It doesn’t matter how many forecasts are pored over, the weather here is fickle, so rising early last Thursday, the date of our first pop up open garden open day of 2020, the desire to draw the curtains and peer outside was even more acute than usual.
And it doesn’t matter how the previous day had started, or what one thought might be there, I find it impossible to predict. But a scene of thick fog, with a hint of first light colour was a real bonus, probably indicating minimal wind.
A light frost had etched surfaces and after breakfast the first task was to feed the sheep in the lower meadow. There’s a simple pleasure in pitchforking last year’s still green loose hay forward from the rear of the hay shed, to a point where the ewes can self feed from behind a couple of hurdles, smelling summer’s sunshine even with the tight mask I always wear for this, as clouds of dust get filtered by shafts of bright light, slanting in beneath the sloping metal sheeted roof.
The ewes’ tearing and grinding makes a great satisfied soundtrack to this morning task. On the way back up the hill, still frost white and crisp, I paused to check the beehive and (rashly as it turns out) opted to slightly increase the opening width at the entrance. I found a couple of bees, dead at the hive threshold, with orange pollen burdens and reckon they probably didn’t make it back in time, and perished in the cold. However I figured they’d be good props to show our garden visitors to stress the merits of having garden plants with pollen and nectar available this early in the year, for those rare occasions when the bees can fly. The fact that the bees are collecting pollen already also indicates (probably!) that the queen is still alive, and has also (probably) begun to lay eggs again to boost worker numbers ready for spring.
So back at the house, I put the bees on a plate, took a photo and moved them inside. There’s always a bit of last minute preparatory work for a garden opening – a final walk round our numbered route, a last minute trim of branches, and cutting some flowers for our two table top bowls which I’d brought inside and cleaned the night before with ice likely.
For the first year, Rhododendron “Christmas Cheer” which we’d bought as a scrappy cutting many years ago from a garden in Devon, has beaten R. cilpinense to have the first blooms, so a few of these got picked, along with the ever variable Helleborus hybrids, which are another early honeybee food stop flower.
The yellow signs were already out at the end of the track, so we were ready to receive our guests, and Fiona even had help with teas thanks to the very kind offer from Elena who is one of the local county organisers for the National Garden Scheme (NGS), and lives nearby.
For those readers who don’t know, the NGS has a long history of raising funds through private gardens opening to the general public, and the monies raised get split amongst a number of worthy causes… Click here for more. This year we’ve seen first hand the difference that great nursing care provided by Macmillan and Marie Curie nurses has made in allowing our dear friend and near neighbour Dave Bevan to spend his last days at home in comfortable familiar surroundings with the Marie Curie nurses providing Avril with wonderful support and occasional night time respite as Dave has weakened. That this is available at relatively short notice, in such a rural area, is a fantastic service and one worthy of support.
In the end, with an ever increasing email list of potential visitors, along with a blog post notification, we reached our modest maximum target for visitors on this occasion. The garden didn’t suffer and everyone seemed to enjoy their visit and tea and cakes afterwards.
The star plant was undoubtedly the several Daphne bholua in full fragrant bloom, and I do hope that the several small potted plants that headed off in different directions at the end of the visit thrive and thicket up over time, and provide as much enjoyment as they’ve given us over the years.
Just before the first visitors had arrived I noticed that the two “dead” bees had moved further apart on the plate. Close inspection showed them both to be moving. In spite of warming up, and a little sugar solution to try to aid a recovery, they never achieved normal mobility and I returned them to the hive later in the day, more in hope than expectation, where I found another half a dozen similarly collapsed, and pollen laden, below. (By the way, what are the little white mouse type droppings next to the top left bee, and what do they indicate? Has an animal been clearing up bee carcases outside, or even entering the hive and eating some honey/wax?)
Are the dead bees a sign of a significant issue, or merely workers near the end of their lives who’d been making the most of a rare calm spring day? Could they sense that this might have been the last time in a while that they could forage, with Storm Ciara about to bear down, so they’d better stock up? The three photos below are from 2 and 3 days later…
Honey bees can detect barometric pressure changes, and hence probably will be aware of a dramatic change in the weather ahead of it arriving. Click here for more. In addition, it’s been shown (albeit in a different climate and time of year), that honeybees constantly monitor the weather at the hive entrance, and can adjust foraging activity as quickly as within a minute should sunshine and temperature levels change, and will also fly later in the day if clues to an imminent deterioration in the weather is detected. Click here for more.
I’ve been really excited by reading another book about honeybees recently. “Honeybee Democracy”, by Thomas Seeley. Many thanks to Tony, my local bee mentor for loaning me this. It’s so interesting that I shall buy my own copy to re-read.
Seeley begins one chapter thus:
Anyone who has the immense good fortune of watching a honeybee colony cast a swarm will be treated to many astonishing displays of animal behaviour.
(Or at least you will if you know what to look for! I wish I’d been able to read his book last winter, though frankly the amazing experience of watching, and hearing the swarm leave the hive will remain with me forever).
That I witnessed a swarm last year, in my first full year of “keeping” bees was a huge fluke. (Click here, for my description and other video clips of my swarm experience, and the collection of two others).
I’m including an edited, but very well written review by Phillipine Reimpell from an LSE blog, as a summary of “Honeybee Democracy”. Click here for more.
