A break from scribbles to tell you about a beautiful book...

Like everyone I get my fair share of unsolicited emails… those that you swiftly flush away with the ‘delete’ button, or find slipped into your ‘junk’ mailbox without even a rap at the door …some of them are surprisingly wonderful though. This one that had erroneously assigned itself as junk was an email from a commissioning editor, saying that her client had ‘found me on twitter’ and wanted me to illustrate his book! Would I please consider it.

Here’s where I have to be completely honest: as a freelance illustrator, it’s quite often me who initiates contact with possible clients, that hopefully then flower into future collaborations. I love this because, not only can I handpick those I feel inspired to work with, but also because I get to actually meet some truly wonderful and inspiring souls in the process, many of whom I can now number amongst my friends. So when I get a call, it turns the tables a little. But it’s fun and very flattering (can never have enough of that… illustrators usually have egos small enough to curl into a wren’s egg).

Dino Joanrides is the author in question, and having agreed to take a look we spoke on the phone. And we spoke for quite a while. I think we covered everything from real pasta to butter that comes in tins (who knew), from the ‘right’ kind of parma carving knife to wild boar, and italian sheep that look like goats. During that call I realised how little I know about Italian ingredients and just what an encyclopaedic knowledge Dino has. I saw what a great and essential work this book was going to be. I said ‘yes’.

Here are a few sneaky peaks at some of the illustrations I did to decorate Dino’s erudite writing! Hopefully I’ve done him justice!

It’s a been a joy to illustrate. Inevitably, I now want to restock my fridge and cupboard!

It’s available to buy in ‘all good book shops’ and here.



 

 

 

 

 


Spinning classes...

I’m writing this, having washed myself down, from chin to toe, thus saving the keyboard from developing any further qwerty idiosyncrasies.

To be honest, it may have been more efficient to have brought in a jet spray and just stood in the middle of the kitchen, while some kind child blatted me, the counters, walls, floor and the few brave wasps that insisted on hanging around, such was the demographic of stickiness.

But I really didn’t care. The whole palaver was genuinely bloody fabulous. Heating a bread knife on the Aga hot plate…the smell of singed wax as I shallowly sliced the capping from the comb…the tsunami of perfume as the honey unfolded itself from the cells … mallow, gorse and clover…

I carefully placed the uncapped frames in the mechanical honey extractor I’d hired, and turned the handle. Momentum gathered and honey began to fly from the outer cells. The honey extractor, a big tub, began to shudder and attempt an enthusiastic twerk across my kitchen floor. I braced it against a cupboard with my knees and cranked up the speed, entranced by the flickering little arcs of amber sweetness as they hit the tub wall and began a slow descent to pool at the bottom. Wow. Miraculous.

Stickiness didn’t really arrive until I needed to filter this honey. I found that by using a children’s high chair (a Tripp Trapp in case you’re planning to have a go) I could position the spinner on top and place the tub with sieve below with ‘just’ enough overlap to avoid floor puddles. This worked…ish until I needed to get the last bits out.  I found myself clasping the tilted extractor between my knees, and with a spatular I reached through the internal workings to the persistent little puddle at the bottom. I got the last of the honey!

I also got honey all over me… my hands, wrists, elbows, arms, neck, chin, hair, and smile.

I’ve now potted up this small but precious treasure.

My family are in raptures. I am in AWE.

This has been the most incredible micro adventure I’ve ever embarked on. I have a slow but persistently growing sense of responsibility that has begun to bloom way beyond my family to the greater environ. I’m not an eco-evangalist or hardwired to stand on a crate at Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday! But having watched these incredible animals as they go about their united efforts to survive and prosper I can’t help but see the parallel. We could learn a lot. We could help a lot. We’ve all read the story, you know, the one about “if the bees go, so do we” but it’s more than that. I’m not suggesting we should all become advocates of a communistic way of life. But it’s certainly something extraordinary and quite humbling to see a healthy bee turn around on it’s door step and head back to an exhausted forager, to touch, caress and support it as it endeavours to make it up the ramp to their door.

The hive is now winding down for Winter. The queen’s slowed down her egg production. The whole super organism has set about conserving energy, building and saving stores and guard bees wait at the narrowed door, spiked bottoms waggling at potential wasp intruders who would wipe out an entire winter store in a heartbeat.

Meanwhile, I’ve placed our honey on a shelf in the food cupboard… little glass jars of sunshine for Winter’s grey. Feeling grateful.

 


Oh how we laughed, but not last...

