What a Jubilee June! Far too much to write about, so I’ll rely heavily on photos to tell the story of a jam-packed June. It began in a subdued fashion with the weather turning cool, grey, and damp without enough actual rain to relieve water supply issues, after the first 3 sunny days. It must be months now since we stopped flushing the loo.
By which I mean we use a bucket of (shared) bath water, which stays in the bath for 24 hours, rather than precious spring water from the WC cistern. The stream bed has now been so dry for so long, that in places big plants have become well established. Even the worms are giving up on their normal activity and lapsing into knotted aestivation to conserve moisture, something I’ve only seen once before, in June 2010.
The damp weather early in the month did at least remove any option of haymaking since my tussle with omicron meant that for 10 days, I didn’t really have the energy for anything too physical, so was restricted to apple thinning – always worth doing, but rarely prioritized, and so often missed which then always results in too many small fruits. My aim is to leave just 1 fruitlet per 4 inches and try to ensure that any fruit with splits or codling moth punctures gets ditched in this cull.
The other vital job in our type of naturalistic garden is to deadhead those plants which we hugely value in their particular place, and at a particular time, en-masse, but which if left to seed would soon take over everywhere. In this category, I include Pyrenean Valerian,
Valeriana pyrenaica, above, the purple form of Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’, Sweet Cicely, Myrrhis odorata, and the early flowering, low-growing purple Euphorbia dulcis Chameleon’. So it’s out with the hand shears or Li-ion hedge trimmer, and then a big tidy-up of debris. Where to put this seed-rich plant material is always an issue. On the compost heap and the seeds will likely forever plague new areas when the compost is subsequently used, so I opt for hedgerow margins for most, although the Euphorbia usually gets dumped in dry shade beneath some evergreen tree at the garden’s periphery, in the hope that minimal seed will ever make it out into a field, where the sheep would leave it alone, owing to its irritant sap.
We have lots of other plants, like Aquilegia and Welsh poppies, Meconopsis cambrica, which produce seed just as prolifically, but we usually allow some of the seed capsules to ripen before removing these, to allow a decent top up of the seed bank, and many of these plants are so appealing, and great at co-existing without dominating, that we now don’t mind where they appear and often fling the whole stems complete with seed heads onto areas where we think we’d enjoy them and leave them in place for a few days before removal.
Eventually feeling like I was returning to normal, I was set back a little by the first honey bee swarm of the year, which emerged from my minimal intervention modified Swedish butter churn (SBC) hive. I’d been alerted to the likelihood of a swarm, since one of the 3 vacant “hives”, below, was for the fourth time this year, being vigorously scouted by bees – previously significant numbers appeared around March 20th, April 20th, and May 14th.
The difference this time was that there were lots of scouts around the empty hive really early in the morning, and numbers built rapidly over an hour or two. It was also forecast to be the warmest day of the year so far. I’d just returned from filming all this activity for the second time that day when I heard and watched the swarm leave the hive, and quickly settle out on one of our lower row of spirally trained apple trees.
I filmed the developing cluster which seemed a very good size from such a small volume hive, and initially settled in a form rather similar to a pair of lungs. Every couple of hours I filmed the cluster again and only ever saw minimal scout dancing on the surface. But I was fairly certain that the bees scouting the empty hive had emanated from the swarm’s SBC colony, from their direction of flight. The generally held opinion is that honey bees only begin to scout for a new home, once the swarm (including in this case, the old, already mated, and egg-laying fertile queen) has left its hive and settled out a short distance away.
These bees didn’t seem to have read much of the literature, scouting, as they had, well before the swarm had even exited their mother hive. The other generally accepted rule is that bees will typically try to find a new home at least 2-300 metres from their previous home base. This vacant hive was only about 40 metres from their mother colony.
