Sunday 28 August 2016

Honey harvest

Through a year and a summer I have kept our bees in the back corner of our property, their hive looking out onto the thick wildflower fields of the Bog of Allen. Through all the seasons I have gone through the ritual, every month or so, of putting on the white suit, lighting a fire in the hand-held smoker, sedating them, and opening up the hive. I – and occasionally my daughter -- have fed them sugar-water, checked for mites and other signs of disease, and cleared the summer weeds that were crowding around their home.

We watched them slowly line their wooden box with wax sculptures of geometric precision, and fill these shapes, bit by bit, with a treasure that they guarded like dragons guarding gold. Then, last weekend, finally, we took some of their gooey hoard for our use, payment for room and board.

People have worked out relationships with all kinds of animals – cows and other grazers for milk and meat, chickens and other birds for eggs and meat – but have few such relations with the far more numerous and important invertebrates of the world. Snails might have been among the first domesticated – if that’s the word – animals, as pots with many snail shells have been found at archaeological sites, and the Chinese guarded their relationship with the silkworm for three thousand years. We have nothing else in our civilisation, however, like our relationship with bees – indeed, there are few living things like bees in the world. A century ago the Afrikaans naturalist Eugene Marais proposed that a termite mound should be recognised as a single animal, a termitiary, and we could do say much the same of any apiary.  

Our relationship with bees goes back so far that it has affected the evolution of third-party species. The honeyguide bird of Africa leads humans to hives so they can get the honey, which they share with the bird – something that must have been worked out over millions of years, before we were truly human. Many ancient societies kept bees, apparently developing the relationship separately in places like Egypt, China and Central America, and no self-respecting monastery would be without bees for mead and candle-wax.

For most of that time, though, they were kept in simple containers like skeps – essentially baskets – which had to be broken and the hive destroyed any time the honey was harvested. In 1852, though, a Pennsylvania vicar invented the beehive that is still used today – a wooden box with sliding frames inside that the bees can use to make honeycombs, without sealing the frames together. Each frame can be pulled out and checked, the bees inspected for disease and progress, and the honey extracted, all with only a brief disruption to the hive.

Not only do they give us honey and wax, but they are very helpful in pollinating our plants as well, the reproductive solution for living things that must procreate but cannot move. Flowers grow for their benefit, not us, and bloom in more colours than we can see – only their superior eyes can see all their shades and patterns. Any good gardener would benefit not only from the presence of bees, but from planting crops specifically designed to attract them.

If you want to plant for bees and other pollinators, you need to plant foods that bloom in early spring and late autumn, the off-season months when bees struggle to find enough food. Snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils give bees their first taste of nectar for the year as honey stores run low. Ling heather, the plant used to make thick heather honey, does the opposite, blooming after everything else has gone, although its honey is too thick to extract the usual way.

One of the champion bee flowers, in our experience, is borrage – our bees go nuts for it. We find that verbena draws legions of bees and butterflies--- my wife and mother-in-law bought some from a garden store after seeing one covered with them. Almost all herbs, in fact, make great bee fodder – thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, sage and mint. Our local beekeeping society also recommends poppies, cornflowers, forget-me-nots, zinnias, wallflowers, bellflowers, dahlias, hellebores and roses.

I could probably have harvested honey from them last fall, but I had only gotten the bees a few months earlier, and I wanted to give them time to settle into their home and accumulate some honey their first year without interference. It turned out to be a good decision; to my surprise, when I checked on them a few weeks ago, I found that they had not completely filled the “super,” the removable upper box where the bees keep most of their honey stores. Some of the beekeepers I talked to suggested that they were a small colony when I got them, and it took them time to build up their stores.

You might think that honey is honey, but in fact, no: beekeepers try to avoid getting honey from certain flowers, like rapeseed, while others are particularly prized. Ivy honey, they said, was difficult to get out, and heather honey can’t be extracted in the usual way – it’s so thick it requires a press.

You could see as much when we brought the “super” in and the honeycomb frames were all slightly different colours; the bees had filled them like typists filing papers, month by month, and each was filled with the honey of the flowers that were in bloom at the time they were filling it.

Before harvesting the honey, I had gone to a meeting of the local beekeepers’ society to learn how to use an extractor, and they had generously lent it to me for the weekend. The extractor is basically a bucket with a wire frame inside, into which you can place the wooden frames of the beehive, heavy with their wax honeycombs. You then take a heated knife and slowly run it over the wax surface of the honeycomb, removing the “caps” that keep the honey from dribbling out inside the hive, and then set the frames inside the extractor.

When the extractor is full of frames, you crank the handle and centrifugal force flings the honey at the sides of the bucket. You’d think it would be a sticky business wiping all the honey off, but in fact honey is usually quite runny and neatly collects at the bottom, where you can simply open a valve to drain it into jars.

We got several jars of honey out of the business – more than a year’s supply, and enough left over to make mead, or honey alcohol. We also collected the beeswax, which not only makes the best candles, but that we will use to make skin cream.

I had assumed I would put the hive’s upper story when I was done, for the bees to re-fill over the coming year. In fact, the beekeepers in my local association said they leave it off during the winter – the bees have some honey stores in the lower decks anyway -- and feed the bees sugar-water to keep them going. If you let them go over the winter, they said, the bees will create honey from ivy flowers and other things they find difficult to extract.

They are experts at this, and I’m just a beginner, but I will note that not all local beekeepers do the same; some have embraced ivy honey for purported health properties – like the tea-tree-derived “Manuka” honey – and encourage the bees to stockpile it in order to extract it in spring. I also thought that the hive has been through quite a trauma, and that keeping the super on – and allowing them to fill it with ivy honey over the winter – might be less stressful for them.

Any opinions from beekeepers out there?

Wednesday 24 August 2016

The inner landscape

For thousands of generations our forebears lived in the tangible world, surrounded by family and companions in a world with few strangers, engaged in the vital, heavy-breathing work of creating their own food and shelter. Like birds building nests from twigs, we develop an interior world out of our memories of the exterior, and their memories and dreams would have been of real things; time spent with loved ones, of a change in the seasons, the smell of an animal or the anticipation of violence.

Whether as Paleo-lithic foragers fifty millennia ago or Irish villagers fifty years ago, most of our ancestors grew up intimately knowing the landscape and seasons as children today know their video games. Campfire songs – the ones we now read as the Iliad, or the Psalms, or Beowulf – accounted for the time and space outside one’s experience, and told our forebears who they were as a people.

In more recent generations some of our ancestors could also draw on the writings of others who came before, without relying on memory. Legends and poems, mathematics and logic, histories and philosophies, could be passed down in the same form through the ages, and their presence in the lives of each generation provided an umbilical cord to the wisdom of the ages. The Roman child who read Hesiod or Horace might have shared some of the same questions, and felt the same inspiration, as the medieval acolyte who did the same five or ten centuries later. He, in turn, might have felt some commonality with the Victorian school-boy or American pioneer family reading the same words.

By several generations ago our forebears would been able to read newspapers, gather in town halls to run their community or in coffee shops to debate philosophy, and as transportation grew faster, they could trade ideas more readily. Guilds of skilled professionals arose to communicate a great deal of information in a small space, and their new knowledge – “the news” could enlighten, anger or inspire millions of people as swiftly as it could be spread.

Today, though, reading has faded, with both the number of readers and their competency plummeting – but more than that, it has become genuinely difficult in public. Most public places in Ireland have acquired television screens in the last ten years -- offices, bus depots, restaurants, even coffee shops. Even the double-decker bus we ride in to work and back contains a screen, displaying the road in front of us – and the passengers are so well trained that when they want to see the road in front of us, they look at the small video screen rather than the giant window showing a better view of the same thing.

This constant barrage of media in our lives does far more damage, I suspect, than we realise. Just as a pop song, heard over and over, begins to play unbidden in our heads, so the images and sounds we receive from this electronic media roll around in our consciousness until, when we reconstruct abstract thoughts, we inevitably use scraps of the media world. Frequent video game players tell me that they now dream their games, which must feel more real to them than the uncooperative physical world of people. When I think of anyone from history – the Spartans at Thermopylae, for example, or Mahatma Gandhi – I’m inevitably picturing actors in a Hollywood movie.

I can’t judge too harshly the people wrapped in their own electronic worlds, for I do enough of it myself; obviously I keep a blog, and you’re reading it. What I resent is the constant distraction of public screens that makes reading or conversation more difficult, and drives us each into our own, expensive private screens and earbuds, separating us from each other.

Similarly, just as we must now cope with visual stimulation everywhere, so must we do with sounds. Virtually every public and corporate space I visit -- lift, office lobby, grocery store, doctor’s office or petrol station, every space -- has overhead speakers and a piped-in sound system, playing the same jingles over and over until I hear them even in silence.

We are likely too accustomed to this by now to notice the problems this creates. Some studies show increased background noise reduces concentration and memory. We also likely don’t notice the hearing loss, but a study in the 1990s found that it had trebled in the previous 30 years, and that was 20 years ago. No wonder rappers seems to get louder every year, as malls and offices slowly increase the loudspeaker volume to be heard above all the other background noises in the same imperceptibly gradual arms race.

