All posts by Miranda Hodgson

Testing the water – flying insects seem to prefer dirty water

At home, I have, like many people, been making sure there is ample water available to wildlife during this hot dry weather. I’m offering a variety of choices, though all dishes have twigs or stones in them, so that insects who fall in have a means of escape. There is deeper water for birds wishing to bathe and shallow water for insects. The birds prefer deeper water, which is what I expected but, so far, a dish made up to look like a dirty puddle is the one the bees, wasps and flies are going to.

This is the favoured water source for bees, wasps and flies

The water is approximately 0.5cm to 1cm deep with twigs and leaves in it. I had heard from a fellow bee-keeper that bees prefer dirty water and what I see appears to bear this out.

A wasp drinks at the ‘dirty puddle’ dish

Rusty at the blog Honey Bee Suite speculates that not only is dirty water more apparent to bees, because they smell it more easily than see it, they are also looking for nutrients not available in clean water. This also fits in with bees scratching about in wet compost last year – I wasn’t sure what they were doing, but they must have been drinking from the compost.

Bees on wet compost

As Rusty says: ‘If you want to provide a water source for your bees, keep it shallow, provide stepping stones or rafts, and wait for the slime to appear’. Yep, that does the trick!

First bee swarm of 2018 arrives

Having four bee swarms arrive in the Magnolia tree last year, we’ve been impatiently waiting to see if this ‘magic bee tree’ will attract more this year. It is said that ‘A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay’ and it would have been good if one had arrived then, as an early swarm has more time to settle and grow. This year, however, May did not bring a swarm, at least not that we saw and our swarm collector friend, Steph, had no call outs. It would have to be ‘A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon’ – not as good as May, but good enough.

A swarm from May 2017

Last year at home, we tried out a DIY swarm box in the hopes of attracting a colony searching for a new home and it worked. Only a short time after we fixed the box in the Magnolia a swarm moved in. This year, Steph wanted to try a ready-made swarm box – this is made of waterproof papier-mâché and looks much like a cardboard plant pot with a lid. You put some swarm lure inside (the ‘homing’ pheromone, Nasonov), hang the box in a likely tree and wait.

The new swarm box with scouts around the door

June was into the second week and there were still no swarms, but then the 11th dawned warm, dry and still, a good bee day. Late in the afternoon, Steph happened to visit and we went into the garden where, as luck would have it, we noticed bees active around the hole of the swarm box, enough that we thought a swarm had already moved in. The box was swaying as if it hung in a breeze, though the air was still. I wonder now if scout bees were carrying out some final measuring up, flying from wall to wall, to make absolutely sure the space was the right size before summoning the rest of the colony. I can’t think what else would cause the box to sway that way. We pulled up garden chairs and sat admiring them before Steph left, saying she’d come back later and collect the new colony.

Lowering the swarm box – they’ll be transferred into the small hive

There were a lot of bees around the swarm box entrance but they were only the fore-runners. An hour so after Steph left, the swarm proper arrived and we had the thrilling opportunity of watching them move in. As seen last year, first the swarm circles the tree for several minutes, presumably for the bees to orient themselves, then they cluster at the doorway and gradually make their way inside. For the beekeeper, all that needs to be done, is to transfer the colony to a hive and move it to an apiary once the bees have settled.

The bees moving into the swarm box

Delightful as it was to see the bees arrive, there was another sight possibly even better and certainly one of the most endearing I have seen for a long time. As the huge swirling mass of bees filled the air, down on the ground beneath the tree a male blackbird stood alone, gazing around himself, turning his head from side to side in bewilderment. He was very upright, eyes wide, his feathers pulled close to his body. I have never seen a bird so clearly wondering what on earth was going on, it was captivating.

The swarm clusters in the lid of the box

What’s happened to the robin?

