Better tell the bees

The buzzy mass of bees I spotted in a dog walk
The victorious male mates with the queen

I was walking the dog this morning when a big, black, buzzy, mass of something fell from the air and plopped to the ground.

As I got closer, I realised it was a cluster of bumblebees all behaving rather aggressively towards another, larger, insect that was, at first, difficult to identify through the throng of yellow and black furry bodies. Several bees seemed to be attacking this creature, but because of the way they were all clinging on, I couldn’t really tell what was happening.

So I stood and watched a while, and soon, some of the bees flew off, leaving just one, and the creature beneath became visible. Only then did I realise it was in fact a rather large queen bumblebee, and the one remaining bee was not actually attacking her, but mating with her. That cheered me somewhat, as you can’t fail to be aware of the decline in our insect population. Bees are incredibly important for pollination, the very key to human survival, so I was delighted to see healthy bees doing just what they should in my little corner of North Yorkshire.

As soon as I got home, I looked up the mating habits of bumblebees so that I could understand what the ‘cluster’ behaviour was all about. Had all the bees mated with her?

A queen bee comes out of hibernation as the spring temperatures rise, having lived underground in the soil all winter. She will have survived on stores of body fat created by consuming large quantities of pollen and nectar during autumn. When she comes out, she looks for a suitable nesting site, which could be a hole in the ground, a bird box, under a garage, in a compost heap, or in any other dark cavity.

When she finds her home, she collects pollen to bring back to the nest and builds a kind of ‘pot’ from waxy bodily secretions into which she lays her eggs. She will incubate them for about two weeks by sitting on the pot and shuddering to keep them warm. They then hatch into larvae, and she continues to feed them with pollen. After another two weeks, the larvae spin cocoons around themselves as they develop into adult bees. This first batch of new bees are all female, and will either be worker or future queens.

The queen can then sit back and relax while her workers fuss around her, guarding and cleaning the nest and gathering pollen. She will produce more eggs that will become male bees, whose job, it seems, is merely to eat and reproduce. The male bees leave the nest, never to return, and live independently outside.

When bees mate, the males vie for the queen’s attention, and this is what I was witnessing on my walk. They cling on to her in the hope they will be the chosen one, until she decides which she will mate with.

Once a queen has founded her colony and reproduced then her work is done, and she will die, along with most of her colony. It is only the new, future queens who hibernate to emerge the following spring to start a new colony.

In his column from 23rd June 1979, Dad talks about some ancient superstitions associated with bees, particularly the custom of ‘talking’ to them. Apparently, if you had bee hives, you were duty-bound to inform them of any important family news, such as births, deaths and marriages. The bees were very important to the household in providing a ready supply of honey, which in those days was a precious and essential resource. If you didn’t keep your bees happy, they might desert the hives.

The bee keeper took the role very seriously, and could often be seen standing among the hives, solemnly informing the buzzing audience of the latest news, and this was called ‘telling the bees.’

This tradition forms the centre of a charming novel by successful York author Fiona Shaw called ‘Tell it to the Bees’, where a young boy shares his family secrets to the bees in his garden. The story has been turned into a feature film which had its worldwide premier in Toronto last year and, happily, is due to be released in the UK from July 19th.

So I think I might just be the first in the queue for tickets.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 21st June and the Gazette & Herald on 19th June 2019

Sweet sweet memories

Traditional 1970s sweets
Stamps commemorating 150 years of professional police officers issued in 1979

Forty years ago this week, my dad was marking the 150th anniversary of this country’s professional police force in his column of 16th June 1979. Over the months following the article, a number of events were planned nationally to mark the occasion, including concerts, parades, services and shows.

Another memento was the publication of some commemorative stamps, and what fascinated me were the prices. At that time, a first class stamp was just 10p, and the new 10p stamp featured a bobby on the beat, while the 13p was a female police officer on horseback, and the 15p was the image of a police patrol boat on duty. But the one that made me take most notice featured an officer directing traffic. That one would set you back 11½p.

I’d almost forgotten we used to have half pences until I read Dad’s column. Although they weren’t in existence for that long, they were around for most of my childhood, having been introduced in February 1971 as part of decimalisation. It was worth about the same as 1.2 pence in old money so that it would make the re-pricing of lower-value items more accurate. It bit the dust in December 1984 when it was was no longer considered a useful member of our coinage family.

