Garden Views-02-February 2021

February began cold, and with a very light dusting of snow from the night before. As the day wore on, it became clear that the second of last years’ swarm hives that flew in towards the end of June had succumbed. Professor Tom Seeley’s excellent research on ‘wild’ honeybees, estimates the survival chances of a swarm making it through into its subsequent spring, is only around 1 in 6, at best. So if it turns out that 1 of the four from last year survives, that will be par for the course. It’s a tough way of reproducing.

Along with the ‘compost’ hive, both had live bees flying out on one occasion mid-January, but the wettest year ever since I recorded rainfall in 2020, together with the coldest January since 2010, made things tough for these colonies left to fend for themselves, and having to create new comb from scratch last summer. Hopefully their efforts may prove to be valuable base camps, for swarms in future years, which without new comb to build, will be off to an easier start.

It was a considerable relief for us, in spite of this disappointment, to at least see a little sunshine, and an even better day on February 3rd. This saw bees from the remaining 3 viable hives around the property to quickly seize the initiative on a still cool day, with occasional heavy showers, to fly out and forage in the garden. The top 3 flowers visited in order of preference were, Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, snowdrops, and the first Helleborus x hybridus.

At last this year, after 27 years of garden creation, bulb planting, and annual snowdrop lifting and splitting, many parts of the garden are creating big visual impact, even in this cold start to 2021, in the first week of February. This is such a huge delight, and one of the biggest pluses of advancing years – unlike creaking joints, and a reduction in productivity, the winter display of bulbs is still improving massively each year, and at last is allowing me to take pictures, which, in a very small way, match the scenes we can experience here, even if fleetingly, when the sun shines, temperatures rise above 6 or 7 degrees C and the winds are light.

This annual expansion in the numbers of flowers, really does still encourage me out in the gloomy damp weather to lift and replant snowdrop bulbs for a couple of hours a day, before the cold saps my enthusiasm. Usually planting them singly, for maximum coverage, and always leaving one or two at the site of the original clump. Provided the honeybees hang on in here, from now on, seedling formation will continue the progression in the years ahead. Though this is a slow process. The pots below shows the very first flower from seed collected and sown as a result of me hand pollinating flowers back in January 2018.

Sadly, these scenes were short lived, and although the middle of the month produced some fabulous sunrises, a Madden-Julian oscillation event in the South Pacific, produced a sudden plunge in temperatures, no precipitation, but with a strong East to North East wind, a period of intense cold for several days up to the 13th. This was hugely disruptive to plants and ourselves. From Sunday February 7th with a perceived temperature, allowing for wind chill, of minus 5 degrees C at midday, the maximum midday temperature fell to -6,-7,-5,-7,-7,-8, throughout the following week until finally rising to zero by midday on Sunday 14th.

Pity the first frogspawn, which appeared in the upper pond on February 5th, just before this plunge. Most work ceased, though we could at last have a big bonfire of brash accumulated over several years, and I could begin to lay another hedge, as well as beginning the annual replenishment of logs for future years. The Met Office station at Braemar recorded the coldest February temperature since February 1955, with a night time record of – 22.9 degrees C. We registered minus 9, during the day as mentioned above, the wind chill made it feel much colder. I actually had 5 layers on for chain sawing, and still didn’t work up a sweat. Normally with just 3 layers I’m sweating after 20 minutes or so.

In spite of the big freeze, the birds have had to keep going – kites, heron and a dipper all caught on camera in these brutal conditions.

On many days the Brecon Beacons were dusted white, as a glorious, distant vista.

But the plants were hammered.

When the weather suddenly flipped, temperatures rose to nearly double figures, but heavy rain returned. It took a good 36 hours of these conditions to allow the ground to completely thaw, and amazingly, the spring bulbs recovered. Sadly the hellebores, particularly the dark coloured ones, fare less well.

At least, at last, there were 2 very brief weather windows on the Wednesday and Thursday when for no more than an hour or so, conditions allowed honeybees to forage in the garden, and with more snowdrops and Crocus finally able to open, the garden sung. By now I was pretty certain that sadly only 2 of my non – intervention honeybee colonies were viable.

This was sadly just a prelude to two more days of incessant heavy rain. The rain guage which, which registers up to 25 mm, needed multiple emptyings through the day. One of these saw the second highest ever daily rainfall total of 91mm, and by the end of this third week of February, our highest ever weekly total of 218 mm of rain, had fallen in just 7 days. The volumes of water on the landscape were dramatic and in places our track’s central channel was eroded down by 3 inches or so. Thank goodness we have it – otherwise most of the sides  our road surface would have disappeared. The stream burst its banks, not just briefly, but for hours on end. Pity the poor courting moles.

With a single bright day’s interlude, on the 22nd, I saw my first 3 bumble queens of the year, out briefly on C. tommasinianus flowers in the magic meadow terrace, and was delighted to see honeybees still flying from 3 of the hives. The garden came alive.

We were then pasted with a very mild, very windy day, but another day of 55 mm, and another 48 hour period with no respite from continuous rain and gloomy skies.

However, at last on February 25th a high pressure system developed, we enjoyed a lovely day of sunshine and 30 % cloud, and the prospect of several similar days to follow. The birds began to sing. It felt like the winter was finally drawing to a close. The month ended with 2 slightly frosty but misty mornings, and then on the 28th, a wonderful minus 4 degrees C, clear blue sky sunrise. The rainfall for the month of 334 mm, just below our record high for February of 2020, was soon forgotten. And the last few sunny days pushed the PV inverter reading up to 135 KWH, a poor reading, but much better than it was looking just a week ago.

Spring awaits.