The Cape Honey Bee … Survival of the Fittest?


... waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain ...
… waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain …

Cape rain is like no other rain I know. In the wintertime great drops of water pour out of the sky. Day after day waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain, down Skeleton Gorge, down Nursery Ravine and down every other ravine they can find. Go out and you get very wet indeed. But what mattered most this past winter is that the land got wet. Slowly the devastated and burnt earth started to come alive again. Fine pale green shoots of grass appeared and then the rest …

the rest fixed
… and then there’s …
rest 2 fixed
… the rest …

 

There’s a phone call from the Cape to London. ‘I’ve been down to the houses and had a look at your hive. I’m afraid there’s nothing going on.’ It’s my brother John, and it’s September. In October we are back in Cape Town for a precious few days, and once there,  I don’t make the trip down to the healing veld on the tip of Africa. It’s a short visit, and back on the plane to London I say to myself ‘Well, this trip I really had no time.’ But if I am honest I did not want to go …

What’s the point? They’ve gone.

Then,  in December, we fly back to the Cape again. This time we land flat-bang into the hurly-burly of the pre-Christmas season. Christmas comes. With it arrives family from far and wide. All want to be together in this isolated place, where the antelope and the zebra roam, and the wild Atlantic Ocean runs roughshod onto the rocks. Christmas goes. Family and friends depart.

And still I do not go to my hive.

We’re all getting old now, my cousins and I. Time to dream, and time to do what you have always wanted to do. After the fire one of my cousins becomes passionately interested in bee-keeping. For some reason all my cousins have nick-names. This one’s Bulldog. Bulldog does a lot of research, and in the spring of the September sunshine he brings two ‘Best’ hives down. Not wanting to disturb our fragile eco-system in any way he simply spreads bee-lure on the inner frames and leaves them empty. ‘A leap of faith and some swarm looking for a home may just take occupation …’ he tells me.

The Best hives are near the skip, a far distance away from my hive. When I was a child there was no such thing as a skip. Behind each house we dug deep dirt-holes in the veld. All rubbish went into those holes, everything, and although there was no such thing as recycling, we had our own very special recycling team. The baboons. Into the dirt-holes they would go, happily tossing out tins, fish bones, bottles and paper – until they found the tasty bits of water melon skins, sweetie papers and anything else suited to a baboon palate.

... the skip ...
… a regular skip …

But now we have a regular skip, brought down by a commercial firm. It has two sturdy lids and a strong locking bolt so that no domestic debris can be strewn across the veld. Not much fun for our baboon recycling team, but at least they won’t need a dentist.

... I am worried about my cousins siting ...
… I am worried about my cousins siting …

Late one afternoon I walk over to the skip, carrying some rubbish. I am worried about my cousin’s siting of these new Best hives. In my opinion they are too close to the skip, and it is in the way of their natural ‘bee-line.’ When a new worker leaves the hive for the first time, he plots his position, rather like a GPS. From then on he will push his personal sat-nav button and come straight in from there. This skip is a clumsy great thing in the way.

I struggle to lift the lid of the skip. The wind is howling and the lid is heavy. I just manage to hurl the rubbish in. ‘The Cape Doctor is really here in force’ I think. The Cape Doctor is the local name for the prevailing summer wind … frequently gusting 60 – 70 knots. Locals say not only does the south-easter blow all the rubbish into the sea, it blows the germs in too.

I turn into the wind to look at cousin Bulldog’s hives. For the past ten days I’ve looked at them, but there is nothing there, no sign of life. Even if I bang on the lid. The two hives have their backs to the south-easter but they are very exposed. Even when the veld eventually grows up, these will still be on the flat grass, with no hope of protection. I watch the hive nearest the sea. ‘Perhaps he has put them here and not under the protection of new bush so that , if we have another fire, they won’t meet the same fate as mine’ I think.

Then, still leaning against the skip for protection, I see a bee career past me. It looks as if it is on a roller-coaster ride as it does a spectacular loop-de-loop and heads straight into the  hive on the sea side. ‘Crikey’ I think, ‘some-one’s moved in!’ Later my son Anton goes and sits on the grass and watches. Yes, they’re in.

And still I do not go to my own hive. I just can’t bear to.

