Lucky

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It has been trying hard to snow. The grey sky sends down light showers of snowflakes that dissolve as they reach the ground. Nothing settles.

My husband and I had a loss over Christmas and New Year. In some ways it has made me grateful for January, which is often a good time of the year to stay indoors and away from the rest of the world. But the cold is often bitterest when spring is around the corner and then I will have to go outside again. The bees will be starting up, the pond will need cleaning, and the birds have already begun to nest.

I was pottering in the kitchen the other day when for some reason I remembered that something had been missing. A butterfly nursery had sat on the kitchen work surface late last summer. I never had the opportunity to raise butterflies when I was younger and had thought why not now?

The caterpillars had arrived in a small cardboard box through the post in August. There were five caterpillars in a plastic cup with a layer of food at the bottom. The instructions were quite simple: keep the caterpillars at a temperature of 21–23°C and wrap the cup in a blanket at night to stay warm. All being well, the caterpillars should become chrysalides within 7–14 days. A two-week wait.

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I kept my cup of caterpillars in a warm spot near a sunny window during the day. At night the cup was wrapped in a woolly scarf and placed in a small basket. Everything worked as it should. The caterpillars ate their food, got fatter and dutifully climbed to the top of the cup. They hung from the lid in a J-shape, shed their exoskeletons and hardened into chrysalides.

After three days the chrysalides were no longer moving. It was time to move them to the hatching habitat – a larger netted enclosure where the butterflies would spend their first few days. While I was moving them into their new home, I took a photo of the delicate golden-tipped chrysalides. This one wins the prize for caterpillar beauty pageant.

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The transformation didn’t take very long and one morning I found that my painted lady butterflies had emerged overnight. I fed them sugar water and fruit and allowed them to settle for a day before releasing them into the garden.

It was a hot sunny day when the butterflies flew away. That was just over six months ago and we had had a loss around that time too. All the butterflies were eager to stretch their wings and explore the buddleia I had planted in the garden. All but one butterfly remained. This butterfly’s wing had been broken when it had emerged from its chrysalis and it would never fly.

The instructions said that if a butterfly was damaged it was best to put it in a spot in the garden and let nature do the rest. I felt sorry for the butterfly – it wasn’t its fault that it couldn’t fly and surely it deserved a bit more life. So I put it back inside the habitat and returned it to the kitchen work surface.

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Lucky – I didn’t know whether the butterfly was a male or female, let’s say it was a male – lived for about five weeks in the habitat. I bought some pot plants for him to climb on and hide within the foliage, and fed sugar water and fruit each day. His favourite treat was a fresh cluster of orange-ball buddleia from which he would meticulously suck up the nectar of every single flower. On occasion he was content to sit on my hand and lick up the sugar syrup.

On a warm day I put the habitat outside by the myrtle tree and lavender bush. Lucky would come out from within the foliage almost immediately and climb to the top of a plant. He then sat there quietly and watched the world go by.

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All this effort for a little butterfly might seem quite strange to some people, but it was nice to have something to nurture. I felt quite sorry when one day Lucky sat at the bottom of his habitat and didn’t move again. In some ways he didn’t have a very lucky start in life, but I hope he was luckier than most broken-winged butterflies.

In a couple of months the garden will start to blossom. I wonder if last year’s butterflies laid any eggs beneath the ivy leaves and whether we will see more painted ladies flying about.

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A beekeeper’s notes for June: secrets inside the hive

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“Quick! Take the egg!” whispered the worker to her younger sister. “Hide the new princess in the upper chamber where the queen won’t find her!” The young worker gently picked up the precious egg in her mandibles and ran as fast as she could past the queen’s retinue, and up the stairs where her majesty couldn’t follow. Higher and higher she climbed till she stopped with exhaustion beneath a special cell. The smells of nectar in the loftiest chamber were overwhelming and the scent of the queen seemed far away. 

The young worker placed the egg carefully inside the secret cell already prepared to receive the new princess. The egg would be safe from the queen who would be unable to get through the nectary gates and tear down the hidden queen cell.

