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Make Hay While The Sun Shines

There seems to be a universal appeal to the notion of living more simply, closer to nature and its rhythms.

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The sense that that these days we all live in a swirling maelstrom of information, complexity and disquiet seems to be quite universal amongst citizens of the so called “developed” world.

There is a notion too, amongst a growing number that a move towards a simpler, more natural rhythm is sorely required.

Depending on our circumstances we might respond to this need in any number of ways.  And it should be said that any attempt to lead a more natural peaceful life is valid.  We might invite some nature into our lives by going for a walk in the the park or invest our attention in a potted tomato-plant on the window sill.  At a more extreme end there are a few who might embark on that survivalist journey that lead Chris McCandless to his tragic death in the wilds of Alaska as documented in the book and film “Into the Wild” by John Krakaur.

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Chris McCandless in front of his ‘Magic Bus’ in 1992. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

McCandless’ story is one of tragic folly but it appeals to something in many of us who aspire to a simpler, more connected and more natural life.  At the very least the desire to connect with nature is a noble and worthy aspiration.

The reality,however, is cruder than we might expect.  When you have to devote time to primary needs such as shelter, warmth and running water you are seriously complicating life.  A stressed out city dweller need only flick a switch to satisfy those needs. The newly arrived rustic has to divert considerable time and energy to the matter and soon finds plenty of things to worry and stress about.

So, motivated by a heartfelt need to be closer to nature I found myself living in a very small village of fifteen souls where I could pursue my interests in gardening, beekeeping and animal husbandry.  It’s not as if I embarked on this with any grand plan. Rather it grew upon me little by little through conscious and more often than not, unconscious decisions that have lead to my total immersion in the process.

In the beginning I divided my time between conventional teaching jobs and the juggling of the innumerable and seasonal requirements of living in this context.  There always seemed to be an awful lot of balls in the air at any given moment and all in all it amounted to considerable stress and uncertainty.  There were many times I thought about jacking it all in and choosing a more conventional life.

There comes a point though, where you either quit or commit unreservedly. The thing that lead to my total commitment was the arrival of a donkey called Momo.

I had absolutely no idea how to care for a donkey or for that matter any particular interest in large animals.  In fact, Momo’s arrival contributed initially to my sense of stress.  But we learned a lot from each other and fell into something of a routine.  After a year another donkey called Django, arrived quite out of the blue.  Within days I had embarked on building a cart. If you have two donkeys you have to have a cart!

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Donkeys are in fact pretty straightforward. They don’t require a lot of breaking in.  Their domesticity is pretty much inbred and once you have their trust there’s no limit to the possible adventures.  In the summer months we graze any free pasture and I control them with an electric fence.  In the winter things get a little more complicated as the pasture is poor and the weather can be harsh.  Donkeys don’t tolerate prolonged wet weather and cold wet weather can be fatal. So, you need a shelter and if you’re going to have them stabled you’re going to need hay.

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You can buy bails of hay although livestock owners don’t often have much surplus to sell.  These days the bails are often huge and require someone with a tractor to deliver it.  It can quickly become an expensive headache.  Nonetheless, every spring the county council sends a fleet of grass cutters to mow the verges at the side of the roads. Result, a two metre by 50km strip of fresh cut hay. I watch the weather keenly for the threat of rain and when the hay is good and dry, venture down the road with the donkey cart and collect as much as I can.

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I have come to call this way of life, “living directly”. There is a need, which must be satisfied, you examine the resources, engage available tools, manpower and of course, donkey power and you arrive at a solution.

And so, on a hot day in August with the hay now good and dry the time had come to ship it all to the donkey’s winter quarters.  My good friend and inveterate donkey driver Cameron Webster, was there to lend a hand.  José, a guest from Valencia was eager to help too.  Evidence once again, that folks are really keen to take part in some honest labour at donkey pace.

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We loaded the cart with sacks of hay and made several trips to the shelter.  I can only get so far with the cart and have to unload the sacks a few hundred metres from the shelter.  We then unhitch the donkeys and tie the sacks to their harnesses for them to drag it in.