Rather, in the still of the evening, when the wind has died down somewhat, I walk across to my cousins’ house to see my god-daughter, Glen. We sit on the verandah and catch up. I love this god-daughter and I seldom see her. She lives in Johannesburg and has some friends with her. ‘We’re from Jozies,’ they say. I tell them about the new occupants in Bulldog’s hive, and then about the utter tragedy of my swarm. I tell them about nine months ago. About the blackened nucleus of brood that I found, about the burnt and stunned wingless bees I saw, about the few precious drops of honey, and finally about the survivors. Then I tell them about the robbers I saw a week later …

‘Robbers? What do you mean robbers?’ asks Glen. ‘Well, if a swarm is weak, other nearby bees will take advantage and rob them.’ I explain. ‘Unbelievable!’ says one friend from Jozies, ‘Do you think that is what happened? How can you be sure that they were robbers? How can you even tell the difference between a robber bee and an ordinary bee?’ Now Johannesburg is a city with one of the world’s highest crime rates, so I should not have been surprised at the answer. ‘Easy!’ said another Jozies resident, ‘They wear balaclava’s and carry a revolver between their wings. They fly in and clean your house out.’

‘Nonsense!’ said the Cape contingent, ‘These are Cape robbers. They just move in and “borrow” the booze.’ ‘Well, call it what you may,’ I laughed, ‘my Cape robbers did a pretty good job, and now there is nothing. In fact I have not even been back to the hive, I just cannot bear to stand there and imagine all that suffering for nothing.’

With that my god-daughter Glen gets up and walks across to my chair. ‘Yes you can.’ she said, ‘You see where the sun is now? Just above the horizon? Well before it sinks into the sea, you will come back and tell us what you have found in your hive.’

In the final glow of the evening I walk through the veld. All around me is a soft carpet of green. In amongst the bare white sand tufts of vlei grass have appeared, and exquisite little veld flowers. Like sentries high above them stand the blackened branches of the giant protea and leucodendrum bushes. They’re full of charcoal, and spiky. I pass them cautiously, pushing a path through to my hive. I stand to one side, watching the entrance, and thinking about that terrible fire months ago. What actually went on in that burnt old hive, I wonder? And what did happen to that tiny nucleus of bees and molten honey that I, perhaps foolishly, tried to save? The hive is still tied down against the wind and the wild animals, and the little orange plastic bowl that I filled with water still lies stuck in the blackened sand.

For me evening time is a quiet time, a sombre time, a time for reflexion. Homecoming time. And that is exactly what I saw. Suddenly one, two, three beautiful bees – for all the world a working team, appeared out of nowhere, their little legs laden with pollen. They settled comfortably on the entrance that I had reduced for them months before. Then they stepped inside.

settled comfortably
… their little legs laden with pollen …

A new swarm? Hardy descendants of the old swarm? Survivors of fire, of robbers, of black ants and of baboons?

Walking back towards the warm light of my god-daughter’s house I could not help but feel that they are indeed the survivors … for surely only the tough pull through on this unforgiving tip, at the very edge of the African continent.

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

<<   Previous chapter  |  Next chapter  >>

Leave your details here to get an email when the next chapter is released!


twittermailtwittermail
Hi - if you enjoyed this, I would REALLY appreciate if you shared it on one of the social media links - thanks! :-)

Tuscan Tales Chapter 24 – Hedging your bets …

It’s early morning. The time that I like best. The house is fast asleep and all is quiet. Our house guests will wake late – all our visitors do as they settle into this lovely stone house at the bottom of the Tuscan valley. They can be the movers and shakers of the world, these friends of ours, but when they take their luggage out of the car, and walk through the old wooden gate they simply stop and stare. Then I watch … I see the beauty of the valley, with its vineyards, its olive groves and the dense forest below slowly wrap its arms around them and hold them there. A deep and soporific peace envelops them and from then on they don’t move much.

I get out of bed, open the curtains and look at the hill opposite. Normally long rows of vines run upwards from the stream below, following the curve of the hill until they reach the line where the forest begins. But this year, just at the beginning of summer, machines arrived and pulled out the vines. Then they pulled out the trellis and laid them neatly to one side, and then they left.

Now the ground will lie fallow ...
Now the ground will lie fallow …

Here in the heart of Chianti, it seems commonplace to renew vineyards on a regular basis. Now the ground will lie fallow and they’ll be back at the beginning of next summer to plant the new vines. This summer we’ve had good rains and everything is green, almost lush. The huge old Cyprus tree next to my window is alive with small birds chattering away at the break of day.

‘Time for a swim.’ I say to myself. I walk down the steep terracotta stairs, across the hallway and out onto the breakfast terrace. The light is extra-ordinary – a soft translucent glow seems to be spreading itself softly through the branches of the trees … under and over it goes, winding its way through the lavender and wisteria, on through the olives and out past the rose climbing over the wrought iron gate.

