Thursday, 31 May 2012

Absolute bee-ginners

Thursday 31st June 2012

Opening up the hives
After work today, our bee colleague had agreed to come and open up the hives with us. We were expecting the worst. After all, Hive A appeared to have swarmed and Hive B (with the original queen) had been very quiet indeed. In fact, I suspected that the action at Hive B may have been the others going in and taking the store of honey.

It was somewhat reassuring to find out that this week has been a mega week for swarms. I guess everyone's bees were stuck inside during wet April and the first half of May. They obviously just spent their time multiplying! Then a hot fortnight for them to cram the hive full of honey. The result seems to have been hives full to the brim and mass swarms.

I heard, too, that our nearest fellow beekeeper had a bit of a nasty accident earlier in the week. While mowing his grass the bees came out of the rape field and stung him badly. Now I'm always careful to mow the lawn near the hives late on, after the bees have gone to bed, but after hearing this I think that extra precautions will be called for.

I've been rambling on when I should be telling what we found inside the hives. Well, Hive B had about 6 frames full of bees and brood, including plenty of newly laid eggs, which means that there is a queen and she is laying. In fact, it was fairly easy to find our old queen. The brood pattern looked healthy and there were stores of pollen and honey. Overall then, this hive should fairly quickly build into a healthy colony again. As the rape goes over in the field next door, so the clover begins to flower in the meadow.

Hive A, in which we had left a couple of queen cells, and which had swarmed, contained a surprising number of bees. Maybe seven or  eight full frames still. We couldn't find a queen, though a new queen would still be quite small and, obviously, unmarked. More importantly, nor could we find any eggs, which meant that the hive did not yet have a laying queen.
There were however a few old queen cells, which seemed to be empty. Probably the bees had chosen their new queen and destroyed the others. Thing is, they had then flown off with her.
But there were a few new queen cells too. So we removed the older queen cells and left the best looking so that, hopefully, a new virgin queen would emerge.

When this happens, she spends a few days in the hive before flying out and high up in search of drones from another hive with which to mate. As long as she does not get blown away by the wind, washed away by rain, or plucked out of the air by a bird, then she returns to start laying and building up her new colony.

The other job which needed doing in this hive was to move some of the honey-filled frames above the brood box and replace them with new frames. This is to keep the bees busy so they don't get ideas about swarming again. Secondary swarms are known as cast swarms, and can deplete the hive to the extent that it is no longer a viable colony.

A Queen Appears
As we were doing this, our bee colleague picked up one of the old queen cells which we had discarded. Out of it was crawling a bee... but not just any old bee. Even to my inexperienced eye this bee was longer bodied than the others. It looked absolutely pristine. A new queen, and a well-shaped one to boot.
This came as a big surprise, so the plan was changed. We decided to let her crawl in amongst the brood frames, and instead destroyed the two queen cells which we had left in there. With luck, the bees will accept her as their new queen and, next time we open the hive, we will see freshly laid eggs.

I would like to apologise for the lack of photos, as all of this will be a bit confusing if you don't keep bees. Reason is there's just too much to think about at the moment when we open the hives. Combine this with wearing a space suit and the fact that my glasses focus disconcertingly on the mesh veil of my hood and that's why there are no photos.

I promise to put together a photo essay at some stage in the near future.

Pigeon goes to roost
A comedic end to the day. As I ushered the goose pair into their stable block our new pigeon shuffled ahead of them and there it spent the night.
A new lodger moves in with the geese.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012


Wednesday 30th May 2012
Not much to say about this sunrise.
Anyone seen a swarm of bees?
I got home from work today and had a late afternoon catnap. So, about 5 o'clock, I wandered out into the veg patch and saw Don, who had just been pulling ragwort from his field. I was most surprised when he asked me if I had lost some of my bees!

He then gave me a vivid account of a swirling cloud of bees moving through his orchard.

