Under the Weather; The Iron Mouse Mystery; Winter Bees; Conundra.

The weather has continued to be a dominant factor in life here over the last 4 weeks. Culminating this last week in what I can only describe as brutal conditions for several days.

However, to rewind, named storm Christoff, battered the UK on January 20th. We felt fortunate to escape with just under 100 mm of rain in 48 hours, and minimal wind damage. But the severity of the deluge confirmed to us just how vital our rain run off channels on our access track are, and how critical it is to clear them in advance of such rain. As it was, the only significant damage was an aged freezer in the cart house, which decided that water rushing beneath it, from a spring that emerged at the inside base of the cut-into-the-bank rear stone wall, wasn’t to its liking, and so shorted or blew up, leaving that horrible acrid, electrical disaster smell, lingering in the air.

We’d had good advance warning of the next weather change, just a few days later, with a predicted heavy snowfall on the 23/24th, and as if to confirm this, I’d been very fortunate to glimpse an unusual lunar halo event in the early evening of Friday 23rd. I can only recall seeing such a lunar halo once before, and managing to film it with my camcorder back in 2010, but it’s an instantly recognisable phenomenon, which I still don’t fully understand. Maybe I’m not alone, the Wikipedia page on lunar haloes suggests that the detail of the physics is still debated.

The moon appears to sit at the centre of a precise circular black hole, which is evidently always of about 22 degrees (of the 360 degree circle of vision) diameter. Equivalent to a radius of roughly the width of a hand held outstretched in front of you. Surrounding this central black circle, is a slightly lighter or brighter grey halo, before the night sky diffuses into even paler grey. I’ve followed up again on explanations of this natural phenomenon, which can’t be predicted in advance like eclipses, and are essentially specific to a particular place and time. Walking out 20 minutes later, and the effect had disappeared.

Simply, they are caused by light reflected off the moon passing through vast numbers of tiny hexagonal ice crystals which are usually located in thin cirrus or cirrostratus clouds about 5 to 10 km above the ground, in the upper troposphere. Light is both reflected and refracted by the ice crystals facets, which behave like prisms and mirrors, bending and sending light in particular directions. Because of the typically six-sided shape of the crystals, no light is refracted with less than a 22 degree deviation, and hence none emerges within the inner 22 degree zone around the moon, creating the perceived central black hole.

The best discussion of this I could find was on the “atmospheric optics” website, where there’s a small interactive diagram, which illustrates this critical point about light being bent as it passes through the tiny ice particles. Click here.

Since such cirrus like high altitude clouds often mark the arrival of a frontal weather system, the halo did indeed precede the arrival of significant snowfall. The four inches that fell persisted in the end for about 4 days, but always creates extra work for us at this time of the year. Like weeds in the garden, we tend to have a zero tolerance in the yard, upper track and cobbled paths around the house, trying to clear the majority as soon as the snow stops falling. Why bother you might ask? Well knowing now about the huge energy requirement for melting solid ice, we always dread any compression of snow turning into treacherous ice, which could then have further snowfall landing on top, and potentially persist for weeks, at this time of the year. In the end a much milder, grey murky day on January 28th saw the last of the snow dissipate, and in spite of the mizzle, honeybees from 4 of our hives were briefly active, and visiting snowdrops in the garden.

January ended as being the coldest start to the year since 2010, and the coldest month since the memorable March of 2013. In spite of all this, the rainfall came in at a significant 218.8 mm, which although some of the precipitation fell as snow, meant that lots of snowdrops were split and moved throughout the month. February began with another cold day and another light dusting of snow, and it was a huge relief in these still locked down days, to see some benign sunshine on February 3rd, which saw really significant honey bee activity around the garden. By now I was certain that only 3 of the hives had colonies of bees that were still alive. I mentioned last year that Professor Thomas Seeley’s wonderful research on wild honeybee colonies in the U.S.A. estimates that a maximum of about 1 in 6 swarms is likely to survive their first winter, so fingers crossed that at least one hive will still be active come spring here. As you’ll see shortly, this may prove to be optimistic this year.

Aside from the delight of seeing and hearing so many honeybees around the garden in the first week of February, albeit for only a couple of hours or so, this was the first year in which I felt that I was able to take some lovely photos of en masse snowdrops, which go a tiny way to capturing what the garden looks like in this first week of February. So, it’s only taken me about 27 years to reach this point! As I’ve mentioned before, but this year is turning into a classic illustration of why this is important, in most years, little if any viable snowdrop seed will be produced, because of inclement weather conditions at flowering time. Thus, to create the large drifts of snowdrops that everyone enjoys seeing, you really do have to take the time to lift and split clumps.

At this point I’m going to include, below, another small section from my snowdrop talk, which illustrates why I became fascinated by native snowdrop flowering, and their history and distribtion in the UK. If I hadn’t started this journey, I’d never have discovered the huge range of flowering times of local “native” snowdrops, which are so useful in a year like this. Many gardeners in Pembrokeshire will probably still be waiting for their flowers to emerge, after Valentine’s day – they have yet to do so here – so they’ve still got the potential to flower well, and maybe set seed too. And after years of nerdishly recording this phenology of cultivar flowering times, I feel I could pretty confidently suggest a range of snowdrop cultivars which are likely to be open within any given week of the year, from early December to early April.

