The Hive, Part Two: Tea With 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.)

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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).

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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.

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The Hive, Part One: A Boot Full of Bees.

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.

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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.

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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.

Locavore Magazine.

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.

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Spring.

Spring, it seems, may finally be here.

It’s been a long, hard winter.  I have spoken of winter at length (thank you for your patience), but now my thoughts and my hands turn to warmer work.

We are still battered by the occasional gale, and in fact a great many trees in the area have succumbed to the winds in recent days, and the local rivers have burst their banks, turning fields into lakes.  We have managed to avoid the worst of this, have not (yet!) lost any trees, and the chickens now seem used to the occasional bath (although they still complain).  We have had no repeat of the now legendary Flood of 2016, and my daily clearing of the ditches and waterways around us seems to be paying off, paying back for the aches it causes.

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The fruit trees we planted are all waking up, little buds popping out along their branches, drinking in the March sunshine.  Daffodils are beginning to flower, tulips are pushing up through the earth, dandelions and daisies and bumblebees and butterflies, new life and hope.

We are visited by bluetits, goldfinches, robins, and the occasional nuthatch.  We have spotted lapwings and storks stopping by for a rest before continuing their migrations.  The buzzards circle in pairs, calling to each other and sending the chickens flapping for cover, tumbling over each other and trying to hide under me.

The cat (Mrs. Badcrumble) was taken to the vet to be spayed, and is, as I type this, sleeping off the effects of anaesthesia, waking now and then to glare at me accusingly and lick her stitches, and I feel like a monster.  The feral cat population in the area is quite large enough already.

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We have started a lot of our vegetables now, and every windowsill in the house plays host to trays and trays of seedlings.  We are growing things we did not attempt in the UK, such as sweet peppers and aubergines, in the hope that the hotter, longer summer will produce good specimens, and ML has planted over 40 tomato plants, which we hope will yield well, so we can preserve enough by drying and canning to see us through next winter.

We have worked hard at improving the clay soil that we have, adding topsoil and well-rotted horse manure, and the pile of kitchen compost grows ever bigger.  I hope to get to a point where the soil is much improved and we can leave it alone as much as possible.  Soil structure is paramount, and any digging or tillage can ruin this, as well as causing loss of nutrients.  We are experimenting with permaculture and no-dig methods, and are planning a small forest garden next year, and we hope for a good harvest.  I have been attempting to coypu-proof the veg garden with chicken wire and rocks, and I will be glad if  they and we can be good neighbours.

There is a chap that ML’s dad used to work with who keeps bees, and he has promised us a swarm (he does not prevent his from doing so), which means we will have bees already adapted to the local environment.  They will swarm sometime in May, all being well, so we are preparing the hive with a final coat of linseed oil, we will rub grass on the inside to make it smell less of human, we will put some lines of wax on the top-bars to encourage comb production, and we will be stupidly excited when they arrive.

The variety of wildlife around the farm in astounding.  When I foraged in the UK I would trek from forest to field in search of spots for wild spring greens.  I had good spots for many edibles, but they were often miles apart.  But here, just on our own land, I have found wild mint, wintercress (bitter!), chickweed, nettle, dead-nettle, hogweed, crow-garlic, dandelion, hairy bittercress (neither bitter nor hairy, confusingly), common sorrel, and comfrey (with which we shall make a foul-smelling tea for the garden).  A bowl of some of these plants dressed in some good oil and vinegar is a welcome crunch, and a taste of things to come.  I have found a spot for wild garlic (I would searched far and wide for this as it is essential, luckily I have found a good patch some half a mile away, in the same forest that provided such a glut of wild mushrooms last year), and when we visited today to pick a little for dinner, we spotted a pair of Alpine newts.  This bodes well, I have decided.  I plan on making enough wild garlic pesto to keep us in easy suppers for the rest of the year, as well as lacto-fermenting some for kimchi or just on its own, a salty crunchy pungent hit of microbiome health food.