Damn! My bees had swarmed. Despite everything we did to try to discourage them, they were clearly determined to do so. So that's it. Half my bees just gone. We did go looking for them, but no sign. What will we find when we open up the hives? Probably not a lot.

And double damn! I have never seen a swarm of bees before and would love to have at least had the chance to wave goodbye to them!

A new arrrival
Normally, when I write of new arrivals, I'm talking hatched eggs or multiple piglet births. Or it may be my birding obsession taking over, getting all excited about some unusual migrant or other.
But today's new arrival was most unexpected. There it was, shyly pecking away at the weedy base of the fence inside the veg patch. It allowed me a close approach, then walked towards me.

Yes, a homing pigeon seems to have got lost and chosen to move in with us.
He (or she) is clearly unable to fly for some reason. Last year we had a moribund Collared Dove do the same thing. I guess they're attracted by the other birds, or the bird feed.

Talking of the other birds, Chick of Elvis is still sitting. I have now put 7 eggs under her, though when she went for a wander today there were 8.

Spare Veg patch taking shape.
Last year I struggled to grow any crops down near the pigs as the rabbits periodically nibbled them. So 20 sweetcorn plants would be 18 in the morning and 15 the next and so on. Gerry has done an excellent job preventing the rabbits from multiplying this year but I still wanted to protect the area with fencing. Also, I witnessed a chicken just strut past a young squash plant and peck off a leaf. It won't take much of that, along with their determined scraping at the ground looking for seeds and insects, before my vegetables are losing the fight again. So this evening, up went the orange fence. If I need to, I can connect this up to the end of the electric fence, but at the moment I am hoping that the physical deterrent will suffice.

Tomorrow we open up the hives and inspect the damage.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Western Orphean Warbler, Hartlepool Headland

Tuesday 29th May 2012
A non-descript sunrise today, and even a hint that it might be a more autumnal day. With an easterly airflow and fine weather, there is no doubt that rare birds will be passing over the UK, lost on migration. But that's what most of them do, pass straight over without landing. But, throw in overcast conditions or preferably mist, fog or rain in the morning, and chances are that a few decent rarities will be found along the coast.

What I did not expect was for the pager to start wailing out a ***MEGA*** at half past 8 in the morning. Even less did I expect it to be news of an Orphean Warbler on Hartlepool Headland. There have only been 5 previous records in Britain and none at all since 1991. Only the oldest twitchers had this bird on their lists, the most recent twitchable bird being on the Scillies in 1981.

I hastily re-arranged my morning and made sure everything was in order on the farm. I offered a lift on the pager and less than an hour later I was picking up Gervaise from the outskirts of Spalding before heading off for Hartlepool. This was a replay of early June last year, when the twitching world had descended on exactly the same place to witness the presence of a White-throated Robin, another clawback from the past.

Now, life on the farm is busy but sedate. Driving to a mega is not sedate, though passengers may occasionally request sedatives!! We made the journey in under three hours. All along, the pager brought us news of the continued presence of the bird in a bush in the corner of the bowling green.

As we pulled the car up, unbelievably my old birding pal Mick pulled up behind us. Me from South Lincolnshire, him from Fife, and we arrived at the bird within half a minute of each other! We joined the hundred or so people already there lined up along one edge of the bowling green. The bird was ensconced in the middle of a bush and had not budged for about four hours. Almost impossible to see in the bush, a friend let me peer down his 'scope, where I saw the pale grey breast of a very bulky warbler. I was lucky enough to see it move its head, confirming that it was still alive (a prerequisite to putting a bird on one's list). I just glimpsed the huge bill (for a warbler) and charcoal grey head.


I then found myself a space at the other end of the bowling green and endeavoured to get my own view of the bird. Amazingly, I aimed my 'scope, looked through the viewfinder and there was the bird, very obscured but definitely there. I put the people around me onto it and then quietly invited Gervaise to view through my 'scope before there was a rush to our end of the green. For the next 10 minutes a procession of people looked through my telescope to get their first view of the bird.

