Busy bees


Up very early, woken by our neighbour who seems to be commuting to work from his campervan. But he wasn’t the only early riser because after owls during the night (who could resist listening?) a cockerel kicked off on the farm and I was wide awake and very much looking forward to finishing reading Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding”. I won’t try to sumarise the book but I would urge anyone to get hold of it and read it – it’s a brilliant introduction to some ideas that are going to dominate the next twenty years if we’re going to survive the anthropocine period. Campervans are like submarines, there’s not a lot of space, so I read sitting in bed, with the aid of a spotlight while Madame slept on.

Really good books change the way we think, and I’ve already mentioned some paradoxes that we allotmenteers need to address, such as being over-tidy, making space for insect favouring plants, making space for some species we’ve historically shunned, and worrying about the chemicals that might be hiding in the manure we apply to our plots. As I was reading all sorts of ideas were popping into my mind (which I’ll come back to later) but first I want to explain why when I took these photos of the bee wall at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, I knew – without knowing why – that this was what I was going to base my next post on.  Yesterday, technology got in the way and I was frustrated by my inability to get myself online at the campsite.  But now I’m glad because it’s taken more than 24 hours to figure it out.

The official line – the one being suggested by our excellent guide – was that the straw skeps were no longer being used to keep bees because an over-curious visitor had gone behind the barrier and shoved their finger into the skep.  Cue very cross bees! But I’m perfectly sure that the real reason is more complicated, because for all their visual appeal, skeps and their use in beekeeping are the sign of an attitude towards wild creatures that we’re still battling with in the 21st century.  In fact the photos at the top of the page could easily stand as a visual representation of the content of Isabella Tree’s book. Harvesting honey from skeps has a history that probably stretches back many centuries if not millennia. But there’s a problem with it because the honey could only be harvested by killing all the bees first.  In the days of Heligan’s bee wall they would probably have been killed by burning sulphur. To deliberately kill a colony of bees today is unthinkable to most of us, but until the early 19th century it was the only show in town.  But that didn’t matter because honeybees were so plentiful that every year a new queen and colony would set up home or perhaps a swarm would be given a home by an astute beekeeper.  The history of the removable frame hive, where the honey could be removed without killing the bees could go back to the 17th century, but things started to move in 1814 the when a Ukranian beekeper called Petro Prokopovych took the first steps. In 1848, Jan Dzierzon cut slots in the sides of his hives to take removable frames, and in America in 1851 Langstroth invented the first modern hive after calculating what’s known as the ‘bee space’ the smallest gap between the frames that the bees won’t bridge.

But what really matters here is the underlying psychology of the beekeepers of the past who saw no reason why a natural resource like honey should not be treated as essentially free, to be harvested without responsibility.

In 2019 the idea of harvesting without regard to the cost and the impact on the natural world suddenly seems utterly wrong.

img_5227And that, I’m sure, is why honey is now gathered from conventional hives at Heligan while the skeps are treated as an historical record for the benefit of the tourists. Our visit to Heligan has provoked a lot of thought. It’s a brave idea to recreate a garden that last existed in its full glory over a century ago, and we love being there.  But there’s no way that modern gardeners could justify using the old chemical treatments in the name of authenticity. On the other hand, some of the potato varieties being grown are so vulnerable to extinction that they simply have to be protected by modern chemical sprays for fear of them being lost forever. There are no easy ways of doing real gardening and sticking to the high moral ground all the time.

IMG_4281Anyway, on the Potwell Inn allotment some new ideas are unfolding.  At the border of the allotment site we have a long row of Leylandii – ugly sun-stealing brutes they are, and apart from providing a perch for wood pigeons they’re hardly a wildlife hotspot.  It would mean moving a bureaucratic mountain, but why not cut them down and replant with mixed smaller trees like birch, field maple and hazel interspersed with a thick undergrowth to create a boundary hedge attractive to wildlife? Why couldn’t we link up with a goatkeeper and provide them with moveable fencing to graze off abandoned and out-of control allotments.  We used to keep a goat and believe me she would eat anything.  There used to be a wildlife corridor on the southern side of the river which took in a long derelict site before the Local Council awarded a contract to Crest Nicholson to build ludicrously expensive flats that effectively concreted over the whole area.  By way of honouring their agreement they planted some sick looking sallows and laid a park with some kind of turf with a dozen species trees. It’s exactly the same mindset as the old skeppers had. “Nature is infinitely abundant and all those bats and birds and insects will soon find somewhere else to go”.  And under the skep goes the sulphur – except this time the skep is the same size as the earth and there’s nowhere else for the wildlife to go, and now we’re the wildlife being choked to death by the sulphur.