 

  • My Historic Welsh Snowdrop hunt.
    I thought I’d mention this project of mine which I’ve been working on for the last few years, and the main reasons which made me begin to look at snowdrops in Wales.
    • Firstly, when we first moved down from Bristol in late winter – many of the naturalised Welsh snowdrops local to us were bigger and earlier than their Gloucestershire cousins. I wondered why? And I now realise I was very fortunate in this regard – if we’d moved to Pembrokeshire, most of theirs, flower weeks later, and aren’t as big! I probably wouldn’t have started to look at them in more detail.
    • Secondly, in spite of there being over 3,000 named snowdrop cultivars, until about 4 years ago there were no named forms with genuine Welsh provenance. By then we had snowdrops which originated from France, Ireland, Germany, Holland, England, Scotland. But not even nerdy galanthophiles knew of any with a Welsh origin. G. ‘Welshway’ is named after a garden of that name in England, and as we’ve seen the Welsh connection with G. ‘Mrs. Macnamara’ is a bit tenuous.
    • Then in 2017 Alan Street from Avon bulbs listed one described rather mysteriously as “from a hedge in Ceredigion” with an oddly placed petal “here and there” which he called G. ‘Welsh Whiskers’ and marketed (and sold out!) at £80 per bulb. I didn’t rush to buy one!
    • I found a very similar snowdrop at Picton Castle with Roddy Milne in a previous year, and left the few bulbs there and told him to keep a check on it – he might end up being able to have an exotic holiday on the back of it. But unfortunately, such aberrations usually aren’t reliable.
    • This year, I had a flower of G. rizehensis at home with 2 flowers on one stem.
    • In 2018, I’d gone one better and found a snowdrop at home with 3 flowers on one head. I came up with the perfect name for such a Welsh snowdrop – G. ‘Triple Crown’. But as we all know from the Welsh rugby team, just because it happened last year, doesn’t mean it’ll always happen – this year the same plant just produced 1 flower. So, watch out with freaky flowers.
    • Thirdly, when snowdrops arrived in Britain is unclear. They arrived at some point after the last ice sheet retreated from covering much of the UK, about 10,000 years ago.
    • As part of my project, one year I went to visit Strata florida in early March.
    • A hugely important early monastic and historical site in Wales, whose name roughly translates as ‘valley of flowers’, or ‘layers of flowers’.
    • Well I can tell you that there were absolutely no wildflowers of any kind, anywhere on or near the site when I went. I’ve visited other monastic sites from a similar era where there are lots of snowdrops. Why? (Actually, after one of my talks, an audience member concurred with this point and reckoned that the archaeologists had removed all traces of any flowering vegetation in their work over the years. Perhaps they should re-instate some?)
    • Fourthly, temperature and rainfall present big problems for any insect pollinators at snowdrop flowering time.
    • In our garden, early cultivars’ flowers often contain tiny flies, little larger than midges.
    • If you’re lucky enough to have a honey bee hive, then honeybees will visit open flowers, and collect the pollen and nectar. But at this time of the year, honeybees won’t be able to fly any distance at all.
  • About 60 yards up the hill from this hive, to the snowdrops below.
    • In the generally very mild January 2019, I only recorded a single honeybee visiting a snowdrop flower in the whole month, by the end of which we had nearly 220 different types of snowdrop flowers, ready to open if conditions had been favourable. January 2020 was slightly more benign early in the month, and then deteriorated.

  • • Finally, in our garden, overwintered bumblebee queens rarely emerge from hibernation much before the end of February. Too late for many early snowdrops, but even with masses of Galanthus nivalis flowers available, our bumblebee queens prefer to visit our Crocus flowers.
    • All this means that snowdrop colonies anywhere are discrete, almost ‘island‘ communities, rarely running from one property, or community to the next. I figured that these would have interesting genetic material.
    • Fifthly, much of Wales has, and had even more, castles, abbeys, historic houses, many of which were built before the early 1800’s. At this time the only species of snowdrop in the UK was the familiar single ‘native’ Galanthus nivalis, (although there are some herbal records of G. plicatus being present from the 1600/1700’s).
    • And also the ‘native’ double form, above, of G. nivalis flore pleno, (which was first recorded in the UK in 1703). So most of these old properties would have simply planted this form of snowdrop.
    • Other more exotic species like G. elwesii, above, were introduced much later towards the 1860’s/1870’s, particularly after the Crimean War, and would then have tended to hybridise, as they have in many English gardens.
    • So I decided to focus my project on sites with a known or probable history pre-1850.
    • Which might include chapels and churches, which again have sometimes fallen into disrepair, yet where the snowdrops hang on and survive.
    • My hunt has been going on for a few years now, thanks to the interest and generosity of many people. I try to photograph the snowdrops and collect a few samples of any different forms.
    • We now have snowdrops from over 65 locations.
    • And well over 100 visibly distinct snowdrop forms from these sites, which are growing in our garden, and are a living database of Welsh origin snowdrops.
    • To illustrate that all snowdrops aren’t the same!
    • In time I’d love to be able to persuade someone to DNA profile some of these old Welsh snowdrops, and if possible work out whether there are any common genealogies.
    • Some are a little different in flower or foliage form.
    • And there are really big variations in flowering time for many of these Welsh snowdrops.
    • And some seem more tolerant of severe cold.
    • Compared with many named cultivars.
    • But the most fascinating aspect of the project has been meeting the people, and hearing some of their stories about the places where they’re growing. The more I do this, the more I think that snowdrops thrive in very special, and usually very loved locations, even if the people who planted them, let alone the buildings, are long gone.
    • So it’s great that our much loved home, which had none when we arrived, now has plenty of snowdrops, many with real history attached, to cheer up whoever becomes the next stewards of this little bit of upland Carmarthenshire.
    • I’ll finish with this slide, and a wonderful traditional Welsh poem about snowdrops, with a sadly imperfect translation. Thanks for reading this small section, and I hope you’ve learned at least something new about snowdrops, and why they’ve been such a popular flower with lots of people for so many centuries. Plus, the really good thing is I’m almost at a time of the year when I can completely forget about them again for the next 6 months!

_____

Winter Bees

 

Despairing,

December’s days are drowning.

Gasping, lightless. Night’s flooding waves crash on, past dawn.

Creativity crumbles,

Till the tide turns.

 

The rats invade, now flushed from flooded burrows,

Frantic, rip the ram packed shale inside the cowshed door,

Seeking sanctuary, this Christmas, they excavate.

Darkness no safe cloaking cape,

From tawny taloned threat. But flee they must

Before the distant great conjunction kisses

Far flung planets on this darkest day.

Rocks sanity. Tests spirit, as spate, on spate

On spate rips stone from safe and hugging boulder clay.

Returns to light once more, from ancient cold dark slumber,

This ice scraped spoil from scouring sheets’ retreating

Melting moment, just ten thousand years ago.

 

Dreaming,

The Reverend sleeps, still. Unseen.

This unfamiliar tyre encompassed wet Welsh clod, so far away from Anglesey’s

Rich fenland flat Lode loam.

Long buried, stirs.

What pulls the trigger, hidden here from fleeting sun’s low glare.

The warming soil, or chilling rain? But now for Advent’s hopeful time,

His season’s come.

Or is that Hers?  Or both, for sure.

No splitting of the sexes, no gender biased power,

The pressure slowly builds, the sap’s begun to flow.

Such turgid turgor fit to split inflated tube,

It grows, and lengthening cells

Force tungsten tipped sheath wrapped protection

Of such longed-for candled hope.

Glimpsed, virginal, still fragile in the punctured soil speared green.

Come nightfall and the Reverend’s head is freed,

And cocked, hangs down.

For morning’s dawn.

And waits.

 

Foetally,

Clustered now, these last three weeks,

Deep inside the Swedish churn’s protective womb.

I cannot see.

What combs you’ve mouthed, what size the cells, or bracing brilliance,

Freed from ministered Victorian constraints,

And regimented. Framed. Precise bee space.

One hundred million years have tuned your fickle genome degradations,

Yet still you battle, strong with patrilineal mixed race,

That bleak entropic foe,

And win.

 

Feminity.

Presides, resides and rules,

Your fat filled female forms pressed close

In honeyed harmony.

Emasculated still, since August’s swift demonic dumped drone purge.

What flicks the switch for new year yearning?

That pulsing procreative urge.

Who conjures up those absent drones?

Those fighting queens?

The polished eyes and buzz filled skies?

Who maps those distant euphemistic congregation zones?

High above and bright, where valleys meet and fold,

Hold aerial orgy comet trails. Fleeting

Virginity, and fatal endophallic loss,

Their long predestined fate.

 

All this awaits.

Unknown.

Unsmelt.

Yet soon to be discovered.

 

 

Serenity.

While all outside, the silted muddy torrents rage

Inside, your balling female form still glows,

Still warm, still underworld deep dark.

The narrow portal to the other world, still open

But untravelled, save by the ruthlessly rejected dead.

The workers, femininely patient, wait.

Your egg stuffed majesty rests, sperm safe and stored,

Fecundity on hold.

The winter solstice passed, December’s richest scents have stirred.

The honey nectared snowdrops, the perfumed Daphne’s heaven scent,

Seductively, drifts past your black holed cleft.

Scouts sense the wane of winter’s woes

The hive’s hope blossoms.

The womb has pulsed.

Contracts.

 

Wishing.

Warmed.

The patient Reverend flares his surplice, welcome wide,

There is no sting, just bliss as

Eve and Adam both, are touched,

By winter bee’s cool kiss.

 

And still suspended, hanging by one taloned tarsal grip,

Limbs comb, with dextrous skill, an orange globe is formed,

The energy of new year hopes and dreams.

It might sustain her

Till the sun returns.

Till the gametes fuse.

Till the pod swells, bends

And yearns for burial.

 

December 22nd 2020

 

_________

 

Some readers may know that for a few years I’ve played a role in helping to run our local gardening club, Cothigardeners. After a couple of years as chair, the membership very generously contributed towards two small gifts by way of thank you. A copy of the excellent  “Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland” by Steven J Falk, together with a small iron resin mouse, crafted by Martin Duffy, one half of the hugely talented sculpture couple, click here, who are garden club members, Chelsea flower Show exhibitors, and also occasionally open their own garden for the N.G.S.

I’d thought carefully about where to site the mouse, and in the end opted to place it high on the planked front of the shepherd’s hut, hooked onto a secure screw, and well shielded from wind and rain by the overhanging roof sheets. There it stayed for a couple of years. At the end of 2020, I’d decided that for sanity and neck/back/computer screen issues, I would step back from running the club’s website, which I’d been doing for the 2 years since my role as chair.

I was intrigued to discover therefore, being keen on synchronicities, that after the first snowfall at the very beginning of January 2021, as I walked up to the shepherd’s hut, I noticed the mouse had disappeared. A quick hunt around and nearby the hut yielded nothing, so we waited for the snow to melt and then quartered the field in some detail, and again drew a blank. So the ‘Mystery of the Iron Mouse’ remains. Another conundrum.

Did a large bird, in a snowy landscape devoid of food make a snatch and grab and fly off with it, before dropping it in disgust? Or as a friend suggested, did it fall off, somehow, and was then picked up by a passing fox, which removed it to a safe hidden place, before again abandoning it? Or was a larger two-legged snatcher responsible? Very unlikely I think, given where we live.

We’ll never know, I guess. The only similar mystery I can recall is from our days in Bristol. Our veterinary clinic was an old corner shop, we’d converted in 1984, with narrow pavements on two sides, on a right angle with the entrance door at the corner. The roof was pantiles, with angled hips capped with half round clay ridge tiles. One day towards the end of my time there, I happened to glance up at the roof, and noticed that one of the ridge tiles had slipped from about half way up one of these hips and slid down to rest a little precariously against a low parapet wall upstanding, just above the perimeter roof gutter, and above the pavement. And exposing the old black, bedding-in mortar. There had been no recent gales or storms, to explain this slippage. I realised it needed fixing fairly promptly, and pencilled it in for our eldest son, as a little gap year job for him as a budding civil engineer, which meant I could avoid full scale scaffolding. But he was away for a month or so.

Imagine my surprise therefore to glance up again just a couple of weeks later to see that the tile had been replaced. I certainly hadn’t even imagined, or dreamed it, since the fresh mortar bedding it in, was plain to see.

But how? Or when, or why? To muddy the waters still more, although Bristol is known for its hot air ballooning fraternity, which was an initial thought for how the tile might have become dislodged in the first place, we’d been visited just a few weeks before, by a plain clothes policeman explaining that the police were staking out a potential drug dealing venue just across the road from the clinic. After the tile slip/replacement, I’d got the stepladder out and checked out the attic. There were no signs of any internal wires or damage. So, this remains one of my life’s little unexplained mysteries. Another conundrum. I’m welcome to any ideas from readers as to what actually happened. Or indeed what’s happened to the iron mouse!

_________

To jump back to the weather, the honeybees’ momentary pleasures in benign sunshine on February 3rd, were brief. A Met Office flagged, developing Madden-Julian event on the other side of the globe began to impact on our weather here, for the whole of last week. To quote from their very informative piece (“Multiple drivers create challenges for forecasting weather direction”), click here for more:

“The Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) is an eastward-moving phase of enhanced tropical rainfall that primarily affects the Indian and Pacific Oceans and occurs on weekly to monthly timescales. When rainfall is enhanced in the West Pacific, it has been shown to lead to weather patterns close to the UK that induce a greater chance of cold weather during winter. At the start of this week, the MJO moved into an active phase over the West Pacific. A strengthening high pressure block to the north of the UK during the next few days, helping to push the Atlantic storm track even further south and resulting in easterly winds, is consistent with what might be expected from this phase of the MJO.”

The end result as this played out this last week?

The lowest UK February temperatures since 1955 at Braemar on the night of February 10/11th. The Met Office chart shows just how unusual such low temperatures have been since 2010. I fear inevitable losses in the garden, since we had no protective blanket of snow for this latest freezing weather, and added to the low temperatures there was a really dramatic wind chill from a strong to gale force Easterly wind. Our sheep knew the best place to shelter, in spite of getting wet feet to reach the far bank of the stream.

The mole hills grew ice pillars.

The intrepid first few frogs which spawned on February 5th might have jumped the gun.

For most of the week the temperatures haven’t risen above freezing at all, so not the best time for our wood pellet boiler to play up, but at least we have secondary heating from a wood burning stove. And plenty of on site, well-seasoned wood to hand, though for how much longer we’ll be permitted to remove our brash through bonfires is debatable.

In our case, the residual ash and charcoal is always redistributed on the garden or land, but it seems plans are afoot in Wales to prevent this in future. So, I guess anyone brave enough to manage hedgerows, by periodically laying them in the traditional way, will be forced to pile the brush up and wait for years for it to decompose, or use hydrocarbon fuelled chippers to tackle it.

The amounts of brash generated from just a modest section of hedge are considerable. And it’s one of the few jobs I’ve been able to manage outside in these extreme conditions – after layering up with double goat socks, beanie and helmet and 5 upper layers of clothing, and still not working up a sweat.

Just 2 minutes outside without a coat has chilled to the bone, so I’m in awe of the late winter flowering bulbs, which as the rain has fallen all day yesterday, onto still frozen rock-hard ground, have bounced back and leaves and flowers have rehydrated. Some of the snowdrops, have now had flowers above ground for nearly 10 weeks, Crocus and Cyclamen coum for 6 weeks through multiple deluges, snow, frosts and dessicating winds. Imagine how a picked leaf of spinach or kale would fare. How extraordinarily resilient they are.

For most readers, this is probably a good place to stop and go and find something more uplifting. But if you’re inquisitive, plough on.

_________

As an early advance notice, should any regular blog readers be interested, I’m going to be having a go at a Zoom talk to members of our gardening club on Wednesday April 21st at 7.30 pm. This will be a free event. Since we’re allowed up to 100 attendees, and will only manage a fraction of that from club members, anyone interested could email us for an invite:

thegardenimpressionists@gmail.com

and Fiona ( who’s the brains behind setting these talks up), will add you to her list, and email you with more details nearer the time. Here’s a resume of what I’ll be talking about:

“Wildflowers, Meadows and Gardens –  challenging ideas for naturalistic gardening”

This really well illustrated talk (to stop you nodding off – hopefully!) will look at various aspects of wildflower hay meadows – their biodiversity, aesthetics, creation, ecology and management;and contrast this with currently trendy “pictorial” meadows. (For the Zoom event I’m reducing this aspect of the talk to keep the overall time down).

Finally, I’ll consider how we can learn from nature to develop more naturalistic and diverse plant based communities in our gardens. This section mainly focuses on our grass free multicultural meadow terrace garden, as an example: how it’s developed, is maintained and how it changes through the seasons.

This draws on a holistic approach to gardening which has been an area of interest and experience that I’ve been thinking about and working on for many years. In recent times these ideas have attracted more attention – even from the other side of the world (Claire Takacs, award winning international garden photographer, from Melbourne, visiting us for the second time in May 2019, below).

The talk will last for under an hour, and was first shown to a full house at Farmyard Nursery’s Winter Gardening Weekend in February 2020. There will be a chance for a few questions afterwards.

__________

Finally, snowdrop ‘Whelm’ is up and coping as well as any. Originating from a regularly flooded island in the River Teifi, as part of my WHSH, I’ve no way of knowing whether it was ever planted by previous owners of the estate, or the result of bulbs or seeds washed down from further upstream.

It’ll clearly be up to coping with most weather eventualities, but I’m not so sure about  homo sapiens, as I struggle to grapple with some dilemmas posed by the current Covid vaccines. Not currently available as intranasal options, though these are being actively worked on, which would seem to me to be the best route of administration to optimise local mucosal immunity and minimise side effect risks.

I had to dig around a bit to discover that the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine which I’ll probably be offered, when I get the letter in the next few weeks, has been produced using a vector virus extracted from chimpanzee dung, which is then grown in the lab using a human embryo kidney cell derived culture line dating way back to the 1970’s. (HEK 293 cells, click here for more.)

This cell culture line was first developed by a Dutch researcher, from an aborted (probably ? legally), human foetus. (Was permission granted, presumably by the mother on behalf of her foetus, for sample cells to be harvested and used in this way? It’s unrecorded, so you can muse on that. Does it matter?)

The cells from that single human foetus, (assumed to be female owing to specific X chromosome features) were “transfected”, a new word for me, with “sheared DNA from an adenovirus”.

Transfection seems to be defined thus: Transfection is the process of deliberately introducing naked or purified nucleic acids into eukaryotic cells. Transfection of animal cells typically involves opening transient pores or “holes” in the cell membrane to allow the uptake of material. Transfection can be carried out using calcium phosphate (i.e. tricalcium phosphate), by electroporation, by cell squeezing or by mixing a cationic lipid with the material, to produce liposomes that fuse with the cell membrane and deposit their cargo inside. Transfection can result in unexpected morphologies and abnormalities in target cells.

These “transfected” HEK 293 cells, which therefore have both human and viral origins, have been grown in lab culture, continuously, over the intervening, nearly 50 years. (Come to think of it, this line of cells would have been grown continuously for several years, before I’d plucked up courage to ring and contribute to a live Michael Buerk chaired radio 4 programme, centred around voluntary euthanasia. I wanted to make the point that society, back then in the eighties, seemed to have an irrational divergence between the legal view on the sanctity of human life at its end, when compared with what was permissible at its very beginning, specifically with regard to attitudes to abortion. Mr. Buerk just wanted to get me to talk about my experiences of euthanasia in animals. I didn’t play ball).

Back to the vaccine production. A section of Covid 19 viral genome messenger RNA, (mRNA) which is responsible for coding for the manufacture of the viral spike protein (or at least the spike protein of the variant which was around at the time the vaccine was developed), has then been inserted into the chimpanzee adenovirus vector. So that once this adenovirus vector with its Covid mRNA gains access to human cells, post jab, the human cells will begin to manufacture the spike protein themselves, and this will then elicit the human immune system to recognise this “spike” protein as foreign, and mount an immune response to it. I’m not entirely clear whether the adenovirus will grow in all human cells, those of just certain organs, or maybe just those of the immune system. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but I do like to try to understand how things are working!

The vaccine understandably has to be filtered to remove any traces of the human foetal cells from it, before it’s packaged for use. Another interesting small point with the AstraZeneca vaccine is that, unlike all the small animal vaccines which I used to administer, it’s not produced in single dose vials, rather in 10 dose multi-access vials. Presumably as a cost saving strategy for mass vaccination events. But introducing a small element of potential risk which is a little surprising (for overdose, or contamination).

I think it’s worth any reader reflecting on this approach to getting our bodies to develop an immune response, and comparing it with, say, one of the frontrunners in the intranasal vaccine approach, which is apparently currently undergoing phase one clinical trials in the UK. The vaccine uses an attenuated, i.e. weakened, whole Covid 19 virus particle. Which makes it much more like the old school vaccines I’m familiar with from all my years as a vet, and am more conceptually comfortable with. The best review article I could find, for any of the few readers who might be interested, can be accessed here.

This is written by a scientist working for an American biosciences company, but seems like a wide ranging assessment of the topic. For anyone wanting to find out more about the currently offered UK vaccines, there is the official University of Oxford webpage on this subject, which I read fully to extract the information above. This also lists the common side effects noticed with the vaccine’s use, though you need to click on the separate UK government link embedded in this article to discover much more detail on all of these side effects or adverse reactions, and how often they have been reported. In particular, right at the end of the list, which takes into account data received up to the end of January, comes this short piece:

Very rare events (defined as less than 1 in 10,000 – sic) of neuroinflammatory disorders have been reported following vaccination with COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca. A causal relationship has not been established.”

Mmmmm.

I’m finding the decision making around this really tricky. And please excuse me airing my thoughts in public here, but for a long time our Prime Minister, who has had the extremely unenviable task of trying to map a route through this terrible time, has couched the fight against Covid 19 as a battle, a war, and much media coverage follows suit. We’re exhorted to step up and play our part as an almost moral duty as a citizen. Yet some may feel that the war analogy isn’t a good one.

I wonder what the consensus of analysis of government decisions made during 1914 were, say, 5 years down the line? I do think we should be in possession of many relevant pieces of information, and should also be aware that after the ‘Pandemrix’ flu vaccine and here, administered in 2009/10, it took about this length of time for significant issues with adverse reactions to be brought to light, and play out.Interestingly, just this morning (15/02/2021), comes the news that in a survey of vaccine uptake so far in the University Hospitals of Leicester Healthcare Trusts, only 57% of doctors have taken up the opportunity to have the vaccine. The lowest rate of any of the trust’s categories of employees – the uptake was much higher amongst non-frontline, administrative staff. For whatever multifactorial reasons, an odd outcome, perhaps?

Or just another conundrum, to chew over.

22 thoughts on “Under the Weather; The Iron Mouse Mystery; Winter Bees; Conundra.

  1. Ah, you got the snow. And ohh the snow drops! 😊 Beautifully photographed as always. We get very little snow here in our hotspot (lol). I know I posted recently with snow in the picture and the last few days have been so bitterly cold, but due to circumstances, I have not had the opportunity to go out and record the changing sounds of the landscape. I love those wildflower meadows too – colour to look forward to. We need more of those everywhere.

    • Hello Alastair, thanks for that. Well if you do choose to live on the Welsh riviera, I guess snow hits less often! Maybe I’m just getting old, but I can’t remember many days as bitter as 2 or 3 last week. It took a good 36 hours, even after 35 mm of rain, for the ground to thaw out. but the snowdrops are amazing at their ability to recover from such a pasting. I’m really yearning for a bit of warmth, sunshine and the first bumblebees, the first meadow flowers will follow soon after. It’s been a long haul this winter, hasn’t it?
      Best wishes
      Julian

  2. Your work on the Welsh snowdrops is very interesting. We have very few, if any, established/naturalised plantings of snowdrops here in the south of Ireland. There are some in the midlands which would coincide with historic “plantations.”

    • Hello Paddy,
      Thanks for that which is really interesting – another part of my snowdrop talk, which I might even upload next time, is a discussion on when snowdrops arrived, and from where, and I’ve often wondered about historic Irish links with West Wales – for example, there’s a small Pembrokeshire coastal hamlet called Moylegrove, with strong Irish connections with lots of very late snowdrops. I’d always assumed that snowdrops would be fairly widespread and “naturalised” in Ireland, in the way that they are in pockets around here so it’s fascinating to hear from you that there are so few in the South of Ireland. One thing I’ve speculated on is that around the West coast of Wales, most of the tiny deep cut valleys leading to the sea, which nearly all had mills on them historically, tend to have good “wild” snowdrop populations, often running right down to the sea – I wondered if these originated from millers planting them, for some reason now lost in the mists of time. This is where I reckon some sort of DNA genealogy tracing would be fascinating, to see if they could be tracked to a few, or multiple, points of origin.
      Best wishes
      Julian

      • Snowdrops in graveyards would be considered a “Protestant” thing here in Ireland, a practice of the settlers but not of the native Irish.

      • Actually Paddy, that’s an interesting thought as well – which plays in my ideas about the whole focus around Gerard’s herbal, around the time of the reformation in Britain and his use of “byzantine flowering violet ” versus candlemass bells, or any such religious based names. I’ll definitely include my myth and murk section next post, and better make that snappy before we all forget about them for another year!
        best wishes
        Julian

  3. My word or should I say…your words…as usual your post is full of interest and facts! Best of all for me are the wonderful photos of your blankets of snowdrops and the summer meadows filled with flowers. The crocus peering out from the snow is my favourite photo! Every post should have a mystery and it’s intriguing to know if they can be solved…maybe continued in the next post! Love the Winter Bees poem and hopefully your bees will come through the winter! Our bees under our tiles have survived!!! I have seen them on a wallflower that has surprisingly flowered! A heron visited our pond last week just in time for the frog spawn maybe that’s what your heron was heading for too. I’ll email you about the zoom…very interested. I’m putting my trust in the scientists and hope that everyone stays safe and well for years to come after receiving the vaccine…fingers crossed! Thanks again Julian for a thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read. Best wishes.

    • Hello Marianne,
      Thanks for that and well done if you made it to the end! Actually the Crocus was one of my favourites too, rare to get them so deep in the snow, yet still immaculate. Nearly left my winter bees poem out, so glad you enjotyed it – it’s taken me a long time to write a poem about bees, and just as well I did, since I fear they might all have copped it this last week, it was just so arctic here. Trust your bees to still be OK though – I guess they’re nice and snug whatever the weather is outside! My problem is, like I suspect a fair few doctors, is I’m ultra cautious – it’s what most of our families tell me! Most people don’t want to go into things in too much detail and trust the professionals – they just get on and have the jab, and nearly everyone will of course be fine, but hey ho, at least I’m sure things are going the right way now, with winter nearly behind us.
      Best wishes to you both, and I do hope I can do a shorter one next time!
      Julian

      • Really sorry to hear about your bees…plenty here! A writer should always write what they want to whatever the length! All your readers will enjoy it and find plenty of interest whatever you post. Much warmer today…and of course wetter!

  4. So many interesting topics. I loved the photographs of your snowdrops. It is interesting that your bees are out at cold temperatures, especially if their are flowers around. Could we presume that, before man mended with all, bees overwintered where there were early flowers to support them as the year turned? What is the gene that allows the differentiation between the different snowdrop varieties? Amelia

    • Hello Amelia,
      Thanks for the comment and interesting about where bees would have tended to live before man came on the scene – You may well be right, one of the honey show lectures I watched was on beekeeping in Canada, where the bees’ forage season is unbelievably short, and the hives are often kept in special overwintering sheds stacked maybe 10 hives tall one on top of the other to keep them warm. There’s a chap in Northumberland who reckons to have bred over many years his own strain of native bees, which never get fed, or treated in any way, and every year he destroys the weakest colony. But the conditions we’ve just endured will be a real test – I fear that all of ours might have succumbed it was just so cold. Re the gene which allows snowdrop differentiation, I’m afraid I don’t know. I keep hoping I might get some bright young Phd student interested in this, but I fear that it’s a bit esoteric and with minimal potential for any applied benefits, so will probably just never get done. But it does surprise me that within an albeit short time frame of 5 years or so, there’s no real drift in flowering times when you move a cultivar from say sea level and climate, to 800 feet up, and perishing. I’m still uncertain what sets the flower emergence clock ticking,
      best wishes
      Julian

  5. When you quote the following: “Very rare events (defined as less than 1 in 10,000 – sic) of neuroinflammatory disorders have been reported following vaccination with COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca. A causal relationship has not been established.”

    Are you saying that more than 1 person in a 10,000 may suffer neuroinflammatory disorders or are you saying up to 1 person in 10,000 may suffer? I read the guidance on frequencies of occurrence of adverse reactions as the latter.

    • Hello Mark,
      Maybe the quote – which is included exactly as was written on the official government report – isn’t as clear as it could be, (or perhaps also what the “neuroinflammatory disorders” might actually be), but I think it should be read as, (as I’ve included from their official definition of what constitutes a “very rare ” event) less than 1 in 10,000 people will experience an event like this. So by their definitions that could be taken as meaning, at worst, 99 people per 1 million, or anything less than that – say only just 2 or 3 per million. I have no way of knowing, or saying which of these very different levels is more accurate and to be fair to them, neither will they at this stage. Clearly they must have had at least one or two of these events reported already to record it at this stage, but at this level, only time will tell how low, or high, the eventual figures might be. This is indeed a very low level, and is probably viewed as an acceptably low level of risk by most people. Though as with most adverse reactions, perhaps not viewed in the same way if one were unfortunate to suffer from it, and if the changes were of a permanent nature, which again probably won’t be evident for quite some time, I guess.
      Best wishes
      Julian

  6. Sorry to hear you are so concerned about the vaccine, Julian. It must create a dilemma for you. Can I correct one fact that you quote, the 57% uptake of the vaccine by doctors at Leicester. If you read this article: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/14/vaccine-rollout-caution-some-health-workers-england the figure is much more nuanced than you suggest and the picture becomes clearer if you read this: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/16/why-some-junior-doctors-havent-had-a-covid-vaccine The second article shows that it is overwork that prevents doctors having the vaccine, NOT a hesticancy about safety

    By the way I had my first dose of the AZ vaccine on Monday. I experienced most of the side effects listed but they passed within about 48h..

    • Hello Philip,
      Thanks for the comments and links to other published articles. Not really a dilemma, just aware that I’m out on a limb on this, but that’s nothing unusual.
      I’m very aware that I have my own curious, and probably irrational take on risk analysis – I was quite happy to wield the chainsaw a few days back and after 10 minutes assessing a really tricky tree in the middle of a hedge I’m re-laying, still couldn’t determine which way to take it/it was likely to want to go. Plus being inside the double fencing made planning an escape route should I have made the wrong judgement, almost impossible. So I cut my gob and slowly made the opposite big cut. In the end it began to teeter the unplanned way. (Quite a good metaphor actually). Fortunately I left things, we got a rope and pulled it over.
      Sadly all my time as a vet presented lots of opportunities for mistakes and unforeseen events to occur, which makes me err on the cautious side. And I often remember the opening line from Les Hall, our anaesthesia lecturer .
      “Just remember there might be routine ops. But there are no such things as routine anaesthetics. They’re fatally easy to give. And easily fatal.”
      Thus once something’s in our wonderfully tuned complex biological bodies, you can’t really easily take it out, can you?
      I was actually quite surprised/shocked to find out several of the points I mentioned about the vaccine production/development which I’d never heard/read about until I started looking. Maybe we should get a TV and then we’d discover all of this has already been outlined in depth. Or not.
      Though I also realise most people completely trust, if not our politicians, then our doctors.
      But I’m still really concerned about where all of this is leading us as a society.
      I’m really pleased to hear that you’ve had your jab along with the vast majority of people, clearly, who’ve had clearly no major side effects. Which is what all the vaccine data I linked to confirms. It’s entirely safe for most people.
      Consider me a conscientious objector I guess, and my reason for recording this now, (along with quite a lot of other things I’ve written about over the years) is that down the line it’s a record of (my) contemporary thinking – perhaps to be re- read to me, calmly, after I succumb.
      Or maybe not. It’s also inevitably influenced by our daily existence and perceived risk of exposure, which is different to many people.
      I’m still in the tiny camp of people like David Davis MP, who are frankly amazed that less has been made of the general metabolic health of the population, and in particular the plasma Vitamin D status of our population over the winter months, which is at variance to several countries in the world. ( Say Australia, or Japan for starters). I think if this had been addressed more by our media and politicians, it may well have altered my take on the situation, not to mention the number of fatalities, and seriously ill people as a result of Covid exposure.

      I’m guessing as a Guardian reader you might have read the recent piece where Davis and labour MP Rupa Huq were interviewed on this – January 10th 2021.
      https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/jan/10/does-vitamin-d-combat-covid.
      Both more than a little exasperated that more hasn’t been made of the role of Vitamin D in immune system competence and respiratory health.
      I also found an in depth video with Davis talking about his (considerable) interest in this area of medical knowledge fascinating, and enlightening. Unusually so for a politician, but then I did make the point in one of my first blog posts about the pandemic, last February I think, that our cabinet is rather light on MP’s with any biological science background! I’m still waiting for anything meaningful like this discussion ever to make it onto BBC radio 4.

      I particularly liked his thoughts towards the end of this recording, on what he hoped, as a country and health care system, we might learn from all of this, once the Covid dust has settled. So to speak.
      Best wishes
      Julian
      Oh, and BTW , and there were other medical conditions involved, but an extremely fit personal contact ended up in hospital about 10 days ago, just 2 days after his jab, needing blood transfusions. The docs’ approach was that the jab had nothing to do with it. Which is an entirely reasonable view, or comment, and may, or may not be the case.
      How will anyone ever know?
      Entirely anecdotal of course.
      But difficult to erase from my consciousness.
      Fiona will probably have the jab. I’m still inclined to wait and hope for an intra nasal option making it to these shores as an alternative. But by then, time, and other diseases, may have moved the narrative on.

      • Thanks, Julian. You may be interested to know that we take vitamin D here, partly for the reasons you mention, my wife Hazel is the driver on this but I agree with the approach.
        I think one of the reasons the UK response to the covid crisis has been so poor is because of the lack of scientific knowledge among the cabinet. Johnson in particular is a good example of CP Snow’s Two Cultures problem. As a classicist he has no idea about how science works and cares little.

      • Thanks Philip, and good to hear that you’re onto Vit D – I think greater awareness of this issue may be a long term benefit to many from the Covid pandemic. I completely agree about the patchy response to the pandemic really hasn’t been helped by the lack of science graduates in the cabinet. I really don’t envy any of them having to make the tough decisions, but how on earth does one get a few more science graduates interested in politics? Although I think one who may well come out of it in a good light, and I’ve just checked that he IS a chemical engineering graduate, is Nadhim Zahawi. In spite of my current vacc. thoughts, one has to admire how he seems to have got a grip on this issue very successfully thus far, and seems comfortable with handling the media as well. Neither you nor I would want to touch politics with a barge pole, I guess?
        Best wishes
        Julian

  7. Thank you for the beautiful snow/ snowdrop pictures. We didn’t have snow this year.

    About the iron mouse. I wouldn’t be surprised if a curious crow started a chain of events leading to the disappearance of the cute trinket. I still think the mouse is somewhere close to the hut, may be under it, but that doesn’t mean you will ever find it. Round shaped objects are notorious for disappearing without a trace.

    Dislodging and replacing the tile definitely looks like a human did it. To hide drugs? May be.

    • Thanks Inese, we’ll have to have another look under the hut – there does look like some sort of a small hole that’s appeared just to the side of the base sleeper – maybe a rat might have rolled it in there?
      We wondered about a police camera being put beneath the tile, but never found anything, so it remains a mystery ,
      best wishes
      Julian

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