Sara Ward on Living the Good Life February 2024

Image above: Sara Ward

Some you lose…

Guest blog by Sara Ward

One day last month when I was checking that the chickens had food and water, I did a quick head count and discovered one missing from the middle flock. I worked out which one by process of elimination and when I opened up the hen house, found her cold and dead.

It’s always sad, but I reassured myself that she’d had a long life, most dates seem to be classified as pre or post pandemic nowadays, and can’t have been very ill or in much pain as she’d been running around the garden just the day before.

‘Was it one with a name?’ was the response of my friend when I told her, of course we’d never talk about our children like that, but as we are now in our 17th year of keeping chickens, I confess that not all of the 20+ that we have at any one time are referred to on such personal terms.

Of course, there’s Barbara and Margot the Gold Partridge Brahmas, Butternut our Buff Orpington, Lillibet the Pekin Bantam – so named on the Platinum Jubilee weekend, Killer Queen (but that’s not really a story for publishing) and Snowy the Salmon Faverolle – she’s my favourite. Whereas the others are referred to by colour, breed or simply as ‘that one’.

My mourning was short lived as the very next day brought a larger shock. I was preparing to treat our honey bees, all seven colonies, with a syrup containing oxalic acid which helps kill the parasitic varroa mite whilst being harmless to the bees themselves.

I prepared the solution, lit my smoker, pulled over my veil and zipped up my bee suit. As I opened the first hive, all was quiet. No surprise for a very cold winter’s day – they would be huddling around the queen conserving energy and prioritising warmth. Though as I looked closer, down between each frame, I discovered that apart from a shallow carpet of corpses on the bottom of the hive, there were no bees to be seen at all.

Whilst this brought a deep sorrow, it was made worse as I discovered that hives two and three were in identical states. My goodness, what had happened? All was well when I prepared them for winter on 25th November, how can the whole colony, in fact all three of them, have completely died out in just six weeks?

Fortunately, all the others across my three apiaries are looking good, so from nine colonies last May, we are now down to four but if the weather is kind we should see some rapid expansion over the next couple of months allowing me to split larger colonies, collect swarms and repopulate those empty hives.

Although it’s sad, ‘the circle of life’, as I said last month we can always learn from our lessons and look forward. I’ve lost a little of that enthusiastic expectation on high harvest yields, as I don’t think we’ll get that much honey this year, but the priority will be building up the colonies again to support the wider biodiversity of the area.

On to brighter news…

As the days lengthen, bit by bit, it’s like a curtain slowly being drawn open revealing all that spring has in store. Easter is early this year bringing Pancake Day into Half Term to add to the holiday vibe. We love to welcome families to Hen Corner when school is out, and are introducing a brand new course sharing some of my new favourite skills.

Subscribers of my blog at HenCorner.com will know that I’ve become quite obsessed with making cheese, so we now have two different courses for adults and a family course for children to understand the magic of separating curds from whey.

Before winter has taken her final bow, do take the opportunity to check your trees. Now is a good time for a final bit of winter pruning and planting new trees whilst they are dormant. I’m adding a Kiwi fruit vine and Victoria Plum to the garden at Hen Corner and we’ve got three new trees from Hounslow Council to plant in the Eco Garden at St Paul’s Church, Brentford.

Another tip for this time of year is to look out for Mistletoe, they’ve got loads in the gardens of Chiswick House, not only can you steal a kiss underneath on Valentine’s Day, but any remaining berries can be used to propagate new bouquets on your own trees at home. Do plan this carefully as mistletoe is a parasitic plant that feeds from the host tree, but if kept in check brings beautiful green chandeliers to bare dormant trees in the coldest months.

As for me, I’m planning to use a few dry days this month to spring clean the empty hives, getting them ready for their new inhabitants, wherever they’ll come from.

‘Be prepared’ is a great motto that has stood the test of time!

Coming up at Hen Corner:

February

Half Term Family Courses:

Bread and cheese:

Wednesday 21st Introduction to Making Cheese

Thursday 22nd Introduction to Making Bread

Tuesday 27th Full Day Making Sourdough

All courses, virtual & face to face, can be found at HenCorner.com

Sara Ward is the founder and owner of Hen Corner in Brentford and author of Living the Good Life in the City

Hen Corner is a member of The Chiswick Calendar’s Club Card scheme, offering discounts on her courses and on her book Living the Good Life in the City.

See her Club Card offers here: Hen Corner Club Card offers

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar