmhouse, a large pond is home to shouting geese and flapping ducks.  On the day we visited, two newly arrived pigs were pelting chaotically around the farm, playing hide-and-seek.

Not knowing what we were looking for, but trusting Guy, we agreed to buy the two ewes and three lambs that he suggested.  We retreated to Guy’s farmhouse and drank whisky to toast the deal.

Two days later, Guy arrived, sheep in a trailer.  We released them into the field and they ran, eating as they did, which is quite a skill.  With grass aplenty, and an old pig house for shelter, they were content.

As we are going to eat at least two of these animals, we have not named them.  Well, nearly not named them.  The ‘queen’ sheep, who is the bravest and stamps her foot at me if I stray too close, has been named Eyebrows, as she has white markings over her eyes.  The other ewe has been termed Non-Eyebrows, for obvious reasons.  The lambs remain anonymous, as they are definitely for the pot, and are simply identified through the numbers on their ear tags – a legal requirement in France.  None of this, however, prevents me from becoming attached to them.  They are scared and brave, always hungry, incredibly destructive, curious, intelligent, and I spend more time with them than is sensible.  We’ll forget about their final day.  For now.

DSCF5570

Sheep are determined to die.  The number of diseases and afflictions that they can suffer from is astounding.  Our sheep are healthy, but we have had one lamb with diarrhoea and one who started to limp.  Sheep need their feet trimming now and again, and the most common reason for diarrhoea is worms.  Fine.  Easy.  We’ll worm them and trim their feet.  Problem solved.  To do so, we must catch them and upend them on their bottoms so we are able to minister to their needs.  Guy demonstrated to us how to do this, and it seemed so easy.

Not so.  After half an hour of chasing five sheep around the field, we decided to rethink.  So, I built a pen from wooden posts and wood reclaimed from pallets, so we could restrict their fleeing.  A ruminants’ nail salon.  They’d love it.  I spent a few days feeding them in the pen, so they associated it with food, and all was well.  Then, one afternoon, we took them some extra buckets of food, and lured them into the pen.

DSCF5583

Lamb number one was a struggle, but I eventually managed to put her on her bum whilst ML administered the (alarmingly day-glo yellow) worming medicine, and trimmed the hoofs.  Lamb number two, similar.  Lamb number three, a bit more of a struggle, but done (with only three or four pulled muscles – mine, not the lamb’s).

Next, the ewes.  Eyebrows, stronger and more stubborn than me, was having none of it, and fought back. The chickens had come to watch, as had the cat, and there was a sudden explosion of limbs.  Sheep, human, cat, chicken, mud, grass, passing sparrows.  Like a Dali painting, exploded.  And then one of the lambs put her arse through the fence.  It was chaos, and it was over.

With the fence broken, and me being unable to move, we decided to retreat for the day.  Recover, regroup, and try again.

Wish us luck.

It’s not the end of the world.  As I write this, I am listening to the radio, where sombre voices are speaking of madmen rattling their swords, about missiles, about poisoned eggs, about droughts, floods, forest fires.  Stay indoors.  Cover the windows, cover your eyes.  Be afraid. And I am afraid.

Yet, outside the open door, the sun shines, the swallows loop their exuberant loops, the tomatoes still ripen, and the cat, a cooler head than mine, licks her paws, caring not a jot for the news.  Not the end of the world, then.  Not today.

DSCF5219

At the back of the house there is a room that originally would have been the ‘summer kitchen’.  It would have had a sink, a dirt floor, a fire or oven, little else, and would have been used for cooking in the hot, dry summer months as a way of keeping the main house cool.  Ours has been ‘refurbished’, meaning the floor has been tiled and the walls have been papered, the main result of this being a good deal of dampness.  For the time being, until we get around to getting it back towards its original make-up (never), we are using it as a food store.  The shelves are filled with airtight tubs of dried wild mushrooms,  of canned tomatoes picked from the garden.  Pickles, jams blackcurrant syrup, nettle beer, brined green beans, dehydrated courgettes (and a bubbling demijohn of weird cloudy marrow ‘wine’ that will probably be a solitary pleasure).  It is not enough food to get us through a winter, let alone a nuclear one, though it is a start; we will be self-sufficient in tomatoes until the season is in full swing again next year.

DSCF5203

It is a whispered truth than there was an element of fear for the future in our decision to move towards a self-sufficient lifestyle.  (That’s not quite true.  ML is more positive than I am, and my dark mutterings about storing water, after one too many glasses of wine whilst listening to the radio news are, thankfully, counterbalanced by happier, more reasonable thoughts.)  If things do get difficult, here we are in a better position than most to weather the storm.  A well, chickens, sheep, fruit, vegetables, wild foods.  These may not be our salvation come the end times, but they are surely our salvation in any case. Connected to the land, to the creatures that roam and scuttle, to the sighing plants and, well, everything, we are happy, and healthy, and a part of things. Apocalypse or not.

 

 

The bees are dying.

All was, or seemed, well.  We had weeks where the bees were busy busy.  Collecting nectar, the clover in the field surrounding the hive a-buzz with 40,000 tiny beating wings.  Bringing in pollen, little globes of yellow and orange and chestnut brown attached to their legs as they arrived home from their forays.  Building comb, first white then yellow, filled slowly with honey and brood, alien geometry.  All the wild carrot species were in bloom, along with plenty more mid- to late-summer blossoms, a feast for the eyes and the insects.  We fed the bees a little sugar syrup to help them build their winter stores, as we had installed the swarm later in the season than was sensible due to delays from the breeder, and they lapped it up on overcast days or ignored it on sunny days.

DSCF5192

The weather has been changeable, very wet for a Burgundy summer, though with plenty of sun and heat interspersed with the storms.  This has limited the good foraging days for the bees (and for me, though it does mean mushrooms are popping up earlier than last year).  We have watched the bees intently, spending hours sat in front of the hive watching the comings and goings, trying to get a handle on what it all means, these waggles and leg-waves and circular flights.  They have been tolerant of our presence, only becoming antsy if we have taken friends to show them the colony and lingered too long.  All was, or seemed, well.

Then the daily activity on the landing board seemed to slow, little by little, until there were mornings, hot and bright, when the arrivals and departures were sluggish and sparse.  One afternoon, both of us in the field raking hay (wet, unusable, though we shall use it as a mulch for next year’s planned no-dig beds), there was a sudden fierce buzz. Approaching the hive, we saw hundreds of drone bees flying in tight loops.

Drone bees are the male bees; bigger, heavier than the workers, with domed eyes that meet at the top of the head like a crash helmet.  They have no sting.  They are the product of an unfertilised egg, meaning they have no father, only a mother.  If one traces back the number of genetic ancestors of a drone, a sequence is revealed; the Fibonacci sequence, that code that is found throughout nature, in the spiral of a shell, in the uncurling of a fern, numbers revealed in nature.  Drones have one job: to mate with a queen.  They do no foraging of nectar or pollen.  They do not nurse the larvae or tend to young bees.  They are all noise and sex.

Drones often fly in the afternoon, heading out to seek, and mate with, queens from other colonies, but we thought the number we were witnessing was rather large.  A quick look through the observation window revealed something worrying.  More drones, fewer obvious workers, and much more comb visible than normal, suggesting a general decline in numbers.  They were not dying of starvation, there was no obvious disease, no sign of varroa mites.  The possibility, which is today all but confirmed, was that we had lost the queen, that she had died, or been killed. When this happens, sometimes one of the worker bees will begin laying eggs, though these eggs are infertile, the worker never having mated (indeed she lacks the anatomy to do so).  These unfertilised eggs will only produce male drones, no workers, meaning that as the workers reach the end of their lifespans they are not replaced.  The population of the colony is not refreshed, the number of drones increases whilst the workers decrease. Eventually the hive becomes a male-only hive, and, as the males cannot reproduce or even feed themselves, they die.

The only way to confirm what was happening was to open the hive, which is not something recommended in natural beekeeping.  If we were to open the hive and see only drone brood, no worker larvae, this would be a definitive answer.  Our fear was that we might be wrong, that the queen may be alive and laying, and we were simply worrying because of our inexperience, bamboozled by the complexities of the bee society as we are.  Opening the hive, apart from being detrimental to the health of the colony, risks accidentally killing the queen.  Our very quest to save them might be their end.

We asked advice of other Warré beekeepers, which was mostly positive; the bees will be fine, don’t worry, keep an eye, don’t interfere.  So we did just that.  Watched.  Tried to not worry.  Watched and watched.

