Although the inevitability gnaws away at my consciousness on a dank foggy morning, this year it’s different. Our discussed expectation, as we toiled with the hay last year in the upper meadow, was that in another 2 or 3 years we’d at last have achieved a really floriferous vista, just a decade after we began the journey in 2013. In fact, it’s been surpassed already.
As a reminder, this is what the meadow looked like in June 2014, above and below. A bit of Yellow rattle, Rhinathus minor, some Sorrel, Rumex acetosa, and lots of lush, thick grass. A massive crop of hay for us to remove manually.
For me, nothing beats spending time in a meadow like this on a bright, breezy summer’s day. Just wandering, listening and looking. But in our wet weather climate, these are exactly the conditions when one should be contemplating cutting it, if you want the best quality hay.
We’re also very aware in our drive for floral and invertebrate diversity, that leaving the flowers for as long as possible allows more pollen and nectar options during the sometimes significant “June gap”, before the abundance of local bramble and stands of willow herb begin to bloom. Waiting until mid-July, or even better mid-August would be the best compromise, but by then the weather has usually deteriorated, the days are shorter and the chances for us to manually remove the whole crop as dry, usable hay will have diminished dramatically.
So this year after the cold, late spring, we’re prevaricating. The scales are firmly tilted towards inactivity, for now, regardless of the forecasts. Growth is still light, so potentially it’ll be easier to dry the hay out anyway, and we’ll aim to cut the lower wet meadow first. Here the process of restoration to greater diversity is about 3 years behind the upper meadow. This year sees much of the field covered with Yellow rattle, so once a significant percentage of these plants have mature seed forming, a surprisingly quick process in this annual plant, we’ll aim to remove all of this hay before returning to tackle the upper field. And take pot luck with the weather later on.
And enjoy scenes like this for much longer, as the betony and maybe even knapweed, begin to bloom. It looks like the orchid count has now surpassed 300 in the upper meadow, with at least 2 showing near the pond in the lower meadow as well. A near trebling from last year. This short selection of slow scenes from the meadow captures the delights. The movement and sheer scale of flower numbers in just a one acre or so field, is appreciated better.
If you can, find a local wildflower meadow and visit it, this year, in the next month. And be amazed. See the Coronation Meadows website for details of meadows local to you, and some may be open for visits around National Meadows Day, on the first weekend in July.
I’m a great creature of routine, and currently the very early morning starts are a drain, but usually begin with a morning trip to the pee can, stopping en-route to pull back the curtains of the larger sash window in the small end bedroom.
Expecting to see grey skies, both from yesterday’s forecast for light rain, as well as the obviously poor morning light seeping into our own bedroom first thing, this is the scene that greeted me, as the curtains were drawn. Not really special, except that within roughly 2 seconds, my eye, or more accurately my eye, and the brain’s optical image sensory processing networks, had flagged up to me that there was a flowering grass seed head amongst the vegetation in the terrace garden, which needed hoiking out. I’ll narrow the vista down a little. Now can you see it?
As I made the morning cup of tea, I mused on what had just happened, if not in a flash, then certainly PDQ. I mentioned it to Fiona, and then thought it merited a photo to highlight just how attuned my visual perceptive senses have become to “weed” identification over the years. So I grabbed the camera and went back to the window. But I couldn’t see the grass at all. Had I imagined it, with that sort of blurry vision I, (we all?) have first thing in the morning? Annoyed, I kept scanning, then a breath of wind on this still morning, moved the seed head (actually still flowers, seeds not having formed yet), and my “system” whirred into action again, and picked it out, instantly. Any better now, narrowed down a bit more?
Big deal! But it did take me back to ideas of how plastic our systems of perception are, and how they can be sub-consciously “trained”, or more with simple repetitive practice, become incredibly impressive at speedily detecting such slight variations in a huge and complex, mainly monochrome green, visual tapestry, and then flagging this up to the conscious part of my brain, that an action is needed. Speedily, before I forget. Since I’ll have passed this grass several times in the 3 or 4 days it’s taken to grow this tall, and missed it. Probably because of a different angle of approach to it, as I’ve walked along the curving, slate path.
So what? Well, managing the garden as we’ve created it, does depend in big part on allowing many of our favoured plants to seed happily, but removing any of the fairly small range of problem weeds, a.s.a.p, and certainly before they drop any seeds. (A topic touched on in our recently available Garden Masterclass You Tube talk, which Noel Kingsbury has speedily processed and uploaded here). Thus ensuring our soil seed bank is being steadily pushed towards garden worthy plants, and away from weeds, and slowly reducing the weeding issue, year on year.
I’ve reflected recently on whether there’ll come a time when an AI driven, robotic garden weeder will appear. Robotic lawn mowers are now becoming more widely available. It could be a huge boon for gardeners over a certain age, though the technical challenges would be immense, particularly in a garden like ours. Firstly of weed recognition, but more seriously the problems with terrain negotiation, and then the challenge of how to destroy the ‘weed’.
So I introduce to you the Small Robot Company, (SRC) and Tom, Dick and Harry. Any reader with a curious mind who hasn’t come across this concept should check out the company and some of their short You Tube videos, highlighting these 3 named, light weight, field patrolling robots which have been designed to map and monitor individual plants in an arable crop field. Then upload the huge amounts of information to a farm database. Then recognise and identify individual weed plants amongst the crops, and then, and here’s the really clever bit, use a precision delivered electric shock to zap the weeds and destroy them with no use of chemicals, and no soil disturbance.
There are clearly many companies involved in this research field but the prize for the winners, and the farmers who rent Tom, Dick, Harry, (there’s actually a 4th, a female named robot, Wilma, who’s the real boss, who processes the data and gets the chaps to do all the hard work), is that the need for herbicides and damaging heavy machinery on the land, will diminish greatly. I was hugely impressed by the website and story behind SRC, and the enthusiasm of the multi-person team behind the concept and wish them well.
But back in the garden, the problem with handing this task over to AI and robots, should they ever become competent, is that I actually enjoy hand weeding!
It’s one of the more benign, less physical aspects of the work we do, and by moving through the garden in precision, weed identification mode, I find myself noticing subtleties of plant growth or other wildlife activity that are easier to miss, with a general, speedier walk round. So for now, I’m happy to relish the weeding, and marvel a bit more at how a mundane task like this, is actually a highly honed and developed, multi-organ skill, way ahead of anything a carefully designed set of machinery is ever likely to be able to match any time soon.
However, as an interesting final thought on this subject, and the sort of question beloved by mail chimp style surveys, what would YOU pay for a machine that could take on this role? (Either as a one off cost, or more likely as a daily/monthly rental service, which is how the SRC are likely to model and market their equipment to farmers).
Would you even contemplate it, and if not, how do you train a third party in careful weed management, once it all starts to become a little tricky for an aging gardener?
Before my recent last brief post with a video clip of the garden, I’d posted a couple of pictures of bee swarms about which I can now elaborate. The first video clip below is of the mother hive, around 3 pm, a couple of days after after not 2, but 4 swarms had sallied forth in the space of just 6 days from Thursday May 27th. (It’s worth altering your You Tube settings to HD, to view some of the detail in these clips).
The first swarm, in theory, probably consisted of about 70% of the female worker bees from the mother hive, along with the existing “old” queen from this hive, which would clearly already have mated and therefore capable of laying eggs, destined to become more female worker bees, immediately. The swarm was typically noisy as the bees filled the air, before settling out, initially in 4 separate clusters, about 15 metres to the West of the hive. There’s little point doing anything at this stage, it makes more sense just to observe and hope that the bees sort themselves out into a single cluster containing the queen, which is exactly what they did over the next hour or so. Watch the sequence below, which follows the path of this swarm from emergence to its re-homing, or just read the text which follows, and in particular look for the example of scout bees waggle dancing on the surface of the swarm cluster to promote a potential, already checked out new home. Within just an hour or so of the swarm having left.
By my reckoning it was a good option (very vigorous waggling), and many hundred metres or more from Gelli Uchaf – the direction of waggling indicates the direction. And notice how the waggling bee quickly recruits a few fellow scouts who pay very close attention to her, to get all this location information from her dance. In due course they’d probably fly off to formulate their own judgement of whether or not the new home was a sensible choice.
This really is quite something to watch and listen to, and having all gorged on honey before venturing forth, since they’ll have no longer have access to the stored food reserves left behind in the old hive, the bees are, in theory, in very benign mode. Thanks to a link sent to me just this week by my sister-in-law, (thanks Gritti), I can now add a bit more detail as to the how the bees manage to unite to form an impressive cluster in this way, so quickly and effectively. It’s thought to be due to a chemical pheromone which the queen bee releases, and thus highlights where she is at any given moment.
Such chemicals only have a limited ability to diffuse in the air, so recent research has shown how the worker bees closest to the queen, once they’ve detected this chemical, will amplify and direct other bees to her, by aligning themselves to point towards her, and fanning their wings. In turn, other bees further away become alerted to her behaviour, and repeat the process. The original paper outlining this discovery has some lovely videos of this process in action in an experimental setting, but sadly I found much of the text written in a jargon filled style, with complex algebra and statistical analysis as well, so click on the link only if you’re really keen!
But what should I do with this swarm? It had emerged early enough in the year to have a good chance of survival, was spotted immediately, and I’d a prepared vacant hive to put it in. How should I remove it from its position centred on a sapling tree, and more importantly encasing a double height meshed tree guard, secured in place somewhere in the middle of the cluster, with wire ties? I consulted with Fiona, and we both agreed that the best option was the radical one of chopping through the base of the sapling. It was a grown from seed Malus tschonoskii, which had never thrived and was anyway a bit close to the fence. We reckoned an early large swarm was potentially more valuable. Such is the tricky decision making process for the gardener/beekeeper!
So, I prepared a wooden Warré style box, complete with a couple of old wax filled combs and I’d stapled a few sheets of newspaper across the base of the box to prevent the bees falling straight through. I also grabbed a pair of loppers, secateurs and wire snippers, and having put on my bees suit, I approached the large cluster, and started by snipping away at some of the upper plastic tree guard, gently and carefully, to avoid clipping any bees. I levered apart the rigid, meshed plastic of the upper part of the guard, to discover a group of bees in single file were linked, and stretched, foot to foot as I carefully lifted the guard away from the cluster. This is known to happen inside recently swarmed hives, but no-one seems to know why. The top of the trunk above the cluster was severed, and the base of the trunk attacked. Sadly the ancient loppers weren’t quite up to the job, so I had to resort to a pruning saw for the last bit, but as the trunk started to topple, I grabbed the upper section and lifted, for the first time getting a idea of just how heavy a swarm of honey gorged bees can be.
Holding the severed tree over the box, I did what you’re meant to do. Shake the tree several times in a vertical plane, and somewhat miraculously, most of the bees, many still clinging to each other, dropped off the trunk and tree guard, and ended up in the box, below. Inevitably however, a lot don’t, so at this point the noise level ratchets up a notch or two, and you find yourself amongst a cloud of bees with the pitch and amplitude of their buzzing rising somewhat.
The next part of the considered plan was to carry the box over the fence and set it down on a levelling, pre-positioned base, since there’s quite a slope at this point, and cover 80 % of the top with a tea towel, leaving a small gap for the huge number of milling around bees to find their way into the darker interior, and settle onto the combs. Assuming that I’d managed to shake the queen inside with the mass of worker bees. Part one completed successfully, I left them to it, and had some lunch.
A few hours later, around tea time, the scene was much quieter, so phase two was to carry the box over to the prepared hive, remove a few more frames from the centre of the hive’s upper box, put the bee containing box over the hive, carefully tear off the stapled newspaper on one side and slide it out, and then lifting the bee containing box slightly, give another couple of vigorous shakes. Again, most of the bees, many of which had been clinging to the tea towel covering, fell down into the void in the middle of the hive. The upper box was now removed, the tea towel drawn back and the 2 frames still with many bees hanging on could be carefully lifted out, one at a time and gently lowered into the central void, which was by now a seething mass of bees. The heat and rising scent of swarming bees, a mix of geranium and lemon, was a wonderful novel sensory experience.
With these two bee covered frames now in place in the new hive, the remaining missing frames were gently lowered back in to give a full complement. Another empty, but frame filled box was added on top. The hive capping crown board and cork insulating board finished off the job, and with a still significant number of bees on the sides of the transporting box and tea towel, these were left in front of the new hive, for the bees to find there way in to join their sisters, and again (fingers crossed), their mother queen.
In outlining this process, one can appreciate how critical the pheromone communication is, to enable all the bees to quickly regroup around the queen in their new home and immediately get to work with cleaning up the old wax, and repairing damaged wax cells, so that the queen can begin egg laying as soon as possible. Although I’d had a simple spray bottle of water to hand, none was needed, as the bees behaved in a benign, if noisy, fashion throughout.
Unlike my first encounter with catching and moving a swarm in May 2019, which I’d written about here, I was surprised by how much less intimidated I was, and having been better prepared, and thought through a likely sequence of events, it all went pretty smoothly. The next 24 hours would be the key period, to assess whether the bees were happy in their new home, or exited to pastures new, as soon as possible. I was well aware a secondary swarm might be produced within the next week or so, but was still surprised that just 2 days later on Saturday 29th, at the same time of about 11.30 am, a second swarm had sallied forth and this time settled just 10 yards from the back door, entangled in a mesh of honeysuckle, willow and bramble stems at the top of the rear bank. So whilst access was feasible it meant using a ladder, and Fiona gamely offered to photograph the event, (with no bee suit, hasten to add!)
It ended up being the closest experience to the adrenaline rush one used to get from certain unusual and tricky surgical challenges, when patience, care, and a good degree of luck, were often critical to a successful outcome. Here the planned final, severing foliage cut, after minutes of peripheral twig removal, was meant to see the swarm drop into the box. In fact a third of bees did, but the cluster’s twiggy hold in the hedge stayed intact, so the remainder had to be shaken, for the sake of uniting them all as quickly as possible, before I carefully reversed down the ladder holding a fortunately much lighter cardboard box, than the wooden one I’d used for swarm 1. This also contained 2 prepared comb filled frames from the hive they were moving to, placed inside for at least some of the bees to hang onto, and give them a sense that this was familiar, bee approved territory. Again it was fascinating to see how quickly they all made their way inside the box, to join, this time, a newly emerged, and (probably) still single, virgin queen.
Later on the swarm was re-homed in a similar fashion to swarm one with no fuss.
We were relieved to have got this drama out of the way, before our younger son and 6 grandchildren arrived 2 days later, for once coinciding with a run of mainly dry weather. However the Tuesday saw a phone call from our sheep shearer, that he wanted to visit around lunchtime, and shortly after this call, a third swarm exited and settled on another tricky fence/tree branch location just 15 yards from where Richard was due to shear the sheep.
The family sensibly left for the seaside with all this unplanned drama, leaving Fiona and I to await Richard, and then discover with relief that this third swarm had vanished just 30 minutes after I’d seen them settle into their cluster. Phew! What was a relief.
Until 2 hours later, as we still awaited Richard’s arrival I found them all milling around the hive that swarm 1 had been put into. There they would stay. The shearing went well, a successful day at the beach was reported, life seemed to be settling and then the following morning there was the by now very familiar crescendo sound of milling around bees, and a fourth cluster began to settle out at exactly the same location as that occupied initially by swarm 3.
I’d decided by then that 2 more colonies were probably sufficient, though I still had a vacant hive, so we left them where they were, expecting more photo opportunities of waggle dancing scout bees, and all headed out for lunch together. Where a predicted heavy slow moving rain storm passed through.
Returning home the cluster was still where it had been, though now noticeably tighter and in heat conservation mode as the rain continued to fall. I mulled things over for an hour or two, eventually deciding that if they were still there in late afternoon, I’d catch and rehome them, and thus give them a hopefully greater chance of survival.
So mission accomplished, with 3 swarms safely housed in a few days, some of the family even being keen to witness the amazing sight of a swarm of bees, and more critically no one was frightened or stung in the process. The mother hive has ploughed on as before, with its huge number of drones left behind from the move.
Had last month’s full super-blood moon been a possible trigger for all this activity? Who knows!
I’ve written before about how bees seem to love all poppy flowers, (except when we grew Meconopsis grandis – I’d never seen a bee visiting their stunning blue flowers in many years) and only for the pollen, since all poppies lack nectaries. But in spite of several oriental poppies, Papaver orientale, opening every day for the last week or two, I rarely saw that many bees in them. Perhaps I wasn’t looking at them early enough! The short clip below was taken around 8.20 a.m. on a warm morning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen bees so excited. Are they really just trying to be the first to shake the pollen from the anthers? Or are they getting some other chemical fix?
This wasn’t quite the only bee news. Somewhere along the line, I’d been planting out cabbages quite close to the mother hive when I’d heard a sudden, worker bee like buzz, followed by an insect landing on my ear. I’m now used to the very realistic, angry worker bee like sound of drone flies, which are an ever present insect from May through the early summer. This is (possibly) the most common one, Eristalis tenax.
They actually look a bit more like a bumblebee than a honeybee, but they’re harmless, hoverfly insects which feed on nectar, and although the males are very defensive of their territory and will buzz around close to you, I’ve never had one land on me before. Unlike a honeybee. Way back in May 2012, I’d had a bee actually explore my ear canal – either for its waxy scent, or maybe by a scout bee as a possible dark entry point for a swarm to rehome to?
So although I was wary about this latest episode, was fairly unconcerned, and felt I’d just leave it there – the noise quickly disappearing and I was only aware of its presence by the lightest of what I took to be occasional foot movements on the surface of my ear. A couple of minutes later, as I moved round the corner of the deep bed, I must have disturbed it, and felt it fly off. Another minute later, and I felt a drip land on my lower ear.
Strange I thought, since the sky was clear, and I was wearing a straw hat, though I had been moving close to the PV panels. Might some dew have dripped off that? Reflexly my finger moved up to touch the drip, and back it came with a bloody tip. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I asked Fiona to take a photo.
So what was the beastie responsible? It certainly wasn’t an ordinary horse fly, (Tabanid spp.) which always seems to cause an immediately painful bite leading to me squashing them as quickly as possible, and my best guess from the noise of approach, and the bite site on the ear, is that it might have been a female deer fly, Chrysops, spp.
All such bites are made by female flies, since they need a blood meal to obtain sufficient protein for egg laying. Normally the adults of both sexes feed on nectar and plant exudates, and can be significant, inadvertent, plant pollinators. Their saliva includes an anti-coagulant so that they can lap up the blood as easily as possible, after they’ve penetrated the skin by using the stylets on their mouth parts, in a sawing action.
I now have a dilemma.
Do I stick to wearing plain blue T shirts, when working near the bee hives, or switch to closely striped ones? Since some work suggests that the stripes of a zebra have evolved to minimise attacks by horse-fly type insects. Apparently such larger flies aren’t deterred by any of the normal insect repellants, and needless to say, as blood suckers, all such flies can act as vectors for a wide range of zoonotic diseases, around the world.
On a final point, Fiona and I have both used Medihoney barrier cream recently as an immediate topical application for several insect bites – the small, double puncture spider bites being particularly annoying for me – and in all cases the speed of impact of the cream in reducing both inflammation and irritation, from just a single application, has been really impressive. I’d first read about the significant benefits of maunka honey based dressings and ointments, in an interesting and persuasive lecture from the National Honey Show series, by Shona Blair, titled “Medicinal Honey – a Sweet Solution against Superbugs?”
The Medihoney barrier cream was applied about 15 minutes after the horsefly wheal had developed, first and second photos. The third was taken about 90 minutes later, and the last one 90 minutes after this. Lest this seem an over reaction to a common issue at this time of the year, last year I’d had some double puncture, presumed to be small spider, bites which persisted as itchy papules for several weeks, with some developing a degree of more generalised tissue swelling a few days later.
In addition, and by chance this week, a contemporary of mine from Cambridge called round for tea, whilst on holiday in the area. We haven’t seen Paul for several years, and in the intervening period, alongside his other work, he’s researched and written the biography of Dr. William (Bill) Frankland, a key British researcher in immunology and allergy research, who’s come to be known as “the grandfather of allergy”.Franklin led an extraordinary life, eventually appearing on Desert Island Discs at the age of 103, and living to 108! I’m mentioning this because in 1955 he self-experimented with being bitten on the arm, once a week, by a species of tropical blood sucking insect, Rhodnius prolixnus, which because of its endemic range, he could be certain he’d never been bitten by, before. All this was to study how his body would respond, over time, to repeated bites from this creature. The reactions became progressively more severe, eventually leading to an extremely swollen arm and anaphylactic shock. His life was only saved by speedy, multiple injections of adrenaline. One of 7 near death experiences which he had in his long and fascinating life! A remarkable man.
So, next time you get a bite or sting from a beastie, perhaps reflect on Bill’s experiences? And wonder if it’s worth giving Medihoney a try.