I stand at the edge of the pool, just drinking all this in. Down below I hear our neighbour, old Enzio, letting his chickens out. Better get in before the house wakes … I put on my goggles and go straight in. ‘Twenty lengths, that’s the minimum …’ I tell myself as my body hits the cool of the water.

My goggles are old and I cannot see anything outside of the water, but with my head under the water they’re OK. I strike out .. ten laps, eleven laps, twelve … I’m at the deep end and about to turn. Suddenly there is an awful scratching on my right arm. Something is trying to claw its way up it. I try to shake it off, but I’m too ungainly in the water. It moves further up my arm, and then there’s a loud hiss in my ear.

My first thought is a viper – in our part of Chianti it is the only snake that is pretty deadly, and we have had one in the garden before. I can’t see through my ancient goggles but I manage to shake it loose and strike out for the shallow end. It takes a lot to frighten me, a tough South African background sorted that out, but right now I am simply terrified. As I swim I am yelling loudly, simply shattering the calm of the morning. ‘Help! help!’ I call, ‘Help! Something’s in the pool and it’s following me!’ But no-one comes. I seem to take forever to reach the shallow end, where I risk looking behind me.

... swimming bravely after the only raft it can see ...
… swimming bravely after the only raft it can see …

And there, swimming bravely after the only raft it can see, which is me, is a tiny hedgehog. Its dark little eyes are wide with terror as its little paws strike out bravely towards it’s perceived salvation. But this saviour has lost all sense of humanity. ‘Help! Help!’ I yell again ‘It’s a hedgehog and it’s after me.’

By this time I have managed to wake the house, well some of it. Liam comes, my nephew comes. ‘Oh my word!’ they cry. How did the little thing get into the pool? It must have been in most of the night, and it looks so frightened. ‘No, no!’ I yell, ‘You don’t understand. It’s me that is frightened. It jumped on me. It ran up my arm. It hissed in my ear. Oh oh oh.’

They look at me in astonishment. What’s happened to the tough South African, the brave wife, the plucky aunt they know? Who is this jabbering wreck?

‘There, there,’ they say, ‘you get out slowly and we’ll fetch a net for the poor little thing.’ ‘What will you do with it?’ I ask. ‘Please take it far, far away where it can’t see me and I can’t see it.’ ‘Calm down aunt,’ says my nephew, ‘it is perfectly harmless, and is more frightened than you.’ ‘Go and make her some tea,’ says Liam, ‘and I will take it far down into the wild olive grove.’

And that I thought was that.

The next morning I deliberated long and hard before deciding to swim. ‘Better just do it.’ I finally decided. Once again the house was quiet, and once again the early morning magic down at the pool made me glad that I was up. I checked the skimmers carefully – for when the little thing had fallen in during previous night the pool motor would have been off. He had probably spent the night balanced on a skimmer. My turbulence in the water must have flushed him out. ‘Ready as I’ll ever be!’ I thought and dived in.

... this shower ... is tucked away on an old stone wall ...
… this shower … is tucked away on an old stone wall …

I had a wonderful swim, then headed for our outside shower. When our guests first arrive, I show them this shower. It is tucked away on an old stone wall and it is completely private. As we stand there I say, ‘The water is the same borehole water that is in the house, the pressure is wonderful and I cannot imagine standing looking at a tiled wall when you can look down on this incredible view. In fact I do not think that I have showered in the house once since we arrived.’

Then I watch their reaction. They look at me dubiously, and I can see what is running through their minds. ‘She’s crazy, and we would never do that.’ That lasts for about two days, and after that, they give it a little try. Then the warmth of the shower, the sunshine on their tired city bodies and the sheer magic of the surroundings does its work. They are hooked.

After my shower, and feeling a million dollars, I walked around the garden, just taking in the little things … hundreds of brown furry bees were busy on the lavender and a lean hungry wild cat was stealthily licking water from the fountain. With the house still asleep I moved towards my bee and butterfly garden. ‘I’ll sit on the swing seat for a while, perhaps fetch a coffee?’ I thought.

From the swing seat I looked around the garden. I like what I call ‘rooms’ in a garden. When the surrounding hedge grows up I am hoping that you will have to push your way in here, and nobody will be able to find you. The hedge is pittosporum tobira, chosen for its sweet smelling flowers that attract bees. An empty hive stands under a rosemary bush in expectation, but no luck so far.

‘Another few years and this hedge will have matured,’ I thought. Some weeks before, when the porcupine set about devouring our irises, Liam had put a trap under it. He checked it every morning but nothing seemed in the least bit interested in it.