DSCF5188

A month on and the numbers of bees have reduced to the extent that we could count them, if that were not a macabre and depressing thing to do.  No pollen at all is being brought in by the few workers who are still going about their business.  Too many drones, smaller than they should be, are hanging from the comb in the hive, doing nothing.  Wasps and, we think, bees from nearby colonies are robbing the hive.  We have reduced the size of the entrance to make it easier to defend, but our bees seem disinterested in war, seem to have accepted the siege is lost.  We continue to feed them, now supplementing the sugar with pollen for protein, but every day there are fewer and fewer bees, more tiny corpses, and ML and me look at each other and despair.  ML sits by the hive in the evening sun, swatting at invaders.  I visit the hive less and less; it is too sad.  It feels as if we are presiding over a dying planet, witnessing the end of the world, and this is true, for the bees.

Did we do something wrong?  Possibly.  Could we have intervened?  Yes, but our interventions would have been unlikely to succeed this late in the year, and we are of the mind that if, as seems inevitable, the bees are on their way out it should be because of the natural rhythm of things rather than a clumsy, misguided helping hand.  Are we wrong about all this?  We have talked it over for hours.  I am still unsure.  And it is too late, in any case.

There are many positive things that have happened.  We have been laboriously dealing with a glut of tomatoes, green beans,  and courgettes.  We have canned the tomatoes, either simply chopped and cooked down, or then passed through a sieve and reduced to make a sweet, intense puree, and we have stored enough to last us until next summer. The courgettes we have frozen or sliced and dehydrated in the hot August sun.  Our aubergines and carrots have been a success, and a revelation in terms of flavour.  We have bought no vegetables for two months now, and have been eating well.  The chickens, odd birds, grumble and scratch and lay four eggs, every day.  This evening we are going to look at some sheep, with a view to buying two ewes along with their four lambs.  We’ll keep the ewes for breeding, and raise the lambs on for a year or so for hogget.  Our first meat animals, which raises a whole new set of questions and feelings. Sheep, less inscrutable than bees.  New lives coming in as others fade.

We will not give up.  We’ll start a new bee colony next year, learning from our observations and errors of this year to, hopefully, help create a strong colony.  This is our first real experience of failure, and it is not sweet.  But next year we will get it right.

The queen is dead.  Long live the queen.

 

Read part one here.

Note: bees are complicated, wildly so.  I am not an expert, not even close, and much of what follows is knowledge I have gleaned from books and courses, and some is still controversial in the beekeeping world.  I have provided links to further reading for those that wish it.  I cannot take responsibility for external links.  I do not really see myself as a beekeeper.  I own a hive that bees live in. I am more of a bee-landlord, who will collect rent only if the tenants can afford it.

The next morning, the sky was clear.  We tried to be calm, to go about our morning routine and resist the urge to rush out to the hive and probably knock it over, clumsy humans.  Chickens were fed, Mrs. Badcrumble (our cat) found and given breakfast (she has taken to wandering the land all night, all day, returning only for meals and a belly-rub), vegetable plot and orchard saplings checked over, toast toasted, tea sipped.  Then the moment of truth – were the bees still in the hive?  Or had they absconded, queen and all?  Had they been washed away in the Biblical deluge of the previous evening? (Probably not the last one, I am possibly being a little dramatic.)

DSCF4633

The hive was still standing, next to its empty neighbour (we had hoped a feral swarm might move in, but this was not to be).  We donned our bee-armour and walked through the long grass of the field up to the hives.  The front and the landing board were covered in bees, clinging, climbing, launching themselves in the air and flying in circles around us.  They were still here, for the moment at least.  We opened the little observation window in the back of one of the boxes, and peered in.  Thousands of bees hung from the bars of the top box, in a huge drooping cluster, legs linked in a network, a vibration humming through the whole thing, pulsing in rhythm to a music we could not hear.  It was as if there was a debate going on amongst the swarm, decisions being made about this new space they found themselves in.  A question, a statement, and a ripple of bodies and wings in response.  We replaced the cover of the window and, fascinated, sat in front of the hive, sweating in our protective clothing.  We watched the bees for a full hour, all the grooming and leg-waving, flying and buzzing.  We needed to leave the queen-cage in the hive for at least another day to give the bees a chance to free the queen of their own accord; we would free her ourselves the next day if she was still trapped.  With nothing left to do except wait, we retreated and got on with the day, talking of little else but the bees, returning to the hive every hour or so (just to ‘check’, you know), and I had a little knot of fear/anticipation twisting in my belly at the thought of opening the hive the next day to see if the queen was free, or dead, or simply vanished.  Sleep did not come easily that night.