I’d also forgotten that back then, it was possible to buy a single halfpenny stamp, and although it has never officially been withdrawn, it stopped being sold from 21st June 1985. Ha’penny stamps were only ever issued in turquoise, although there were many versions over the years, and some are quite prized by collectors. An original from the 1970s could today set you back anything from 15p to £25, and if you have any lurking in your drawers, you could legally still use them, although obviously you’d have to use two on your envelope to make it up to a round penny.

The half pence came in handy on pocket money days when I tried to eke out my 10p allowance while scrutinising the array of sweets on the penny tray. You had to ask the man behind the counter at the post office to bring it out, which only added to the excitement and expectation. He would then wait patiently while I dithered about what to pick. Should I be canny and go all halfpenny fruit salad chews, meaning I’d get twice as many sweets for my 10p? But then wouldn’t it be a bit boring having all the same thing when there were so many other tempting delights on offer? What about the one penny foam bananas and the shrimps? Or the flying saucers, which were like holy communion wafers but with fizzy sherbet in the middle? Or the shocking pink Bubbly bubble gum? I don’t think I was ever tempted by that aniseedy reprobate, the black jack. But then, who was?

I would usually select a combination of halfpenny and penny sweets so that I would feel that I’d got my money’s worth and then make my hoard last as long as possible. But every so often, I’d throw caution to the wind and buy the extravagantly-priced Refresher chew, a big hunk of a sweet that could put your jaw out, but it was worth it when you got to the sherbet in the middle. At 2p a pop though, it took a significant bite out of my 10p budget. I had the same dilemma over the Swizzle double lolly, a slightly fizzy, slightly powdery yet hard ball of deliciousness that, if you were savvy with your sucking, could last most of the afternoon.

If I was really lucky, I had extra money from a birthday or Christmas, and then I would go all out and buy a double lolly, maybe even two, or a sticky Drumstick lolly, and possibly a few candy cigarettes, and most excitingly, a quarter of rainbow crystals. This was basically just a bag of coloured fizzy sugar which I’d then spend all day dipping my lollies into. It may have been terrible for my teeth, but boy, did it taste good.

You can still buy many of the sweets that we used to love, and there are plenty of websites selling these glucose-laden blasts from the past. I’m tempted to go and order my favourites, although I’m not sure I’ll have any luck finding halfpenny chews these days.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 14th June and the Gazette & Herald on 12th June 2019

Feeling ticked off

The view from the top of Whitbarrow in the Lake District
A full tick that fell off Roly
Roly with a tick just visible below his eye

I’ve just come back from a lovely break in Cumbria, staying not far from Grange-Over-Sands, near Whitbarrow National Nature Reserve. It’s an area of special scientific interest due its exceptional limestone habitats created as a result of the last ice age. As the ice retreated, it exposed the limestone to the elements and over time, an uncommon collection of boulders, crevices and escarpments was formed around the imposing rock face of Whitebarrow Scar, which can be seen from miles around.

There were some lovely walks, including one to the summit of Whitbarrow, which I, my friends and our canine companion Roly, completed. Although the climb was hard, it was worth it for the spectacular 360-degree views from the top. We could see Morcambe Bay to the south, the fells of the Lake District to the north, Ingleborough in the Dales to the east, and Furness peninsula to the west.

Much of Whitbarrow is covered in trees, and the descent took us through some lush green woodland. At this time of year, not only does the area attract human visitors, it also seems to be the prime leisure resort for hungry ticks.

Even though I look after dogs, I don’t often come across ticks, probably because most of my guests are protected against them by various methods such as special collars, pills or potions. Also, where I live is not a particularly popular tick hideout. Cumbria, though, with its abundance of lakes, woodlands, sheep and deer, is a tick’s idea of Nirvana.

Unfortunately, Roly was unwell recently, and during treatment had his tick collar removed, which meant that he was temporarily unprotected from these greedy little blood suckers.

The squeamish among you might want to stop reading now, because the day after the walk, we spotted one of the blighters near Roly’s eye. This was not the last, and over the following days, more kept appearing, either on Roly’s body, or crawling across the floor. Yes, it was gross (and if, like me, you’ve ever accidentally stood on a replete, post-gorging tick, you’ll know exactly how gross).

This led me to do some in-depth research on these horrible yet strangely fascinating creepy crawlies. The reason they are so difficult to spot initially is because they are quite tiny, but then their bodies swell up to many times their original size while they feed on the blood of their living host. If you haven’t already removed them, once they have had their fill, which can be up to seven days later, they drop off to go and find a suitable place to lay eggs.

Although thinking about what ticks do makes me shudder, most of the time, they are pretty harmless. However, there is a small risk of contracting the serious illness, Lyme disease, which is carried by those that have previously fed on infected animals.

Therefore, if you have been bitten by a tick, it’s important to remove it as quickly as possible, ensuring you do not squeeze the body or leave any of the mouth parts behind in the skin for fear of infection. You can get special tools to do this, or use a pair of tweezers, but do look up how to do it properly, as you could cause problems by getting it wrong.

You also need to keep an eye on the area for several weeks afterwards, and if you notice a slow-developing circular rash, or start to feel unwell with flu-like symptoms, then do go and see your doctor as soon as possible.

I can’t find any record of traditional beliefs relating to tick bites, but there are when it comes to other members of our insect population, particularly bees, as my dad mentions in his column from 9th June 1979. It was a long-held belief that bee stings could cure arthritis and other painful joint conditions. Indeed, someone my dad knew, who had a persistently painful thumb, reported that he had been stung after putting on a gardening glove with a bee hiding in it. From that day, his thumb was never sore again.

This is not just the stuff of old wives’ tales. Today, research is ongoing into the curative benefits of bee venom, although some trial patients have reported that the pain of the venom injections is worse than the condition itself.

I wonder if any arthritic readers have ever tried bee-sting therapy?

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 7th June and the Gazette & Herald on 5th June 2019

Between a frog and a hard place

A toad that took refuge in my parents’ greenhouse
Dad holds up the toad. His golden eyes show that he’s not a frog

The first house I owned had a lovely back garden with a pond. We had planned to fill in the pond as with a young toddler, it was a bit of a hazard.

But once we’d lived in the house a while, we realised that the pond was absolutely teeming with life, and if you sat a while and observed, you would witness non-stop activity among the water, insect and bird population. I soon began to realise that if we filled it in, all these amazing creatures would lose their natural habitat.

So we kept it, and fitted a grille across the top to prevent our wobbly toddler from toppling in. It was around March or April time that the pond was at its noisiest, with a rather amorous community of frogs making their presence known, and the fruit of their activities would soon become visible in the form of masses of frogspawn lying across the surface.

Sometimes there would be so much of it, we’d wonder if our small pond could sustain the new generation but, it seems, there can never be too much frogspawn. This is because only about one out of every 50 eggs laid will ever make it to adulthood, thanks to them being hunted by a variety of predators at every stage of their lives. Not sure lawnmowers count as predators but ours certainly claimed its fair share of victims hiding in the long grass.

In my dad’s column from 2nd June 1979, he talks about superstitions around toads, and it made me wonder if you, dear reader, would know the difference between a frog and a toad. For the record, frogs have smoother skin and longer back legs which means they can hop quite a distance, especially when startled from a hiding place (sadly not always in time to beat the blades of the mower!).

Toads on the other hand have warty skin, golden eyes and crawl rather than hop. Frogs breathe through their skin, and need to stay near shallow water, whereas a toad’s skin is more waterproof, so they can survive long periods away from water. Toads also tend to stay still if they are startled.

I had believed that toads were bigger too, but in fact, there is not that much difference in length, with male frogs reaching up to 8cm, while male toads can be up to 9cm. Females of both species are larger and grow to around 13cm. The main difference is their shape. While frogs are slim and athletic-looking, toads are like their couch-potato siblings, with dumpier, more rounded forms.

There are just two species of frog and two species of toads in the UK, although you are most likely to only see the common varieties as the others are rare and found in very few areas (the pool frog and the natterjack toad). Common frogs tend to be green or brown, but can be many shades, from cream and red to orange or black, while common toads are mainly various shades of greeny-brown.

In my dad’s column, he talks about an old belief that toads were able to live for centuries without food or moisture at the centre of a large rock or boulder. The belief followed reports of quarrymen breaking open rocks to find what they thought were mummified toads, only for the creatures to suddenly start moving.

This belief persisted until well into the nineteenth century, and my dad quotes the Rev George Young, writing in his 1828 ‘Geological Survey of the Yorkshire Coast’, who was talking about incidents of finding toads within rocks. “We are the more particular in recording these facts because some modern philosophers have attempted to explode such accounts as wholly fabulous,” writes the esteemed reverend.