Or not?

... curled up fast asleep ... Nothing would budge him.
… curled up fast asleep … Nothing would budge him.

This time the trap seemed to have a dark shadow toward the back. I moved closer, and pulled the trap out from under the hedge. There, curled up fast asleep was a little hedgehog. Nothing would budge him. We had to tip him out.

 

Now I am sure that there are dozens of tiny hedgehogs all over our valley, but I am absolutely convinced that this particular little fellow was the swimmer of the night before. He seemed utterly exhausted.

After all, wouldn’t you be after two all-night sessions in a row? First, a night in the pool, and second, a very long trip indeed, all the way back up the hill, just to get home?

 

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

<<   Previous chapter  |  Next chapter  >>

Leave your details here to get an email when the next chapter is released!

twittermailtwittermail
Hi - if you enjoyed this, I would REALLY appreciate if you shared it on one of the social media links - thanks! :-)

Tuscan Tales Chapter 16 – ‘Bottle of wine …’

We are to have a summer party. Reiner, who knows everyone in our village, is leaning over his spade chatting to Liam. He’s found some good Chianti wine at a local vineyard of a friend of his. ‘Guido has produced too much for his registered quota,’ he tells Liam, ‘and I think we should go and have a look this afternoon. He has a small winery called le Fonti.’

It’s traditional in our area to throw a party for all builders and helpers once your house is finished. We’ve been here for over a year now, and as our house seems as if it will never quite be finished, we’ve decided right now will be just fine. Yesterday, Umberto, our electrician, was up a ladder fixing lights along the old beams in the apartment, and I chatted to him. ‘Yes, I’d love to come’ he said gazing down at me. ‘Do you know that it will be the first time I have come to a party at Fontana since I was a young boy?’

‘What do you mean, what parties were here?’ I asked, and he settled back to tell me. As a boy he lived in the old stone house at the top of the hill near the Madonnina

‘There were three farms across our valley – the great old Villa you can see from your garden, at the top of the vineyards, Fontana in the middle, and the farm in the next valley, to the east. At the end of each summer the bringing in of the harvest was celebrated at Fontana. Then the abandoned olive grove that we are busy restoring was up and running, and the wild section below was used for growing corn. The harvest party was held on what is now your west terrace, where there was a large threshing stone. My wife will just love seeing Fontana,’ said Umberto, ‘and all our children.’

Later I speak to Alfio, the builder who has just finished the buttressing of the southern wall of the house … the bit that has been threatening to slide down the hill and into the swimming pool. He’s a great bear of a chap, with huge shoulders and rough calloused hands, red and angry from constant contact with raw cement. ‘I’m too busy to do any of the finishing off, and Reiner can cope with it’ he says.

‘I hope you’re not too busy to come to our party?’ I say innocently. ‘When?’ he says. ‘Next week, on Saturday’ I say. ‘Lovely! I’ll be there – and my wife, and the children’ he says.

And so it has gone: all will bring their wives and children. ‘I think we can multiply each adult by 4’ I tell Reiner. ‘Don’t have the party at lunchtime’ Reiner advises. ‘They’ll all stay until late anyway. Start at 6.’

We’ll have trestle tables under the tree on the west terrace and traditional Italian fare. I dream ….

‘The wine’ says Reiner ‘buy it from Guido and bottle it yourself. It’s good wine, and will be very reasonable …’

... could be a medieval scene ...
… could be a medieval scene …

Guido’s small winery nestles directly below the church in old Panzano. He and his wife Vicky have spent many years perfecting what seems to me was already Paradise. The farm land is perched high on the hill with sweeping views over what could be a medieval scene … patches of olive grove lie alongside terraced vineyards, all in between soft hills and diverse greens of natural forest. And here, between the church steeple and the river below, Guido has not only restored the family’s 17th century farmhouse but has also built a state of the art modern winery. Old stone harmonises with the new. Great stainless steel vats line the walls making the red of the terracotta floor glisten where the taps wash off spillage.

Guido’s young, with fine olive green eyes. He has a kind of sensitivity about him that is difficult to pin point, but I am not surprised when Vicky tells me later that he used to be a professional photographer. He moves between the different vintages, chatting as he goes. ‘This is my life’ he says ‘and it’s a good one. I have my wife working with me in the sales, and my children run in and out all day. Every year my wine is improving and I am beginning to see the fruits of years of hard labour.’

