THE BIRDS ARE GOING CRACKERS

 

Wild garlic or ramsonsThe birds are going crackers in that bush behind the shed .Such a piece!! Bedlam! The racket stirred up sounded like the kind of row a fox would invoke in a chicken coop with all the clamour, botheration and flying feathers that might entail. When I investigated it was simply two wee birds, neither of them as big as my thumb, having a right old spat.I thought , maybe one had been defending a nest, or two males were fighting over some exotic hen-bird that they’d both taken a fancy to , but they both flew off in great haste as I peeked through the foliage and I could see nothing to enlighten me. No nest to defend and no one else at home..maybe it was a husband and wife having it hot and heavy!…

 

I dandered down to what I advisedly have to call my apiary. One of the bee hives that I cleared out a few days ago is still getting some attention from a few very obviously lost honeybees who’d obviously been out foraging when I’d previously discovered that their colony was no longer viable and broke it down. I had emptied all their dead sisters out onto the gravel for the birds to clear up and after roughly scraping the frames down free of fusty blackened wax astrew with wraiths of old spider-webbing ,dead eggs and larvae, I had closed the bottom entrance back up with the wooden spacer bar, sealing it and making it bee-proof. The hive might be needed again later in the summer should the remaining hives split and swarm . I’ve usually been on hand when swarming happens and so long as they don’t initially fly away too quickly or too high, I’ve managed to successfully recover many swarms in the past. Some do get away of course. Sometimes they just take off with the frightening noise of a jet airliner in your garden and rise as a living tornado into the summer sky. When that happens there’s little you can do. They might fly for miles. Last summer I had to climb high into a tree with a cardboard box to collect one swarm but I’m not getting any more supple as the years go by and I don’t bounce with the same spring when I fall out of trees.

The swarming time is really the one occasion when people actually really notice honeybees. It’s the time when they are briefly seen as the complete organism they actually are ; not a few bees buzzing about willy-nilly , poking about in your bluebells, but a solid and complete wild animal made up of some sixty thousand humming and vibrating cells,directed by a universal and inter-connected brain, very much the same as the individual atoms of a wild tiger being revealed, in all their vibrant ,flashing ,striped glory. It’s the time when people are frightened of their wildness too. I know I was the first time I saw and heard a wild swarm close -up some thirty years ago. Then , of course, I had no idea how it should be dealt with and how to go about doing anything. They are actually more malleable , if no- less wild in this transition state. The number of hives can vary from year to year and some will always be more successful than others. At one point I had only one hive and it died in its first year .That first one was a couple of hundred pounds wasted entirely. it simply didn’t grow quickly enough to survive that first winter. I replaced that one with a new queen and nucleus the following summer and it eventually grew and split successfully into two new hives with another newly -made queen which had mated adequately with a few local drones.The original bees were a Buckfast strain of bees containing the genes of native Welsh- bred honeybees crossed with Italians, Turkish, French, Dutch and African stocks , but now several generations on, my new queens have probably mated with local Irish darker drone honeybees and their original colour and demeanour is in constant flux. They are becoming to gradually resemble the native Dark Irish honeybee as time goes by; seemingly less of their tawny stripes evidenced and more of the black coming through in the racial mix. Some say these darker bees are better adapted to our specific damper climate with fluffier bodyhair . After the first split I was thrilled to think that I could actually make more bees, but when over a few years the numbers rose incrementally and at one point there were eleven hives , I had to consider just how big this might become and just how would I manage any more hives timewise and in the matter of cost. Part of me was actually glad when nature conspired to reduce the numbers back down to a manageable half dozen. If truth be told , unless you really want to get into full-scale honey production there is quite a bit of investment involved in time and money. All those hive boxes have to be bought or built, after all. The more bees you have , the more homes you’ll have to provide.Then there’s the consideration of space and whether your neighbours are understanding or not.Honeybees for the most part will cause little harm and will mind their own business, but if they get thirsty and decide that your neighbours fish-pond is a grand oasis, there’s not much you can do to discourage them stopping off for a pint on their way home . I provide a few buckets of water around the place in shady corners, with some wine cork rafts on the surface for the ladies to rest on as they sip. But being wild honeybees they might rather go elsewhere and that could easily be the neighbour’s .

Another problem is that to the uninitiated onlooker , honeybees might resemble furry wasps , being smaller than bumble bees for example. The giveaway , of course , is the unmistakeable way that they fly .They have a style all their own and they’ll likely hover where a wasp will flit .Don’t be fooled that they are harmless little creatures because, they can sting for no seeming reason, but it’s usually only when they are protecting something. I know the “experts” say they’ll not sting when they swarm but I’d always suit up and advise anyone without adequate protection to stay offside just in case. All that business of letting them swarm over your face like a beard is not for me..It’s weird enough when a bee gets caught up in your hair …..and it will sting you eventually while you squirm about.It’s best to treat honeybees with some respect. Meanwhile the birds are greedily eating dead bees on the ground and those few lost stragglers are trying unsuccessfully to get inside their old hive. They’ll gradually die if they are not accepted into a nearby hive by the guards there.I’ve seen a huge bumble-bee cannon into a hive entrance in search of that sweetness, in the past . That usually ends badly for the bumblebee because it’ll be “balled” by the guards and stung repeatedly until death. Sometimes the sweet lure is too much and death is the result. Nature’s like that .