Do I sound a bit cross? Well I am cross. But as sure as eggs is eggs, retreating to an idealized past is not an option.  Which bit of the past should we aim for? The nineteenth century? the eighteenth? the sixteenth or the tenth? The question is – “how much change in my life am I prepared to embrace in order to create a future for my grandchildren and their heirs?’ And the answer is – a great deal!

Sadly, you may think, there’s yet another list of wildflowers brewing at the back of my mind. If we don’t know what we’ve got we’ll never notice that we’ve lost it.



Lunch at the Potwell Inn

IMG_5176And very nice it was too.  Madame and me had gone for one of those most dangerous of things – a wander around town, passing by the lovely veg stall outside M & S where prices all seem to be negotiable. “Come on” shouts the barker with a voice so loud you can hear it across town.  “Weeee-ve got rainy day reductions on fruit”……. “Weeee’ve got purple sprouting – which is what we call broccoli when it’s purple!” – You get the picture, he’s a comic with a dry sense of humour but for £10 you can fill two carrier bags with fresh veg. Six people working flat out on the stall. Our perambulation took us through several favourite shops and we arrived back at the Potwell Inn HQ with a bag of mussels, a bottle of Pecorino and a loaf of sourdough bread because I was feeling too lazy to start a loaf yesterday and anyway the oven door is falling off and creaks dreadfully when you open and close it. More expensive repairs I fear.

As for mussels, as always keep it simple.  Today I fried some finely chopped bacon before adding chopped shallots but often I leave the bacon out.  When everything is softened I chuck in a glass or perhaps two of white wine and a handful of chopped parsley with the mussels, slam the lid on and cook it hard for a couple of minutes until the mussels are all open. Voila – job done. Eat the mussels with your fingers then drink the rich stock with a slice of decent bread and finish the bottle of wine while you set the world to rights.

Today we were talking about how to join up the local with the global. It’s a constant challenge to many of us to see how our tiny efforts at the local level will ever make the kind of difference we need to head off the twin disasters of ecological degradation and climate change. Does our tiny effort at composting our kitchen waste ever amount to anything more than virtue signalling?  Does our individual refusal to use chemicals on the allotment ever make more than a nanopercentage of the thousands of tons being poured on the earth by agribusiness? And at a time when the government has its eyes firmly fixed on retaining the patronage of the few, who’ll look after the rest of us? Or – to put it another way – have all these years of campaigning and lobbying for ‘green issues’ been wasted?

Oddly enough, I think, this time of political turmoil has had some unintended consequences which could lead to real change. It’s rapidly dawning on a generation of the kind of people who might never previously have counted themselves as ‘politically active’ that they’ve been cheated, and they’re getting cross about it – I suppose I’m one of them. Let me give an example. This year you’ll know, if you’re been on board for a while,  I built a manure-fired hot bed.  It works, it’s been an education. Then the other day I discovered that some manure is contaminated with an insecticide .  Environmentalists have once again been thwarted by the use of exemptions following lobbying by the powerful agrochemical industry. The chemical is called Dimilin and it’s used to control insect infestation in intensive rearing units – themselves a morally dubious operation. And here’s the bit that got me spitting fire – it’s been listed as a food additive, even though it’s clearly a systemic insecticide. So conceivably, the manure that we allotmenteers have been applying to our precious soil, has been contaminated with a systemic insecticide which is persistent enough to pollute soil and run-off water and, worse still, my be contributing to the disastrous decline in insects. Whose brilliant idea was that? We thought that neonicotinoids had been totally banned, but it turned out that they’re  still in use for some crops. It’s also emerged that many thousands of protected wild birds have been slaughtered through the liberal use of exemptions provided by Natural England to landowners, and these weren’t all pigeons and seagulls – the linked article quotes “at least 40 species, including the skylark, blackbird, great tit, bullfinch, robin, wren, red kite, moorhen, mute swan, kestrel, peregrine falcon and golden plover.”

My question is – how many other pieces of hard fought-for environmental legislation are being quietly undermined and made mockery of by powerful interests who know how to use their financial muscle and connections?

“Think global and act local” is a good slogan, but I’m much preoccupied with the interaction between the two. Yesterday this chain of thought was provoked by a new green initiative  called Natural Climate Solutions and fronted up by George Monbiot among others. Most of the initiatives proposed there are on a large scale, not the kind of thing you can do in a single garden or allotment.  So there’s the conundrum in a nutshell – think globally because some solutions to the unfolding crisis can only be addressed at the larger political level.  But acting locally needs to be linked to it in a way that we know will make more difference than helping us to feel we’ve just done something. If we think of what kind of campaign we need to conduct, as a kind of lever that can magnify the effects of the local in order to lift a heavy load in the larger sphere, what will the fulcrum be? What could be the single cause around which sufficient people at the long end of a lever, could coalesce around an idea, a dream that would move the mountain of vested interest?