This Sunday’s hive check was golden. The sun shone, the wind slowed to a soft occasional lift, and I used lavender in the smoker which we all seemed to enjoy. The bees hummed with a discernible timbre of Glastonbury. We were all feeling mellow. Even when I gently eased out our single frame of pure honey comb, they almost merrily waved ascent “yeah, take it, fill your boots…” We were all in love. The new queen (Mrs Mallow) unfazed, waggled at me, paused, pivoted and sashayed along frame number two. I blew her a kiss….

Stripped back down to shorts and a T shirt and still humming, I joined my family to collect windfalls and scabby apples that didn’t quite pass fruit bowl muster. We were due to take them to a friend’s house for communal juicing and bottling. Enveloped in the heady perfume of ripened fruit it was a moment of sensuous indulgence. Our hands smelled of apples. As we finished filling up boxes I took my husband for a stroll down to the bees, just to check out the entrance, where earlier little wasps had been dive bombing to gain access to the stores of honey. See those two little words, ‘wasps’ and ‘honey’… add to that, that we’d been picking apples where wasps were also feasting and you maybe able to guess a little of what I should’ve seen coming….But no, I was still humming…

To the bees’ heightened senses, on guard for wasps, we must’ve seemed and smelled like two of the hugest robbers they’d ever spotted. Once alerted one hurled itself at Marc, who with much arm flailing managed to distract her. Another, like some demented wasp seeking missile, decided that I was ‘the one’ and became hellbent on attacking me.

I ran. Bloody hell, I really ran. I zig zagged, looped and flapped through the long grass, up the field and still she hung to my scent, and I swear I could almost here a mocking refrain of the tune we’d been humming in such harmony only an hour before!

With her deranged buzzing literally at my ear I realised only one option was available. I tore up the last bit of the field, cleared the steps and in one fumbling blind move I lifted the cover and dove fully clothed into the ice cold silence of the pool.

I emerged; no one was humming anymore. I laughed with relief and clambered out. But as I started to pull off shoes and empty out water I heard the weak but persistent replay of ‘our’ tune haltingly strike up, getting louder and louder with every second. I ripped off my t shirt, certain she was stuck in a pocket of air, and found her pinned by her stinger to the collar like some forlorn and ragged brooch.

Quickly I put her out of her misery. I felt completely rotten. Lesson learnt.


Yield To The Night (Also titled The Blonde Sinner!)

Alternative title: why choose the easy route, when there’s a whole slippery K2 you could scale instead …

This bee keeping journey has taken a WHOLE new twist. It’s found a mountain range and decided to don crampons, helmet and axe, and climb, rather than journey smoothly around and onwards. Here’s me holding on the coat tails of mother nature’s billowing and omnipresent cloak, eyes tight shut, hoping things will play out to a happy end, in spite of my good but ultimately misguided intentions.

The story so far…

The Old queen flew and took half the workers,

The remaining workers, jobless and bored filled the entire brood box with honey,

We all waited, and waited…. no new brood appeared; workers kicked around, guzzling nectar and honey like a bunch of daytime drunks waiting for the next lockdown,

We introduced a new beautiful, curvaceous Slovanian queen… they all seemed to fall in love with her (we certainly did!)

New little eggs appeared, slowly filling up the emptied brood frames; we got excited! (no Slovenian queen spotted but slight niggling doubt pushed aside as, hey, there’s new eggs, so she’s surely just hiding…)

And then this….

A couple weeks ago I strolled down for my weekly ‘hello and how are you?’ taking in the warm dried hay, the scent of mallow and a blue sky decorated with swooping, feeding swallows… all very halcyon, tranquil in heart and mind. Flipping over and zipping up the hood of my bee suit and giving a gentle huff of the smoker I began to remove the layers of the hive down to brood chambers. No Slovenian queen to be seen anywhere.

Feeling somewhat unsettled, I did one more search…and there, sauntering around on frame no. 2, was a HUGE bottomed queen, blonde, brassy, beautiful and a worker bee’s equivalent to Diana Dors.

Oh you fickle worker bees! Stroking, fluffing, feeding this swaggering new queen.

And OH you murderous tart! Why didn’t you show yourself earlier?! AND WHERE DID YOU HIDE THE BODY?

It’s been 2 weeks since I found the new queen, and we’ve both calmed down a bit now, she and I.  She’s busy laying, and to be honest I’m just wholly relieved that she’s there. In terms of the dark fist fight that I missed, the strongest queen won. So I’m thankful that I have such a tough young queen, because she’s the one who’s going to take the brood through the approaching cooler seasons.

Meanwhile, my crampons and helmet have been removed, but left nearby… just in case.

 

 

 

 

 


...and speaking of the delicious bite of joy...

… Since last writing of the painful mess I’d made, I can now confirm that I’ve a new queen!

She’s a soft, curvaceous young woman from Slovenia… a Carniolan Queen.

