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TURNING WORLDS

  Photo: Petr Dlouhy Wikicommons

Midsummer is the turning of the year, and for the bees their swarming days are numbered.

‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay,

A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon,

But a swarm in July is not worth a fly.’

So runs the proverbial English beekeepers’ saying. The start and end of the swarming season is dictated by the weather, and influenced by the swarming of the previous year. A poor year for swarming can often be followed, weather permitting, by a strong year with the hives in a seeming endless state of reproduction. Once the bees have swarmed, the half that has flown off has to build a whole new wax comb home in which the queen can lay eggs, young can be raised and honey stored. The bees left behind have to wait for the emergence of new queens, one of which will survive in a death-fest of sisterly fratricide. The victorious new virgin queen must go and mate on the first warm afternoon in a drone gathering area in the sky. There she will have intercourse with many drones from other colonies, the males dying as they ejaculate, and the newly mated queen returning to the hive with a lifetime of sperm stored within her. Once she returns to the hive after her copulatory adventure, she will immediately start laying eggs, perhaps two thousand a day, fertilising them as she does so, and the colony will rapidly build up again and ripen and store honey in readiness for the coming winter.

The earlier the swarming, the more chance both halves of the original colony have to build up strongly for the winter. Of the twenty thousand or so species of bee in the world, only the honeybee survives as a colony throughout the year. In every one of the other species, all but the newly mated queens die off as the days shorten, and once the temperature begins to drop, these queens will find a place to hibernate until the spring, when they will come out, begin to lay eggs, and so start the seasonal cycle of life and death once more. The honeybee is different. It is to support the colony of thousands of over-wintering bees that Apis melifera  uniquely makes and stores litres of honey to be harvested slowly over the cold months when the bees cannot leave their hive.

Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ can be a last fecund burst of activity for the hive. Keats’ knew his bees and writes in ‘To Autumn’ of shortening days still,

‘… set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For Summer has o’ver-brimm’d their clammy cells.’

Clammy is a word chosen by a poet who has looked inside a bee hive, and these are some of the busiest days for the colony, making the most of every sunny moment and every last drop of forage.

 

London is never without something for the bees to find to feed on and the urban bee has a richer diet than her country cousin. Across parks, gardens, window boxes, railway tracks there is an abundance of forage even in the depths of winter. The plants brought in for far distant continents seem sometimes oblivious to the English seasons, the warmer climate of the city encourages longer flowering periods, and if the sun shines the London bees will find something to attract them. The hives at Marks and Spencer near Heathrow Airport always make an abundance of honey, and are even productive over the winter, sun and shelter providing opportunities for the bees to make honey, bring in nectar from the tiny flowers of ivy which makes for the hardest honey in the hives, its crystals like glistening rock.

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 ‘I’ll give you a fight.’

I was squatting on the roadside in the centre of Sheerness when an elderly resident came past and made the offer. It was not pugilism that he was suggesting, but a conker fight. The shiny golden fruits were littered across the street and into the road, hundreds dropped from the chestnut tree above. I declined the offer and we chatted about conker fights of old and the ways in which as children we would do all we could to ensure that our conker would beat all others when hung on the end of a piece of string and taken into battle. In turns one conker would be whacked against its challenger until the loser split or fragmented under the strength and force of the other. Conkers would be baked in ovens, pickled in vinegar, and soaked in secret recipes all in an effort to create the best of the season. Having won its first fight a conker would be known as a ‘oncer’. If it went on to smash five other conkers it would be a ‘fiver’. We heard in awe stories of tenners and twelvers. The late summer sun helps ripen the honey inside the hive as it ripens the fruits outside. The conkers that are the result of honey bee pollination begin to fall to the ground, as the dark chestnut honey is capped off in the wax cells of the bee hive.