In the morning (another clear bright day), armed with a lit smoker and a soft brush, we approached the colony.  The smoker is a small can with a spout and some bellows attached.  Filled with wood pellets and ignited, it produces clouds of cool white smoke, the idea being this ‘calms’ the bees.  The smoke simulates a forest fire, causing the bees to gorge on honey and leave the hive, and it is this gorging that helps prevent them from stinging, as a bee with a crop full of honey can’t bend her abdomen round easily to administer the sting.  There is also a suggestion that the smoke masks alarm pheromones, though the mechanism is still not fully understood.  A newly installed swarm such as ours, with no stores of honey, cannot gorge on anything, so the use of the smoker that morning was unnecessary (useless), though at least helped us to feel like we might know what we were doing (we didn’t).

DSCF4889

I removed the top box, heavy with bees, as ML squeezed little puffs of smoke from the smoker, and bees instantly filled the air.  I placed the box aside, careful to not squash anybody, and reached into the remaining one for the queen-cage.  The candy plug was gone, chewed through by the workers from the outside and the queen’s attendants from the inside, and the queen was free.  Puffing more smoke, we gently popped some bars, prepared with wax, into the lower box, and I lifted the top one (still full of the majority of the swarm) and replaced it, ML using the soft brush to encourage any bees to move away from danger of being crushed.  So far so good.  We downed tools and watched as the bees flew in ever decreasing circles around us and the hives, landing in groups of two or three on the landing board and returning to the fold of their companions.

And then, a louder, lower buzz.  A hum, somehow heavier than the other bees, came from somewhere behind my head.  A larger shape was moving in the air, and as it came into focus we could see it was the queen, smoked from the hive by our inexpert processes.  (The queen is larger than the worker bees, and also has a coloured dot on her back, added by the breeders for ease of identification.)  She flew, uncertainly, toward the hive entrance, only to be pushed at by other bees, who were seemingly unhappy with her return.  She flew off again, and we lost sight of her.  We looked at each other.  We looked at the hive.  This was not good.  If the queen was out of the hive, and did not return, the colony was all but lost.

A dark shape appeared on the veil of my bee-suit, crawling left-to-right.  The queen.  She walked across my face-covering, and then took off, flying around us, and then alighted on my arm.  She rested for a moment and took off again, only to return, this time landing on my shoulder.  We whispered to her, encouraging her to go back to the hive (slightly mad, though there is a history of talking to bees).  She made a few exploratory passes of the entrance, waved at by workers, in welcome or not we could not tell, and finally landed, a slight stumble as she did.  And went in.

We watched the hive entrance intently for a long time, expecting the queen to reappear any moment and fly off into the distance, but she did not show herself again.  Within an hour, some routine seemed to return to the swarm, with workers leaving the hive and heading out, hopeful of nectar and pollen to begin constructing comb from wax, to start to store honey, and, most importantly, for the queen to start laying eggs, producing new workers to refresh the colony and build up strength and numbers in preparation for winter, not so far away now.

We were both a little shaken, annoyed with ourselves for risking the queen, for not being careful enough, but all was, we hoped, now okay.  Six weeks later and the colony is still there.  They have filled three quarters of the top box with comb, and we think the queen is laying.  Workers leave in sqaudrons, returning  laden down with nectar, with parcels of pollen attached to their legs.  We visit them every day, more confident now, even foregoing the bee-suits (we do not open the hive, and the bees seem quite content with our company).

We visit in the evenings, feeding a little sugar syrup to help build up food stores for the winter.  We watch the behaviour around the hive for any indications of problems or disease, and check the removable board at the bottom of the hive for varroa mites (as yet, none).  We visit in the morning to say hello, sometimes clutching hot drinks.  We sit, we watch, we sip tea with the queen.