Her new prospective harem had been milling around, without proper jobs and so got busy filling the entire brood box with honey.. every single frame was stuffed and actually dripping. The temptation to remove my veil and gloves and do a Baloo was tempered by an acute sense of guilt for having got them into this sticky mess in the first place! They desperately needed someone to lavish attention on and steer them back to colonial supremacy.

To introduce a new queen you have to stretch the courtship out into a sedate series of obstacles. Bees, apparently don’t ‘do’ blind dates well, and tend to mob and kill the intended bride, no matter how beautiful. It was a nail biting procedure.

(Quick story here: my dear grandfather, having waited for over a month for a new queen to arrive in the post from some far flung place, was so overjoyed on receipt, he promptly dropped her and stepped on her!)

I collected her in a small perforated box, stoppered with a block of white bee candy and a plastic cap. Inside this little box she was attended by a few of her original workers who groomed and fed her as I wedged her carriage between two brood frames. The queen less workers were able to greet her, check her out, but keep an enforced respectful distance. After a few days I removed the plastic cap. At this point the white block of candy was accessible to the queenless workers. Rather like some ‘Harry met Sally’ b (sorry) movie playing out, as the Queen dined from the inside, they now were able to eat at the candy from the outside, and at some point meet in the middle and greet each other like tentative lovers..

Well this must have happened, as yesterday, nerves bubbling to the point of a kettle whistling, I headed down the mallow daubed field to check on the state of the hive. To my utter relief and joy, frames has been cleaned of honey and were being filled with new brood and pollen.

So there you have it, the rhythm and equilibrium of the hive has been restored.

And now, at last, I can consider the ‘room’ above, the extra larder where they’ve been making liquid gold. For my first season, I’m delighted to know that I will have a little honey… enough to feel incredibly grateful, and guarantee a little bit of this Summer to spoon onto a Winter’s breakfast of porridge.

The queen has been christened as Mrs Mallow.


She packed her bags last night, preflight...

 

… and here was me, thinking I’d missed the drama, that this first season of bee keeping was actually mostly pure pleasure, only marred slightly by the boil in the bag sensation during scheduled visits in hot weather. But I could put up with that, bearing in mind the golden rainbow of reward I’d already visualised (and tantalizingly sniffed) arcing out of a table top honey spinner in August!

But the truth is, my queen had other plans that didn’t fit quite so neatly with mine, and in between these most recent of hive checks she’d managed to send the whisper out to her team and slipped out unseen, unheard, no doubt to hang out at some intermediate bedsit (be it branch, shed, post box or car bonnet) while her seekers flew forth and found a suitable new home.

I’ve been told this year has been extraordinary in that swarming started as early as March in some areas; due to the mild winter many have enjoyed, the spring flowers came early, which meant queens laid, and hives filled.. and queens got bored/pressurised by their entourage into reproducing and moving on.

I need to confess here that she hadn’t left me queen-less. She’d gifted me a capped queen cell, and her remaining ladies were nursing what appeared to be two more uncapped queen cells. But (and here’s the stab) because I hadn’t sussed that’s she’d gone, and wanted to avoid a swarm, I destroyed what was in fact the ONLY viable queen cell! It was at this point that it suddenly dawned on me that she and half her entourage had already flown, and I was looking at a reduced hive, with no new eggs. I carefully saved the remaining uncapped queen cells and waited… and waited.. until it became painfully clear that they were empty.

I wasn’t prepared for the shock of how utterly torn up I felt about this total cock-up on my part. I felt dreadful, wholly responsible and genuinely bereft. It’s a surprise, because, that’s the sort of emotion I feel for my children when I’ve irretrievably messed up somehow.

No ‘how to’ beekeeping book could’ve warned me about that. But maybe my skin is too thin. Maybe I’ll ‘toughen up’ a bit by next year when I’ll hopefully have a couple more broods to play guardian to. This would be helpful. Can’t walk around with a slap face every time the bees don’t follow the yellow brick road.

But then, if I did toughen up, I suspect the flip side of utter joy and wonderment wouldn’t bite so deliciously and profoundly as it does, when things go well.

 

 


Growing up

 

I think it’s something to do with having children.

There’s a growing sense of a need to make everything that I see, hear, or do count for something… enough that I can create a hook, a tab and carefully place it amongst other experiences.

I don’t want to sugar coat them, or preserve them in formaldehyde. I want the air to flow around them, through them, leaving them fluid and fresh, so that I might gather one to me, pull it on and wear it…

I have the strongest memories of childhood, not all of them wonderful. As such you’d think it not so very important to preserve those… But they are a real part of the making and moulding of this me, this Anna. With these, as much as the happier lighter moments, I’m able to dip in (sometimes involuntarily), tie a loose knot to the end and walk with this gossamer thin silk to the here and now and make a tentative connection. Occasionally, this connection can be a shock. But it’s by making this walk with the ball of silk that I’m able to see how life has moved, shifted and evolved. With this comes as sense of space, time, belonging..