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The city dweller can live through the year with little or no awareness of the passing seasons, the lengthening and shortening of the day, the changing tides, the rise and fall of temperatures, the directions of the winds and the varied light of sun and moon as the months pass. John Berger writes of 'the small family living unit lacks space, earth, other animals, seasons, natural temperatures and so on'  and Tanya Gold that, ‘London has almost no weather anymore; the buildings forbid it.’ The animals of the city too, sometimes are tricked by artificial warmth and light into adapting their natural cycles to the demands and opportunities of the city where the setting and rising of the sun can go unnoticed and the temperatures of their urban homes be kept unnaturally constant throughout the year. The bees can swarm earlier or later than they would do elsewhere and be foraging and storing honey when their rural cousins are clustered dormant for the winter. For bees and for other creatures, the city provides a multitude of micro-climates in gardens, on rooftops, in parks and on railway embankments that create a series of very special environments that allow life to flourish in a way the countryside never does.

In Sheppey life has a different rhythm. No day passes without a keen awareness for man and beast of the weather and the season. The winds, the tides, the light, the length of days, all affect the lives that are led. There were no trains one morning on the Island Line, the train that links Sheppey with the mainland. Needing to get to London, I called for a cab to drive me off the island to Sittingbourne from where I hoped to catch something up to town.

The cab driver, like me, lives semi-permanently on the Isle, on a caravan park in Minster up on the top of the island, high enough to give spectacular views across to the Kentish Downs one way and to seeming far away sea and lands in other directions. We chatted about life on the island and the winter closure of our sites. Hers, like mine, is closed just two months of the year, from the beginning of January to the end of February. Fifty-seven days.

‘I love it,’ she told me. ‘We’ve got a proper house in London. We rent it out and live down here in our caravan. Love it.’

‘What did she and her husband do during the closed months?’ I wondered.

‘We go on a cruise. One cruise for the whole fifty-seven days if we can get it. Or a few shorter cruises. And if we can’t get the dates to work there’s a very nice Travelodge in Sittingbourne.’

Like many of the birds on the island, she and her husband sailed south to warmer climes and avoided the depths of the winter cold. And like the birds flying back north from the far south, from the winter warmth of Africa, she too returned every year. The birds must love the island too.

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The days shorten and summer comes to an end. Outside the chalet the clover is still in bloom, seemingly inexhaustible, the recent rain after an arid week of parching sun, refilling the flowers with nectar. There are bumble bees out still, able to pull every last drop from the clover as they fan the tiny florets with their rapidly moving wings. These are newly mated queens, preparing to find a spot in the soil and hibernate until the spring sun awakens them and starts the cycle once more. Filled with eggs and sperm, they will build the beginnings of a nest in which to lay their first eggs and when they hatch a new generation of bees will continue to build their home, the queen will continue to lay eggs, and the colony will expand and go out to feed on the New Year’s forage. This year, there are still daisies out too, pockets of yellow amongst the creamy sun singed white of the clover. The clover will soon be gone but the dandelions will keep on coming, first of the flowers at the start of the year and last to go as autumn finally fades to winter. The Golden Samphire has begun to wilt. Just a week ago it was tall, strong, thickly standing from the rocks of the sea defences, its resilient leaves moist inside, succulent in form if not in taxonomy. Now it is fade, dry and wilting and will soon be gone all together. The bees with nothing there to feed on have retreated from the beach margins and are now by the canal side where the water is fresh and the nectar less salty.

Soon the bees too will be gone.

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In London the wasps are busy at the hives. We rarely see a wasp in Sheppey, for they seem to have become urban dwellers by choice and in the city they are to be found everywhere, their sneaky, darting flight setting themselves apart from the bees whose homes they seek to rob. They are scavengers now that summer has ended, their new queens mated and going into hibernation, dormant until spring when they will emerge to lay their first eggs and so start a new colony, their cycle like that of the bumble bees, solitary bees, every other bee and bee-like insect except the honeybee, commencing for another year. So the aging wasp colony is homeless and each fends for itself finding what it can, the sweeter the better so as to leave this world on a sugar high. A hive of bees provides all that omnivorous wasps could ask for. A wasp can sting again and again, and in a one to one battle with a honeybee, the honeybee is doomed to die however fiercely she tries to defend herself. I watched a pair in battle by the hives on the roof of the British Museum one day. Grappling with each other, their stings at each other's faces, they fought to the death. The fascination of watching an Olympic bout kept my attention, until, knowing the wasp would most certainly win, I intervened with my hive tool and dispatched the yellow predator and left the bee to fly another day.

