A Day Without Rain; Tears in my Heart.

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.

Undoubtedly the chance to raise funds through our garden opening to support Marie Curie will from now on be an even greater spur to us to try to keep opening the garden whilst we can.

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.

This perfect early February day ended with no rain and cloudless skies.


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!

Not really “touching”, but certainly physical contact which conveys a message to those “touched” or physically moved by it. In a pre-programmed way, as far as the bees are concerned.

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 learned to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.

(Lines of a part verse ex “Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen”).


Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?

(First lines of first 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.

The morning after the stunning pop-up opening – that rain free day, a weather change was on the way.

No mists, and the wind was stirring, clouds piling in from the West. A moody sunrise.

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.

“Fallen Embers”

This post is in memory of Dave Bevan, a great friend. Seen here, typically, in combat trousers for a post haymaking communal pizza.

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.



14 thoughts on “A Day Without Rain; Tears in my Heart.

  1. A beautiful tribute to your friend, Dave.
    Any post that has lines from“Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen”- is a hit with me! Looks like the weather gods were with you for your open day- the photos say it all…amazing.

    • Thanks Marianne,
      That we managed such a lovely day for opening was really great.
      That we’ve had the unbelievable good fortune to have lived just an up hill mile and a half from Dave for all our time here (permanently) has been one of life’s real blessings, and one we’re thinking about even more now.
      Leonard Cohen’s lyrics can usually be relied upon to find some appropriate pithy texts at time like this…
      best wishes

  2. It was an amazing day in your garden and I felt privileged to see it in all its early Spring glory. Can’t wait for the next one and Fiona’s bara brith was fabulous. Planted by beautiful Daphne and snowdrops and even with the storm, they are looking happy 🤞. A lovely tribute to your friend Dave and another interesting read. Thank you both.

    • Thanks Sue, both for commenting in such a generous way, and indeed for coming – apart from the lovely weather, it’s nearly always the visitors who make such days special for us – living where we do, sometimes we see no one for a week or more (apart from delivery drivers!). This time the numbers were almost ideal from our point of view, in that we had a great chance to chat to nearly everyone.
      Fingers crossed indeed for the plants – at least you won’t have to worry about watering them in for the time being ….
      best wishes

  3. That is impressive for ‘Christmas Cheer’. We grew it because so many clients wanted it. However, it did not bloom so well for us. It certainly tried. After the first florets opened, the others were stunted or damaged by the weather, which is weird in our very mild climate.

    • Thanks Tony, and an interesting comment – it’s taken a long time to get going, and I was reading that much to my surprise, apparently it used to be “forced” under cover in the past to get flowers out for Christmas. This is certainly the earliest it’s managed, gradually creeping forwards in flowering time, ‘cos of warming winters, I guess.
      I wonder whether the lower humidity (?) over with you might affect the flowers in some way? But as Dave would have added- “It’s just a thought – I’m probably wrong…”
      best wishes

      • Wrong? My colleague’s colleague who provided us with many of the cultivars of rhododendron we used grow thought that the flowers might be more susceptible to rot and damage from rain because of the minimal humidity when there was no rain. They were adapted to dry air, so did not like when the weather suddenly became damp . . . and then dry again. I never investigated. It does seem to be a common theme here, with several flowers that perform better where the weather is more humid. However, many tropical flowers, which should prefer humidity even more, happen to perform quite will here (although some need protection from frost here).
        Many rhododendrons are forced to produce exemplary florist quality bloom. Like azeleas, there are a few cultivars that were developed as ‘florist’ cultivars. They work very well for forcing and blooming once, but may not perform so well in gardens. Some of the ‘landscape’ cultivars that we grow are forced too. They take a while to recover, but eventually resume grown as if nothing happened.

      • Actually, some of the landscape stock rhodoendrons are forced to bloom as unnaturally compact plants. We used to pinch ours to make them more compact; but other growers use growth regulators. The resulting product is spectacular, with very profuse bloom, but gives the consumers unrealistic expectations of what they should look like the following year. Also, recovery from the process is a bit of a challenge.

      • Thanks Tony….I can understand pinching back…but growth regulators to create mass blooms?? I think it’s all in danger of straying into questionable commercial practice and conning punters, but hey if Apple can send out a software ” upgrade” to slow old mobile phones down, and VW can fiddle emissions, then it’s just another example of all is fair in business – if you can get away with it. A bit like injecting blue, etc. dyes into moth orchids over here – 12 weeks of a blue flower and next year it’ll be white – but punters must buy them, I guess, or the companies wouldn’t do it.
        I just gave the first showing of my new talk trying to bring aspects of garden making and how nature “does” natural plant and thus create vastly more holistic diverse real communities and ecosystems, by focusing on traditional wildflower hay meadows and contrasting them with the very usual gardener ( including us until a few years back) approach of buy a plant, dig a hole and plonk it in, without thinking about how the plants will/would interact in a natural setting – all stimulated by the 40 plus species per square metre in an old hay meadow.
        Interestingly, although some understandably questioned my encouragement of some of our natives in our gardening areas, there was a huge amount of interest in the talk, and folk had to be turned away, so I do think probably a bit late in the day, (some) people are changing in their approach to such things.
        Best wishes from a rain drenched Wales!

      • That is exactly how it works. We refer to those who produce such ‘forced’ and ‘synthetic’ (no-longer) horticultural commodities as ‘pimps’. They produce what they can get away with selling, without regard for how such products perform in the future. What is worse is that it is all labeled as ‘sustainable’, because that buzz word sells. I do not limit my gardening to natives because there are not many useful native plants in the Santa Clara Valley. However, I do maintain certain standards. I grow the old traditional fruit trees that were brought to the orchards a very long time ago. No new cultivars are allowed. (I actually have nothing against the hybrids. I just have no use for them) I still prune in the conventional manner, even though no one knows how to do it anymore. It is insulting that there are more than a million people extremely horticulturally inept people living in a Valley that was once famous for orchard production.

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