Tuesday, 30 July 2013

A Purple Emperor, Red Admirals and Red Queens

Purple Emperor Butterfly

The different bees and butterflies I've seen over the past few days could form an exotic court. I've seen red queen bees, a Purple Emperor and some Red Admiral butterflies (but sadly no Painted Ladies!) I admit I am fascinated that so many of our butterflies have been given grand or royal names - and I imagine the Purple Emperor gained its name because it is so beautiful and rare. This butterfly is only found in certain places in the south of England, and - where it does exist - it's not easily seen, because it spends its life flying high up in a tree canopy. Only occasionally does the male descend to the ground, and then this lovely butterfly is attracted to (of all things) rotting flesh and animal excrement...

Although that doesn't sound pleasant, I've long wanted to see a Purple Emperor.  I knew that - like the Heath Fritillary I saw a few weeks ago - I was never going to see this butterfly on the smallholding. So; when I discovered that Purple Emperors could be found among some oaks a short drive away, I decided to go there in the hope of seeing one.  I didn't expect to spot one at all, so I was thrilled when I did see a male in the long grass at the foot of a large oak (not settled on anything nasty that I could see). The oak could well have been the 'master tree' in the wood where males gather to intercept females and chase each other away.  This Purple Emperor didn't linger very long, so I could only grab a couple of photos, but it was one of the most exciting butterfly sightings of the summer.

A few minutes later I came across this Red Admiral...

On the smallholding, I've been lucky enough to see lots of butterflies in recent weeks, including Ringlets, Gatekeepers, Small Tortoiseshells, Whites, Meadow Browns and Small Skippers...

I may have seen Essex Skippers, too, but I'm still not brilliant at telling my Small Skippers from my Essex Skippers!!

The Peacocks have found the buddleia (although none of these could be seen at all when I did my Butterfly Count this year).  I'm hoping to see some more Red Admirals, too - as well as Painted Ladies (although I haven't seen these here for a couple of years).

Red Queens

I have all new queen bees hatching in my hives and I now want to mark them so that they're easy to identify among all the other bees. First of all, I have to wait until the queens have returned from their mating flight (this is when they fly off to the 'drone congregation areas' where the males are hanging out waiting for the virgin queens).  When a queen is back from mating and has started to lay eggs, then she's ready to be marked.

Queens are marked with a dot of colour on their thorax from a pen (or paint) and queen bees born this year should be marked red (a different colour every year tells beekeepers how old a queen is).

But marking queens can be difficult in mid-late summer.  There are tens of thousands of bees in the hive and although the queen looks a lot different from the other bees, she can also be hiding under a large heap of them (queens are very good at this). Finding the queen - and then keeping my eye on her while I reach for the red pen - isn't easy. Queens move very fast over the comb and they also don't like the light - their instinct is to go down into the darkness of the hive when the roof is lifted off.  So; if I manage to see the queen, I usually have one shot at it, and then I've lost her.  And I also have to be very careful when I do mark her, because if she becomes smothered in red pen or paint, then the other bees are likely to reject her.

So far, this year, I haven't been able to mark one queen red. The red queens I have seen have been in other people's hives and not mine. So I've been backwards and forwards to the hives with the red pen...

...and it's almost as if the bees know what I'm up to.

Bees in the Garden

The bees have been very active in my garden in the hot weather.  Here are a couple of the flowers they're foraging on at the moment...



I've been really lucky to have a wonderful display of lupins this year, probably thanks to the lack of slugs - and these have been loved by the bumblebees. I think this bee looks as though it's going to dive into a plant full of pillows...

And finally, it seems the heatwave may have finished (although it is supposed to be hot again for a couple of days later this week).  Here is one member of our household who hasn't enjoyed the heatwave at all and will be pleased if it's over at last...

Harry in the shade

Friday, 19 July 2013

Summer Evenings: A Scented Garden, Badgers and Bees

Our local badgers: Out and about in daylight at this time of year.

I must admit, I do love the heatwave we're having here at the moment. It's true there are downsides, for example, I'm concerned about local wildlife as natural sources of water dry up, so I'm constantly topping up bird baths and putting out extra trays of water to help visiting creatures. Another downside is that the garden has become very dry and dusty (although it does tend to look tired in July anyway when it loses the freshness of early summer). But even if the garden isn't looking its best - it's a lovely place to be in the evenings when the temperature has cooled down a little and the sun is setting, because then it's filled with beautiful scents.

I have one of my favourite plants for scent - honeysuckle - all over the smallholding and by the house. It's been planted in our new hedges, it climbs up the house and the new barn and it's also right by the back door entwined with roses...

I've also planted jasmine outside the back door and next to the summer house and the scent of the flowers is stunning.  Other scents include lavender in the herb bed and the scents from the evening primroses.  These are really weeds, but they have a fabulous scent at dusk.  There are strong scents, too, from the roses climbing over the pergola (before the house) and the flowers in the baskets by the front door...

I also love this time of day outside because I get to see wildlife, like our local badgers, that I don't usually see when the evenings are darker.  These wonderful, shy creatures have taken a while to trust people here, and it's a real privilege that they do so now...

I've also had surprise visitors in the house, like this moth that appeared in the kitchen because the doors and windows are wide open.  After learning a bit from some terrific moth posts on other people's blogs I'm going to ID it as one of the hawk moths. But I wonder if moth experts can help - could it be a Privet Hawkmoth?

Collecting a Swarm of Bees

I'm looking at my bees in the evenings at the moment because it's too hot to wear the bee suit in full sun. Early one evening about four weeks ago there was a surprise in the apiary when I discovered a swarm clustering near one of my hives. I knew they couldn't be mine - instead they were visiting bees that were probably attracted to an area where other bees had already settled.

The bees had clustered quite high up in a hedge and so I needed a ladder - and some help to collect them. I called David and persuaded him to climb the ladder with a cardboard box (the idea is that all the bees are knocked in one go into this from the branch they're clinging to).  Meanwhile, I held the ladder at the bottom. As I was doing this, I remembered that the bee-books warn you that cardboard boxes don't always hold the weight of thousands of the bees and they often suddenly fall through the bottom in one lump.

It was very possible I could have had thousands of bees emptying over my head...

A local swarm of bees (this one is very high up in a tree) 

So; I was dreading a shower of bees all over me, but - fortunately - it didn't happen, because they were clinging fast to their branch (and each other). It actually took three or four shakes to dislodge them and, after each shake, some were brought down the ladder in the box. On the ground below, I'd placed an empty hive with an old bed sheet spread out in front - and one end of this was tucked into the entrance of the hive.  The bees were gently tipped onto the sheet and then I sat down among them and slowly steered them up into the hive.

It was an amazing thing to do; the bees had obviously filled themselves up with honey before they left their previous home because they were very docile.  Although I wore a suit for protection just in case, these bees weren't in a stinging mood and it was possible to sit in the middle of thousands of them without being buzzed.  The whole experience was very calming.

It's vital to make sure that the queen is there - the bees will only stay if she is. If not, they'll all fly back to her.  I didn't see her, but as the bees were happy to stay in the hive, I knew she was about.  I moved the hive to a new spot the next day and the latest news is that the new queen is laying very well and the colony is happily settled in its new home.  I might even get some honey from them this year!

And last of all I love the golden light in summer evenings as the sun sets. Here it is shining on our latest carved fence-post warrior (this one is guarding the honesty box out the front!)

Monday, 8 July 2013

A Visit to the Real Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden

As a child, a favourite story of mine was 'The Secret Garden' by Frances Hodgson Burnett - and I've loved walled gardens ever since. Walking into a walled garden feels like entering a hidden world, and, for a child, this can be a mysterious world, as Frances HB describes so well in her book, when her character Mary finds herself in the Secret Garden  and 'it seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place.'  The planting in walled gardens can look lovely, too, because the old walls provide a perfect background to cottage garden flowers and climbing roses.

Frances HB had been inspired to write the book by her own walled garden at Great Maytham Hall in Kent, where she was living at the turn of the twentieth century. Although I loved the book, I hadn't really thought about visiting the real-life garden that had inspired her story.  But a couple of years ago I was researching some family history and made a surprising discovery: David's six-times great grandfather was Captain James Monypenny, who had Great Maytham Hall and the gardens (including the Secret Garden) built as his country house and grounds in the early 1700s. So, having discovered that the 'real' Secret Garden exists in Kent (not too far away) - and that we have a sort of family connection to it (even though three hundred years and eight generations is a bit distant to say the least...) - we thought it was well worth a visit.

Great Maytham Hall viewed from the Secret Garden

The current Great Maytham Hall isn't the house built by Captain James; this was largely replaced by a house designed by Edward Lutyens in 1909. The gardens have undergone various transformations, too. Frances HB found the Secret Garden overgrown and forgotten and she set about changing this by planting several roses. Later, Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll re-designed the grounds.  Today, the Secret Garden is full of flowers and is very well maintained...

In 'The Secret Garden', Mary discovers the hidden garden when she is led there by a robin (and it seems Frances HB was led there by a robin, too). Well, there were no robins on our visit, but instead I did see plenty of bees and this lovely Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly...