Inside the hive the season is coming to an end. The summer bees are nearing the end of their lives. There is still forage but all efforts are now into building up supplies of honey for the winter months ahead when it will be too cold and too wet to leave the hive. Unlike the wasps and all other bees, the honeybee colony will survive in its thousands through the winter months, clustered around the queen, those on the outside snacking on honey once in a while and then swapping places with those nearer the middle who come out from the heart of the cluster to exchange warmth for sweet food. For the wasps the hive is a miraculous source of easy feeding, and they are drawn to it like Charlie to the Chocolate Factory.  Sometimes wasps will get inside a hive, and if in large enough numbers destroy the colony, eating the honey, larvae, bees and all. Only the uneaten heads of the bees will be left behind as tiny grim memento mori. There are few more disheartening sights for the beekeeper than opening a hive and finding it full of sluggish wasps gorged with what a few days before had been a living colony of thousands of bees. They seem smug and almost to grin with satisfaction.  Little do they know that they have only extended their lives by just a few days or weeks at the most, until cold, starvation, and the predations of winter take their toll.

The bees will do all they can to defend their hive. They will make its entrance as small as possible and guard bees will be ever alert, checking that no foreign bees from other hives gain entry and ready to fight off the wasps. Noticing a one-on-one fight between bee and wasp, other bees will rush to help, until the wasp is ‘balled’, covered in bees and unable to breathe, suffocates in the scrum.

Wasps fight hard for their existence as the nights grow cold. Desperate and ravenous, they will eat anything, but perish by hundreds as the warmth declines,’ wrote Richard Jefferies.

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On the canal in Sheerness, the swans have had six cygnets this year and all have survived. There was a terrible poignancy last summer where one of the four to hatch was taken. She had got left behind or wandered off. When they are first moving in the water the young birds stay close and in procession behind their parents, but as they grow stronger and more independent the distances between parents and offspring become greater. It was then, with the cygnets gaining independence that, early one evening, one went missing. The parents called plaintively, desperately, took it in turns to leave the rest of youngsters and search for the missing one. I looked too, thinking a fox maybe, could have got it, though I’ve never seen a fox here on the island, they being much more urban creatures today than once they were. So it remains a mystery as to where the cygnet went or what happened to her. What could be further up the food chain? Nothing else land bourn that I could think of would take a cygnet, and nothing at all would dare to approach a fully grown swan. It would have to be something from the air, one of the hawks, and a big raptor at that, to take a cygnet with parent swans nearby. Or a pike from the water below.

Our largest raptor on the island is the Marsh Harrier, yet it is not a bird to take out a cygnet feeding as it does on small mammals and even on insects. I have never seen one from the chalet but did once from a bus. Often at weekends, the train to the mainline is replaced by a bus as work is done to repair the crumbling line and the old bridge across the Swale. The buses, so much smaller than the trains they replace, are always packed. Travelling in one on a Sunday morning, cramped amongst the other passengers like a proverbial sardine, the wide open spaces outside of the bus had never looked more inviting. And it was then, just as the bus crossed the Swale, that through the window, I saw for the first time, gliding through the sky as if owning it, a marsh harrier, unseen by all on the bus except for me as it flew beside a moving metal box full of humans with the ease of a creature at one in its element.

Into late October now the cygnets have yet to become swans. They drift tall in the water, independent, aloof, but still with the tea-stained feathers of youth. It will take a final moult and a colouring in of their beaks for them to have the majesty of adulthood, and then they will take their true independence, find a mate and pair for life, and only the sharpest of trained eyes will be able to distinguish them from the other swans along the length of the canal, each pair with its own small piece of territory.