The birds sing, the signs are good, and if the coypu eat all my tomatoes it will be roast coypu and wild kimchi for dinner, with a glass of nettle beer.

Booze.

Patience is required.  Although I wish that spring were here, it stubbornly refuses to be anything other than winter.  For every beautiful, frosty morning, there is a day like today, when the clouds hang low and dew forms in my beard when I step outside.  I can confirm that it does, indeed, drizzle in France.  I have planted trees, but they do not yet bear fruit.  I have dug vegetable beds, but they are still naked earth.  The beehive is an empty mansion, awaiting the waggle-dance of its masters.  Patience is required.

I had grown used to life in the city, where everything is available on-demand.  The shops and the bars are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (or near enough), I could buy any food or drink or ingredient I desired, at any hour, any time of year.  When one is able to access anything, anytime, the value of all is lost, becomes meaningless.  The recent ‘lettuce crisis’ is a case in point.  Why are we eating imported, often tasteless, lettuces and courgettes in January?  At what cost?  Why are we not waiting with baited breath for those first crisp leaves, in season?  We are accustomed to reaching out and having our cups filled with whatever we want.

As a side note, there is plenty of crunch to be foraged in the forests and fields at this time of year.  Wild winter salads are a marvel.

The shops here in Burgundy close for lunch.  They are shut on Sundays.  They often only open in the mornings on a Saturday.  I have to wait.  I am more aware of the worth of it, I think, for this very reason.  It is a small thing, though important.

As my own apples are at least a few years away, I am lucky that ML’s brother has an orchard in the village, a scant mile or so away.  It produces more apples than he can sensibly cope with, so we, selflessly, spent a happy afternoon in the late autumn sun collecting box after box.  Some we have stored to feed to the chickens (they of refined taste).  Some I cooked down into a compote.  The rest I pressed into juice.

Not possessing a scratter (the marvellous name for the mill one uses to crush apples), I resorted to improvising; a bucket and a sledgehammer and aching shoulders the morning after.  The apples were smashed and then pressed in the hand-turned fruit press we share with the rest of ML’s family, and the resulting juice was the colour of caramel, cloudy, and the sweetest thing I have ever tasted.  We bottled around 20 litres, drank some, froze some, gave some away.  Another 20 litres I decided to turn into cider.

I had never made cider before.  I’ve brewed beer (from kits) and country wines and elderflower fizz and nettle beer, but never cider.  I read on the subject a great deal beforehand, and everything indicated that drinkable cider was not an easy thing to achieve.  Vinegar was probable.  Success, it seemed, was not.  There are many ways to brew cider; measuring of sugar content and acidity, adjusting specific gravity (oh the irony, Mr. Newton), pectic enzymes, double fermentation, it all seemed a bit daunting.  So I decided to go full rustic.  I transferred the apple juice to a fermenting bucket, gave it a good stir, covered it with a tea towel, and put it by the fire.  After a week, it had certainly started to ferment, fizzing and frothing weirdly.  I fitted an airlock, and left it.

I am reminded of a recipe I came across for ‘hobo wine’: take 5 litres of grape juice, leave it in the sun for a month, drink it.

The maybe-cider sat for 4 months, seemingly doing nothing.  Fermentation appeared to stop after a few weeks, but I left it alone, too afraid of failure to test it.  Yesterday I summoned up the courage to bottle it (if that is not an oxymoron).

And it is, in fact, perfectly good.  A little flat in its ‘mouth feel’, not exactly delicious, but not too acidic, not sweet (which means most of the sugar is now alcohol), not too dry, not ‘eggy’ as some scrumpy can be.

Free booze.  It was worth the wait.

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Builders and Beehives

dscf4037Winter 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).

dscf3989Mist 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 dscf3976many 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.

dscf4010We 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 melliferaconfusingly), 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.

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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.

Concerning Chickens (and a Recipe).