Eventually the bird proved that it was not moribund and began moving through the bushes, occasionally giving very good views out in the open. Between times it moved clumsily though the privet and rosa rugosa bushes, occasionally resting out of view for minutes at a time.

This bird had not even been on my radar and was a very welcome addition to the list. It was good to catch up with many birding colleagues too. It's an amazing hobby where a single bird dictates where and when you next meet your mates.

The return home was much more relaxed and I learned a lot about the birding sites of Southern Lincolnshire from Gervaise. I was back home in time to give the animals their evening feed before sitting down to relax after a most eventful and unexpected day.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Three Sisters

Monday 28th May 2012
A misty start to the day

A long, hot day today. So I pottered, taking the chance to do a little weeding here and there and peruse the garden. When we moved in we inherited a strawberry patch, which pretty much gets on with things by itself. Plenty of flowers this year, so I'm looking forward to a bumper crop of strawberries.

Cuckoo, Cuckoo
A cuckoo hung around the farm all day, affording excellent views, first singing from one of the old ash trees, then perching on a fencepost alongside the orchard.I don't know whether it's the same cuckoo that visits every year. I heard the other day that the five satellite-tagged birds which survived the winter in Africa have not fared so well on their return journey, with three perishing before they could get back here to breed. Anyway, back to 'our' cuckoo. I wonder which species it parasitises. Every morning I am serenaded by a reed warbler by the pig pen and a sedge warbler in a bush across Don's field. I think they compete with each other for the title of most persistent songster. Of the two, I prefer the reed warbler's song. Not so scratchy. As for the cuckoo, apparently they're evolved to choose one particular species.

Thriving herbs
The herb garden is really thriving too. Plants I've struggled with in the past have developed into healthy, strong specimens. The patch next to the stables is very stony, the remnants of old buildings I think, and the herbs absolutely love the poor soil and good drainage. 
Thyme, Oregano, Mace, Angelica,
Mace, Rosemary, Sage and Mint.
A splash of chive flowers. I am growing more of these from seed to spread around the potager.
A towering angelica plant.
A biennial which self-seeds easily.
Destructive chickens
Meanwhile, the chickens have been busy demolishing the mulch of grass cuttings that I had so carefully placed around the young willow cuttings and the edible hedgerow. I think they can stay confined to their luxurious pen for a while now. Besides, they need to keep the grass down in there.

The Globe Artichoke bed.
The globe artichoke bed should be a lot more impressive in a month or so.
As the air cooled in the evening, I set myself to planting out the six globe artichoke seedlings which I have so lovingly raised in the greenhouse. They have been in the coldframe for a couple of weeks waiting for warm soil and gentle weather.
I've already planted a mixture of allium bulbs around the bed, and I will add chives when the seedlings come on. In the main part of the bed, as an understorey, I've sown Nigella (Love-In-A-Mist) Moody Blues, as well as four carefully placed giant sunflowers, a variety which towers and produces multiple blooms over a long period. The globe artichokes are protected in their milk carton greenhouses, but they'll need to be kept well watered, especially in this period of fierce sunshine.  

Three Sisters
The young sweetcorn plants had a brilliant germination rate this year and are now outgrowing their paper pots and modules. Sweetcorn is usually planted in blocks, as it is wind pollinated, usually 15 to 18 inches apart.
But this year I'm trying a different system, Three Sisters, which I've alluded to previously. It is certainly gardening chic, but has received mixed reviews. The central principle is one of three vegetables (corn, beans and squashes) sharing space and benefiting each other. But get it wrong and one gets outcompeted or the whole thing becomes a mess. So I searched widely on the internet and decided to follow this system...

My sweetcorn is a supersweet variety, Sweetcorn Lark, from Four plants in a tight square, with climbing Pea Bean (for dried beans) sown alongside. I collected seeds of this bean last year, so I've sown generously as germination was patchy last year. I can always thin out if I achieve surprising success.