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Once the Autumn Equinox has passed, the sea defences are closed for the winter, the great steel gates swung and locked against the coming storms. Their opening and closing mark the turnings of the year. In January and February the risks of storms and flooding are so great that the Catamaran Yacht Club, along with the other caravan and holiday parks on the island, has to be closed up. Evacuation in the event of flooding would not be an easy option and so the local council decrees a more orderly evacuation for fifty-seven days from the first day of January to the last day of February when the humans return. There is a calm about the island in the final weeks of the year. Only a hardy few are still occupying chalets and caravans, and the other animals that remain are eking out what food they can find, storing what they can, and wasting as little energy as possible as they keep warm and sheltered from the incoming winter. The floods that took so many lives in the middle of the last century still cast a threat and so the seasons are marked by the heavy metal doors, waist high, being swung closed and locked for the winter, grinding on their huge rusty hinges that are used just twice a year. For centuries only the driven piles of shingle came between the houses and the sea. The sailing club was on the beach as was the oyster factory and the fishermen’s cottages, even the Victorian built Catholic Church, all with unobstructed views of the waves, the shipping, and the opposite Essex side of the estuary. Sailors, beachcombers, priests, writers, life-boatmen, fishermen, all would look out on the sea that in some way gave them their living. Now the sea is obscured by tons of concrete and the land protected.

The weather, unaware that the gates have been closed and that the seasons have turned, that the equinox has come and gone, that one of two days in the year when day and night hang in equal length for one brief moment, ignores the calendar and carries on for a while as if summer were in full flood. Flowers continue to bloom; butterflies are more plentiful than they have been all summer, whites of course, and tortoiseshells from far corners of the world. There are plenty of bumble bees too around still, new queens mating and feeding, not yet abandoning their nests for hibernation in the warm soil. If sharp frosts do not kill them it will be a bumper year for bumble bees next year.

Autumnal and winter creatures now catch the eye as summer migrants have left on their long journeys south. A kingfisher sits in watch at the water’s edge immediately o­­­­­utside my door as I make a morning cup of tea. Squat, head and beak down, as if dosing off in the morning sunshine, so dark as to be colourless, it sits as if in a trance. Then suddenly it takes flight and is off along the canal and into the water. Something has caught its watchful eye, unblinking in the bird’s deceptive stillness. There is a flash of colour as it flies and its plumage radiates in the sunlight and the reflected light from the water’s surface. Then it perches again, this time on the other side of the water, not in sunlight but in shade and so lost in the shadows that had I not seen it land I would not have known it to be there. What chance a fish will notice it.

The kingfisher is a joy of colour in the murky autumn light. It is an elusive colour more so even than the blue of the Japanese dew flower. Victorian taxidermists and milliners tried to capture it but in airless drawing room vitrines and on Ascot hats, it is a poor thing, deprived of life, of movement and of sun. I tried to get a close look at its bill, the only way for a human observer to determine the sex of the bird, but it remained androgynous to my untrained human eye. I guess the birds themselves have other means of detecting each other’s sex. They certainly have sharper eyes. Seeing her beak is easy as she sits in profile in front of me, caught between me and the morning sun. That is why her feathers are relatively colourless until she takes flight and the sunbeams catch them. When at rest she perches with her bill down, but when searching for pray, dragonflies on the surface of the water or small fish below it, her beak points out and her two eyes working independently scan the water for food. Only when she spots something suitable do her eyes come together and work in tandem. Uniquely amongst birds she can see under water.

The first year I as in the chalet I had a pair of geese who would visit me every summer day. The previous owner of the shack must have fed them for they would knock insistently on my door in the morning demanding breakfast. I did not oblige finding them annoying, ungainly and rather brutal and disliking the great splodges of excrement they left behind them. As the summer ended they flew south for the winter and did not return the following year. Perhaps I should have fed them after all.

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The harvest is collected in. Honey has been taken from the hives.

In Faversham, across from the island on the other side of the Swale, the hop festival marks the end of the season and houses and shops are adorned with bunches of dried hops. The smell of them hangs thickly, almost overpoweringly, in the air and only a fall of rain, sometimes days later, will clear the air and make breathing easier.

Frosts come. The canal is resistant to freezing; there is always just enough movement to stop ice crystals forming, though all around the frost is thick and heavy and a great lump of ice forms around my bottle of milk in its earthenware container keeping chilled overnight outside my front door. The matinal kingfisher is up for breakfast with me. As I go to retrieve my milk she is sitting there in the rising sun, and as the warmth and light burn through the icy mist, they catch the surface of the water and the front of his body, bringing fish into view and to the surface, and colour to her chest. She plops down just inches from where she is perched to catch her food a chilly splash of water displaced into the air, and I collect my milk and make my tea. The flock of mallards are disturbed to see me and make off, their squat shapes on the water transformed into elongated silhouettes as they rise in low diagonal flight into the sky.

