Monday, 11 April 2016

Kittens, bees and blossom

Just as if someone had flicked a switch, Spring has arrived. It is warm, as warm as a UK Summer, and beautifully bright. Lots of our trees are either in leaf or coming into leaf or blossom. We have also just had 4 cms of rain, which was much needed and couldn't have arrived at a better time to encourage flowering and setting of fruit. Some of our olives (about half) are coming into flower. Olive trees tend to have 'on' years and 'off' years. One or two of the olives have not had any fruit in our past three harvests (since we bought our place) and I would like to think it is our recent concerted efforts of watering, fertilising and pruning that have helped, and not just chance! 

Olive flower buds

The grape vines have exploded into leaf and flower bud.
This year's grape harvest, I hope.
We have planted out tomato plants, aubergine, and courgettes, all grown from seed. Butternut squash are germinating. The pepper seeds failed to germinate on the third attempt. On the first attempt the propagator caused the solar electric system to crash and then I had two further attempts just putting the seeds out in the warm sunshine and bringing them in at night - but it wasn't to be. Where we live, quite a few of the shops in town sell plugs of young seedlings for the garden (Mark tells me you can get them in the UK but it tends to be more on a commercial scale) - so we have 'filled the gap' and bought red, green and piquillo (miniature) peppers. I am just growing them on a little in trays before planting them out. Whilst at the garden centre, I also bought 3 types of melon seedlings and some more tomatoes. The seedlings are really good quality and, quite frankly, it works out cheaper than buying packets of seeds that can go off from one year to the next. The difficulty may arise if we decide to apply for organic certification, although I expect we can source organically produced seedlings if we need to - something to look into in the next year or two! I will stick to using seeds where it is 'one seed, one vegetable' (e.g. lettuce or carrot) but where a seedling can give you a whole bush of vegetables, such as in the case of peppers or tomatoes, for 10 cents a time it is a no-brainer.

So, also with Spring come litters of kittens. There are many un-spayed and un-neutered cats in the Alpujarras and many, many litters of kittens that do not have the opportunity to live comfortably in a domestic setting. As we already have 4 cats, 3 of which are elderly and becoming expensive to keep in good health, there will be lots and lots of times (I feel certain) over the next few years when the temptation of unwanted kittens will be dangled in front of me! One night when I was checking the posts on Facebook, a lady had posted that she had taken her household rubbish to the container (that's what we do round here) and heard the screaming of kittens. Three kittens had been tied up in a plastic bag and disposed of. One had already died. She took the other two and was asking for someone to come forward to look after them. They can only have been a week or so old, ears down and eyes closed. We just aren't in any position to take on more cats at the moment. However, a lady who attends Mark's Spanish class is fostering them until they can be homed, and last week we got the chance to go and visit them for a cuddle . 

In fact, it was time for their two-hourly feed and I gave one of them their bottle of milk, all 7 mls of it!

Mr Sparrow has said it is 'one out, one in' in our house. He had better be careful (!)
The kittens have been named Samurai and Ninja, little warriors fighting for survival. We loved the visit and fully support the work of Cats of the Alpujarra (as well as many other charities that address the wellbeing of humans). 

Spring is also the time when bees start to build up in the hive and, however hard a beekeeper may try and prevent it, sometimes swarming just has to happen. Mark and I have kept bees for the last 8 years or so and gave our colonies we kept in the Wirral to fellow beekeepers before leaving last year. I then carefully heat-sterilised all our equipment and packed it into boxes to send out to Spain. The equipment, empty hives and all, arrived here last July on the lorry with our furniture. We had every intention of getting set up again with a colony or two. 

Sometimes (quite often, actually) I feel that solutions can just fall into place if you sit back for a while. On FB, we belong to a group that posts items of local interest and one evening I read an announcement from a gentleman than lives at the bottom of our track, saying that he had a swarm of bees on his land and asking if anyone could take it away for him. It was already getting dark when I read the post and we were in the midst of getting our 4 cms of rain! However, the next morning the bees were still where they had been the night before, clinging to the trunk of an almond tree, only 1 metre off the ground. What a nice accessible swarm!

We hastily unpacked the beekeeping equipment we required to take the swarm. A 'nuc' box, brush, hive tool, some frames with wax panels in and ours suits, wellies and rubber gloves. Taking the swarm was like reading out of a text book. We brushed the majority of the bees into the nuc, one or two were fanning indicating the presence of the queen, and the rest flew in during the next 20 minutes or so, some of them as scouts that had been out flying and were returning to the swarm.

These bees had clung together to protect their queen throughout the 4 cms of rain we had received overnight!

You can just make out the flying bees between the nuc box and the trunk

We then taped the box up, put it in the back of our car, and drove it back up to our house. On the way back up the track, we stopped and gave a gentleman a lift. Hahahahaha!!! We didn't tell him there was a swarm of bees sitting behind him! 

Once back home we put the swarm into a hive which we had dusted off.  We gave them a sugar solution feed from a new feeder which Mark gave me for my birthday last year. There is a perfect location for the hive at the top of our land and quite away from our house.

Unheard of in the UK, the Spanish appear to keep their hives on, or close to, the ground.
We haven't got round to making a stand yet, but actually the hive would be extremely vulnerable from the wind if it were on a stand. So maybe we won't put them on a stand after all!

They are a fairly small swarm and are only occupying half the hive at this point. Not a prime swarm but a cast, they are likely to have a virgin queen. Yesterday, 5 days after hiving the swarm, we had a look inside the hive. There are a few flying bees and these appear to be foraging because they are building wax comb. They have not taken any of the sugar solution feed we had put in the hive but there are some stores - probably nectar from flowers - being put away. We could not see the queen, but if she is unmated she will be quite small - or she could have been out on the razz and getting mated!! In the UK it would be too early for mature drones to be flying in mating grounds. I do hope that, as the weather is more advanced here compared to the UK, there are drones that are up for it! Now I think we must leave the hive undisturbed for a couple of weeks and, fingers crossed, there may be a mated queen laying eggs in the wax cells next time we look.

It is interesting how smells can evoke nostalgia. It felt so good to be getting out our beekeeping equipment and smelling wax, honey, propolis.

Mark and I both noticed the remarkably good temperament of the bees, just buzzing and going about their business. This is a bonus for us as we are not in any position to smoke, given the fire risk. They must have swarmed from a managed colony. Hopefully, if the queen goes on to mate and produce offspring, they will also turn out to be gentle.

Today we have continued to clear our land of prunings by chipping small branches, cutting logs (Mark's speciality) and stacking the logs. Just to keep the day action-packed, we hired a JCB + driver to pull the two trunks out of our alberca (irrigation water deposit) which fell into it when the tree surgeons were reducing the trees. The gentleman arrived and had the job done in just over an hour.

The trunk on the left has a belt looped round it. Mark is hooking the belt to the bucket of the JCB

The JCB arm is hoisting the trunk up the bank

Here it comes!

A smaller section of trunk is hoisted into the air and clear of the bank

Alberca is now clean!

Now that all the work has taken place around the alberca, we have more wood to cut up, turn into benches, steps..... plenty to keep us busy and as much as we can fit in before the weather really starts to get hot. We plan to have 'one last push' before our son comes to visit at the end of the month.... then a well-earned rest, going out-and-about and having a bit of fun!

Bobby 'chief ratter' Sparrow