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.

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Meet ‘the widowmaker’

IMG_5194If you detect a certain look of distaste on Madame’s face, it’s just what anyone might look like when they’ve just heard something that compels a rearrangement of the neural networks. How many of us go to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in search of Downton Abbey -you know, six residents lovely frocks and fifty servants –  or perhaps in search of a lost time of horticultural innocence. I’m so exercised thinking about the poisons that we’re pouring on to the earth in the 21st century, that it really never occurred to me to enquire too deeply into what they were putting on it in the early 1900’s. So – meet what our guide today claimed was known by the gardeners as “the widowmaker’. It’s an ordinary hand operated spray, through which the gardeners dispensed weedkiller and insecticide. Substances like sea salts, waste manufacturing products, and oils were used as weed killers. In the late 19th century, additional materials such as carbon disulfide, borax, pyridine and other coal-tar derivatives, mercury, strychnine and arsenic trioxide were used, not to mention nicotine of course. So let’s not get too breathlessly sentimental about late 19th and early 20th century horticulture it was as much a product of the industrial revolution as any other aspect of life.

IMG_5192However, a century later – now we can see what havoc industrialised agriculture can wreak on the countryside and its ecology – anything before 1945 is going to look better than what we’ve got now.  Time for a cheerful picture. Here we’re looking at about half of just one of several gardens dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables at Heligan and you can see some rather vast rows of shallots.  This is the bed we photographed in the autumn under four or five inches of seaweed straight off the beach.  We had a conversation with the head gardener and she was very reassuring,  so we mulched our asparagus bed with a car-load of seaweed from North Wales and, just as she said, the seaweed has almost disapeared and we have a very healthy growth of second year asparagus. We’ve taken and eaten just a few spears but the bed will be fed and left alone for the rest of the season, just keeping an eye out for asparagus beetle which decimated our neighbours’ crops last season. Allotmenteers face the same challenges as the old gardeners of Heligan in controlling pests and we’ve turned our backs on synthetic chemicals, but we did have to use natural pyrethrum twice last year, or face the destruction of our plants. It was applied early in the morning when the impact of any drift on passing insects would be minimised, and the asparagus itself was not in flower. We try not to let the perfect drive out the best. Short of a major infestation you can often pick enough beetles off plants to set them back.

It was here too, at Heligan last year, that we first saw a hotbed in action and again we were sufficiently inspired to build a small one ourselves and in spite of a few mistakes on my part (like getting too little straw in the manure) it’s providing us with salad onions, beetroot, radish and lettuce which appear to love their warm environment.

We’re staying on the campsite adjoining the gardens.  I’ve never mentioned the campervan before. We call it “Polly” which, confusingly refers to Alfred Polly the hero of the Potwell Inn. On the right our inflatable kayak that gets us to some epic birdwatching spots on local canals.

Apart from visiting the gardens, as always when we’re in the van I’ve been doing some serious reading. This time it’s been Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding”. It’s a brilliant book that raises all manner of questions and ideas for us. My head is spinning with challenges, not least because instinctively I’m a tidiness freak (only) when it comes to the allotment. I have to remind myself that my idea of rubbish could often be better described as habitat. Once again, I’m trying to bridge the gap between what can be done on many hundreds of acres and our 250 square metres, and I know there is a link, but we just haven’t worked it out yet.  I remember one of those annoying management catchphrases – “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and it’s true.  Reading Tree’s book, I understand perfectly what so many of the objectors were getting so exercised about.  One decription of culture that really impressed its usefulness on me was “the way we do things round here”. Changing the way we do things involves for most of us – especially for me – the sense of overriding long held prejudices and instincts. But ‘bring it on’ I say – for the first time in years I’m beginning to feel optimistic.