In between these groups of plants, I've transplanted seedlings of a variety of squashes and courgettes, protected with SlugKill (clay granules, no nasty poisons) and milk carton cloches.

Potentially a very exciting bed, I'll let you know how things go.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

27th May - It had to happen sometime!

Well, it had to happen one day.
I turned off the 4.30 alarm
and woke up at 5.30!!!

Sunrise missed.

I could use this as an excuse to stop getting up so early, but it's about more than that. I do sometimes go back to bed after letting the chickens out and taking the sunrise photo, and when the sky is just plain grey I do wonder about the merits of dragging myself out of bed so early. I even considered not taking a photo every day, but looking out of the window and going back to bed if it was overcast. But that would just end up being an excuse.
But there are many days, be it gloriously clear, crisp, windy or rainy, when I stay outside and achieve a lot before breakfast. And when the light is crisp or dramatic those first couple of hours of the day are a very special time.
So I will continue. I won't promise never to miss another one this year and, if I do, it won't seem quite so important now. But I've only got less than four weeks to go before it starts getting easier.
As the alarm moves back a few minutes every day, a 4.30 rise will seem like a luxury!

As for the rest of the day, more mowing and a fast developing tan (not the healthy trend these days). Then a very welcome visit from an old friend from London.

Some of the greenhouse seedlings needed an emergency water this morning. I can't believe how quickly they can dry up. I think that most will be OK, though I may have lost a couple of trays.

As it is, many of the seedlings are flourishing now, and they need to be out in the soil, not crammed and confined in shallow seedtrays. The veg are all in hand, but the flower borders have had to keep slipping to the bottom of the list. So this evening I decided to begin deturfing one flower border, where all the young plants can go for now, until I have time to develop this side of the garden later in the summer.
I was surprised to find yet another different type of soil under the lawn - almost black soil, no significant clay content. How I wish all the land were like this.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Basket Cases

Today Sue and I went on a basket making course organised through the FGSC (Fenland Goatkeepers and Smallholders Club).
I must say, I had a really great day. Thanks to Theresa for organising it and Sue (another Sue) for being an excellent, and very patient, teacher.

We did lots of pairing and whaling (or was it paring and wailing???). We had to concentrate for long periods too! I even saw a Spotted Flycatcher while we ate our lunch by a babbling brook on the village green. Very idyllic.

My basket is now sitting on the sideboard and is home to my glasses, car keys, wallet, phone, pager...

Now that's useful. Should save me many hours searching every week.

Get Off My Land!

Saturday 26th May 2012
Set for another hot one.

Today I got to use the traditional farmer's refrain "GET OFF MY LAND" .

I didn't say it to this goose, which had wandered into the veg patch.

Nor to this beautiful Asparagus Beetle.

No, I said "GET OFF MY LAND!" to my neighbours. Not Don, off course. The other side. The ones I don't mention. Unlike them, I like to concentrate on the positives in life, so we'll move on...

Back to that Asparagus Beetle. A beautifully marked beast, but the minute I spotted a couple of them on the tips of my asparagus plants, I remembered reading about them and instinctively knew that these little beasts were the subject of my reading. Reading up, though, they don't seem too difficult to manage (famous last words). Squashing adults and larvae seems to be the best way to keep them at bay, plus burning the stems at the end of the year, and with them the overwintering larvae.

I found out about them here...

Granny Elvis??
Chick of Elvis finally got what she wanted today, a couple of eggs to sit on. When I opened her hatch, she raised her bum feathers as is her wont, even though she's been sat for several days on no eggs at all. When I put two eggs under her (only the large ones, so that the offspring hopefully lay large eggs too) she made the most contented clucking sound. She can have any we can spare for the next couple of days. I really hope she stays on them and hatches them successfully. The sight of a mother hen leading her chicks around is something we have not yet had on the farm (Except when Elvis had Chick of Elvis, but that was only one chick.) Funny to think, Elvis will be a doubly surrogate grandmother.