The mornings are cold.  Frost clings in sharp little lances to everything, the sky is a pale blue blanket, and we all shiver underneath.
dscf3960My morning routine is a chilly one; let chickens out, defrost chickens, feed chickens, stare at the sunrise until my eyes freeze over, drink tea.  I worry that the chickens are too cold, but the inside of their house is reassuringly warm.  We’ve taken to feeding them cracked corn in the evening as a last feed, as they digest it more slowly than pellets, and this helps keep them warm throughout the night.  The problem seems to be that they love the corn a little too much, and are beginning to turn a haughty beak skyward at the sight of their usual feed. Remaining strong and not giving in to their more ‘refined’ tastes is a battle of wills, as I am a softy.

They are eating a great deal more than they did when we first got them at the end of thedscf3954 summer, and they are still laying daily – a surprise, as the shortened hours of daylight should mean that their laying slows down during the winter months.  I am not complaining, although as chickens only have a finite number of eggs in them I worry about them running out.

A friend in the UK got in touch to let me know about the current DEFRA ban on moving chickens, and the fact that he has to keep his inside, due to outbreaks of bird-flu.  There is bird-flu in France, but far to the South and the West of us, and not yet in Saône-et-Loire, our département.  There is also a turkey festival in Marcigny today (no idea, I’ll tell you when I get back later), so the locals are clearly not too concerned.  I keep an eye on the news, and the chickens, and I worry.

I worry that I am worrying about chickens too much.

dscf3923The fruit trees are all planted.  As I planted them, I pulled even more scrap metal from the ground, along with sheets of plastic, and an entire car windscreen.  Even here, in what seems to be a culture that works more closely with the land, people buy things and use things with no plan of how to dispose of them.  Manufacture, buy, use, bury in the ground and hope no one notices.  A microcosm of capitalism, in my field.

On misty mornings we spy deer and wild boar, and there is a black woodpecker who pecks away at the same tree, each morning, Morse Code patterns in the fog.

In the evenings we light the fire, and eat hearty, warming food, and delay going to bed as it is so cold upstairs we can see our breath.

There has been no recipe here for a while (I wonder how many of you, Dear Readers, want or follow my recipes), but there is one today.

Boudin-Noir with Apples, Potatoes, and a Honey Mustard Sauce.dscf3945

(serves 2 if you’re greedy like me)

This is a properly seasonal supper (yes, pig’s blood is in season right now), and a rich, filling, simple way to push away the chill of the day.

Ingredients

(for the sauce)

2 shallots, finely diced

250 ml dry white wine

250 ml stock (I used pork stock, because I had some in the fridge, but a good organic chicken stock will do nicely)

2 tsp mustard seeds

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

1 tbsp honey

The leaves from 2 sprigs thyme

Salt

(for the rest)

300 g boudin-noir (or black pudding – they’re not exactly the same, but close enough for us), cut into 2 lengths

2 large floury potatoes, cut into chunks

1 large eating apple, cored and cut into thick slices

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt

A handful of curly parsley, finely chopped

Quite a lot of butter

Method

Cook the potatoes until just tender, drain, and set aside.

In a small pan, cook the shallots in a little butter until soft.  Add the rest of the ingredients for the sauce and bring to a simmer.  Reduce by about 2/3 until quite thick, season to taste, and set aside.

In a large non-stick frying pan, melt a little butter and cook the boudin-noir until warmed through and a little crispy on the ends.  Remove from the pan, set aside somewhere warm, and cover.

Add more butter (yep) to the pan, and cook down the sliced onion until soft and just starting to brown.  Add the cooked potatoes, apple, and garlic, and fry until the apples have caramelised and there’s some lovely crispy bits on the potato.

Place the boudin-noir back in the pan, pour over the sauce, cover, and let it sit on the heat for a couple more minutes to warm it all through properly.

Season to taste, scatter the parsley over.

Eat straight from the pan, and try not to worry about chickens.