DSCF4974

Note: bees are complicated, wildly so.  I am not an expert, not even close, and much of what follows is knowledge I have gleaned from books and courses, and some is still controversial in the beekeeping world.  I have provided links to further reading for those that wish it.  I cannot take responsibility for external links.  I do not really see myself as a beekeeper.  I own a hive that bees live in. I am more of a bee-landlord, who will collect rent only if the tenants can afford it.

We had hoped the bees would arrive earlier.  We wanted to source a swarm locally, so the bees already knew their way around, where the best flowers were, and were already acclimatised to the weather and the landscape.  Sadly this proved impossible, so we ordered a swarm of bees with a mated queen from a breeder near Colmar, up by the border with Germany.  Inclement weather had delayed the swarm season; March became April, April turned to May, wild flowers bloomed and wilted away, and still we waited.

Last year we went on a weekend natural beekeeping course, when we were still living in Bristol.  Run by the hugely knowledgable and lovely Heather and Tim from Bee the Change , it was an inspirational couple of days, with a lot of biology, natural history, and tales of beekeeping traditions around the world, such as Polish tree-hives.  It really opened our eyes to the idea of beekeeping for the sake of the bees, not for honey.  Bee decline has been in the news for years now, with much being made of the use of neonicotinoids on crops.  Whilst this is almost certainly part of the problem, it is much more complicated than this.

The bee is a mystery that humans have tried to solve for millennia, and has been deeply involved in the folklore, religion, medicine, even politics, of societies from ancient Egypt onwards (perhaps even earlier).  For centuries it was thought (typically) that the queen was a king. It was thought that bees were generated, spontaneously, from the flesh of dead oxen.  There are still aspects of bee behaviour and biology that are not understood, though we manipulate and spray and confine and hurl chemicals about, and are flummoxed by colony collapse, by bees simply disappearing in their millions.

In natural beekeeping, chemical treatments are not used, the hive is opened as little as possible (if ever), honey is only taken if there is truly a surplus (if ever).  There is growing evidence that bees self medicate using nectar and pollen from specific flowers, even utilising some fungi.  The varroa mite (Varroa destructor), a parasite that feeds on  the bodily fluids of bees and their young and spreads diseases such as deformed-wing virus, has been shown to be present in lower levels in hives that are left undisturbed.  It is certainly true that, so far, our bees seem to be free of both varroa and disease.

The phone rang, early on a Saturday morning.  ML spoke to a gruff gentleman who told us he had our bees, and we could collect them.  The breeder sends out lorries, full of bees, across the whole of France, where the boxes are deposited at collection points to await their new keepers.  Our collection point was an hour away, so we jumped in the car and headed off, still slightly bleary-eyed, nervous, excited.  We had talked of this day for a year now, and here it was, here they were – bees.

We arrived at the collection point, which turned out to be the basement of a house.  The gruff gentleman, still gruff, took us in to a room where there were around two dozen small wooden boxes, all a-buzz with the sound of wings.  He handed us our swarm, contained in one of these boxes; 10,000 bees and a can of sugar syrup to keep them fed on their journey.  The queen came in a separate small plastic cage, accompanied by three attendants (she cannot fend for herself at all) and a small piece of candy as a travel snack.  We signed for the package, bid a (gruff) farewell to the gentleman, popped the box and the queen-cage in the boot, got in the car, and stared at each other as the car filled with a loud, low vibration.  Then we pootled off in the early morning sun, an hour down country lanes with a boot full of bees.

DSCF4813

We had prepared our hive (a Warré type) by carefully running lines of beeswax along the bars at the top, in hope that the bees would use this as a template for their honeycomb.  We had sanded the wood of the boxes to remove any small splinters and rough edges.  We had applied a couple of layers of linseed oil against the elements, and had rubbed the inside of the whole thing with grass to make it smell more ‘natural’, less of nervous human.  We sited it in the field, and I made a windbreak by weaving together branches from a friend’s English lime tree that he had given us last year after pruning. We planted flowering herbs, sunflowers, and pots of other blossoms. We’d live here, we thought, and hoped the bees felt the same; there is a danger, in the first couple of weeks, that the swarm will decide this is not the place for them, and disappear.

The weather was far from ideal – rain and wind had arrived.  When we got home with our buzzing box, we decided to wait for a break the clouds, if it came.  I sprayed the outside of the package with sugar syrup to make sure the bees would not starve (they had likely finished the syrup in the can), and thousands of tiny tongues began to lap at the mesh of the cage.  I placed the box, and the queen-cage, in our pantry, which is dark and cool and would keep the bees calm.  A while later the sun was peeking, the time had come.