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This was not without it’s problems.  I had two lengths of rope, one short one long. I grabbed the first that came to hand, attached one end to the sack and the other to Momo.  As I finished the knot I realised I had used the shorter rope.  Momo is the more nervous of the two and a thought passed through my mind that he’d have been better with the longer rope.  No matter!  I passed the reigns to Cam and set about attaching Django to the next sack.

No sooner had I done this when I looked up to see Cam and Momo locked in a dangerous waltz.  As they moved off Momo had got the notion that he was being pursued by a sack of hay.  He bolted but Cam had his reigns so he ran in circles with the sack of hay moving even faster on the outer circumference of their trajectory.  It was a bit like one of those kids games where they attach a ball to their ankle then skip over it as they walk.  Momo’s version of the game was a bit more lethal and Cam soon let go leaving Momo to sort it out for himself.  Thankfully he didn’t run far away and we soon had everyone calmed down and back on the job.

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All in all the operation filled a pleasant morning.  I’d have been quicker doing it with a tractor but out of pocket too.  This method brought benefit in so many forms. We’d harvested a resource completely for free and spent a pleasurable few hours doing an honest job with the sky larks singing in the sky above. When all was said and done we sat back with a beer on a hot August day, secure in the knowledge that come the first snows the donks have food and shelter.

That’s living directly.

And as McCandless famously wrote, “Happiness is only real when shared.”

Honey bee adventures

There are a few questions people always ask beekeepers;

Do you get stung?

Yes. Frequently.

Do bee stings hurt?

Yes. Intensely for about a minute then they calm down and you forget them.

How many bees are in a hive?

A strong hive would have a population of around 50,000

VioletWEB There’s surely something magnetic that draws us to a bee hive. Something stronger than the urge to run away. A step closer and then another. We’re drawn into to the thronging activity at the hive entrance.

What is there to see? Traffic in and out.  Arrivals laden with pollen, like brightly coloured bicycle panniers.  Momentary greetings between those ready to leave and those with news of rich nectar sources.  Bees just inside the entrance fanning to create an air-conditioning air-current.  And if you draw closer and breathe in as you glide your nose to the entrance, the magical scent of nectar being cured into honey. The indescribable aroma of sunshine and nectar and a symphony of buzzing in the air. But careful! Breathe out into their midst and the games afoot. The arousing effect of your breath amongst them is instant. Bees sense their world and communicate amongst themselves largely through scent. I can highly recommend sniffing bee hives but I also recommend that you wear some protective kit. KonViWEB So, suitably kitted out with gloves and veil, the next step is to let your curiosity get the better of you and open the lid. Anyone who is prepared to take this step and to observe what lies therein with careful attention, is invited to embark on a journey into the interconnectivity and  interdependency  of all things. When you dip your fingers into a thriving colony you are really delving into a living organism. Individually the members have no meaning. But together they form a living, breathing, growing, organism. The component parts attend to alimentation, growth, repair, defence and reproduction.

It is correct to think that a colony of bees is as much an organism as a dog a cat or for that matter you or I. As you look at the inside workings of a hive for the first time you may well be very aware of the individual “stingyness” of the many thousands of bees that are buzzing around your head. However, I would encourage you to stay calm and consider that different groups of bees within the colony have been given different roles and activities. The ones that have been assigned the role of guards may be particularly obvious to you as you delve further into the hive. But if you look more carefully still you will see bees whose roles might include, house keeping, nurse bee, wax maker, forager, drone or Queen. beeThese specialisations are essentially the same as the specialisation of cells, into tissues, into organs, into organism. Bees are like cells. The bees are specialised in one task or another in much the same way as some of the cells that make up you are specialised to form an eye, or a liver or a kidney.

A bee colony is therefore like any other living organism only there’s a big difference. It is this difference that makes beekeeping so fascinating. Unlike the cells that make up most other living organisms the bees can dissociate themselves and venture out into the world in a way that few other organisms can do. A strong hive with a population of 50,000 bees will have around 15,000 workers foraging in the field on a warm summer’s day. Foraging bees fly from their hive to penetrate and explore their world flower by flower in search of food in the form of nectar and pollen. They will range up to 5 km (3 miles) from their hive. The fifteen thousand or so worker bees that issue back and forth from a hive every day are interacting with their environment at a fantastically subtle level over vast distances. Through their interaction with the thousands of flowers that each of the fifteen thousand workers might visit in a day, information is gathered. Nectars sampled for quality, quantity and location. And no less importantly, pollination is achieved and fruits begin to form.