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The Winter Solstice comes and goes and though the worst of the winter weather is yet to come, inside the hive the bees are beginning already to prepare for spring. From the Summer Solstice they have been preparing for winter, swarming no more and storing all the honey they can against the unpredictability of the English seasons. The bees are drowsy now. As their body temperature cools they do not have the warmth and ability to fly. Like us humans their body temperature is 36 degrees. Any colder and they cannot move their wings. Yet now, even though the hardest of the weather is yet to come, the bees detect that the days are getting longer. The temperature in the heart of the colony will slowly begin to rise, the bees vibrating their wing muscles at 250 beats a second. When warm enough the queen will lay eggs once more, just a few at first for the young to feed on the pollen left stored in the hive, and the new bees ready to take over from their winter sisters as they expire from old age.  When the time is ripe, it will be warm enough to venture from the hive and there will be the first pollen on which to forage. Pollen sacs on their rear legs packed with the earliest forage of the New Year, their return with food will stimulate the queen into laying and the cycle of the year will begin again. Too cold and they will stay in their cluster, needing a body temperature of ten degrees to sluggishly move and feed. But the bees have noticed the solstice pass and slowly the hive prepares for spring, the queen roused into egg laying. Warming sun on the entrance to the hive will bring bees out and if pollen is found then there is food to be brought back for the young once eggs hatch.

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This afternoon it was a weasel where the kingfisher sits. Running low along the bank, scarcely visible, then stopping, alert, head no wider than its neck, up in the air, floating as if on a strip of white fur. Then down and off until popping up once more a few yards along the canal. A stoat, I think, would have been bigger. And white all over in the winter, its ermine fur ready for royalty.

For humans the worst of the winter weather is yet to come, the cold, bleak days of January and February when it seems that spring will never return, but like the bees in their hive, the birds in the trees, those that have not flown south for the winter, have too detected the change, the days literally minutely longer, and the silence of the air is broken by their first song of the year; song thrushes are already marking out territory and seeking mates for the coming year.

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‘Now the wasted brands do glow,

Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,

Puts the wretch that lies in woe

In remembrance of a shroud.

Now it is the time of night

That the graves, all gaping wide,

Every one lets forth his sprite,

In the church-way paths to glide.’

-          Shakespeare

 

Of the winter creatures it is perhaps the little owl, crepuscular, flying low in the last of the light of the sun, searching for voles on the canal bank, who seems most at home in the cold months when the days are so short and the nights so long. The small animals it preys on are not the last food of the day, but rather the first food of the night.

Is the little owl English? Ornithologists argue as to whether this smallest of the owls to be found on our island is to be categorised as a native or not. I doubt it matters much to the birds themselves, and the one on my canal bank in the hard frost of winter was certainly born here. Perhaps it is a direct descendent of the forty owls first introduced to Britain from Europe and released by Edmund Meade-Waldo nearby Stonewall Park in the 1870s (though one had been sighted in 1758, a wind borne migrant or an escapee from a collector's aviary). Other landowners released little owls as well and soon they were breeding. Now there are perhaps 6,000 breeding pairs, as far north as the Scottish borders.

I watched a little owl on Christmas Eve feeding on the canal bank opposite me, crepuscular, flying low in the last light of the sun. Above it, the hornéd moon hung low in the sky, an imaginary line extending earthwards from its two horns indicating south. The last lights went and all the constellations appeared as if on a dimmer switch cued on some great celestial lighting board. Then brightly from the west the International Space Station rose from the horizon, crossed above the moon and sank in the east on its three minute journey of men across the sky.

The year is turning.

The movements of our shared planet will slowly bring longer days and warmer weather.

Every day there will be a minute or two more of sunlight.

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In the International Space Station, 250 miles above the earth and travelling at 17,000 miles an hour, the biologist was checking on her experiment. She had been in space for three months now and the plants she was growing in zero gravity were doing just fine. Then she noticed something poking up at the back of her orbiting garden and a look of irritation crossed her face. ‘Bloody buddleia,’ she said to herself.