Before reading this, bear in mind that most conventional beekeepers actively strive to prevent honeybees from swarming, although this is the bees’ natural approach to survival, expansion and colonisation. As with the reviewer, I found Seeley’s comparisons between a swarm’s apparent intelligence and methods of decision making in comparison with how the human brain, or indeed human society, makes decisions to be very thought provoking…
Cornell University Professor Thomas D. Seeley opens Honeybee Democracy with a passionate overview of exactly how inspirationally democratic these insects are. For bees, the quality of their home is linked to their survival, thus they are genetically programmed to recognize nest sites best suited to the swarm’s needs. Prospective homes in the vicinity of the mother colony are surveyed by up to 300 ‘scout bees’, who then perform the famous waggle-dance (on the clustered swarm’s surface: sic) to report the distance, direction and quality of the sites to their fellow workers. Scout bees are programmed to stop dancing after a determined period of time regardless of the quality of their proposal and the level of support, (though by now having interested other scouts to check out “their” site too, and report back independently) ensuring that the best site is chosen and avoiding the equilibrium of support being tipped towards a mediocre choice that entered the race early.
Seeley invites us to think of a swarm of bees as a single organism rather than as tens of thousands of individual bees. He draws an analogy between neurons in the human brain and individual bees, comparing the basic decision-making process in primate brains with that of an entire swarm. Working as a swarm allows the bees to exceed their individual capacity to gather and process a wide range of information.
Bees are not infallible however …. and the deliberation process only includes those bees who have been actively involved in the house-hunting process, which is a mere 3% of the swarm population. It is perhaps appropriate to consider the scout bees as a highly informed elite, who have not been democratically elected but who make decisions for the entire swarm. For bees, this may not lead to problems of representation as there really is just one common public good: (finding a good new home quickly and so) not dying and succeeding in passing on genes.
But rather than getting caught up in the details about the analogy between social and natural behaviour one cannot help but be inspired by the beauty of Seeley’s hypothesis-driven experimental work. The book is beautifully presented with illustrations, photographs, charts and anecdotes, and succeeds in making a whole field (of complex investigation and theory) accessible to the non-specialist.
A part of the specific and vital behaviour of honeybees in their swarming period is related to inter-bee physical contact – squeezing (and piping sounds) and also Schwirrlauf – the German descriptive term used by the first scientist, Martin Lindauer, to describe this behaviour. Or “buzz-running”, (in translation), of excited scouts charging over the swarm surface, and even through its mass, to let all the bees know that the new home has been chosen; they’ll soon have to take flight again to reach it; and so they all need to warm their bodies up to the 35 degrees C necessary to be able to fly, and get ready for synchronised take off. PDQ!
I’ve long been interested by how touch is a poorly ranked sense in most of human life, so was interested to hear of a new citizen science research project hosted by Goldsmith’s college, BBC radio 4, and the Wellcome Foundation. Click here for the touch test. Designed as a quite lengthy questionnaire, it may interest any readers of this post who are also keen to contribute a little more to what is known about attitudes to touch in contemporary society…
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.
(Lines of a part verse ex “Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen”).
In contrast, music (and sounds) are a much more highly regarded sensory input for most people. For me particularly, having consciously abandoned TV years ago, music has been a major form of relaxation and enjoyment. A CD collection has grown, and with the digital age, I succumbed to the chance to digitise this for easier access on occasion, using a Brennan hard disc player.
Just before Christmas I was seduced by the adverts for a new mini version, the Baby Brennan – lower power consumption, readily portable and with a simple display, it means I can now take most of our music when we stay away from home, in a simple and easily accessible format, for this technophobe. Great if I need to switch off my mind with something familiar.
When our dear friend Dave finally made it home to the peace and quiet of his own sitting room after a tough two weeks in the noise and bustle of a windowless hospital ward, I wondered if he might appreciate some easily accessible music as an occasional option to TV or talk, since by now he was pretty much bed bound. I’d never seen any CD’s, albums or Hi Fi around the house – Dave probably never had much free time to listen!
I mentioned the idea to Avril, and took the baby Brennan up and left it for them to play with. Avril quickly managed to find a couple of Johnny Cash albums which had been uploaded, and were apparently Dave’s favourite type of music. I hope that they did indeed bring some happiness or enjoyment in his last days.
Dave was fading fast, and Avril had already returned the BB to us. After coming inside from taking these photos, chilly as I sometimes make such forays in nightshirt and long johns, the phone rang, with the news that Dave had just died. We jumped in the car and I dropped Fiona off, before returning home.
Escaping the scene.
A hopeless useless soul at such times.
Back home, I sat and ate my egg. Hard boiled.
For a moment I nearly turned the radio on, but knew I didn’t want news, politics, or discussion about some trivia at a time like this. I pressed the BB’s button and quickly scrolled through the albums, searching solace.
An unfamiliar title popped up : “A Day Without Rain”. By Enya.
Such is my memory I had no recollection of buying this CD, or indeed what the tracks would be, but felt the mood would probably match the occasion, so pressed the knob to play.
The first instrumental piece was the wordless title track.
The second, more melancholic had me straining across the room to see the displayed title. And the English translation of the unfamiliar Gaelic words.
Deora are mo chroi go – “Tears In My Heart”.
What spirit moved these lines?
What unknown stories?
Hidden thoughts behind these words and drifting melodies…
The third track followed, familiar.
An inspiration for me in observing and trying to photograph nature; an encyclopaedic font of knowledge of all things relating to the natural world; a fellow pioneering energy generation and conservation fan; a moral support in tricky times and supremely courteous and humble devil’s advocate; an inveterate and hard working DIY- er, the designer of the “baby Bevan manual baler” which has featured in these pages; and the most honest and decent chap I’ve known over many years.
Thanks for all the happy memories, Dave.