... the fruits of this hard labour ...
… the fruits of this hard labour …

We taste the fruits of this hard labour, savouring the richness of the full bodied Sangiovese grape. We’re to buy a classic Chianti Classico, and it’s delicious – easy on the palate with about 13% alcoholic content. Not too strong – or our guests will not be able to negotiate our pot-bellied road back up the hill.

Guido sells us a ‘damigiana’ – one of those great bulbous green bottles with basket weave at the base. This one holds 55 litres. The wine is lifted in and the car sinks under the heavy load. ‘Come again.’ he says ‘Come and have a barbecue in the summer.’ He hands us a large packet of corks as a present.

... a large green grasshopper on spidery legs ...
… a large green grasshopper on spidery legs …

We stop at the hardware store. Lucio only has 30 green wine bottles left, he’ll order some more. He, Reiner and Liam chat about the best corking machine to buy. They finally decide on a good solid one. It’s an intricate contraption and looks to me like a large green grasshopper on spidery legs – complete with proboscis sticking out the top. There’s an art to bottling – somehow the cork needs to be squeezed, and once in, the gap between the cork and the top of the wine is to be no more than 2cm.

With the bottles, the machine and the wine on board, Liam negotiates the potholes carefully. He and Reiner chat happily about the price of the wine and the mechanics of the bottling machine.

And I?

I am sitting in the back seat dreaming. We’ve wine to bottle from the surrounding hills. It’s unbelievable. Next we’ll have the old olives bearing again, and I’ll have my beehives producing honey. I’ve always had labels for my honey, even in London and I’ll have them here at Fontana too …

But what about a wine label? Now that’s something new …

 

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

 

<<   Previous chapter  |  Next chapter  >>

Leave your details here to get an email when the next chapter is released!

 

twittermailtwittermail
Hi - if you enjoyed this, I would REALLY appreciate if you shared it on one of the social media links - thanks! :-)

Tuscan Tales Chapter 7 – Now that’s what I want to do …

Ch 7 jars apiary
My friend Jars’ allotment apiary …

London in Summer.  Bright flowers in hanging baskets contrast magnificently with the old black street lamps on which they are so carefully placed.  London’s parks, or ‘green lungs’ are ablaze with colour, and small gardens compete with one another for ‘best show.’   So it comes as no surprise to learn that London’s ‘city bees’ are said to produce more honey than anywhere else in the UK.

In the springtime, when we packed up our apiary in the grounds of a north London school, our bee hives were moved to whoever would take them. I took my two hives to my friend called Jars (yes, she sells honey jars). Jars has a double allotment plot in Highgate. To a South African these allotments seem really strange. Although the history of allotments goes way back, they really came into their own during World War 2, when they were part of a huge push to feed a starving and desperate city. Today they still serve a wonderful purpose – for in a city of about 9 million people you desperately need tranquil places of refuge. Jars had given me a key, and once through those huge wrought iron gates, well, another world awaits.

Jars and I had been digging over her potatoes. Once finished we moved towards the end of her allotment, where the apple trees are, and where a neat row of hives stood. My two hives were at the end. ‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘thank you again for taking in my refugees.’ ‘That’s a pleasure,’ she smiled, ‘after all, there’s plenty around for them to forage. You can keep them here as long as you like. Come to think of it … what are your plans for them?’

So I told her. I told her all about my dream that had so nearly come true. I told her how quite by chance we had stumbled on a small piece of paradise deep down a Tuscan valley. I told her how, at the last minute, the owner had felt honour bound to sell to a buyer that a local agent had found. ‘And apart from everything else,’ I said, ‘I really wanted to keep my bees there. I wanted to have a small apiary – just like yours, and I am still somehow rather stupidly holding onto that dream.’

We stood at the entrance to her hives, watching the bees fly in and out. Now bees do not like horses, or perfume, or watches, or mobile phones. And normally in this peaceful place I have my phone turned off. This time I had forgotten – and it rang.

‘Well ….’ said a familiar deep voice. ‘Do you still want a small place in Italy?’

Only one word came out of me. ‘Repeat?’

‘Jurgen has just phoned me from Pisa Airport’ said Liam. ‘He arrived in Greve three days ago, and was kept waiting until 9.30 last night before he even saw the sale contract, and he is not a happy chap. It appears that things were more complicated than he thought. The buyers are an extended family … grandparents, their daughters’ family with one young grand-daughter, and an older grand-daughter with a partner. As is common in large extended Italian families they wish to remain close and so they want to divide Jurgen’s house into three separate dwelling units. So they are applying for three separate mortgages … hence the delays.’