DSCF4820

There are a couple of ways to hive a swarm.  One is to empty the bees, by banging the box, on to a ramp that leads up to the hive entrance.  The bees then (in theory) march up the ramp and into the hive.  Another is to open the hive and pour the bees in directly. Both involve placing the queen-cage in the hive first, where the bees, once in, will eat through a small plug of candy to release the queen.  This is important, as the queen is not ‘their’ queen, is genetically distinct, and may be rejected by the swarm if they are not given time to get used to her, to accept her as theirs.  I had thought, being a softy, that both these methods were a bit violent, with danger of squashing a number of bees and angering the others, so we had researched other ways to do it.  One was to simply pop open the package of bees and place the whole thing into one of the hive boxes, put the roof on, and leave it for a couple of days, coming back to remove the package once the bees had made their way out.  This was not possible for us, as the package of bees was bigger than the brood-boxes of our Warré hive.  Another was to place the package underneath a brood-box with a hole in between, sealed so that the bees could move between package and hive, but not out of the hive.  We plumped for this method, feeling (hoping) that the bees were more likely to choose to stay, without the shock of being shaken.  We suited up, two astronauts wandering the the land with a box full of thousands of tiny aliens.  I lit the smoker, working the bellows to produce puffs of cool white smoke.  I popped the lid off the cage, removed the can of syrup, and placed the cage under one of the brood-boxes, a piece of wood between with a hole cut in it to serve as a connection.  And suddenly the air was full of bees.

They had found a way out, the seal I had made was not, in fact, a seal.  A few drops of rain began to fall, and we had to move fast, decide what to do.  The only option left was to pour the bees into the hive, so I banged the cage on the ground (squash) to concentrate the bees in one corner, and I poured, a great stream of wings and legs, and the sound, the sound was immense, almost a roar.  Banging the box again (squish), I tipped more bees into the hive, and the majority of the swarm was now in the brood-box, with others flying in circles around us, above us, landing on our suits, there were bees everywhere. ML placed the roof on the hive, gently brushing away any bees in the way, and I leant the cage against the entrance, hoping any stragglers would make their own way in.

This was not how it was supposed to go.  We had shaken the bees violently, we had squashed perhaps dozens with our clumsiness; vision and movement restricted by our suits.  We were worried that the bees, annoyed, angered by our inept attentions, would leave, seeking alternative digs.  The rain was coming in now, the light slipping away, and there was little else we could do, so we retreated inside, drank wine, waited for the next day and better weather to check the bees, to see if they were even still there.  All this planning, all this investment of money and work and worry, all those tiny lives, all for nothing?

Next time – Part Two: Tea With the Queen.

Some exciting news – in between wrangling chickens and running away from wasps, I am going to be writing a regular column for Locavore Magazine.  “Who?” I hear you cry. Well, in their own words:

“Locavore is an editorial-led magazine, defined by beautiful photography and intelligent writing. Firmly based in the British Isles, we’ll also roam the world for the best local food stories and the most inspiring people.

Locavore will explore how food is found, grown, prepared and served. We’ll meet foragers, farmers, artisans, teachers and cooks, and learn about their ideas and what motivates them. We’ll discover flavour, variety, method, tradition and ritual.

We’ll look at community projects, networks and campaigns, and investigate the science and effects of modern agriculture and production. We’ll explore food philosophies that put the land, consumer and animal first and contrast these with a globalised food system that homogenises taste and commodifies nature.  And we’ll examine food security and sovereignty within a changing climate.

At 132 pages and perfectly bound, Locavore will be published quarterly and printed to a high eco-standard. It’s available via individual issue sale and subscription. The first issue will be published in March 2017, priced at £8.

Not just another trendy foodies’ magazine, we want Locavore to be the journal of local food, telling stories of slow, seasonal and sustainable eating, engaging in debate and delivering images and writing of the highest quality.”

Which sounds, well, marvellous.

If you should want to subscribe, or buy a copy of the first issue, I can offer a 10% discount. Simply head to http://locavoremagazine.co/shop/ and use the code loc01kj3104 when checking out.  This offer is valid until midnight on 30th April 2017.

Right, off to carry on planting shallots.

DSCF3169