The longest day of the year had passed on the summer solstice last Sunday. At the apiary talk had turned to the honey crop and how much could be harvested this year. Emily and I had put two supers on Queen Melissa’s hive, which were filling up nicely. “Let’s check the super frames to see which can be taken,” I said going through the top super. Around the fifth frame in, I found her. A tiny, coiled, pearly larva in a silky white bed of royal jelly at the bottom of a damaged queen cell. Emily and I stared at her curiously wondering how the queen larva had got into the top super. The queen excluder was above the brood chamber and, we hoped, the queen had not gotten past to start laying in the supers.

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The queen cell looked partly torn away and whether that had happened when I pulled out the tightly fitted super frame or by a worker tearing down the cell, we could not tell. We marked the frame and carefully put it back for a further investigation of the hive.

I didn’t find any brood or further queen cells in the supers, but I did find several collections of pollen-packed cells, which is unusual. It seemed the workers were preparing to raise a special brood in the top super, and though the workers can move eggs, nectar and pollen around the hive this seemed a long way to carry an egg from the brood chamber. “Perhaps they heard us saying that we wanted to try queen rearing,” I joked to Emily.

A beginner beekeeper, Mark, was watching our discovery with interest and asked why the workers would hide the queen cell. “To keep it a secret from us,” I said, “Or more likely the queen who would tear it down.”

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Then it was time to go through the brood nest. Here there were only stores and brood, but no queen cells. Emily spotted the queen as I held up a frame, so I caged and marked her with a pink marking pen from Pat.

We closed up the hive. With only one queen cell hidden in the super, and now appearing partly damaged, this seemed a case of attempted supersedure rather than swarm. Emily and I have always let our bees get on with supersedure in the past, the workers know best when to replace a queen. Melissa and her hive were left to their royal secrets until next week.

In the artificially swarmed colony the still unnamed queen was also found and marked by Emily. Two queens now wear pretty pink crowns thanks to Pat’s pink queen-marking pen from Thornes. I wish they would make a glitter pen too.

Emily is mentoring new beekeepers for the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) and had already checked Queen Pepper’s hive with Mark. This left us time for tea and cake (Polish cake from Clare and home-made ginger cake from Emily) and a casual visit to Den’s hive.

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Den was puzzled about why his bees were making waves of honeycomb above the frames. This was ‘bee space‘, we explained. There was a gap, more than 8mm, between the top bars and the top of the box. The bees would fill up any gap bigger than 8-9mm with honeycomb. The importance of bee space demonstrated and lessons were almost done for the day.

From the apiary to the garden there were fewer butterflies than bees, and I was hoping to attract more winged visitors to our flower beds. A butterfly supper of brown mashed banana on a plate and sugar syrup in a jar was prepared. These were simple to make and, I thought, an ideal activity if you’re entertaining young nieces…

How to make a butterfly supper

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You will need: 

  • Plastic plate
  • String
  • Over-ripe brown banana
  • Decorative flowers

1. Pierce four holes in the plastic plate to pull through the string and tie handles on either side.

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2. Stick on plastic flowers to make the plate look pretty for butterflies.

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3. Mash a brown banana that butterflies love.

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How to make a butterfly sugar feeder

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You will need: 

  • Jam jar
  • String
  • Sugar syrup

1. Mix one part sugar to four parts water to make sugar syrup.

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2. Pierce a hole in the jam jar lid and poke through a brightly coloured kitchen cloth.

3. Pour the sugar syrup in the jar and screw on the lid so the cloth can absorb the syrup.

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4. Secure with garden string and/or elastic bands to hang upside down.

The butterfly feeding stations were hung up high in the flowering bush that is busy with bees. We’ve had no customers yet, but I’m hopeful.

So the bees don’t feel neglected in the garden, my niece had a bright idea a couple of weekends ago. She asked me to pick one of each flower to put on a saucer. We then drizzled the flowers in honey. “This is a bee bed,” she said proudly putting her creation on the flower bed wall. “For tired bees.”

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edit: my story of the worker moving the egg is anecdotal (see comments below) and pure guesswork as I can’t know for certain how a suitable egg got into the super for the bees to try and make a queen. Moving eggs is one theory I’ve heard over the years, laying workers is a possibility though these eggs would become drone not queens, or a small queen able to slip through the excluder after all or even a second queen in the hive still unseen…