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Just today as we walked along the riverbank I stopped to dig out some wild garlic with a piece of stick. “How do you know it’s garlic “, asked the wife , so I rubbed a leaf between my fingers to release the unmistakeable smell. “It’s not Lilly Of The Valley, for sure. Maybe it’ll grow among the wild flowers in the side garden, eh ?We can use it just like herbs too”, I said. “The white flowers are beautiful, too” answered the wife .”They can be eaten too”, says I. Lilly Of The Valley looks very similar to wild garlic but it is extremely poisonous. There are similarities but garlic flowers maybe a month or two earlier and there are slight differnces in the flowers and leaf structure. The smell’ s the thing ,though. Garlic has that unmistakeable piquant odour and all you need to to do to be sure if the smell is not already emanating as you walk nearby ,is to tear a leaf and release the distinctive reek. I couldn’t do without garlic or onions for that matter. Food would be a bit bland without those two, but I know it’s not on everyone’s favourite list..

People believed some really weird things about garlic in the past.They probably still do….really mad stuff too. You’ve probably seen it in Dracula films ,being used to ward off vampiric intrusion. Good old Peter Cushing would be braiding garlands of garlic bulbs around the windows of some manse in an attempt to keep the long-legged Christopher Lee, he of the elongated blood-seeking canines, from ravishing some poor sleeping virgin’s neck with his unholy, predatory vampiric intentions. Garlic has an imteresting place in folklore , stretching back through the ages.One example was that brides-to -be were beaten with stalks of garlic to hopefully encourage fecundity and the creation of healthy offspring.

Of course the aforementioned use to ward off evil was also used against the prevalent werewolves and shape-changers that inhabited the Middle Ages’ candle-lit wilder imaginations.It favours growing in damp places and is also often found growing in old graveyards, hence my discovery of it along the river-bank. The Romans associated it with courage and were mad for it , planting fields of the stuff in every country they conquered.They thought eating garlic made them more courageous and resourceful and that the courage also seeped up fom the fields of smelly plants, probably through the soles of their feet. That’s another thing…the odour will seep out of your pores, so maybe they also imagined that it would seep in too. The ancient Greeks and the Egyptians had similar beliefs too and garlic and onions were offered to their various gods to ward off the evil -eye and hopefully increase fertility.Garlic bulbs were discovered when King Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened , for example, but then again , opinions differed in that Mohammed associated garlic with Satan and in his writings apparently in his particular description of the Devil’s feet ,when he was banned from the Garden of Eden ; …as his left foot touched the earth garlic sprang up, while onions emerged from the footprint of his right foot. Maybe that’s why left-handers got such a hard time in past times .Why garlic should be any more evil than onions beats me, but maybe the left side has always been associated with evil and the right side with goodness.I’d say on average most people favour using their right hand primarily and left-handers may always have been viewed differently as an oddity, possibly. Mind you , some of my favourite people are left-handers, Daughter Number Two being one such “kitterpaw” .

Strangely many insects do not like the smell of garlic and it was rubbed around doorways and window to hopefully repel insects whose bite was regarded as the touch of the vampire. Those blood-suckers again …. As I dug the plant out , carefully avoiding some stinging nettles close-by ,a groggy bumblebee stumbled out of the tangle of leaves . Maybe it had been drugged by the fumes as it tried to suck nectar from the flowers. Bees smell plants with their sensitive antennae and their legs .They have many more odour receptors than something like a mosquito but also locate flowers by colour or the unseen electric fields that surround individual flowers . Maybe this bumble bee had just made a sensory overload and crashed.Garlic is strong stuff. .As it crawled away into the grass , I assumed that I might just have saved its life by removing the plant. I deposited the purloined specimin in an old potato- crisp bag that had been lying in the grass, to keep the roots cool, before transporting it home to replant it in a corner of the garden.

I’d had some wild garlic growing there many years ago, but most of the plants have long-since dissappeared .It’s supposed to be good for keeping aphids from eating the leaves of flowers when planted nearby.This wild garlic never forms anything like the bulb and cloves of cultivated garlic but the leaves and even the flowers can be eaten in salads or preferably cooked and wilted like spinach to sweeten it slightly for use as a flavouring agent. “You know ,we haven’t seen a single squirrel this year”, I said…and I had to stop and think .We’d walked this river path for ages…years…. most days . It was a good forty minute walk and it is the closest I have come to regular exercise in many, many years.I knew the sights and sounds of this stretch of river, well. This was the first realisation that the squirrels were actually gone .They had been greys, of course. They’d long-since pushed out the native reds in the area, but now they were suddenly all gone too, within a few mere months. This time last year I could sometimes count a dozen of them tumbling through the branches or scuttling about at the bases of trees.They had been part of the “colour” of the walk. They seemed to have been eradicated for good, though in one of the mildest winters I can remember.

I wonder was it nature again ,red in tooth and claw, killing off the weak by the spread of disease, or was there human intervention involved. Hopefully a few of the old-fashioned native red squirrels will possibly drift back in the near future to replace the greys.

Life is so much less interesting without the presence of either.