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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A taste of honey in Provence

Smoking the last of the bees out the old hive

First you buy a plot of land in Provence, complete with an old beehive. Then you go on a beekeeping course, where you meet people whose idea of fun is turning up at an emergency swarm alert. Like fishermen and hunters, they tell you horror stories to check whether your testosterone level is high enough to pass the test. So I've heard about the man who suddenly became allergic after twenty years - died. And the man who tried to speak after swallowing a bee - the swelling closed his respiratory channels. Died. And don't ever ever go in with the bees during a storm - they are 'mechant'. Despite all this, I have now enjoyed 4 days of hands-on beekeeping lessons. Gloved hands-on, as far as I'm concerned.

The same experts who swop these stories, handle bees without gloves and leave their face masks down, while we debutantes naively - and cheerfully - avoid getting stung. My beemaster - we'll call him OBee (because I feel like I'm being taught how to use the force) told me, 'No-one ever forgets the first time he (or she) goes in with the bees...'
bees, honey and brood on old frame

My first time was on a windy day, when an old hand said she wasn't touching the bees in that weather. It wasn't so much that my testosterone levels were up as that I didn't want another fortnight 'looking forward' to it. I had no idea how I would react mentally, although physically I'm not allergic (in theory - there are always the horror stories...) We were doing the spring check so I took my turn to lift up each frame in turn, check for the brood cells, honey and pollen. Later I would learn to distinguish between the cells; workers, drone and queen (sign of swarm preparation); young and old.

Advice I wish I'd been given before going in with the bees? Wipe your nose - it will run, the minute you're trapped in a bee jacket and mask. Tie your hair back. Your hair gets in your eyes, your glasses slip down your nose and prodding at your face through the mesh is likely to draw blood or squash a bee against your skin. The funniest thing I've seen is someone answering a mobile phone through a bee outfit.

The bees were in a filthy mood from the wind and when I was holding a frame, one stung me through my glove - welcome to beekeeping. I was too interested to be scared and if I focused on the activities round me rather than individual bees flying by my face, I could just ignore the angry dive-bombing and tapping at my mask. Until my instinct told me that a bee was inside my mask, not outside . 'Paranoia,' I thought. 'Fact,' my more sensible perception told me. 'Yikes,' I thought, as I focused on said bee hitching a ride on the inside of my face mask. I walked a long long way from the angry hives and luckily my pet bee was calmer than I felt and flew off when I took off the jacket and released her. Then I did a real 'Yikes' dance. And another one when I was given the advice on not opening your mouth when a bee can go into it. So that's what could have happened, I tried not to think.

Another piece of advice that came too late for one of my classmates was to check very carefully for unwanted company when you remove your protective clothing. It's a bit like climbers falling off a mountain on the way down; beekeepers get stung when they've finished working. Your guard is down, you're a long way from the hives and you don't notice the one bee sitting on your shoulder/head/glove. They're attracted by the lovely smells you've acquired while raiding their hive and they travel with you a long way. When OBee turned up at my house in his battered 2CV, I noted the one obligatory bee in the back of his car - like taking your dog out with you.

I came off lightly from that first session compared with the lively 9 year old who'd insisted on accompanying his father, didn't sit far enough way from the action and was stung several times on his bare head. Health and safety is different in Provence. Sheltering in a car after that, the little boy was sharp-eyed at spotting bees still clinging to clothes, but as he screamed 'Kill it!' every time he saw one, I feel that the lesson was counter-productive for his future as a conservationist.

Since then, I've made progress with my own bees and will give you all the gen on that, next blog post. I also bought the full spacesuit outfit, after my moment with interior bee. My face could be improved, but that is not how.

I love saying MY bees. Readers of 'How Blue is my Valley' will remember the old beehive on the hillside, here in Provence.Since I wrote about it, we scraped together enough cash to buy the orchard, complete with truffle oaks and bees, but lacking truffles (or we could never have afforded it)

Jean's old beehive in winter


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From Ch 15 'How Blue is my Valley' amazon No 1 bestseller on Provence


oversexed foreign bees

There are now dozens of bee orchids and I am disappointed with modern British sex education which tells you how to roll a condom onto a plastic penis, and nothing whatsoever about the birds, bees and flowers. This means that I don’t know if what I read is true, and whether Mediterranean bees will try to mate with bee orchids whereas British bees will not. You can imagine it, can’t you, the British bee bumbling along, zinging to itself as it checks out a sexy fake-bee-on-a-flower; ‘Sex toy huh? We Brits don’t do that sort of thing’ and onward it? he? she? flies. Whereas your Mediterranean bee now, high on sun and flowers, enjoys what’s on offer and doesn’t look too closely.  Do you have a better theory?

Despite frequent dog-walks among the bee orchids, we don’t see one amorous Mediterranean bee; instead we see approximately twenty thousand in their annual reproductive ritual. I scramble down from the woods, attached to a Pyrenean, and spot a shimmering black cloud hanging from a branch a dozen yards away. It is shaped like a rugby ball but bigger, about two feet, and it is not far from the old beehives. I know that at least two of these are active and I suddenly register what I am seeing. It is strange how you can suddenly perceive more detail once you have identified what it is that you are looking at and I now see individual bees around the edges of the dense community ball. Dogs in tow, we take no risks, but head off in the opposite direction. It is only later that I want to go back to investigate.

