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The birds and the bees

The birds and the bees

This last month has been very busy on the wildlife front – both good news and bad. We’ll get the bad over with first. Jackie’s favourite hen, Rocky, was attacked and killed by a mongoose. I’ll spare the details but for whatever reason it wasn’t able to take Rocky away. So after the event we set up the trail camera and recorded this:

The other hens are in a different paddock and have beefed up defences, so fingers crossed they will be safe.

In better bird news, our Blue Tit nestbox was once again occupied this year and we saw at least four birds fledge. They were rather lucky as minutes after the last one flew the coop, I spotted a ladder snake in the nest box! It was only a small one, so maybe it wouldn’t have harmed the chicks but was investigating if there were any eggs left.

just fledged

That’s the birds and now for the bees. We have loads of bumblebees in the garden doing their stuff but recently I’ve noticed that there are often bees in the barn and now I know why. They are Mason Bees. These are solitary bees in that they don’t have a hive. The female finds a small hole or crack where it builds a nest and stores a supply of pollen and nectar. It lays an egg on this and then seals up the hole. Often there are a number of sealed compartments in any one nest. You can clearly see the sealed up nests in one of the photos below – in our wine store in the barn. In the spring the larva will eat the supply of food and when it is ready will tunnel out of the nest.

Not content with Mason bees, we’ve also got Ashy Mining Bees! These are also solitary bees but live in holes in the ground. We found this one in the kitchen.

This year I have decided to leave a lot of the garden uncut, which gives the wildflowers and wildlife in general more chance to thrive. It has provided a boon not just to actual bees but we have also found a bee orchid in our garden. A first for us.

We turn from bees to hornets. I found this chap had a taste for my beer. I carefully got him out and he, or probably she, recovered to fly off. Mistake! I thought it was a European hornet because it was so large. However, just now I have identified it as the much-vilified Asian Hornet. I think I am supposed to report it to the necessary authorities as the council will come round to find and destroy the nest.

see the miniscule ant as comparison

We also found a dead vole and mole in the veg patch and spurred on from watching a recent wildlife programme, I decided to get the skulls. Basically I left them out for the flies. In just a few days, the fly maggots devoured the flesh to just leave bones and hair. The cleaning was completed by soaking in water for a few days. Betty also found another javali (wild boar) skull which is now also being cleaned and will be added to the bone collection! Thankfully in this case the flesh had all gone so it is just macerating in a bin of water.

the maggots do their stuff

mole and shrew skulls with mandibles (lower jaw)

In other news, I’ve been playing with a few new toys to use on my bowl projects and here is the latest:

A January to forget

A January to forget

I know January is only two thirds over but we’ve had enough already! Although not as bad as the UK, we’ve had rain, rain, rain, culminating in storms this weekend which knocked the power and water out for three days. And there are more thunderstorms to come. Every cloud has a silver lining and I think we were lucky to escape much of the damage. We had an olive tree fatality and a tile off the roof but the polytunnel and the shed survived (thanks to a high quality build I reckon!) and the well is now full to the brim. And our chest freezers full of pork managed to avoid defrosting.

The local bus stop was not made of sterner stuff however…

ex local bus stop
ex local bus stop

However, our bees have once again absconded. They disappeared this time last year and it is just as perplexing this time around. Last week they were still out and about collecting pollen ( I posted photos here) and there is plenty of pollen and honey in the now empty hives. We think that living in rural Portugal we have ‘got away from it all’ but I guess even here we cannot escape man’s degradation of our natural resources. They are saying that the honey bees abscond because of pesticides and I have to say that the locals seem to use them indiscriminately here. Perhaps that is the cause, we just don’t know.

We also had a bit of a shock with Betty. Previously known as Lucky – as she was saved as a puppy wandering lost in the forest, she was very well named. She certainly has a wild spirit about her as she likes nothing better than to tear off out of the garden chasing after goodness knows what, only to come back three or four hours later covered in goodness knows what! However, she always comes back, eventually. Even if it is three in the morning when she announces her return by howling outside our bedroom window. This time was different. After she had been gone for two days we thought the worst. However, on the third day there was a scratching at the door. She was filthy and half starved but of more concern was a huge gash around her stomach. We think she had been caught in a javeli ( wild boar) trap, which is made of thin wire. We cleaned her up as best we could and took her to the vet. Suffice it to say, after a coarse of antibiotics (intravenously administered by our good selves!) and some tlc, she is already back to her worst.


Despite all the doom and gloom it’s not all bad. After all, during our electric-free nights, I managed to beat Jackie at scrabble and cribbage and we have our first daffodils of the year – in fact they’ve been in flower for over a week, as well as a clutch of pretty crocuses.


Happy New Year

Happy New Year

I can’t believe this is our 4th New Year in Portugal! Our first new year was spent awaiting the builders to start work, our second saw the hens lay their first egg, our third we were looking forward to operation porco, and our 4th? Well, our house is built, we’ve had over 2000 eggs and operation porco has been and gone and we will be enjoying the pork for quite some time.

As our ‘to-do’ list continues to grow, this year I think, will be one of consolidation. Hopefully the laydies will keep on doing their stuff and no doubt we will get a few more roasties for eating. The bees are still here so hopefully more honey and of course Jackie is already busy ‘na horta’ making preparations for this year’s crop of goodies. Having said that, we still haven’t finished the spuds from last year and the caulis, calabrese and leeks are still going strong.

Talking of bees. Yes they are still here (they buggered off last year and I had to restock the hive). But nevermind that: they are still out and about foraging for pollen as can be seen below.


Interesting that they’re collecting orange and yellow pollen. I don’t know where from.

I’ve been busy with the hammer and nails. I took apart a couple of old pallets and made a small table cum footstool for the lounge and a storage box for the bathroom .
Jackie has also been busy and although a bit late for Christmas, here I am proudly wearing my new jumper. Very nice it is too.


Invasion of the bee-eating hornets!

Invasion of the bee-eating hornets!

OK, not quite an invasion, but the other day while I was inspecting the hives, I noticed a large wasp and while I was watching, it swooped down and snatched one of my little ladies from outside the hive! I later found out that it was a large European hornet which is carnivorous and eats many insects including bees. I’ve only seen one so far and it is hardly decimating the colony (apparently up to 1000 bees can die per day at some times of the year!) and I’m hoping that it will disappear for winter. I didn’t get a photo of the snatch but here he is waiting for an opportunity and here are some bees returning home. You can see one of them with her little suitcases full of orange pollen. So they are still building up stores.

European hornet and honey bees

In better news when I opened up the hives, the ‘weedy’ bees seem finally to have made a fair amount of honey and the hard-working bees which produced all of this year’s honey crop have almost refilled all their frames! I could therefore take some more honey but as we’ve got enough and I want to make sure they have enough for winter, I’ll let them bee.

With the bees still collecting pollen you might suspect that it is still warm and sunny here (like October last year). Not at all. We’ve had a fair amount of rain and it’s been cold enough at night to have the wood buring stove on. And it has led to a reappearance of mushrooms after the absence of last year.

We have plenty of poisonous Jack O’lanterns around the base of the olive trees but also we’ve managed to pick quite a few field mushrooms. Together with our free range eggs, and home produced bacon (Yes!), we can have winter fry-ups – just the job!

Jack O’lanterns

edible mushrooms and walnuts

One harvest which hasn’t been so good is the walnuts. However, it has to be said, there are more than enough for the two hairy ones, who love them and have no problem cracking the nuts with their teeth.

Now autumn has arrived with a bang a few typical seasonal photos:

return of grass!

Rain at last

Rain at last

…but it’s the perennial complaint – not enough! Our UK readers will decry me for this comment but we had been looking forward to thunderstorms and heavy rain which had been forecast for last night. This morning however we were greeted by nothing more than a damp squib. We are now well and truly scraping the bottom of the barrel or rather in our case, the well, which will be bone dry very soon.

The pigs were happy though, as their dustbowl of a field is at least damp. They also continue to grow. they are now 90kgs each and getting ever closer to the chop!

The bees have also done well. Or at least one hive has. I took a further 4 frames last week which means we’ve had a total of 14kgs of honey from this one hive and absolutely nothing from the other hive. At least the bees from the second hive have produced some honey which should see them through the winter. As I have no honey extractor, I cut the honeycomb off the frames and then strain the honey out. With the remainder, I can then extract the wax by heating it and then straining it through a pair of tights.

So we’ve now got almost a kilogramme of wax so once we get some wicks we’ll be able to make some candles.

I’ve also been busy doing more woodworking and made another chair:

Although there is plenty to eat from the garden, we’ve also been doing a lot of foraging hereabouts. There are a number of ruined houses in our village and a lot of them have mature fruit trees. Therefore we’ve been enjoying fresh peaches, apples and especially damsons. Jackie has made damson jam and a most delicious damson ice cream. We’ve also collected some sloes, so the sloe gin should be ready by Christmas.



It’s a little strange when you see the same thing every day, you just don’t notice it changing. This is especially true of nature which is constantly changing but usually too slowly to notice. This seemed to be the case for the pigs.

Actually, the changes should have been obvious, as they have been going through over 2kgs of pig food in addition to food scraps every day. Anyway, I measured them recently. I’m sure it would be nigh on impossible to put them on scales but you can get a rough approximation by measuring their length and girth. My rough calculations came out at over 60kgs each. Boy have they grown!

So now the 60kg beasts have decided they are big enough to flex a bit of muscle, especially if their carers are a bit late with dinner. And that is what happened the other day. Dinner was late and so they decided to go after it themselves. The fence stood no chance and Jackie was soon screaming, “The pigs are out! the pigs are out!” Fortunately I had the food bucket to hand and they were soon chasing me back into their field. While they chowed down I made the necessary repairs (fingers crossed).

We won’t be late with dinner time again I can assure you.

Meanwhile, they still enjoy a bathe and as temperatures have risen into the thirties recently, here they are enjoying life.

pigs in heaven

Got some grub for us?

Not just the pigs, but other things have been sprouting and after a few years of famine, last year’s pruning seems to have done the job with the apples and very soon, the peaches. So we are presently enjoying quite a few apple crumbles and apple and sultana cakes (recipe to follow as it is seriously delicious).

Following on from the last post, I got 7kgs of honey (that’s 14 jars) from just 4 frames in one hive. I can take another 4 full frames out of the same hive but I think I’ll leave that for a few weeks to enable them to recover a bit. I think I’ll leave hive number 2 this time around – they should make enough honey to last themselves over the winter but I won’t take any.

As I don’t have an extractor, as I described in the last post, I had to cut up the comb to let the honey drip out (a proper extractor just takes the honey and leaves the comb intact). But this had the advantage that I could use all the wax myself and after a bit of  reheating and filtering (through a pair of tights), I managed to get over 500g of pure beeswax. We just need to decide what to do with it now. We’re going to try and make candles but need to do a bit of research first.


Honey 2012

Honey 2012

As many readers will know, after producing stellar amounts of honey last year, our bees buzzed off last November, never to return. Undeterred we doubled up this year and now have two hives.

I’ve been keeping an eye on them over the months and it has been a little odd to say the least. One hive has been going ahead great guns as far as honey production, while number two, although seemingly very healthy, and with loads of flowers about – especially lavender, it just hasn’t been producing.

The bees in hive 1 have only just started to produce cells in the top box after which they can start to think about making honey. Meanwhile in hive number 2, the top box is almost full of capped honey and so is ready for harvest. So today I took off 4 frames. Here is one below.


As we only have two hives and an extractor costs in the hundreds of Euros we have to get the honey out the hard way. Basically I cut the honey out of the frames and allow it to drain through a colander as below.


So, I’ll take off 7 frames from hive number 2  in the next couple of days and see how we go.



We finish 2011 with some sad news – our bees have buggered off. Or, to put it technically, absconded.

When winter started they were very quiet as expected but some of them were still out and about foraging as normal. We were very lucky as there was plenty of food available as our rosemary bushes were still in flower as was a large eucalyptus tree in the next field to us. Then yesterday they seemed to be very active, chewing up their wax and dropping a lot of it just outside the hive. This morning I checked again and all the bees had disappeared!

Every one had gone leaving behind a healthy-looking hive with plenty of honey and pollen stores. After a bit of web research it’s still not clear what has happened. The presence of wax outside the hive and some telltale signs inside the hive, indicate robber bees – i.e. bees from other hives stealing the honey. But I think they are just opportunistic, stealing the stores after my bees had already skipped off. So I think the bees I saw yesterday were not mine but these new scavengers. Mine had already gone, maybe some time before.

healthy looking comb - a ring of pollen stores and some honey in the corners

Apparently absconding is rare but it does happen – the strange thing is, it is usually a result of some kind of disturbance or when there is a lack of food – neither of which has happened here. I have to say I’m absolutely devastated.

I won’t be defeated though, it’s just back to the drawing board. In the new year I’ll ask around and see if I can find out what has happened and get some more bees. Every cloud has a silver lining however, as there is a fair amount of honey in the hive I can harvest and I can render down some wax to see if we can make a candle or two.

In better news, in the winter sunshine, which we’ve had plenty of, we managed to spend some quality time enjoying the garden and doing some bird watching. What started it off was a rare sighting of a great spotted woodpecker on the walnut tree. It stayed for ages which was great. Then we started to notice loads of other birds. In all in about an hour we saw 14 species: blue tit, great tit, meadow pipit, thrush, goldfinch, greenfinch, chaffinch, sparrow, robin, blackbird, black redstart, pied wagtail and serin. And that’s not including a buzzard which we saw the day before soaring high above the garden as well as long tail tits which often fly through the olive trees in small family groups. No pictures here but they are all on our bird page

I’ve also been busy in the kitchen. I used up some spare tiles to line the kitchen shelves. I have to say it makes cleaning them much easier and looks a lot better too.

tiling the shelves

Of course Jackie has been busy in the garden as ever and here she is doing some weeding ably assisted by the hairy one.

As you can see the veg patch continues to feed us over the colder months and although we’ve pulled the last of the (delicious) turnips up we still have swede, chard (partly grown for its amazing colour), beetroot, leeks and some sprouts on the go. Soon some calabrese will be ready and with luck, some peas. Jersey new potatoes were planted yesterday and Jackie’s also busy planning next year’s crop hoping for an even bigger harvest. The almost daily sunshine this month has meant lunch outdoors but with only a few days rain we’re hoping January will be wetter to water the newly planted trees (shade for the hens) and fill the well but the weather forecast is sun for the next 10 days (we’re only slightly complaining!).

We mustn’t forget the hens who laid a total of 1064 eggs this year and gave us wonderful eggs benedict on Christmas day.

Meanwhile the oranges are growing bigger than ever and we’re both looking forward to new projects we’re planning for 2012 – come and visit and see for yourselves!

So here’s to a Happy New Year to our friends and readers and hope it’s a good, productive and peaceful one!

Feliz ano novo!

We’re in the honey

We’re in the honey

As Jackie mentioned in the last post, we were rather chuffed to recently harvest our first batch of honey.

It was quite straightforward to remove the frames, I just had to be careful to brush the bees off the frames and quickly put them in a sealed box to take away. There are nine frames in the top box which contains the honey (the lower box contains the brood – eggs and larvae). For the first harvest I took four full frames and left the rest which were not quite full. We may take two more a bit later but there is no rush. We must remember to leave some honey for the bees to eat over winter.

Here’s a photo of a frame packed with capped honey – about 1.5kgs worth.

It’s accepted that most of the honey should be capped before extraction. The frame below is only about three quarters capped but should be fine. Basically the bees mature the honey and reduce the water content to below 17% before capping it.

Generally beekeepers use a dedicated mechanical extractor to get their honey but for just four frames it wasn’t worth our while so we did it manually. After a bit of messing about and some very sticky fingers it all went surprisingly smoothly. I cut the honeycomb out of the frame and then put it in a sieve to drain out. As it was a particularly hot day the honey was very runny which made it easier. The honey that came through was amazingly clear and wax free which was good and of course, it tasted delicious!