‘I could understand their difficulty with the different mortgages’ Jurgen had told Liam, ‘but when I heard that my lovely home was to be split into three –  that finally made me come to a decision. The deal is off and if you would like it, then the house is yours.’

Ch 7 the old car came into view
… the old car we had seen under the canvas came into view …

Three days later we flew to Pisa, having arranged to meet Jurgen at the Ristoro di Lamole. Once more we were sitting on the terrace watching the fading light dance through row of cypress trees. ‘Look, there he is Liam! ‘I said as the old car we had seen under the canvas came into view. Jurgen hopped out, a dapper man full of pent-up energy, and clearly one who likes to be in control. ‘This is going to be interesting,’ I thought, as Liam clearly likes to be in control as well. However our first meeting got off to a good start and as we headed back to our agriturismo  (B&B) we felt pretty pleased.

We had found an agriturismo close to Greve, in the little hamlet of Lamole. It was called Poggio all’Olmo, and had wonderful views and a beautiful swimming pool. After an early morning swim we sat around the pool wondering if the sale would go smoothly. Already there had been some worrying glitches … for although the original agent had accepted that his deal was off and was happy to still receive some commission, the notare had proved tricky. First he had protested strongly that he would rather deal with the Italian buyers. Then, when he realised that Jurgen was not going to retract his decision, he had announced that he could not deal with foreign buyers as he does not speak English … and neither would he be able to find an English speaking notare in the area. In an area nicknamed ‘ChiantiSHIRE?? This seemed difficult to believe, and I was beginning to worry that as foreigners we would not be welcome.

‘Are you going to write about all this?’ Liam asked me. ‘You know, one of those books …  the ‘find a wreck in a romantic foreign country, impulse buy it, have a terrible time fixing it, being cheated all the way and practically lose all your money. Then finally hey ho! At the end of the day a magic wand appears and all is fine in the state of paradise.’

I thought about that carefully, and in a way Liam was right. I cannot remember a time when I have not written, and yes, I had been writing a diary since the very first day we saw the house, and yes, I felt as if I could write there forever. I may even have thought about writing ‘that book’.

But somehow this ancient Tuscan farmhouse, halfway down a forgotten valley did not seem like that. I looked at Liam slowly and sombrely. ‘Liam,’ I said slowly, ‘In the beginning that is what I thought, and heaven knows I am sure that we will have our fill of trouble, with the title deeds, easements etc, enough to write an entire book … in fact a ‘best seller’ type of book. A book of double dealing, backtracking and backhanders … for heaven’s sake this is Italy we’re talking about!’

‘But quite frankly I think that it would do this incredible place an injustice.’

For already this big old stone house was not like that. Even for me, with my love of words, it had been difficult to describe. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it seemed that every time I went there the house appeared to be exerting its own influence. The minute we entered we seemed to lose all our city-stress, and even our sense of time. Look at old Cosimo and half-blind Pasquale, look at their peaceful happy natures.  Something’s happening there.  And very soon we are to get new neighbours. Who will they be? And, like me, will they too feel the influence of this house?

I took a deep breath. ‘No, Liam’ I said, ‘I want to write about people. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but living them out in the most privileged and beautiful surroundings imaginable. Ordinary people living under one big Tuscan roof, and within solid stone walls that have stood the test of time for over three hundred years. Now that’s what I want to do.’

Ch 7 '... 'one cold & snowy winter's day  fixed...
… one cold and snowy winter’s day in February, we took possession of the keys …

And so, many months later, one cold and snowy winters’ day in February, we took possession of the keys, opened the gate and unlocked the door.

And so my adventures began …

 

<<  Previous chapter  |  Next Chapter

Leave your details with us here, to be notified of the next chapter as soon as it is released!

twittermailtwittermail
Hi - if you enjoyed this, I would REALLY appreciate if you shared it on one of the social media links - thanks! :-)

The Bravery of the Cape Bee – Part 2

Another trip to these incredible small, brave survivors clinging to life after the devastating Cape Town bushfires of 2015 …

If you sail into the City of Cape Town, dominating the landscape will be the majesty of Table Mountain.  But behind the famous ‘Table Top’ the scenery is equally spectacular. Here the mountain ranges in folds down towards the south, crossing deep ravines and skirting above the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. In winter these ravines turn into spectacular waterfalls, rushing and tumbling headfirst towards the sea. In summer the mountain does not lose its greenness, but all is quiet and still under the heat of the African sun.

I was sitting on the terrace of the Vineyard Hotel having breakfast with my cousin Suzanne when she looked up at the mountain. “Funny,” she said, “looking at this spectacular sight it is hard to believe that, just a little further along this mountain range, it all is charred and blackened.” Last week’s ravaging fires were still uppermost in our minds.

“Yes,” I replied, “we have all heard the experts telling us how every fifteen years or so we need these veld fires – that the protea bushes need the heat for the seeds to regenerate, that the indigenous bulbs will soon spring up and that in eighteen months or so the entire mountain will look like a garden. But what about the ‘urban fringe’ – those people who lost their houses, and what about the little things – the tortoises, the snakes, the small insects, and so on?”

“What about your bees?” Suzanne asked. So I told her.

I told her how the previous week, the day after the fire, I had found a small nucleus of melted brood frames and dead bees. How I had lifted the congealed mess up and examined it closely, feeling utterly devastated for my once healthy, busy hive. Then, how I had almost unbelievably seen one whole and traumatised bee climb through the charred brood and into the sunlight. My only thought was that these tiny creatures had fought a long and brave battle against the heat – fanning their queen and protecting their last bit of honey around her. Then a few drops of honey dropped onto the sand and I was convinced. Where there was one bee there must be others. So I took a giant leap and re-hived the congealed mess, put the hive stand in tins of oil for the black ants, tied it down for the baboons and put a heavy rock on the top for the raging south-easter. Then I had to leave.

“Trouble is,” I said to Suzanne, “I am running out of time to get back there. I leave for London in a few days and I would give anything to have just one look, and to see what is happening.”

“I’m free until 4 this afternoon!” said Suzanne “Let’s go!”. I have always liked this cousin. It would take well over two hours to get there and back. I looked at her, put my car keys on the table, and said “You’re on.”

The drive down took us over mountains, through valleys and along the sea Most of area was charred and blackened, simply ravaged by the worst veld fire imaginable. We were silent as we drove, each immersed in thoughts of the suffering that it had brought with it. Community spirit in the Cape has been high. Someone I know even took his prized rugby tickets for an important game to the local fire station. There he offered them to the brave firemen who had fought day and night for seven days. Sadly, one of our most experienced helicopter pilots tragically lost his life when his helicopter malfunctioned and plunged earthwards while water-bombing the blaze.

“And here I am worrying about a bee.” I thought. It did seem out of proportion, but by this time we had arrived. It was a simply stunning day … one of these days that are few and far between … for on this battered tip of Africa winds can range from a 60 knot off-shore southeaster to a 60 knot on-shore northwester.  As we walked through the charred and desolate veld the still calm was almost eerie: the peace of today, and the raging crackle and power of last week, contrasting starkly in our minds.

Within sight of the hive we stopped short, not believing what we saw. There was huge activity around the hive. We walked closer – buzzy bees were everywhere, all around the hive. “Better kit up.” I said, and we walked back to the house. Kitted up in our bee suits we went closer.

Huge activity – bees coming and going through both entrances. What an incredible change from the last visit!

“I don’t like it.” I said to Suzanne, “These bees are too many, and too active”. I sat down to watch them, but could see no pollen on their legs – not that there was much around in the veld anyway. “I fear that these are other bees, ones that have found the hive’s honey and have come to rob.” I said. “Oh dear!” said Suzanne, “Well let’s go for a walk on the beach before we head back.”

“You go,” I said, “I’ll stay here a little longer”.

I settled back on my haunches and watched the movement in and out of the hive, trying to work out some sort of pattern. It was then that I noticed a bit of fighting.  Or did I? This particular brood box has two openings and a solid centre. I took my bee tool and slid it across the one opening and watched. Yes, more intense fighting was happening on the only entrance available … I thought, but was it just optimism on my part?

In one of my beekeeping books I remember reading that if you have robbers and a weakened swarm you need to close up half the entrance to give the bees a chance to concentrate their defence. Rather like an army that cannot fight effectively on two fronts.

I walked back to my store room. Once again I took a leap of faith – for was this my ever optimistic nature willing there to be bees in my hive ready to start again, or were these just wild robber bees trying to find feed as best they could?  I do not know, but once again it seemed worth a try. I found a piece of wood and two panel-pin nails and a hammer.

I walked back through the desolate veld and hammered half the entrance closed. “There you are bees” I said, “I have done the best that I can. If you are inside there, may the Cape winter be mild to you, may the winter bulbs spring up and feed you, and may your queen, new or old, be fertile and produce lots of tiny furry bees for the spring.”

???????????????????????????????
Robber barricade securely in place.

“See you in September.” I whispered.