Small Tortoiseshell

Mary enters the garden through a door concealed by ivy and finds that it is neglected with all the flowers and plants apparently lifeless. But it's winter, and she soon discovers the first green shoots of the spring flowers in the earth. When she visits again and again over the next few months, and begins to do some gardening of her own there, she watches everything come to life, especially the roses...'Rising out of the grass, tangled around the sun-dial, wreathing the tree trunks, and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades - they came alive day by day, hour by hour...and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air.'

We visited the real Secret Garden on a hot day in early July, so the cottage garden flowers and roses were in full bloom.  It is very pretty and we were lucky that, for much of the time, we were the only people there.  But the romance of a secret garden has gone, of course - and I tried to imagine Frances HB being the only visitor there when it was more enclosed and hidden and wild. She came to the garden to write and I wonder whether she found any peace there, because she apparently suffered from depression after losing her own son some years before 'The Secret Garden' was written.  The children in the book come alive in the garden, and, interestingly, there is a hundred year old message here about children spending too much time indoors when they are healthier and happier outside.
Area of the grounds outside the Secret Garden

'The Secret Garden' at Great Maytham Hall is open on Wednesday afternoons under the National Gardens Scheme (gardens open for charity).  The Hall itself, which isn't open to visitors, has now been divided into luxury apartments.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Heath Fritillary, Beech Leaf Noyau and Blackberry Vinegar

Heath Fritillary

I've really wanted to see a rare butterfly this year, but knew that I would have to go and hunt for one because there wouldn't be any chance of finding one here on the smallholding. So - on a warm, sunny afternoon last week  - I visited Hockley Woods where I knew the Heath Fritillary could be found.  This lovely butterfly was on the brink of extinction when it was re-introduced into habitats that have been carefully managed for it (although - even now - it only exists in a few locations, which are a couple of woods and immediate areas in the south east and a few areas in Devon and Cornwall).  Hockley Woods, near Southend, is my nearest area to discover this little butterfly.

I'd read that the Heath Fritillary loves Common Cow Wheat and Foxgloves and flies from mid-June into July. I also know it's a sun-loving butterfly and it can only be seen in the woodland glades on warm, sunny days.  Hockley Woods is a bit of drive from where I am and when I first arrived I had this feeling I'd be looking for a needle in a haystack. But, surprisingly, I saw one - and then another - fairly quickly.  They really are beautiful butterflies - and I was lucky enough to take a few pics before they flew off. 

I love the way this butterfly is settled right in the middle of this buttercup...

I'm not sure I'll get to see another butterfly as rare as the Heath Fritillary this summer, but I'm certainly hoping to see some more of the less common ones over the coming weeks.

Foraging: Beech Leaf Noyau...

When I went on the foraging course in May, I tried some Beech Leaf Noyau and loved it - so I decided to make my own to be ready to drink at midsummer. I made two bottles - and I have to report back that they're definitely going down well here.

Beech Leaf Noyau is a liqueur made from fresh, young beech leaves soaked in gin with sugar and brandy added. The recipe I used is as follows:

Fill a large jar almost to the top with young beech leaves.  Pour some gin to just cover the leaves (I used a bottle of gin) and rest for 2-3 weeks.  Then strain off the gin, and for every pint add 14oz of sugar dissolved in half a pint of boiling water. Then add a dash of brandy (I used a large glass and a bit of brandy, so I'm guessing this has given the drink its final, golden colour). Mix and then pour into bottles when cold.

...and Blackberry Vinegar

I'd been going through the freezer (clearing out the remainder of last year's fruit and veg to make space for this year's) when I came across a tub of blackberries.  I'm not keen on eating them for dessert at the moment (we've just started on the strawberries), so I've made some Blackberry Vinegar as a salad dressing (ideal - as we've just begun the lettuces).

I've used this recipe:

Soak 1lb blackberries in a pint of white wine vinegar in a covered bowl for 4 days.  Stir occasionally during that time. After 4 days, strain and measure the juice.  Add 1lb sugar for every pint of juice. Heat the sugary juice gently in a pan until all the sugar dissolves and then bring to the boil. Let it cool and pour into bottles.

I prefer to make my own salad dressings and this summer I'm keen to try out several new and different ideas (hopefully some of these will be through more foraging).

Rose Pics

Finally, I thought I'd just add a couple of pics of some of my roses, because they're looking so gorgeous at the moment;

Ferdinand Pichard...

A lovely standard rose...

This pink rose was already climbing over the front of the cottage when we moved in. I still don't know what variety it is, but it has a beautiful scent. We've since built a pergola before the cottage and it's one of the flowers that now romps all over this (so we walk under it to the front door).

I really must find out what it is!