The birds I spend most time around, the robins and blackbirds, have suddenly changed their behaviour. A couple of weeks ago, a pair of blackbirds and a pair of robins were coming daily for mealworms and had been for many months, but all of them have become very shy. The blackbirds stayed away for a week before coming to ask for worms again and I haven’t seen either of the robins for nearly two weeks now. Are they just busy? Have they been predated? There is no way to tell, but their absence is notable.

What has become of the bold little chap? 

Now that I don’t see him at all, I find I miss the bold male robin. I hear the familiar song nearby, but no robin flies to me. A few times I’ve stood and looked into the trees and the hedge at the back to see if he’s lurking, but he isn’t. Please tell me he hasn’t been tortured to death by a cat with nothing better to do! Maybe he’ll come back after a break, as happened in 2015 when he had a territory dispute in spring, but returned in the autumn. Maybe we’ve seen the last of him, we’ll see.

This time last year

For anyone saying to themselves, ‘But, it’s a bird!’ – well observed, it’s a bird, though the feathers and wings are quite a give-away, the beak too. No Brownie points there.

Feathers

The robin that came for lunch

Working in the woods during the cold weather, I can’t help but notice that certain birds come closer to me and may even follow me about. Wrens, usually extremely shy around humans, become quite bold in their search for food and can be seen flitting in and out of the brash structures being made in the woods.

A wren forages under a leaf

Blackbirds notice that people picking up brash disturbs the leaf litter, saving them the effort of doing it themselves, and they will follow in the wake of the dragged branches to pick up the insects that have been revealed. As is so often the case, it is the robin that steals the show.

Even in the snow, the robin makes itself known

I don’t know if it is the same robin, but I’ve been followed about the woods by a robin since I started work there in late 2014. It hops about the structures being built and will peep out at me from the interior. Sometimes it sits nearby and sings a quiet, sweet song, so quiet that surely only I can hear it which makes it feel like the song is for the bird and me alone.

The robin that kept us company in December 2014. Is it the same one? Who can tell. 

They are pleasing company, these little birds, and never more so than in the cold winter months when they come close to take advantage of the treasures revealed by brash being moved. They also watch us eat and have learned to recognise the little waxed canvas pouch I keep nuts and dried fruit in, paying keen interest as I bring it from my pocket. What I do next sounds a bit disgusting, but the birds appreciate it – I take some fruit and nut, chew it up small, drop the bolus to ground and move away a few metres. In moments the robin comes to partake of the partially puréed treat. This has been going on for many weeks now and it feels somewhat like playing the role of a bird parent.

The pot of worms set out for the robin

At home, me and Karl talked about the woodland robin and decided to try offering it some of the live mealworms the ‘home’ robin has been enjoying for the last few years. I found a little plastic tub for the worms to go in and we took them to the woods with us the next day. We started work and waited for the robin to appear, then primed it by getting out the pouch of nuts and dried fruit and offering a chewed glob. To this was added a few mealworms and the open tub was set nearby. As we’d hoped, the robin ate some of the chewed mix and then went for the mealworms, after which it looked into the tub and started helping itself.

Cooking lunch in the kitchen area we set up in the woods

What happened next was charming. At lunchtime, we moved to an area we use for cooking, where there are various upturned logs, some with slabs of stone on them. It’s a very pleasant spot for eating under the trees and we’ve often made a merry group there with others we work alongside.

The kitchen area in morning mist

The robin has been known to follow us there, where it will sit in a nearby larch and fly down for dropped morsels. On this occasion, we gave the robin its own place on one of the slabs and put out some worms and the open tub. As we ate our hot rolls, the robin stood nearby and ate its worms. Occasionally we looked at each other. Afterwards it perched nearby and sang quietly for about three quarters of an hour.

And that was the story of the day we had lunch with a robin.

Bon appétit, robin!

 

Fuchsia buffet offered to Elephant Hawkmoth caterpillars

Every now and then, a friend or neighbour will come to my door, or send me a picture, and ask me to look at some creature they’ve found in their garden. It’s always interesting to see how people react to what they’ve found; excitement, panic and concern are all shown. I’m ever curious, so it’s always a pleasure to see the mystery and even better if I can identify it.

Flying ants emerging from under paving

Often, it will be something quite common – someone might be disturbed by a mass of flying ants emerging from a gap at the base of a wall, or they’ll be fretting about a hedgehog tucked up and fast asleep under the leafy canopy of a herbaceous perennial. The hedgehog was a lovely sight, its spiny body rising and falling as it breathed slowly in its sleep. The neighbour was worried that something might be wrong, but hedgehogs are nocturnal and sleep in the day time.

Ants crawl up a wall after hatching out – sometimes people find this alarming

Elsewhere, in early summer, I might be shown the gag-inducing larvae of lily beetles (Lilioceris lilii), which disguise themselves with a thick, blobby layer of their own excrement. It may be an effective camouflage, but the sight makes me nauseous.

Lily beetle larvae and the excrement they cover themselves with. I wonder how long it took the species to come up with this idea?

Adult lily beetle

The most recent query came a week or so ago. A neighbour, Jennifer, came to the door urgently asking me to look at a photograph of a creature she’d found on her back door mat. As she held the picture for me to look at, she was excitedly asking, ‘What is it, what is it?’. It was the caterpillar of an elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor), so called because the caterpillar’s head and mouth parts somewhat resemble an elephant’s trunk. When the caterpillar is alarmed, it draws its head into its thorax, which then appears bulbous and shows a pattern like two large eyes. Jennifer’s garden contained none of the favourite food of hawk moth larvae, rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium), so I suspected it had gone for what they will eat in gardens and had been chewing through the foliage of her Fuchsias.

Jennifer’s elephant hawk moth caterpillar

We walked to her house and found the caterpillar still on the coconut door mat, looking not unlike a tiny stuffed toy. We knelt down for a closer look and it raised its head as if to stare back. A coconut doormat isn’t a good place for a caterpillar that prefers eating Fuchsias and rosebay willowherb, so I suggested that we re-locate it to my garden as there are Fuchsias there too. I thought that one in particular, a large and, to me, uninspiring, specimen of ‘Whiteknights Pearl‘, should please it. Carefully, we picked up the caterpillar and put it into an empty plant pot, then walked to my garden and gently laid it on a stem of the plant, where it hopefully had a good meal before burrowing into the soil and overwintering as a pupa. I went to look for it later, but didn’t find it. Maybe it had hidden itself amongst the foliage, hopefully it hadn’t been predated. I had been going to evict ‘Whiteknights Pearl’, with its pale, insipid flowers, but have now changed my mind – it can become a nursery plant for elephant hawk moth caterpillars.

Check out those feet – like a stuffed toy

The Turkish pot is back in use

I wrote at the start of the month about an old cooking pot I found in a second hand shop. It’s a lovely shop, though a far cry from the second hand shops I knew growing up in the 60s and 70s. They were proper junk shops then, where you’d find a clutter of dusty rubbish and treasure. This shop is run by nice ladies who collect ‘vintage’ objects on their travels and clean them up a bit – you’ll find everything a house would hold, from large items of French furniture to cutlery, clothes and jewellery.

My prized Peugeot Frères hachoir

My favourite acquisition was an old French hachoir made by Peugeot Frères, who also made cars, which has a fine steel blade and beautifully turned handles. It has a good weight and makes short work of any fine chopping. Now it has competition in the form of ‘the pot’. I should say that I generally visit this shop after getting my hair cut, partly because it’s right next door and I can’t resist going in there to see what new treasures they’ve got. Every six months or so I might buy something.

When I first saw the pot it was sitting on the ground in the courtyard at the back of the shop. I glanced at it, thought it interesting, but passed by. Six weeks later it was still there, so I stopped for a closer look. Funny looking thing, hand-hammered copper with a tin lining. A bit scratched and worn, and the lid only fitted in one position, but intriguing, I’d never seen anything like it before. 12 quid, not bad. Tempting. I picked it up and felt the weight, the copper had a decent thickness and could no doubt be cleaned up a bit. ‘Buy me, lady‘ said the pot, so I did and took it home where it sat on a windowsill for a couple of weeks while I thought about what to do with it.

The pot in its original state

During that couple of weeks, I spent hours scouring the internet trying to find similar items, but failed to come up with anything quite the same. There were similar pots, however, and all were Turkish from the time of the Ottoman Empire. The best I could come up with was to place it in the early 1900s. Who had used it, when and where, and how did it end up in that Oxfordshire second hand shop? So many questions. Anyway, having tentatively decided on a rough age and origin, I thought about using it, but was wary of the worn tin lining, so started looking at getting the inside re-tinned. There are a few re-tinning companies in the UK and some of them proudly announce that they re-tin copper cookware for royalty, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. As luck would have it, I came across a small business in Cornwall, Newlyn Tinning, run by Steve Pearse. On the website, this paragraph caught my eye:

I take great pride in following my predecessors of this trade and closer to home, the great tradition of coppersmithing in Newlyn where many fishermen in hard winter times turned their hands to producing some of the finest industrial art copper work from the late 19th century arts & crafts era onwards. A trade still going strong today.’

Cornwall has been a centre of tin mining and metal work since the Bronze Age and I wanted to support the continuation of that. Newlyn Tinning looked right, so I got in touch, discussed the details and cost, which was very reasonable, and sent the pot off to Steve. Three weeks later the pot was returned gleaming and transformed, both inside and out. The previously dark and scruffy exterior remained un-tinned, as requested, but had been cleaned and polished to a rich glow, while the inside was freshly tinned. It looked beautiful and still old, as if there was real history in there. I was delighted.

The transformed Ottoman pot

The Ottoman Empire. Image source

What to cook in it? It would feel right to cook something fitting and traditional. I looked at a map of the Ottoman Empire in 1900 and saw that it covered a wide area, from southern Europe to north Africa and parts of the Middle East. Quite a lot of choice there in terms of cuisine. The pot holds 2.5l at the line just above the indentation, so big enough for a family meal. I decided on a casserole of chicken, apricots and lentils, flavoured with ras el hanout, saffron and bay, served with couscous and green beans. It was delicious and we raised a glass to Steve the tinner.

A casserole of chicken, apricots and lentils – delicious!

It pleases me very much to think of this pot being put to use once again and I feel, however tenuously, connected to all those who have, over who knows how many years, stirred a meal in it. Long may that continue.

 

I’m trying not to hate slugs

The recent rainy weather has brought out a lot of slugs and I’ve been spotting them everywhere. In the early morning, they’ll be crawling across wet lawns – while paving slabs, the outside of sheds and even windows show the slimy route of their night-time travels. The often damp environment of late summer and early autumn is a good time to get out and look at them.

Slug love (photograph: John Gunter)

Slugs are not generally seen as attractive creatures; they are slimy and disliked for their role in destroying plants by eating through their stems and leaves, rasping through plant matter with their file-like radula.

And they have more than one voyeur  (photograph: John Gunter)

There are many disappointments in the growing year connected with gastropods, but I try to find something positive in them lest I feel tempted to destroy them all. Slugs and snails aren’t intent on causing trouble to humans, they’re just trying to make a living. At the same time as causing damage to our prized garden plants, they also serve us in disposing of waste, from fallen leaves to carrion. In recent years I’ve come to put them in the category I refer to as ‘cleaners’ or detritivores. Wasps and woodlice also come under this title. Seeing them in this light allows me to tolerate what might otherwise cause rage at the destruction gastropods can visit upon a garden.

On a quest (photograph: John Gunter)

The thing is, if we swallow any disgust we might feel and look at them close up, slugs can be fascinating. In the last few weeks, Karl’s cousin, John, has been sending me pictures of the slugs he sees (mostly of the genus Arion) on those evenings when he steps outside to take the air. These pictures show slugs in almost cartoon-like poses and my inner child sees them not intent on destruction, but on some journey or quest.