As the day moved on, with the swarm slowly coalescing into a single entity, I was faced with a difficult choice. Did I want to leave the bees where they were, and hope that they eventually headed off to the hive which I was certain they were scouting? Or try to capture the swarm and locate it in another (easier to access empty hive). It’s said that few swarms will depart from their cluster for a new home after about 5 p.m. so as we headed towards this time with no signs that the bees were getting ready to move and being reluctant to risk losing this large swarm from my most active colony, I decided to try to capture it. Although the swarm was conveniently low down, I couldn’t cut the branch off without wrecking the apple tree, so decided I’d have to try to shake the bees off – something I’ve never done before – however if you watch this video, from the “Yappy Beeman” you’ll see it’s all rather straightforward, and exciting, isn’t it ???
Thus encouraged, I just had to figure out how to position the recipient box underneath the swarm, balanced on one of my tyres, on steeply sloping ground, since I was working on my own. Eventually, I sorted it out, duct-taped some newspaper to the base of the donor hive box, spread a white sheet onto the ground and used an upturned bin to help prop the box as horizontally and centrally as I could manage beneath the cluster. I took a deep breath and gave the branch a really good shake – unlike the wacky American beekeeper in the video I was wearing gloves and a bee suit while doing this and didn’t plunge my hand into the cluster pre-shake to assess their temperament.
Of course, until you’ve tried this, it’s difficult to predict what will happen, and how hard to shake. In the end, a lot of bees fell, many into the box. Many flew into the air and milled around and an awful lot were left clinging to the branch in a sub-cluster. So a few more shakes were needed, at which point, annoyingly, the branch split longitudinally, and the generally calm nature of the bees was by now inevitably changing a little. I decided there was nothing to do now, but wait and see.
If I was lucky, having dislodged sufficient bees into this box part filled with some old frames and wax comb, they’d feel sufficiently at home, that they would all fairly quickly make their way inside into the relatively dark space, and re-form into a new cluster centred around the queen. So I placed a top board over the hive, leaving an entrance open at the front and a gap of around an inch for the bees to find their way inside. They duly and impressively quickly began to move inside and settle once more. Since I was now past the magic, no-fly time, I waited until much later before the next phase – easing the top board over the 1-inch gap, taping it in place, and then gingerly lifting the whole box, which had been laid onto a wooden tray to give additional support to the newspaper.
The final job was carrying it gingerly about 200 yards up the hill to the new location. Here I had to try to insert a few more frames into the bee-filled space to achieve, almost the complete number, and then slide out the newspaper sheets at the box’s base.
The duck, or is that duct, or even Duck tape, (click here for more of the fascinating history of this invaluable product) had worked wonderfully, but peeling it off the box was tricky when you’re wearing sweat-filled Marigold gloves!
Mission accomplished as well as I could have expected, I went inside and immediately felt exhausted again. So my recovery was set back a little, but the following morning, after an overnight shower, all was well, and the bees got to work cleaning up the old combs, orienting themselves to their new base, and foraging as quickly as possible.
This was the start of a 10 day period when a week later, a second (external origin, from the South) swarm moved into the hive that the first swarm had been exploring, followed 3 days after that by another pre-cluster/swarm surge in scout bees around the remaining empty hive. This activity preluded a second mass of bees swarming from the Swedish butter churn and settling on a pear tree, barely 5 yards from the initial swarm’s location. How very obliging of them. Since the swarms used to fill four hives last year all settled out low, I wonder if cluster location height is a heritable trait in honeybees? Or just a happy coincidence, linked to available low firm vegetation close to the mother hive?
Once again I’d spotted it just after it had flown, so was able to film it, and observe the initial lack of much real scouting waggle dancing on its surface. Also notice how the cluster becomes more compact, with the bees crammed together to conserve heat, within 80 minutes of first settling onto the branch.
Some 3 hours later though, as I walked down to turn some hay in the lower meadow, the swarm had visibly changed in appearance and the surface had obviously become much more active. Only later could I see on the computer monitor, that all the activity was created by many bees grabbing the immobile bees hanging in the sublayers of bees in the cluster, and vigorously shaking them.
Had I realised this is what was going on, I’d have got a chair and stayed put, for this shaking activity preludes the take-off of the swarm to their new home. All the bees have to warm their flight muscles to around 35 degrees C pre-flight, and since the swarm leaves together when the cluster breaks, the cool immobile hanging bees in the centre of this mass need to be warned that the departure time is approaching fast.
As it was, when I walked back up the hill, the cluster had disappeared from the tree, above, though there were quite a few bees around the entrance to the cork-insulated German butter churn (below), about 15 yards due South from this tree. I was confident that the bees were now all inside – subsequently confirmed over the next 2 days by the bees’ activity patterns from this hive. This particular hive, whose free-form comb was only visible once I’d taken the “hive” apart, below, is now (consciously) impossible for anyone but the bees to access. But once again the SBC’s bees appear to have been actively scouting and cleaning up a previously occupied home, a very short distance from their base, well before the bees actually swarmed and had formed a cluster. In this case though, perhaps because of a lack of suitable other new site options nearby, or maybe because the swarm was a smaller size and more vulnerable to chilling, the cluster only took about 4 hours to plump for this as their new home, and move in.
Two final points to note from the video footage which I’ve now uploaded above, and here on our YouTube channel –
Firstly that the cleaning up of the old comb began well before moving in, and continued for a time afterward, with wax debris being kicked /carried out by bees at an impressive rate. Of course, if a colony can find a location, and get this necessary spring cleaning underway well before moving in, it’s going to reduce the fairly long gap between the queen being able to lay eggs, and new workers then emerging to replace the aging workers which leave with the swarm and typically only live for around 6 weeks in mid-summer. They’ll also have some prepared wax cells immediately ready to receive vital nectar to cope with any poor weather just after they’ve set up their new home. Thus improving the swarm’s chance of making a viable new colony and collecting enough stores eventually to survive the winter. I now realise that the amount of cleaning debris created at this time is so significant that it can easily block an inadequate lower entrance (as indeed happened with the SBC hive last summer, within just 24 hours of me installing the swarm).
The second interesting point is that all 3 hives with these new swarms have been created with both upper and lower entrance options. The 2 which were taken up by swarms from the SBC hive have immediately begun using the upper entrance for the majority of foraging activity, with just one or two bees on guard duty at the lower entrance. This is indeed how they work at the SBC hive they left.
A swarm in May is worth a load of hay.
A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon.
A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.
For all my earlier posts about my journey of discovery with honey bees, click here.
Enough of bees, for now, however!
Two days after the first swarm and by now feeling back to normal, our three different eagerly scanned weather forecasts showed a weather window opening for haymaking. Always now a wrench when the meadows look as lovely as this:
So I began the cutting with a small, relatively flower-free perimeter section in the upper meadow, and continued cutting the least floriferous parts of the lower meadow. By now both meadows were looking stunning, and it was already obvious that the upper meadow’s orchid count was approaching about 500 this year, with several defined patches with 20 to 30 flowers, singletons dotted around widely, and the most numerous zone with over 200 flowers in a concentrated block. The weather this year has been wonderful for pollination and seed formation, as indeed it was in 2021, so given a new orchid takes several years to flower, I’m expecting flower counts to easily pass the thousand mark within a couple of years, and who knows, beyond that, given I continue to swerve around orchid flowers or seed capsules with the power scythe, then hand collect and puff the dust-like seed out later in the year all around the property.
The Eyebright, Euphrasia spp, is also having a bumper year, with sheets of the tiny flowers as a sublayer through much of the meadow. All this hay was safely brought in with no real weather pressure for once, before some forecast light rain fell, and then after a convenient short break, we could cut and bring in the remaining lower meadow in an extended wonderful 4-day blitz of perfect hay making weather – brisk winds with warm sunshine. So for once, by the longest day, we already have nearly enough quality hay to get our sheep through next winter and are still left with much of the flower-filled top meadow to process in bits and pieces, and just enjoy in the meantime.
This has also allowed us once again to cut some for 4 Big Bags of green hay as a seed source for some garden visitors from 2021, who’d expressed an interest and are working on their own wildflower meadow. They’ll return in a few weeks for a second cut and collect session, which will catch a different range of later flowering species.
Our aim is to continue with our green hay transfer again from upper to lower meadow later this year, so that from 2023 both meadows should start to become really diverse floral communities. Should any locally based readers be interested in some green hay from this field to begin their own small or larger wild flower meadow project, then do get in touch a.s.a.p. before it all gets removed for this year!
We’re toying with the idea of holding a workshop for very limited numbers of interested people next year which would allow discussion of wildflower meadow restoration principles and the practicalities of how to do it, some typical meadow plant identification; the opportunity to harvest and take home some green hay, along with a consideration of the vital role of pollinators and the best plants to grow in a garden to help support them, throughout the year. With maybe even a short discussion on low intervention honeybee hive establishment. Numbers would be very limited – I’m guessing a maximum of 4 to 6 on just a few occasions, and the sessions would have to be arranged at short notice in suitable weather, but anyone vaguely interested could get in touch with us (see here for details) to go on a waiting list for more information if it happens.
For all my other meadow related posts over the years, click here.
A chance discovery led to some new favoured post haymaking music this year, from the French singer ZAZ. There’s something about her distinctive voice, its clarity and the catchy rhythms and melodies. We both loved every track from her latest album, ISA, though this is probably my favourite. My French is very poor, and I had to check out the translation of the lyrics for this song, though helpfully, they’re included as subtitles on this video:
Very sadly but predictably, the nesting Grey Wagtail eggs survived for only about a week before the nest was trashed, probably by members of our mischief of magpies, which once more are nesting in a fir to the North of the house. A few days after we’d noticed the eggs had gone, and the wool and hair nest lining was strewn about the yard, I disturbed a raucous magpie making a din at the side of the car, parked, unusually to make way for our shearer’s tractor, in the yard next to the barn. It didn’t immediately fly off, and then a second one appeared also making a din at the rear of the car. Neither immediately flew off as I approached, which I thought a little odd, then as I walked even closer, they eventually took to the air – and allowed a young fox cub to trot out from between the car and barn wall and race for safety behind the house.
We fear the same fate has fallen on our first, and this year only, swallow brood. A broken egg shell was found on the barn floor, and we’ve had almost no swallow action around the yard all year. Belatedly after the Wagtail incident, we realised our probable folly of leaving the upper barn door fully open, and have now propped it, just ajar. The swallows have returned and are sitting on a nest again, and we’re crossing fingers that the magpies won’t be so keen on entering into the gloom inside, and we might get a brood reared in 2022. So many people locally are reporting a dearth of Swallows and House Martins this year.
All the warm sunshine meant a wonderful sighting of a hummingbird hawkmoth whizzing between the Sweet William flowers right outside the front door. I’ve never had one so relaxed about me standing next to it and taking some photos.
To compensate for the lack of swallow chatter, we’ve had a wonderful year for Redstarts, Phoenicurus phoenicurus, with their flashy plumage and distinctive Tseeep, tick, tick call an ever-present background sound throughout June both around the garden and yard, and in the meadows whilst we’ve been working. A real delight.
Finally as well as upending, emptying, stacking, and pitchforking the hay into our hay barns – about 70 Big bags to date, I reckon, Fiona has put in sterling work on our steep bank and field access track, digging out more Alchemilla mollis, which was returning to carpet the area in a complete monoculture. Lovely though it is as a weed suppressant, we now realise it has very limited nectar and pollen value for most bees and butterflies, so aim to try to cover the bank with more varied and interesting plantings. Seedlings and saved seed have already been planted up in advance of the recent rain, but I fear the Alchemilla won’t give up easily – we probably have many years of seedlings to hoik out, and over much of this area this requires working from a ladder, – it’s just so steep.
There’s considerable relief that as I write this we have a good 5 days of sunshine and heavy showers which should alleviate the water worries, and allow a little recovery from all this intense activity, which whilst physically draining, is hugely enjoyable and satisfying. Filling and dragging the big bags of hay under cover, as we do, in waves allows it to settle and dry even better over time, creates more space for the next batch in due course, and even better allows a second wave of flowers to establish from any of this early cut sward.