Although I explain to him that bees are at their most docile in a swarm, gorged on honey and contented in the company of their old queen, John disappoints me by refusing to dress up in the antique beekeeping outfit (still in the garage). I was hoping to get one of those photos, ‘Man with bee-beard’ but I suspect I would have been lucky to snap ‘Man running away very fast.’ By the time we go back without dogs and with camera, the swarm has moved on, so presumably the scouts returned and gave the all clear to move into the new home. In the old hive, the new-born virgin queens are fighting to the death until the sole survivor can get on with the job – breeding.


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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What do you write about anyway?


Fellow writer Joan Fallon asked me to write about ... how I write. I checked out her blog and found a really interesting interview with a writer I thought I knew, J.G.Harlond. I say 'thought I knew' because the interview revealed aspects of Jane and her work that are new to me. So these are some of the blog posts that will have to wait, while I keep my promise to Joan Fallon; I'm not (yet) blogging about

- my new adopted dog, Sherlock, a 'lost' hunting dog who spent 8 months in a shelter. My plumber (a passionate 'chasseur' himself) agreed with me that odds-on Sherlock is crap at hunting and was dumped in August as a clean-out before the new hunting season. In honour of Lou, we adopted a dog no-one else would want (according to the shelter workers).
Sherlock

- or my beekeeping course. Some readers of 'How Blue is my Valley' have been asking me what's new here in Dieulefit, since I wrote the autobiography about our first year living in France. Answer; we did manage to buy the orchard complete with an occupied bee-hive. I've now had three all-day hands-on lessons in beekeeping so I can look after them. I wish someone had told me that the moment you put on a beekeeping suit your nose runs, your hair falls in your eyes, and if you focus on the bees all round you to find one inside your mesh visor, you have to hope that she is calmer than you are. (And of course it is 'she' because all the workers are female). I got away with it that time but went right out and bought the full astronaut suit.

Antique Provencal beekeeping veils

For those readers who want to know more about my life in Dieulefit, the May issue of the magazine Living France printed an amazing 5 page feature, using my photos. It is always a little scary to read about yourself and learn something new (like 'what not to say in interview'!) but the journalist, Stephanie Sheldrake, was very kind to me and I didn't once think of Rita Skeeter...

This is the start...



Among the questions not asked in Living France are the three Joan wanted me to answer, so here goes.

What am I working on?
I've paused in writing the third 'Troubadours' novel (after 20,000 words, which is about a fifth of one of my medieval novels) because I was asked by Jean-Daniel Belfond of Archipel Press to translate 'The Last Love of Edith Piaf' by Christie Laume, from French to English. If something exciting comes my way, I say 'Yes!' and this is the true story of the relationship between a star at the height of her fame and a talented, beautiful man twenty years her junior, told by his sister. Forget the stereotypes about toyboys. I will certainly be saying more about this book on my blog!

The Last Love of Edith Piaf
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I won't bore you with mentioning each of my works! If I just take my medieval novels, they are drawn from research in the original French and Occitan, as well as English, so I think the European historical background is unusual and, I hope, accurate, although I also hope it's the story that hooks readers.

How does your writing process work?
I'm a morning writer and a 3am thinker. I write for two or three hours at a stretch, using a laptop, and often outdoors. I always stop at a point where I know what comes next and - touch wood - never get writer's block. I do 'play' my novel in my head at 3am when I can't sleep and I watch what the characters are doing, hear what they're saying, sometimes from future scenes, sometimes revisiting ones already written that have something wrong or missing. I sometimes think that writing is a form of licensed schizophrenia. 'I hear voices'.

Translating, which I enjoy very much, is very different from writing and I can pick up the thread and translate for half an hour at any time of day.

Three blogs you'd recommend?

Check out 

the entertaining blog of a writer with an interesting background

Paul Trembling


I began making up stories before I could write, and that became a habit that I never got out of.  Over the years I’ve gained weight, lost hair, been a seaman, a stores man, a petrol pump attendant, a janitor, a missionary, and an Admin. Assistant.  Now I’m a CSI, a husband, a father, and a dog owner  - but I am still, and always have been, a story teller!

a funny blog by a writer of zany comic fantasy

M.T. McGuire


humorous fantasy author. The books are quite funny too. MTM is 44 years old but still checks inside unfamiliar wardrobes for a gateway to Narnia. None yet. Boring huh?


and then someone who represents all those writers who blog about what they love, for readers who share that love; bloggers who write so well, whether they see themselves as writers or not. Sometimes we 'writers' are in danger of writing only about writing... instead of writing about bees, dogs, French singers or... Yorkshire, with beautiful photographs taken by blogger

Paula Connelly in Nothing but Footprints



The aim of my blog is to share all the things I enjoy as I walk round the British countryside, including scenery, photography, history and nature. This includes reviews of gear bought by myself and my husband, and places we visit, along with different articles on all kinds of walking related topics. As the old saying goes, I'll take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints.