Mud On the Road

we're about to go shopping in Salisbury...

Day of the Bee, Part 2

Posted by Deborah Courtnell

   A gang of jackdaws hangs out on the roof of our house. They organise forays to the bird feeders, swooping and diving and clinging on grimly. They've recently discovered the tasty pellets of chicken food inside the chicken run. They strut and waddle about the garden, sidling ever closer to the run door. Then one creates a diversion while his thieving mate dives inside.

   I like their big heads, elegantly topped with steel grey plumage and I love the way they chatter and squabble and patrol their territory of terracotta chimney pots and clay peg tiles. Their gregarious comings and goings have loosened the netting that stopped them nesting up there, hence the recent visitation by the mother and her young.

   Did the young jackdaw fall and the mother scramble after him? Or did the nest simply give way, causing them  to fall together,  flapping  like loose bundles of black laundry, wheeling silently down the vertiginous chute that is the chimney?
The Victorian  fireplace, in the little spare room where they arrived, is unused and a small iron guard stopped them crash landing in the bedroom.

   By the time Shedley had freed me and the birds from our respective prisons (see Part 1), and by the time I had vacuumed up the brick dust which accompanied the jackdaws' adventure, it was mid-morning. My plan to clean the conservatory roof, already the victim of weeks of bad weather and procrastination,  was running very late.

   I assembled the bucket, mop, emergency mobile phone and chair. I bade farewell to Shedley who was setting off to Salisbury  to kill somebody in Freesat customer services, and I climbed, gingerly, out onto the kitchen roof. From this position, perched and wobbly like an accident waiting to happen, I can reach the high glass panes of the conservatory.

   Like all such chores once you get down to it, it's almost enjoyable. And I was almost enjoying it when I became aware that the blue sky over the garden had turned brown and the sporadic hum and buzz of which I had been dimly aware in the distance, had become a close and constant throb with the vibration and intensity of a Harley-Davidson.

   Hanging over the garden, not quite 15 feet from my perch, was a vast, pulsating, brown cloud. A Swarm. A  swarm of what? Bees? Wasps? Locusts? Beetley things?

   No, ok. Not locusts.

   But it was impossible to distinguish individual shapes and colours in the frenzy. The only thing you say with any certainty, was they all looked quite cross and fully equipped to obliterate anything that got in their way, wherever their way might be.

   I scrambled off the roof, gathered itinerant furry mammals to safety and prayed the hens would not annoy The Swarm by hooting loudly or attempting to get airborne.

   Then, I phoned Shedley, to brief him on the further degeneration of my day into Jumanji 2.

   While we talked,  I watched in awe, as the cloud, which had extended 15, 20 feet in all directions, began to organise and concentrate its thousand parts into the shape of a funnel-cloud, borne by a tornado. The swarm was now spiraling around and downwards and the finger tip of the funnel was pointing insistently towards the small round hole of our nesting box, and into that impossible space the contents of the swarm-cloud began to whirr and drill.


   Mr John Haverson is our local swarm liaison officer. He's a tall, burly man, quietly spoken and understated, which I guess is how you need to be around bees.

   He was happy to help and advise but dubious, at first, that our swarm was a honey bee swarm. He said it was more likely to be another species of bee, bumble probably, or maybe wasps. That was before he saw the photographs in my email which confirmed my less than scientific research on the web.

   He also agreed that the bird house they had adopted as their new home, was far too small and precarious for a stable hive with a long term future.

      So, that same day, Mr Haverson and two friends of his, who drove up from the coast especially for the task, set to work relocating our swarm.

   They waited until dusk when the bees were settling for the night.

    Careful not to encroach, Shedley and I retired to a safe distance and for some three hours that evening, we were treated to a  master class in the tender arts  of bee keeping.

   It was a pleasingly arcane spectacle of white suits and broad rimmed hats and veils, played out in the soft, humid air of early Summer.  Observing the quiet co-ordination of the players, patiently waiting on the natural rites and rhythms of the bees,  was like watching a rare and beautiful dance being performed  in our own back garden.

   They gently removed the bird house from its pole, laid it on  a white sheet and waited until  every last bee had flown in for the night. They then wrapped the bird house in the sheet, carried it through to the car in front of the house and drove South, transporting the colony to a new, more suitable home, in the grounds of a monastery in West Sussex.

     In the spirit of natural beekeeping, for which John Haverson  is an advocate, no smoke was used.  Haverson educates  beekeepers about the methods of the 19th Century  Abbé Émile Warré (1867-1951).

   Warré believed in creating a simple habitat for bees, as close to their environment in the wild as possible, with minimal interference by humans, and a less means more approach to harvesting their honey.

     Our swarm, it was generally agreed, must have been a wild one because the relaxed attitude of the bees suggested this was their first direct encounter with people.

   The following morning, I found a solitary honey bee buzzing frantically around the space where the bird box had been: a lone sentry  left behind, like the child with the crutches in The Pied Piper of Hamlyn. So zealous had the single sentry bee been in his duties as guard, that, despite the long patience of the waiting keepers, he flew home too late to be relocated with his hive.

 For a few days I watched him as he hung around the empty space, buzzing sadly. Then he was gone.



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