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…

 

 

 


Bees... Yeah, but I'll never make wax candles, okay?*

Sunday 13th April 2014… blue, blue sky. What a backdrop. 

They came with the golden glow that is Pat Brown.

Approimately 15,000 workers and one queen. We all dressed in varying degrees of protected readiness and made our way down to where K had set up the hive; nestled amongst Spring’s sparsely covered branches of a lake side Beech. I readied the smoker nearly burning fingers as I lit newspaper (an ancient OFM, good quality) and gradually stuffed the smoker’s inner cylinder with dried grass that Pat had collected on our way down through the field.
(Note to excited self: Must collect more, and store in paper bag as instructed by Pat.)
With the suck and puff of air pulled through the bellows, the flame – slowed and steadied by the compacted grass – continued to burn at a simmer. Eventually, without any more encouragement, a thick creamy coil of smoke curled lazily from the spout.

Ready. 

Pat opened the lid of the nucleus box and with gentle, slow and loving attention to every nuance of bee behaviour she removed the six waxed and drawn frames. They were loaded with bees, drawn cells, uncovered babies and capped worker and drone cells. A few cells were filled with honey.. their supply until they make fresh from their new surroundings. We transferred all of the frames in exactly the same order as they were originally, pulled cells on one frame rippling intimately  into the perfect curve of its companion frame.

The children stood back a little. 

I couldn’t stop looking. Shocked, entranced, deliriously happy, humbled. I wanted to take off my gloves (ridiculous) and stroke frames, cells, bees (really ridiculous since although they appeared calm, they were preoccupied and a little agitated from their 3 hour journey from Gloucestershire). The smell of the pollen, wax, cedar frames, propolis.. such the headiest of cocktails.

They’re Buckfast bees. I like that. Not sure why, but the name conjures less monk… more imagery of  a relaxed, laid back kind of bee… possibly reclined on a bale of hay, a piece of fresh grass twiddling in it’s mandibles, ‘ears’ stoppered with headphones piping in a little Al Green.

We stood watching as courageous bees started to exit the hive, backwards, hover 2 inches, land, and then stick their little bottoms in the air, almost performing a come-hither waggle! I’ve now learned that this is their way of encouraging their comrades to return. This is where your queen is. So stay close, this is home!

Done with the gawping (for now), we gently brushed one another down, removing any little interrogative foragers off our suits to ensure no one got lost. 

Pat’s 79, sparky beyond what’s deemed normal for someone of that age, and everything I aspire to.
She warned “I can be a bit bossy, but I’d rather you know what you’re doing!” Blue eyes perceptive and quick, wink from a creased-from-too-much-smiling face. We laughed a lot over bread and cheese, and then she was gone… the children asking under their breath if she could be their third grandmother.

It’s now Wednesday 16th April. Every day I’ve been down at least twice to check on them; not necessarily for the benefit of the bees, but the pull is irresistible. 

However yesterday was a turning point. I saw a bee hovering to touch down on the landing strip…she was LADEN with pollen.
They’ve arrived.. 
Click on this link if you fancy a peek. If you have any hints/tips/books to recommend regarding bees then please do get in touch. I’d be delighted.
* Maybe one day…
.

My father... and other jackdaws

… I probably go on about them a bit…

But at this point in the conversation (because that’s what this is) I need to point out that I’m not a twitcher,birder or spotter. It’s not through a need to shy away from the sad misrepresentation of those ‘who do’ as being perhaps rather obsessive/enthusiastic, indeed ‘geekier’ than most.  It’s simply that I don’t know enough about birds to qualify as such a person. But I do love them. I really do. And it’s very much because of my father.

From previous posts, you’ll know that I was brought up on the North coast of Cornwall.

We moved down there when I was pretty young and set up in a cottage nestled amongst working farms, stream carved woodland and badger sets. My mother and father had chosen to do this because they were both very much attracted to a more meaningful, slower and real existence.  In truth, regardless of whether this lifestyle still held the same rosy appeal for them after a few years, they couldn’t afford to do much more than a “Tom and Barbara”, even if they’d secretly pined for the ‘old life’, as, with a lower income, things got pretty squeaky and we all had to be far more resourceful than before.

My father pursued a growing career as an antique furniture restorer, while my mother held together the house and heart of our family.  This family at various points became extended to include pets… the usual dogs and cats. We kept chickens, geese and guineafowl, but they weren’t supposed to be anything other than the next meal.

My father had found peace and a little time with this move to Cornwall, and with that I suspect a little more headspace too. Slowly, a softer side was occasionally glimpsed … one goose (‘Dorcus’) had taken a shine to him,  and would follow him to the back door for a crust. In turn my father started walking around with pockets permanently stuffed full of stale bread and corn (the bain of my mother’s existence as inevitably it would end up in the washing machine, pockets bloated!). A guinea fowl (‘Peep’) that began it’s early life living in my mother’s top pocket decided that Dad was his mate-for-life and as such trailed around after him as he moved through his working day. And naturally, as I took on the chores of feeding the animals they would start to follow me too.

This was my very first experience of someone depending on me, yes me, for food and company! As an 8 year old this seemed beyond any magical experience portrayed in a Disney film (even The Jungle Book).

I relished this new form of company. The love was unconditional, unquestioning and always available whenever I walked out of the kitchen door and around to the back garden or orchard (pockets bulging with corn!). School life, by contrast, was hell. So these feathered friendships were far more nurturing than anything in the school playground at that time!

Meanwhile, my father’s heart seemed to slowly unfurl to reveal someone in stark contrast to the sales manager of before. I came to know, love and admire my dad, probably for the first time. It’s only now, in my fourties writing this that I’m able to percieve this gradual change in our relationship as it truly happened.