 

(Missed part 1?  Read it here …)

Coming next: What happens in September … sign up here to be notified!

twittermailtwittermail
Hi - if you enjoyed this, I would REALLY appreciate if you shared it on one of the social media links - thanks! :-)

The Bravery of the Cape Bee

Ever since I discovered my grandfather’s abandoned hive in the veld I have kept bees. This has been just a small hobby, the least hives I have had being two and the most five. I have often thought that the most depressing experience a beekeeper can have is to arrive at the hive one day and find there are no bees coming in or out of it. The fires that have raged through the Cape Peninsula in South Africa this week have proved me wrong.

Bees will do anything to protect their hive and their queen – as we know only too well, if there is a predator from outside they will attack. But what happens when the predator is fierce, hot and fast – a veld fire fanned by gale-force winds and fed by the dry crackling bush of summer’s end? Bees will then go into panic mode. They will cluster around the queen and fan her constantly, remaining at their posts and doing their duty until they die.

The day after the veld fire that raged at the back of our house I walked through the charcoal sticks and white sand towards my hive. Smouldering patches of fynbos were still sending puffs of grey smoke into the air and there was a suffocating smell of ash and burnt wood. Within sight of the hive I stopped. The two supers had burnt out completely. The metal lid was in bits nearby and the outer walls of the brood box had gone. Remaining on the metal stand were about five brood frames, totally charred and balanced at a crazy angle across the bottom of the stand. I went closer. The five blackened frames were stuck together, and hundreds of dead bees lay all across the top. Although the brood was there it was fairly solid and unrecognisable.

Hive box burnt away, a few brood frames remain
Hive box burnt away, a few brood frames remain

‘What happened here’ I wondered ‘did the bees fan to such an extent that these centre brood frames could not actually burn?’ Almost too incredible to believe as everything in the surrounding veld had gone. I lifted the charred mass, peering closer at the dead bees – some had lost their wings, some looked more like oval toffee.

Valiant bees burned at their posts
Valiant bees burned at their posts

Then I saw a tiny flutter, and to my utter amazement one whole bee crawled out of the charcoal brood and towards my hand. No more than one. But, as I kept holding the five frames, a few small drops of golden honey dropped onto the white sand.

Some honey in the middle of the combs
Some honey in the middle of the combs

The Cape honeybee has an almost unbelievable ability. Under extreme circumstances, and if they lose their queen, they are able to ‘morph’ a new queen from a worker bee. Now I don’t know if they have lost their queen, and I don’t know how many bees there are to help that one survivor. But I do know that it was quite the most depressing and humbling sight I have ever seen. How those bees must have fought to survive the extreme heat and smoke inhalation is beyond me.

With a probable failure risk of about 90%, I have now taken a leap of faith. I happened to have a spare super and a couple of unwaxed but wired frames in my storeroom. (Wax moth is prevalent here and I have just lost my other hive to it). I put the new brood box on the stand, placed the charred stuck-together mess of frames into the centre, and a few new frames into the brood box with them.  I stood the feet of the stands in tins filled with oil (black ants are ferocious here). I tied the box and lid together and staked it down into the sand (baboons are also prevalent here). I even put a little dog’s bowl of water down, although the wind and the sun will drain that pretty quickly.

Re-hived and battened down - can the hive recover?
Re-hived and battened down – can the hive recover?

Then I stood by and watched the entrance. Two bees crawled out, both wingless and too pathetic to watch. Then one more, whole, traumatised bee crawled out, fell onto the sand, crept around for a bit and finally flew off to a nearby patch of tiny unburned veld. I waited and watched for some time, but saw no more.

I do not live in that isolated place and so have had to leave. The earliest I can go back is in a week’s time. Will that one bee have others trying to eat their way out of the charcoal to join it? Is there a queen in the middle, still protected? Are there any eggs? What can they possibly do with that charcoaled brood, which should be thrown away but contains their only honey store? I do not know, but like any rescue operation, if you can help even one survivor then you have at least done the very best that you can do.

____________________________________________

A Bee Glossary: Very simply a beehive works as follows …

Brood: young bees at various stages of development - eggs, larvae, and pupae

Brood box:  where the queen bee and the brood live (the bigger box at the bottom of the hive)

Supers: the bees’ pantry (smaller boxes on top of the brood box where the bees store honey

Wax Moth: a brownish moth that lays its eggs in beehive - its destructive caterpillars cover the combs with silken tunnels and feed on the beeswax

‘Veld’: a loose term for uncultivated land in South Africa.

 

Read part 2 here

 

twittermailtwittermail
Hi - if you enjoyed this, I would REALLY appreciate if you shared it on one of the social media links - thanks! :-)