Friday, 29 March 2013

winter feeding

It felt marginally less cold today when I went out to let the chickens into their run, and the weather station was reading 4.8 degrees C on the roof.  The ceaseless cutting wind of the past week had dropped back, and the sun was shining.  It was rather thin, unconvincing sunlight, and after five minutes of sitting on the doorstep the black cat retreated to the upstairs sitting room to sunbathe through the double glazing, but it was sun.  This meant that it was time to go and feed the bees.

I received an e-mail from the British Beekeepers Association a week ago warning me of the danger of starvation.  Even without the reminder I was thinking about what stores they must have left, given that they have been able to get and out forage for no more than two or three days all month. However, I didn't go and look at them as soon as I got the BBKA message, because it was so cold, and then so snowy, and windy, that I really couldn't face it, and didn't think it would do the bees any good at all to disturb them.  If they had been starving then refraining from disturbing them and leaving them to die of starvation would have been a pointless courtesy, but I didn't really think they were starving.  When I checked the weight of the hives in February they felt good and heavy, and I fed them then anyway, so I thought they probably had enough to last a little longer.

One of the dangers the BBKA warns against, which I was taught in my beekeeping classes, is that in very cold weather the bees will stay in a tight cluster in the hive and won't move, so if the bees are at one end of the box and the remaining supplies of food are at the other, the bees can die even though they have food a matter of centimetres away.  The BBKA therefore wanted me to go and check, not just whether the hives were heavy enough, but whether the food was where the bees could reach it.  But to do that you have to remove the crown board and start investigating individual frames.  You are going to disturb the bees a lot, and let heat out of the hive, and I really didn't fancy doing that in this weather.  Perhaps my attitude is rather harsh, that any strain of bees so inept that they can't find their own food inside a beehive might as well be weeded out by natural selection.

When I lifted the roof off the first colony I couldn't see any bees through either of the holes in the crown board, and for a moment I thought that maybe I had been over-confident, and they had died, but when I lifted the crown board there they were, in a tight group.  I smeared the contents of a very old jar of honey over the tops of the frames around them, left over from a bumper crop that arrived at a time when I had no outlet lined up to sell it, and just before a period in my life when I was rather ill and couldn't cope with what to do with a large amount of honey.  I was taught in classes that I should never feed honey to bees, for fear of spreading disease, but this was from my own apiary and I had no reason to think the colony from which I harvested the honey was diseased. I never saw any signs of illness, and it was a very strong colony to have produced such a large crop.

The other three hives also contained live bees, in a slightly more active state.  I gave each of them a jar of honey as well, spreading it on top of the crown board since they were already moving about and were going to find it.  I began to worry in case the honey in the first hive ran down over the cluster of bees and squashed them, but told myself that they were bees and could cope with honey. It had granulated and was no longer at all runny, though not rock hard.  Since honey is their natural food, I thought they ought to find it easier to eat than sugar.

It is rather desperate to be going into April with the bees still not able to fly, or build up numbers or do anything except survive, but at least they have survived so far.  I may yet discover that one or more colony is queenless, but four out of four colonies are still alive.  In beekeeping terms there is still all to play for.

Bees tended to, I went to plant the rest of the snowdrops, that have been sitting in their plastic bags for the past week since the snow came.  They didn't look too bad at all, given that in an ideal world they'd have planted ten days ago.  I was peacefully crawling around in the wood listening the Radio 3 when from the direction of the garden I heard a terrible animal shriek, as if some creature were in great pain or danger.  I put the trowel down, and went to see what the noise was, accompanied by Our Ginger, who is incurably nosy and perhaps did not wish to be left alone in the wood.

Rising up horribly from one of the chairs in the conservatory, smeared in pollen or algae, I beheld the face of Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat, gaunt and ghastly as Martin Sheen arising out of the swampy waters of the Nung river.  The horror, the horror.  I had shut Alsatian Killer in the conservatory, the last time I closed the door.  I couldn't think exactly when that was or quite when I had last watered it, but days ago, perhaps getting on for a week.  The plants don't need much watering when it's this cold, and I didn't feel like clambering up and down the steps with cans when the snow was lying.  He could have drunk out of the fountain, so he wouldn't have been thirsty, though he might got have lead poisoning, but the heating wasn't on so he would have been barely above freezing, and with nothing to eat.  I opened the door and he slunk out, looking very seedy.

I went to fetch a small plate of food, not too big since I didn't think he should eat too much at once on an empty stomach.  He had vanished when I returned, and the Systems Administrator suggested that he might have gone home, but when I called his name he appeared out of the wood.  He ate the food with the speed of a cat that hasn't been fed for a week, then howled at us, and seemed to want to come with us.  I didn't want Alsatian Killer in the house.  I felt very sorry for him, at being shut in, and at being such a hopeless pet that the neighbours hadn't been round asking if we could check our sheds.  I put a pair of wellington boots in front of the cat flap, backed up by the latest Naked Wines delivery, and Alsatian Killer sat outside and screamed at us while our cats sat inside the glass and bristled back.

After half an hour he was still there, and I put on a coat and leather gardening gauntlets and went out to give him another small meal.  I have no desire to be bitten again by Alsatian Killer.  The last time he got my hand I was on antibiotics for a week, and it took more like six weeks to regain normal sensation in one finger.  After he'd eaten the second meal he had a wash, and began to look slightly less awful, though since most of one ear is missing and his expression is invariably malevolent he looks fairly sinister at the best of times.  We had to let our cats out, since the plump tabby was starting to cross her legs, and there was a great deal of posturing and hissing.  After another half hour I gave him a third small helping of cat food, and told him that that was it, and he should go home now.

He hung around the garden for the rest of the afternoon, occasionally screaming with rage or some strong emotion.  Anger at having been locked in?  Futile desire to be allowed to come and live in our house with the rest of the cats?  Stomach ache?  I don't even understand why he didn't make a noise to be let out before.  The bird table is right by the steps down to the conservatory, and he must surely have heard the SA coming out to restock the table.  I feel remorseful that I managed to shut him in like that.  In cold weather when I'm not watering every day or even every other day I shall have to keep an eye out, in case he lurks in there again.

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