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A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.

bees

bees

I’ve escaped, carved out a couple of minutes; I just had to tell you…

On Friday evening some friends came over for supper. They came to meet the New Zealand branch of the family. They came to pick up some plants. They came to see Dillings, one of our hay meadows, at its beauteous best; abounding, bursting, tumbling with orchids jostling with meadow thistle, intense blue-purple spikes of bugle, the cowslip-yellow flowers and rattling bladders of hay rattle, walnut-sized madder-pink heads of red clover, tall delicate stems of ragged robin, a yellow-starred understory of vetches – the whole washed in a haze of liquid gold from buttercups in the setting sun. D was whooping with glee as she spied ever larger fatter bigger better spears of orchids egged on by me, when a quiet thoughtful voice from behind us said “Isn’t that a swarm of bees?”

southern marsh orchids in Dillings

southern marsh orchids in Dillings

Stopping dead in our tracks we both looked high into an oak overhanging the field margin. “Where? Where?” We asked scouring the tree, squinting our eyes up through the dense canopy of leaves. “Where? Where? We can’t see?”

“Just there. Look! No, much lower” pointing, A guided our eyes to an oak limb not that far away “See? On that branch.” And there, hanging quite peacefully in a small fork not much above our heads was a conical swarm of bees.

'my' bees!

'my' bees!

“Oh, wow!” I spluttered “Wow, oh wow” I turned to A “I’ve never ever seen that in all my years here! You are clever!”

In the fading evening light it could have so easily have been missed and certainly, as D and I were ginormous orchid hunting our eyes were scouring the field at nothing above knee level!

I oh-so wanted those bees. Visions of orchid honey from bees that had chosen my very own flower-filled hay meadow danced in front of my eyes! But alas, I’m not a knowledgeable beekeeper. I had very little idea of how to contain a swarm, other than to brush or shake it into a container. And I had no equipment.

“Why don’t you check in the morning?” suggested A “They might still be here. They’re very quiet at the moment. Then you can decide.”

First thing next morning I checked before I started the stock round. They were still there.

At a reasonable hour I phoned various beekeepers but unfortunately no one was able to help…unless, that is, they could take home the swarm. I rang the National Bee Supplies in Okehampton and spoke to a most obliging man who said he could let me have some frames and suitable bee-collection wooden box until I was sorted, but, not until Monday, as being Saturday they were shutting. Mid-morning I checked the bees…they were still there. A little later I was phoned by a beekeeper who helpfully told me how best to collect the swarm and how to construct a temporary smoker out of a tin, chicken wire and a funnel. Excitedly I made up a bee suit out of Robert’s butterfly net (vale), my hat, overalls, waterproofs and gloves; collected up a bucket and cover, makeshift smoker with accruements, stepladders, a hand brush and set off up the drive and across Dillings to take possession of ‘my’ bees.

Arriving at the oak I looked up at the branch and saw…nothing. My bees had flown!

female orange tip butterfly on lady's smock

female orange tip butterfly on lady's smock

May, extraordinary exuberant May. How can anyone fail to be blown away by such a stunning month? I walk with my eyes out on stalks. They sweep across the multi-layers of a green-gold filigree landscape and down to minute iridescent creatures nestled in the heart of a buttercup. Every sense is tingled and tweezed.

the tiny micropterix calthella moth on a buttercup

the tiny micropterix calthella moth on a buttercup. See the mating pair?

The scent of blossoms is exquisite yet elusive, I catch a wisp, a suggestion – then it’s gone – I find myself sniffing, head up like a wild animal. Greens, there are so many and each with its own aroma; nasal sharp and acid citrus-bright, crushed bitter-sweet liquor and garlic-pungent aromatics – I taste each smell on my tongue.

bog-bean blooming in Rob's Folly - Forty Acres

*bog-bean blooming in Rob's Folly - Forty Acres

I become sensitised to sound. Like a tuning fork I pick up the buzz and whir of the insect world under the constant celebration of bird song. The steady bass drone of the bumble bee, the frenetic high-pitched whine of the midge and the scary cacophony of a billion cluster flies taking off from the thatch as the sun pops out from behind a cloud. Fragile daddy-long-legs flip-flap knocking and bumping with flimsy clumsiness and March flies thistledown around your head, sticking in your hair, eyes and lips.

blue tit nest and eggs in birdbox

blue tit nest and eggs in birdbox

Life’s abundant. It’s everywhere.  There’s a continuous rustling and scurrying in the trees, hedgerows and verges. And did you know we’ve hares in the far River Meadow? I’m so excited; it’s unusual for this non-arable part of the world.  And the Hobby is back!

*Interesting links to bogbean also this one for Sian!

common clothes moth

common clothes moth

Remember how appalled I was back in November after discovering that an infestation of clothes moths had decimated my wardrobe overnight?  Wool, cotton, silk, viscose/manmade – these voracious buggers were not fussy.  Well, an interesting thing happened the other day. No, unfortunately, it’s not good news on the moth front.  The deep freeze is now my wardrobe and all clothes storage places are hung about with pheromone traps, cedar wood balls and rings, and are sprayed regularly with a cedar wood deterrent.