A more basic problem, though, is that we have little control over this media, short of asking people to turn it off – which I do, to the annoyance of shopkeepers and bus drivers alike. When we can’t persuade people to turn off the loudspeakers, we are a captive audience; we are forced to listen to advertisements, telling us our lives are terrible because we don’t have their products. We must listen to news announcements that try to convince us to fear, despise or admire people we will never meet, who don’t know or care about us.

Here, too, more and more people deal with the increasing noise with earbuds and a private reverie of our own chosen sounds, but that only increases our isolation from each other, a kind of deafness to the world around us. We turn up the volume on our MP3 players or IPods to drown out the loud bus speakers or office radio, and then have to turn it up ever more loudly as everyone else does the same thing, each in their enforced solitude. 

How different that is from the way music was for people only a few generations ago. People here used to walk to each other’s homes in the evenings, I’m told, with a fiddle or other instrument with them and a canon of stories and songs inside them. The songs did not have the electronic sound effects and drum machines of today’s recordings; they were meant to be sung by ordinary voices in unison, inviting everyone to take part. They kept the rhythms of the chores and seasons, imparted folk wisdom that our culture has forgotten, and sometimes kept alive the rituals of family, the rapture of prayer and the embers of rebellion through the centuries.

The songs varied from one family or village to the next, organically evolving and cross-pollinating, mixing lyrics a thousand years old with one ten years old - building on the past while respecting it. Nor was music limited to rural sing-a-longs; street workers whistled at their jobs, and vendors sang out their wares. In fact, public singing seems to have been present in most times and places; only recently has it begun to disappear.

Storytelling has followed a similar path; a few generations ago families here spent the long winter nights with rounds of stories – of brave warriors and faithful women, of ghosts and fairies. Like playing music, telling stories takes talent and practice; it is an act in more than one sense, a performance that requires the speaker to know or assess their listeners and know what they want before they do. It could not be further removed from the passivity required to stare at a screen for hours.

You can see similar trends across all kinds of human activities. Children’s games like mumblety-peg or hopscotch have existed for hundreds of years – no one knows how long – and have largely disappeared; I know many young people who have never heard of them. Playing cards were once the normal pastime for adults, whether among London Cavaliers or 1950s suburbanites, but I know few people who play them anymore. Today, riding on the bus to work and back each day, I see many passengers “playing games” – moving electrons around a screen -- but every one of them does so alone.

Many communities once had a variety of newspapers -- city, state, labour and church papers, each with a unique point of view but generally written by knowledgeable professionals. We could disagree on political issues, of course, and read different papers, but the papers competed for the same public, and the members of that public spoke to each other. Now, however, most people I meet gets their news from one of a billion web sites, coming from anywhere in the world or nowhere, often staffed by unaccountable and unknown strangers, trained in nothing, with absent or unknowable standards, beholden to no one. The assumption that there is a “news,” a shared reality that we can all talk about, seems to be slipping away unnoticed. 

Thus, a child in early 20th-century America, or late 20th-century Ireland, might have played children’s games, read the classics, attended plays or played cards as an adult, sang or told stories in the evenings, attended a social gathering after work and church on Sunday morning. They would have built or fixed most of their own belongings, grown some of their own food and known intimately the hopes and fears of their neighbours. They would have been part of something larger than themselves; hardship and fear were lessened because they were shared, while milestones and joys were greater because they were shared.

With minor differences, all those things would have been true of their ancestors five hundred years earlier, and five hundred years before that, and five hundred years before that.  Today, though, that umbilical thread of continuity has almost broken; the old songs and stories are fading, their keepers few and elderly, falling away from our lives like dead petals and never replaced.

The strains of Western culture, with local variants in numberless local villages and neighbourhoods, have been replaced in the minds of most children – and by physical adults who are still children inside -- by a thousand “communities” that exist on the other side of a glowing screen. Spend too long in those communities and you absorb their beliefs by osmosis, simply because you have heard their version of the news for so long.

I see my friends grow increasingly militant for a cause – political, religious sexual – after those ideas suddenly became popular in online “communities.” I doubt that so many people came up with the same strained ideas at the same time; rather, people find meaning in being part of something, and they don’t find it in the real world anymore. And since they get all their information this way, they never have to hear news that doesn’t affect their own beliefs, talk to people from different bubbles than their own, or test their attitudes against reality.

The good news, of course, is that this older world still exists all around us; all that we need to do, once in a while, is turn off the screen and look around. Ironically, that can be a lonely experience, if you are the only one who wants to talk on the bus, or play cards, or read with no loudspeakers blasting in the background.

Thankfully, I know many people who value older ways of life, all over the world, and are reaching out and meeting others like them, and keeping the old threads of community alive in their neighbourhoods.

Inevitably, and also ironically, they usually have to look for each other online. 

Monday 15 August 2016