The bee is a clear example of how one tiny and essentially rather insignificant creature acting as part of a greater whole can be of so much greater importance. A bee hive is a fountain of transformative life giving energy. ZoneV1Sphere of influence. The foraging range of my hives is around 5km (78km2)

It would be fair to say that beekeepers are always beekeeping. If you keep bees the seasons take on a new importance.  On walks you’re always noticing which flowers are in bloom.  Which blooms they’re working.  A chestnut tree in spring can be thronged with bees and the buzz always draws your attention.

In these parts this summer (2019) has been good. Rapid growth in the spring (April/May) and honey production in July/August. My hives are situated in oak forest. Foraging includes, lime, hawthorn, bramble, thyme, heather and most imprtantly “mielato”. Bees forage pollen, nectar and mielato (honey due). Mielato is any sugary sap or substance exuded by a plant or sometimes other insects. In this region the acorns of the evergreen holm oaks and a broad leafed oak, exude mielato as they mature. We have had a combination of hot summer and torrential rain in September which may have favoured this. mielato

Sticky “mielato” exudes from the acorn of a broad leafed oak

Bees are fickle creatures and beekeepers merely keep them for as long as they are prepared to stick around. Bees are in no way domesticated and they are only encouraged to stay with their keeper because he or she encourages them to do so by giving them food and quarter. In the spring time beekeepers perform clever manipulations with their hives with the intention of building new hives or growing existing ones. But bees actually get on fine without our intervention and they often have different plans to the beekeeper.

Nonetheless, beekeepers are clever and resourceful and have opposable thumbs so sometimes we come out on top.

While walking through some fields I cast a weather eye towards the remnants of an old abandoned hive. I was in the habit of checking this hive to see if there was activity at the entrance. A swarm will often occupy an old hive. The residual aroma of previous occupants attracts them. And on this day at the end of July there was traffic. A quick check revealed that they had occupied four of the original frames forming their own Gaudiesque cathedral of honey comb.

“I’ll be avin’ that”, thought the beekeeper and in no time at all the colony was transferred to a new box which he had prepared earlier.

And so began another beekeeping adventure. I returned that very night to close the door and load the box into the back of the car. The mission to transport them some seven km away. There they would spend two weeks or so before I returned them to my apiary. The apiary is probably only 300 m from where the colony was found but if we were to move a colony such a short distance the flying bees would return to the previous site the next day. We must therefore move them outside their maximum foraging distance of 5 Km

 

Transporting bees at night in a car with a nervous dog for company is always entertaining. I stapled some fly-screen material over the entrance to stop them getting out. Working at night it’s best to use a red light as they can’t see into the red part of the spectrum. We don’t necessarily see that well into the red spectrum either and the trail back to the car was treacherous in the dim red glow. Once or twice they ZIZZED angrily as I jolted them. The red light illuminated their little heads and jaws working at the fly screen stapled over the entrance. But they couldn’t get out.

Two weeks later saw us repeat the whole process to install them in the apiary. I fed this colony a lot in what was left of that summer and tried to introduce some order in their chaos by providing regular framed foundation. But there was no enticing them from their original labyrinthine home. The queen seemed to love it in there and had no intention of laying in the new frames. In fact the bees were spreading the chaos onto the faces of the new frames. chaosWEB

By autumn I introduced some polystyrene block to fill up unused space and protect against the cold. Over the following summer this hive had grown enormously. Little by little I was able to move the chaotic brood nest around till the queen abandonded it and it filled up with dark honey. All that remained was to reach in and take the reward. ExtractedWEB   Extracting honey from such irregular comb is not so easy and we had to build a press. Although it was a shame to have to destroy their fantastic handy work the reward was an exquisitely sweet distilation of summer sunshine. I gave them the sticky utensils to lick and by the morning they were all clean. Next summer this hive will know the benefits of a little order and hopefully we’ll all get to the end of the year with honey in the larder. Labyrinth Labyrinth1WEB Labyrinth2 PressWEB