(photograph: John Gunter)

Another picture I took several years ago shows the same type of slug alongside a woodlouse. The woodlouse has one leg raised towards the slug and you can almost imagine them in conversation. In reality, the woodlouse might simply have been trying to protect itself from being flattened or eaten, but I find it useful to view images that don’t show these creatures merely as things to be reviled.

Companions

I’m not alone in my attempts to adjust my thinking – a blog from the site Microscopy, ‘Snail’s Teeth, Spicules, and Other Bizarre Delights: Or Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder‘, looks at the finer details of gastropods in which the writer examines ‘their rows and rows of beautifully coloured teeth‘. Researchers at Bristol University, meanwhile, have been looking at mollusc evolution and have found an early ancestor of the slug in a 480-million-year-old slug-like fossil. This tells us quite plainly that having been here for 480 million years, slugs aren’t going anywhere so we’d better just get used to them.

Slug cousin

Re-visiting and seasoning the Holcroft skillet

Over the winter of 2015-16 I tried out a new method for restoring a very rusty cast iron old Holcroft skillet that had been used as a garden ornament for many years and was decidedly the worse for wear. I recently came across a picture I’d taken of it in 2006 and it had been a garden ornament for a good while then. There were nearly ten more years of rusting after that!

In its original spot

Anyway, a bit of back story. We work in woodland over the winter (more on that here) and a hot lunch is extremely welcome, so we decided to start making proper use of the skillet. Some logs and slabs of stone had been used to form sitting places and were already nicely set out to be used as an outdoor cooking area, so that’s where we cook.

The kitchen

Come lunchtime, we bring out the basket of supplies, set up the stove and get cooking.

This stove is an MSR Dragonfly multi-fuel stove and while it isn’t cheap, it’s a well made piece of kit and runs on any petroleum-based fuel. The first time we cooked bacon and egg rolls was delightful – just the two of us in the middle of the woods on a chilly January day and we could provide ourselves with a hot meal. We’ve cooked for other people since that first time and everyone has reacted with the same pleasure. It’s an instant mood-lifter.

I had previously seasoned the skillet using lard and it worked pretty well – the first eggs cooked in it came out perfectly and nothing stuck to the pan. We used it all winter with no issues. At home, I’d scrub it out with a hard brush and hot water, dry it straight away and wipe a light coating of oil or fat over it to keep the rust off.

The thing is, if it wasn’t wiped with oil or was left wet, then it did rust, so I looked for other seasoning methods and came across Sheryl Canter’s excellent blog on the chemistry of cast iron seasoning. Here, she discusses the polymerisation qualities of varying oils and fats and explains why flax oil is the best to use for seasoning. Polymerisation means that the combination of iron, heat, oil and oxygen creates a plastic-like protective layer on the iron. She recommends that you use the oven’s self-cleaning function to clean off old seasoning, but our oven doesn’t have that feature so I just scrubbed it out as well as I could.

The idea goes like this: put the pan in the oven and heat to 100C to open up the iron’s pores. Take the pan out and wipe all the inside surfaces with the lightest smear of flax oil (you must use pure food-grade flax oil), then wipe it again to make sure you’ve removed any excess. Put it back in the oven, turn to full heat and let the pan bake for an hour. Turn the oven off and let the pan cool completely. Repeat five or six times until you have a smooth dark veneer on the pan’s cooking surface.

Without having the inside ground by a machine, a smooth veneer simply isn’t going to happen with that old skillet, but I thought it could do with some TLC, so decided to give the method a go. Five seasonings later and it’s looking pretty good, even wood-ready. Compared to how it was before I started work on it, it’s impressive. The surface looks like it’s been freshly oiled , but it’s completely dry and there is no tackiness at all.

Before

After

Does this seem a little obsessive? It might do, but I wanted to experiment with how what was an unusable skillet could be turned back into something to be proud of and, above all, something that could be used again, and I believe I’ve done it.

Not too shabby!

Turkish cooking pot

I found this pot in a second-hand shop in town and, seeing a price tag of £12, couldn’t resist it. After quite a bit of trawling about on the net, I think it may be early 20th century Turkish. The indentations are said to make it easier to pick up from the fire, when a cloth is wrapped around it.

The tinning on the inside looked rather worn and scratched, so I’ve sent it away to be re-tinned, but just on the inside. I rather like the look of the outside. Apparently, the lid can be turned upside down and used as a serving dish, which is a pleasing design.

Once the re-tinning has been done and I have it back, I’ll post new pictures and will then head off into the woods to try it out.

Naming the bees – a nod to Iain M Banks

Having left them in peace for many weeks, we looked in on the bees last Sunday. The hives felt heavy and the bees are collecting a lot of stores, hopefully enough that they won’t need extra feeding over the winter. Steph came over and acted as an observer, while we lifted frames and looked at the brood, honey and uncapped nectar. These bees have been busy.

The bees have been paying attention to the Malva moschata flowers

While she was with us Steph commented that, as we now have three colonies, we ought to give them names. She names hers after the places she collected the swarm from, which is a good method. We decided to be whimsical instead and have tipped our hats to late author Iain M Banks and the names he gave to spacecraft in his Culture novels.

The ships, and some planets, in the world of The Culture are run by sentient, hyperintelligent machines called Minds. The Minds choose their own names for ships which are often based on the Mind’s character or role. Thus, a military ship of the Limited Offensive Unit class called itself ‘Gunboat Diplomat‘ while a General Contact Unit ship chose ‘Just Read The Instructions‘. Sometimes the reason for a ship’s choice of name isn’t clear, at others it is, as in the Cruise Ship ‘Just Passing Through‘.

With the above in mind, here are the names we’ve chosen –

The first hive we had in the garden came to be here via our initial meeting with Steph when she came to collect a swarm that settled in the Magnolia tree last summer. She said that the garden would be good bee habitat and suggested that we foster one of her colonies and see how we liked it. If all went well, the colony would be divided the following spring and she’d take half back. Those bees are now spending the summer here before going to her apiary a few miles away. We’ve designated this hive as a GSV (General Systems Vehicle) and called it ‘A Very Fortunate Meeting‘.

On the right is ‘A Very Fortunate Meeting’. The box on the left is the colony division – it now has another layer on it as the bees are bringing in more supplies

The second colony arrived as a swarm on May 22 this year. It started out in a ‘nuc’ box, a temporary hive smaller than permanent ones. Earlier this month we transferred the bees into a larger hive and Karl made special extended frames to give them more building space. Because of the large frames we put it into SL (Super Lifter) class and, for no particular reason other than we liked the sound, called it ‘The Pipes of Apis‘ (after the biological name Apis mellifera and the sound new queens make).

‘The Pipes of Apis’ being transferred from the nuc box to their new hive

The third colony also arrived as a swarm, some time over the weekend of June 3-4 when we were away. Karl had seen a description and plans for a swarm box, a box attached to a tree in order to attract a swarming colony – an easy way to acquire bees if you have a tree they like. The swarm box had been put in the tree, but we’d only put three frames in it as we hadn’t yet taken delivery of the materials to make more. When we went away, the box was empty and we got home a few days later to find a colony had already moved in and set up housekeeping.

We decided to let them keep the box and be wild bees. They seem content to do that, they’re increasing in numbers and busy filling the box with comb. We’ve assigned them to the GCU (General Contact Unit) class and, additionally, put them in the organisation known as Special Circumstances. Given that their box hangs 3m high in the tree, we’ve named them ‘Sisters of Swing‘.

‘Sisters of Swing’

This is what we saw when we used an endoscopic camera to look inside after they’d been in there for three weeks. This type of camera is new to us and the film is pretty jerky, but you can see what’s going on. The last section shows the inside of a nuc box.

There you have it – frivolous names chosen simply to amuse ourselves, but now the colonies can be identified more easily than just pointing at them. If you’re familiar with Iain M Banks, then I hope this amuses you!