My growing years were defined by birds, on so many levels. We’d be driving along in his white transit van, my brother and me in the back, no seat belts, free to bump around. On most trips it would seem my parents would spot a bird on the roadside. The unspoken rule was, if it was alive, my father would mend it; if it was dead, my mother would cook it!

So many bird moments; I could fill a book, but I won’t, at least not for public consumption.

Some memorable highlights as I grew up:

Sharing my breakfast with Gonzo the crow ( he particularly loved scrambled egg)

Having my teeth cleaned by Jack (the jackdaw.. contrary to popular belief they don’t go for your eyes!)

Revision for my Chemistry A level being interrupted by a buzzard, perched high on the dresser, firing a poo 3 metres through the air, only to land on my carefully annotated illustration of a Liebich Condenser.

Watching my father give mouth-to-beak resuscitation to a goose (it lived).

On another occasion I watched him grab a drowning gander that had fallen into a large bucket of water, and, finding no pulse, he took it by the legs and swung it around his head. A huge expulsion of water arced out; the young goose survived.

My father (on countless) occasions has played the part of mother bird to baby pigeon, crow, jackdaw. Carefully holding the youngster he would chew on a mouthful of chick crumbs, add water, swill and then wait for the fledgling to put it’s head in his mouth to feed. I have photos, but I don’t think he’d would thank me for ‘sharing’.

Watching him from my bedroom window, strolling out into the orchard, whiskey in hand, only seconds later to be tracked by a clattering of jackdaws. Two detached from the wild mob and swung down to land on his shoulders.  He always kept bread in his shirt pocket for his friends, and jackdaws will remain high up there amongst the best, most loyal of friendships that he’s enjoyed.

Writing this brings such a surge of strong emotions, you’d think I’m writing about a man who has died. He hasn’t; he’s very much alive and can be found most mornings strolling with geese. But he’s made a huge impression on me.

He’s given me a balance, a spirit level to hold up to my life. This life, it’s so fast, so messy, sometimes with an enforced level of materialistic values that make it umbearably heavy. To be able to walk outside, look up and listen. It makes life lighter, clearer, happier.



 


Trainers or Louboutins...

 

We all have to write a bio at some point in our lives, let people know a little about ourselves, perhaps selecting the bits that we hope will communicate, amuse, (impress) … With Twitter it’s quite a relief really to know you only have 160 characters available.  Not too demanding of detail, but enough to express who (you think) you are.  I put on my twitter profile: “Freelance Illustrator of  edibles (mostly) Cyclist, Forest Scamperer, Sheller, Louboutin Wearer. Just a little obsessed with figs…”

The one I suspect that gets the most attention might be ‘Louboutin Wearer’, but the one that perhaps defines me most succinctly (outside of illustrator) would be forest runner.

I started running (scampering would be more apt) in the forest for several reasons. 1) it’s kinder to the body than road running, 2) it’s free 3) it’s easy to fit in around work and family life because, 4) it’s on my doorstep…

However, there was a 5th reason that only became clear much later on, and now supersedes all the other reasons in significance and impact. The 5th one is “Oh wow, I didn’t know that.”

I didn’t know that I could run that far and not get bored

I didn’t know that it was so noisy in the forest…

I didn’t know my heart could pump that fast, and not burst

I didn’t know that the air smelt so differently, depending on the weather, the season…

I didn’t know that my head needed emptying so badly.

I have rediscovered something utterly amazing that I thought I’d lost forever in my old school satchel.  I have become reacquainted with a desire to know, to learn, to question. As each foot falls on deer carved pathway, my mind begins to loosen from the ties that bind it to the usual rhythms of work/home life.. and with this uncorking of my stuffed, distracted and chattering head, there appears a space.  It flows with the air, the bird song, the whoosh of a breeze through tall pine trees, and there, there with the flow, is a tweak of a curtain then a full graceful drawing back, to reveal questions and need-to-knows, dreams and plans, long forgotten (unvoiced?) hopes. They become clear, the canopy of sky, no matter blue or grey,  giving them an almost palpable aura of dewy freshness, a readiness to be looked at and considered with full attention. Without distraction.

It doesn’t really seem to matter what my feet are doing, how my ankles are adjusting to rock, mud and shale, whether my quads are aching or whether I’m picking an errant gnat out of my eye. The head space remains accessible, available.

And amongst all this cerebral stuff that’s going on, my eyes are drinking in this extraordinary, visual and ever changing theatre of the forest. The colours range for Monet to Van Gogh, depending on season and light.  This light can play tricks on the lower canopy, transforming it into the biblical burning bush. Shadow can create a moving form that seems to race one pace behind me … or was that a deer … There are bat boxes  secured high up in the creaking pines. I have been lucky enough to run with those bats as they loop within inches of my nose, glancing my shoulder.  One late winter afternoon, the light dipped so quickly that I became disorientated.  Flicking on my head torch I suddenly became aware that I was moving parallel with silent-running deer. 14 or more sets of eyes blinked back at me.  My heart leapt with shock, and then burst with the sheer thrill.

Running in the forest, and through its seasons, is perhaps the most extraordinatry and innervating aspect of all. If I was just to talk about the changes of the scent and quality of the air (if I could write with a “scratch n sniff” app it would help): the dry bite of icy air sucked into lungs in the winter; the first whiff of pig manure, pulled across on a northeasterly breeze from a farmer’s field as winter subsides; the punchy honeyed smell of warmed bluebells; the damp earthiness of the freshly watered forest floor; the drying pine needles underfoot as we slip seamlessly (hopefully) into Summer.

I’m sure that this state of mind could be priced beyond any gym membership (or any pair of Louboutins come to that), but no-one’s managed to make it an exclusive ‘members only’ club yet. This is a relief. It means that we can all join, for free!