Winter is all about preparing for spring. We tidy and dig and prune trees and wait and wait. We choose and buy seeds, and I’m already planning what to cook, preserve, and ferment with the produce we’ll grow. Next year we’ll save our own seed, but this year we buy what we need from the good folks at the Real Seed Catalogue, who specialise in heritage and non-hybrid varieties, along with a good deal of things you won’t find in your garden centre, like oca and cinnamon vine (no, I don’t know either).
Mist hugs the fields, crystals of hoar-frost crisscross the hedgerows, and the oak trees all shimmer and glitter, white, like the frozen skeletons of gigantic ancient creatures (which they are, of course).
The builders have been here for a couple of weeks, repairing some rotten timber at the edges of the roof (don’t mention the problem with rest of the roof and it might go away), filling in holes in the earthen walls (holes, apparently, made by cows licking at minerals in the rock – I am unable to get over this fact), removing render from one end of the house, ready to replace it with a better lime-based one, and making a huge amount of noise. The cat is furious.
Our house is old. How old, we don’t know. Over the last few months we have uncovered many oddities in its construction. It is a farmhouse made of a material called pisé – essentially a mix of earth, sand, and gravel. It’s a very environmentally sound material, and long-lasting if treated properly. Ours has not been treated properly. It has been covered in a concrete render that does not allow it to ‘breathe’, which it needs to be able to do as it basically a giant sponge. The lime render we are putting on one end wall will alleviate this, and we’ll eventually do the rest of the house when funds allow (never). The walls have been repaired and rebuilt many times over the years, with an interesting mix of brick, breeze-blocks, stone, and Lego (maybe not Lego). We also discover that the whole roof has been raised at some point to allow rooms to be placed in what used to be simple hay-lofts, and now seems to rest on piles of bricks that look alarmingly tipsy. We are assured that this is safe and normal, but I feel my scales for safe and normal may be a little different. It seems we may be repairing the house for the rest of time. Time, though, is something we have.
The next big project outside is the start of our bee empire. We are starting with two hives, and will expand if it seems necessary and I am not chased into the river by bees.
About eighteen months ago we went on a two day ‘natural beekeeping’ course (run by Heather and Tim of Bee the Change), which was fascinating and inspiring. Natural beekeeping is more about the bees, less about the keeping. Chemical fungicides and miticides are not used, the hives are opened and interfered with as little as possible, and honey is only taken if there is a true surplus (if ever). Swarming is not discouraged (queens are regularly killed to stop bees from swarming in commercial beekeeping and, as swarming is part of their natural reproductive cycle, this seems a tad mean). The queen is allowed to roam the whole hive (not the case in commercial keeping). They are, in essence, allowed to be bees.
Bees are a vital part of the ecosystem, and having a hive or two close by is beneficial for everything. Our fruits and vegetables will have higher pollination rates, and thus higher yields, and all will be right with the world.
We have decided on a hive type called a Warré, which is slightly different to the usual ones you may have spotted around the UK. There are no ‘frames’ restricting the construction of the wax honeycomb, meaning the bees can build in their natural drooping architecture. Any new boxes are added at the bottom of the hive, rather than the top as is the case with UK ‘National’ hives, with the hope that this keeps the atmosphere and temperature within the hive – so carefully managed by the bees themselves – at a constant, and stresses the occupants to a minimum. The bees will then migrate down into the lower box, leaving an upper one full of honeycomb, which we will harvest if, and only if, we judge it safe to do so whilst leaving the bees with enough honey to see them through the winter.
A bee colony is a mind-bogglingly complicated society of queen and drones and workers and larvae, and the more I read the more I am hooked, the more I cannot wait to don my suit, to sit and watch their comings and goings. My one worry is if I worry about the chickens so much, I can see myself camping out by the hives to ward of any invading wasps or errant birds, becoming more and more crazed until I, myself, begin to buzz and waggle.
I am oiling the wood of the hives with linseed oil, as a natural preservative, and we may paint the hives with some natural paints (the hives at Bee the Change are painted bright and bold with flowers and colours). When ready, we’ll situate them at the end of the stretch where we have planted our fruit trees, facing South and slightly raised. We are planting many plants and flowers that are beneficial to the bees, providing as much forage for them as we can.
We have decided on black bees (Apis mellifera mellifera), native to Europe. They are considered to be more aggressive and less easy to handle (yay) than the more commonly kept western honey bee (Apis mellifera, confusingly), but are hardier, with more resistance to the dreaded varroa mite (more on these beasties another time). We will buy a swarm, which will come in a box. We will then, gently and slightly nervously, introduce them to their new home. We will stalk the fields in our beekeepers suits, like astronauts awaiting first contact. We will not consider taking any honey for at least the first eighteen months.
Much has been made of colony collapse and bee population decline, and we hope our hives, left pretty much to their own devices, will in some small way help to restore a balance.
A jar or two of honey will be a gift, if they choose to give.Follow @lidson