I was working in the shop. Crede has a sale on at the moment (and an excellent sale it’s been too).  A customer was happily browsing and having chosen a jumper she asked if a particular dress she had her eye on would be reduced further. I replied it probably would and to keep popping in to check. We continued chatting about the glumness of January, the ubiquitous cold bug and the hope that the cold, dry snap had killed off a lot of the germs…

“As well as all the wretched parasites and pests, especially the clothes moth” I threw in.

“Oh” she exclaimed “don’t talk about them!”

“Why? Have you had an invasion?” I asked, ears immediately pricked

“Well not exactly me. But in my line of work – definitely yes!”

“I’m intrigued…if you don’t mind me asking, what’s that?” interested because of Robert’s mothly passions.

“No, not at all. I’m an entomologist. I work for the National Trust, moth control is one of the things I do”

“Oh wow, so do tell me – is there a big problem there? Is even the National Trust experiencing moth devastation?”

“It’s been quite appalling.” she said “Due to the very warm winters and wet summers the population has exploded and instead of just hatching one brood they may hatch three or even four!” She went onto explain that with such a population explosion, it really didn’t take long for the creatures to chomp their way through an entire stately home let alone a small farmhouse. She had developed such a paranoia she used to take her work clothes off in the garage to avoid contaminating her house!  I did take some comfort that I alone had not been singled out.

I went on to ask about the deepfreeze treatment and she said yes, that did help, but the temperature had to be extremely cold for effective short sharp annihilation.  Items have to be kept in a domestic freezer for a good length of time. It doesn’t finish there; one should then brush/hoover all the items very carefully to remove any debris or frass, and treat the whole of the room or even building!

“They are extremely difficult to get rid of.”  No new news there, unfortunately. She did however give me the name of the man, company and product the National Trust use, as they try not to, other than exceptional circumstances, rely on the use of toxic insecticides.
So this may be of some interest to you if you’re suffering moth damage and for those of you who don’t think you are…maybe you should just have a quick peek at those less frequently used items at the back of the cupboard!

clothes moth

clothes moth

Culicoides sonorensis the bluetongue virus biting midge

Culicoides sonorensis the bluetongue virus biting midge

I’ve been hanging onto this story to see if there were any developments. To date, there haven’t been.

Last week bluetongue serotype 1 (BTV1) was found on a farm in the North West, near Blackpool. It was detected in five imported pedigree Bazadaise dairy cattle from an area in France battling with both BTV1 and BTV8. The cows were culled along with one other animal in the same consignment.

These cows were moved perfectly legally having been vaccinated against BTV1 and BTV8 sixty days before travelling to the UK, following the current procedure set out by DEFRA. But, the cattle appear to have been infected with the BTV1 strain of the disease around the same time they were vaccinated and showed low level viremia when post-imported tested by DEFRA.

Defra said there was no evidence of the disease circulating, so no movement controls or additional restrictions had been put in place.

Chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said:
“Taking into account the epidemiological evidence and the consideration of the risk represented to British livestock, I have taken the decision to cull these animals.
This incident shows how important it is for farmers to consider potential disease risks when buying stock. Buyers need to consider how best to protect their own businesses and those of their neighbours and make sure they are clear about the stock they are intending to buy.”

Too right it does!

What astounds me is the lack of compulsory testing before the animals are exported. I know if I wanted a particular breed of cattle I would think very, very carefully about purchasing my breeding stock from a country  reeling from the effects of Bluetongue strains not yet present in the UK (well actually, I just wouldn’t!). If it was a matter of life and death (though for the life of me I can’t see that anything would be that important) I would insist on the animals being tested  prior to they leaving their home premises and before they were anywhere near British shores.

Dr Ruth Watkins at least seems to understand the risks involved when importing animals from Bluetongue infected countries. From a conversation she had with Warmwell

“From a diagnostic and virologist point of view,” she says “when vaccinating cattle for possible export – (valuable animals that are special in some way) – blood samples should be taken and stored at the time vaccination is begun and then, three weeks after the second dose of vaccination, when it is known for sure that animals are going to be exported, a further blood sample should be taken. Both blood samples should then be tested for the presence of antibody and checked for bluetongue virus RNA1 and 8 or other serotypes.
While such tests might cost up to £100 pounds or so, the £1000s spent on pedigree animals and transport puts such a figure in perspective. A farmer gets no compensation for imported animals that are subsequently culled – but if such testing were done before animals are moved into the UK it would do much for the safety of movements and the reputation – and pockets – of both importers and exporters.”

She adds ruefully, “Most farmers don’t understand enough about testing. Rational virus diagnosis – i.e. using all the tests at your command – is not routinely practised and understood in veterinary medicine – but surely farmers would rather these tests were done.”

