Winter came sliding off down the hill behind us last night, filling the gaps and hollows with frost.
There is always a day when you awake to a changed world, and, for 2018, this was it. From this point until the sun once again warms the park wall in about five months time, me and the bees are in winter mode.
For the bees, it is easy. The drones are dead, killed off a month or so ago as a non-contributing waste of rations. The queen is hunkered down inside a cluster in the brood box, keeping warm and fed by the efforts of the workers around her. Each day that passes there will be less of them, until sometime around December when there will be about a tenth of the number that were in the colony a few months ago. The deepening cold signals to the queen to hold fire on egg laying until the Spring as, gradually, the cluster closes in to a couple of frames in the middle of the hive. The bees on the outside will exercise their flight muscles without moving their wings, generating enough heat to raise the temperature at the core to around 30 degrees centigrade and, like emperor penguins on an Antarctic peninsula, they will move around in the group, each taking their turn to be cold, or to be warm. In a way, it’s the easiest time of year to be a beekeeper, with the key challenge simply to ensure that they have enough food. Especially if you have taken most of their honey. Especially when you call to mind that in each of their tiny lifetimes, they will produce only a twelfth of a teaspoon’s worth of the stuff.
Honey-wise, it was a top year, and we took three loads. Sugary, solid light-coloured stuff in May when the oil seed rape attracted the bees like students to a mobile kebab shop; then two lots of dark and runny wildflower honey as the summer wore on, the second of which we entered into the Petersfield and District Beekeepers Association annual honey show (medium coloured, liquid class), where the best I can say is that we weren’t disqualified. And, when all was said and done, both Duncan and I had larders full of the stuff to see us through the winter. Taking pots along to people as gifts may seem on the face of it to be cheaper than a bottle of wine or box of chocolates, but it is a generosity of a different kind, and so much effort has gone in that the physical gap that each pot leaves almost hurts. Each time I find myself almost looking into the recipient’s soul to make sure that the appreciation is up to the sacrifice.
For me, winter is more complicated than for the bees. Each year that passes convinces me a little more that I am a summer person: bees, cricket, mowing, eating outdoors and walks in the gloaming are summer things, whilst their winter equivalents tend to be pale versions, laid out on screens or pages, and always accompanied by a slight feeling of nostalgia, and the urgent need for a cup of tea. Apart from one thing, which is the act of putting on wellies. For over half a century, and sad though it may seem, the prospect of putting on wellies has been one of the things that gets me out of bed in wintertime. The wellie boot signifies something as close as most of us get to adventure towards the end of our sixth decade. ‘Put us on,’ they say suggestively, ‘and something wonderful might happen.’ It never actually does, but hope springs eternal. They are a ship of dreams, even if the dreams are old and smelly like my feet.
All of which made this morning’s discovery of my left wellie in the porch by the front door, where it belongs, and the right one half way across the lawn, lying in the frost, so confusing. What the hell bit of wildlife decides that it needs an old Size 10 Le Chameau with perished seams? What exactly is it thinking of doing with it as it drags it up the garden steps onto the lawn? What plan is forming itself in the tiny grouping of brain cells in its skull that includes my wellie being an improvement to its life? Will my boot live its days down a hole, in some undergrowth or even up a tree? Will things nest in it, feed from it, or even crap in it?
The short answer is ‘I don’t know’. But, having made use of it on my right foot to walk the dogs on a couple of occasions today, that wellie is going back out to exactly the same place on the lawn tonight, so that whatever it is can continue with whatever plans it has, and wherever it is going.
Both it and I are easily amused.