Friday, 25 May 2012

One, Two, Three....Seven

Friday 25th May 2012
Hot, Hot, Hot.

Someone obviously got out of the wrong side of the perch this morning! Two of the teenagers suddenly started to behave all grown up, squaring off against each other and even jumping up in the air, claws stretched ahead.

Onto important matters. I left you all on tenterhooks about the piglets. This was a deliberate ploy to increase my viewing figures, learned from the likes of Big Cat Diary and Planet Earth Live.

To tell the truth, I wasn't really all that worried. The great escape was probably accidental, borne through inquisitiveness and an inability to find the way back in. Mind you, I still hear tales of the piglet lost by the previous owners which was finally shot after wandering the countryside for nine months!

All still present and correct, mum and piglets very happy to be together. Today was a real scorcher, which was great news. It meant that the pig family spent almost the entire day in the shade of their ark, leaving me free to turn off the leccy fence and do what needed to be done.

The bottom wire of the fence needed to be dropped one notch to piglet height, but this made even more necessary the job of trimming the grass under the wire.

In theory, the battery to start the strimmer had been charged and it should be all systems go, so when I just got a slight whirr instead of a chugging engine and a whizzing strimmer, my heart sank.  

More machine problems. Just then though, a cough and a splutter (the strimmer, not me) and it stuttered into action after its winter break.

We quickly made friends and a couple of hours later it was job done.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Great Escape.

Thursday 24th May 2012
The sun tries to break through on a misty May morning.

No wonder some of the eggs are getting cracked - why do they all have to try to get in the same nest box?

Meanwhile, just look how big the teenagers have got!

The animals get through a lot more water in this weather and for the first time this year I had to use the hosepipe (it is allowed for this!) as most of the collected water has been used up. Trouble with a hosepipe is that piglets just can not resist playing with it!

As the temperature climbed into the 70's and the sun beat down, the piglets made their first ever wallow.

The return of Mr Mow-tivator
At 11:30 today this arrived back...Mr Mow-tivator.

By 8:30 this evening, I'd achieved this...
Perfect pathways in the potager

One hundred trees mulched with the accumulated clippings of the day - a convenient way to dispose of a mountain of grass cuttings, and a friendly way of protecting the saplings from weed competition without using nasty chemicals.

The Great Escape.
One more job before I could put my feet up and relax. The nightly round up of G'nea G'nea. Sue was at her community choir tonight, so the job was infinitely more tricky.

But not as big a problem as what was still to come, for I heard the familiar click-squeal sequence of a piglet encountering an electric fence. Problem was, all my piglets were kept in with wooden fence and stock fence. Only Daisy was hemmed in by an invisible force field ... until now.

Two of the piglets were in with her, and three more were outside all the fencing!! Thank goodness all that was on their minds was getting back in with their brothers and sisters or their mum. Two braved pushing under the electric fence to reach the safety of mum, but not before they got a bit of a shock! The last one, I showed through the secret gate at the back of the pig pen. I had been thinking about reuniting the piglets with Daisy, but not before I'd strimmed the grass and lowered the electric fence. Oh well. In the fading light I took down the partition and allowed the last two piglets through. Daisy was very excited to see them all, though I think she's forgotten that she had ten before. Let's hope they're all still there in the morning.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012


Wednesday 23rd May 2012
Another warm, muggy day.

This is the second year of our asparagus bed and I'm being ever so good and resisting temptation, letting the plants establish for another year before we start harvesting. If only someone would tell that to the slugs!
So much for mulching the asparagus with hay. The garden's entire slug population has moved into this deliciously dark, damp microclimate, with a choice of asparagus restaurants just a short slug slide away. So I've un-mulched it.

I did take a nice close-up shot, but it was out of focus, even with my glasses on. Still getting used to using the DSLR again - the compact has to be sent back to Hong Kong for repair, so goodness knows when we'll see that again - one disadvantage of international internet purchases.


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