I most certainly would – wouldn’t you?

the scarce umber

the scarce umber

Have you noticed the preponderance of moths stuck like fridge magnets to the outside of your kitchen windows recently? These are probably Winter moths, not particularly colourful or alluring, more along the line of drab and grey, as befits the weather! But you can, even at this time of year, find some stunning beautiful ones with romantically wistful names…the merville du jour, scarce umber and feathered thorn.

merville du jour

merville du jour

I’m intrigued by moth names and how they came to be. They can be ambiguous; the anomalous, the uncertain and the suspected; or factual like double line, triple line, the red, orange or yellow underwings; then there’s the purely descriptive – the lead-coloured-drab, the dingy mocha, the emerald and chocolate tip. When out of the blue these dour, dry scientific recorders appear to be overcome by nature’s beauty and names like pale shining brown, the beautiful brocade, peach blossom, flame carpet, ruby tiger and clifden nonpareil appear! Exquisite and evocative. Sometimes when Robert empties his moth trap and notes the species it can sounds like the recitation of a poem with each word leaving his mouth morphing into the very thing the moths have been named after – the phoenix, the silver hook, the sprawler, even Mother Shipton.

the december moth

the december moth

I thought a bit of beauty was in order after the ordeal of the slug (no, no; murder hasn’t been committed…yet!)

glowing hedges along Marshford lane

glowing, green-gold hedges along Marshford lane

Yesterday the sun was shining making the autumn colours glow in the hedges along Marshford lane, and on a twig of blackthorn we found an egg of the rare Brown Hairstreak butterfly.

brown hairstreak egg - I think it looks similar to a sea urchin shell

brown hairstreak egg - I think it looks similar to a sea urchin shell

These elusive butterflies are rarely seen as they fly high in the tree canopy, preferably around the tops of ash trees, feeding on aphid honeydew. They sometimes venture down to nectar on plants such as bramble, fleabane and hemp-agrimony.

brown hairstreak caterpillar

brown hairstreak caterpillar

Numbers are unfortunately declining steeply, largely because so many farmers trim their hedges every year.  Eggs are particularly vulnerable as the female lays her eggs on the new growth of blackthorn, the caterpillar’s food plant, which is removed during trimming.

brown hairstreak emerging

brown hairstreak emerging

A couple of years ago Robert (I forgot to mention that his other pets are caterpillars, which he breeds through to moths and butterflies – better than slugs – just) found a young brown hairstreak caterpillar which duly pupated.  He photographed the adult butterfly emerging, watched its wings expand, and then released it to fly quickly away to the tops of the trees.

ready to take off to the tree tops

ready to take off to the tree tops

a blaze of hawthorn berries glow in the sunlight

a blaze of hawthorn berries glow in the sunlight

Two days…yes, two whole days of sun; gorgeous, glorious sun!
We’re smiling, grinning; no, not powerful enough – beaming? Beaming, intoxicated, euphoric and possibly a little silly.

I’ve at last sheared the lambs. Cows and calves went back out this afternoon onto the Rutleighs which are just about dry enough for them not to poach and damage. With any luck we could get onto the land by next week and do some much needed topping. Who knows – perhaps we’ll even manage to get our straw? I could be getting a wee bit carried away here.

I sat out on the bench, ate my lunch and felt too hot! I sweated walking up the hill with the cattle; my overalls clung in damp, sticky patches, my feet were hot-throb swollen in their thick socks and wellies and the nape of my neck clammy with perspiration.   Whining insects bizzed, bit, fed and sipped the salt on my skin. My eyes aren’t coping with the brightness either; they’re screwed up, squinty and watery. But I don’t mind. Oh, I so don’t mind!

a hornet drinking from an oak sap run

a hornet drinking from an oak sap run

The air has become alive with dancing butterflies, bees, hornets, wasps, dragonflies, midges, mozzies and a hundred more flying fluttering insects in a last ditch attempt to capture their fast disappearing season of life. And the countryside also thrums with frantic hum and drone of tractors, mowers, combines and balers in a concentrated endeavour to save flattened crops and grass.

this is ared deer hind with her yearling white albino calf and this years brown calf

this is a red deer hind with her female yearling white albino calf and this year's brown calf

Amid this background of frenetic activity groups of deer, some large, some small have appeared in the vast acres of uncut vegetation to graze and bask silently and peacefully in the dappled sunlight.

i've watched her and followed her progress for some time. She seems to prefer being solitary, with just her offspring for company.

I've followed her progress for sometime - she prefers a solitary existence with her offspring for company; unusual for red deer

You may remember Robert joked that Gaia was responding to global warming by making it rain more, both to cool the earth and lower the sea.  Well, maybe not.  But this week’s New Scientist reports that researchers in Switzerland have found that rainfall has been increasing by 3.5mm per year across the world.  The heat trapped by greenhouse gases has fuelled an increase in evaporation leading to more rain.  That’s not to say that everywhere has become wetter- wind has carried clouds away from some unfortunate places which have become drier, making others even wetter.  On the record of the last two years, Locks Park is definitely one such wetter place!

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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