I watch our children, our beautiful, spirited and incredibly individual three. I see these new delicate threads, memories … I want as many as possible of theirs to be happy, without struggle or conflict.  I know, what a load of crap. I mean really, what are the chances of that.  It’s what we all hope for though, as parents. There’s an instinct to rub it better, to distract from the unseen terror, the spider, the freshly gashed knee. And yes, I will rub it better, I will hug and hold … possibly for too long! But they must be allowed to make their own memories and link as they wish. I need to sit on my hands. I suppose that’s this thing called growing up. I’m still working at this, obviously.

 


Going for a chat, I took you with me...

 

Seems a fairly obvious thing to say, but, unless you’ve actually had the opportunity to spend some time around a hive, indeed stick your (veiled) head in amongst the frames, watch them, talk with them, listen .. it’s actually quite a leap of imagination to push beyond that initial response of ‘run for the hills’ when confronted by 30,000 bees.

So in an effort to bypass the hill run for you, I took down my phone and pressed ‘record’.

However, on listening back to it, I will understand if that instinctive need to swipe at imaginary airborne assailants still persists.

Here you go:

A chat with the bees

… and breathe!

 

 


Hive notes, 4th May

Apple, plum and pear now in full blossom.

Visible, audible flow of bees between blossom and hive.

Must number frames in brood box…

Observations

1. Workers cells o/c, honey.

One Queen cell open, empty

Forager dance, captivating!

2. Workers cells o/c

3. Worker cells o/c

Queen, first sighting: large, voluptuous, polished..like vintage Airstream… alternately trampled and caressed by attentive harem

4. Worker and drone cells o/c

5. Four Queen cells; smallest rice-grain eggs, in limbo

6. Honey and worker cells o/c

7. Honey filled, heavy

8. Untouched

9. Untouched

10. Untouched

 

Smoker gone out, bees remain calm, very inquisitive,

 

As am I

 

 

 


Bees... after the pollen has settled

They’ve been with me for almost 2 weeks now, or perhaps it would be more truthful to switch that to “I have been with them”.

Worse than babies or a new pet, bees make time stand still.

The nature of my work requires me to sit hunched over a desk, resulting in the need to uncoil, straighten out and ultimately stand up. I’ll slide the kettle over, maybe slip outside and sniff the air. Now the bees are here I find my hand reaching out to my bee suit and my feet, on their own track of logic, heading off down to the bottom of the field.

I was told that as I approach the hive I need to talk to the bees, familiarise them with my voice. My first visits were I suspect equivalent to Joanna Lumley on helium, soundbites of excited, squeaky plumminess interwoven with self-conscious babblings. After two weeks my tone has dropped back down to my normal ‘posh’ drone.. perhaps slightly more appealing for the bees. After all, who really wants to be spoken ‘at’ by a wild eyed and caffeinated gibbering human.

As I head towards the back of the hive rather than trying to calm them down I find that I am the one who’s breathing more slowly. At about 20 ft, the uncomfortable tug of the bee suit is forgotten, at 10 ft the council tax bill can wait, 6 ft and a rude silence from a client is of no consequence.. and by the time I place my hand on the side of the cedar frame I am wholly ‘there’ and nowhere else. And breathe.

Walking around to the side, hand still on hive, still talking, I find myself crouching down, eyes level with the hive entrance.. many little open doors created by a sliding bar of machined wood. The bustling activity of these little creatures, wholly engrossed in their purpose..such a counterpoint to the calmness thats slowly enveloping me.

Today, it’s time to check right inside the brood chamber. This is about as intimate as it gets. Removing first the peaked roof and then the cover board, an extraordinary wave of perfume rushes at me. It’s pollen, nectar, honey, propolis. It’s bee.

Using the parrot beak hookend of my hive tool I gently ease it in amongst the fizzing little bodies and lever the edge of the frame into a position where I can slowly work my finger between bee and box and, wedging it beneath the edge I slowly lift one end of the frame up. It feels a fairly destructive move: in their constant effort to fill any and all gaps, the bees have welded these vertical rooms together with their cement like propolis. I work on the other end gently nudging little legs, abdomens and faces out the way and at last I have both ends securely in forefinger and thumb of each hand. Letting out my breath, whispering, apologising, I slowly lift what must be 2 lbs of frame. It’s carpeted in bees, a complete and perfect study of a superorganism at work… and there’s honey…