Various attempts were made to scientifically prove and disprove the belief. One nineteenth-century scientist recreated the conditions by placing toads in hollowed-out rocks which he then re-sealed and buried in his garden for a year. When he dug them up again, most were dead. Amazingly, one or two were still alive, although only just. So he buried the poor things again for another year and, unsurprisingly, none survived the second trip. Poor toads! Thankfully, such cruel experiments are not acceptable these days.

I’ve heard it said that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince Charming. Well, I’d better pucker up then.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 31st May and the Gazette & Herald on 29th May 2019

Brought to book

Dad signing copies of his first ‘Constable’ book at Grover’s of Northallerton on 24th May 1979. This was the series of books that led to Yorkshire TV making Heartbeat.

As I have mentioned before, one of the most exciting times in our family story is when we heard that Dad’s Constable series of books was going to be made into a TV programme by Yorkshire Television. I could be wrong, but I imagine that it is many a writer’s dream to have someone decide that your stories and characters are worthy of the money, time and effort it takes to create a popular TV show.

And what a good job they did, with Heartbeat becoming instantly popular and attracting millions of viewers per episode. When my dad first had the idea to write some stories about the life of a country bobby, I can’t imagine that he had a notion of what it would eventually lead to.

Having said that, he was well acquainted with a certain local vet who had found success with his books and TV shows. Alf Wight, otherwise known as James Herriot, had in fact asked my dad for advice when they had been in the same pub together in the late 1960s. He’d explained to Dad that he had written a collection of funny stories based on his experiences as a vet and, as Dad was already a published author, wondered what he thought.

Dad had recently had the idea for some lighthearted books based on his life as a country bobby, but it was rejected by publishers declaring, “There’s no call for Yorkshire humour.”

So he passed on this sage piece of wisdom to Alf White who, thankfully, ignored it and his first book, If Only They Could Talk, hit the shelves in 1970. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So it must have been a very proud day indeed when those humorous tales that Dad had dreamed of publishing finally came to fruition on May 24th 1979 with the publication of Constable on the Hill, the first of what would become a series of 37 books.

Dad informs us, in a column that was published just two days after publication, that extracts of his new book had been already featured in the Sunday Express, and his publisher said it was destined to be a bestseller.

“For a rural columnist like myself, this is very exciting, and regular readers of this page might recognise some of the yarns, and indeed, some of the characters,” he writes.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to read the words he wrote all those years ago, and feel the sense of excitement he must have experienced at the time. Knowing as I do just how hard he worked, the sense of accomplishment must have been great. However, it would be another 13 years before Heartbeat would hit the screens, and that brought a whole other new exciting world into our lives.

As I think it is today, author signing events were quite common to help promote a new book. According to the column, his first ever signing session for Constable on the Hill was on the afternoon of May 26th 1979 at Grovers Bookshop in Northallerton. I believe Grovers is still there, but their website does not mention anything about books, so I wonder, do they still stock them? Perhaps someone reading this will know, and might also be able to remember meeting my dad at the book signing.

It always delights me when I hear from people who were fans of Dad’s books. I was recently contacted by Gurli Svith from Denmark who has copies of almost all of his books and only needs one more, Siege for Panda One, to have the full collection. Unfortunately, she has been looking for a copy for some years and has not found one. So if you happen to have one gathering dust on your shelves, do get in touch with me. Another lady, Ruth Pollard, is also very keen to get hold of my dad’s collection of crime books, most notably, The Sniper, which I mentioned a few weeks back, and also his Carnaby series. Again, if you can be of help, do get in touch.

In the meantime, I should get back to working on that novel that I’m half way through. And if one day I achieve just a tiny modicum of the success of my dad then I will be mightily chuffed.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 24th May and the Gazette & Herald on 22nd May 2019

Is there a solution to pollution?

The dogs on the lovely York-Selby cycle path near Bishopthorpe on Saturday 27th April where I encountered a large group of young people who left their litter behind

The problem of waste and and plastic pollution is, quite rightly, a very hot topic at the moment and I have previously discussed the rise in fly-tipping and the lack of a sense of personal responsibility for litter among our youngsters.

Just the other day I was walking dogs along a country path at Bishopthorpe near York, and I came across a large group of teenage ramblers, plus a few adults, split into a number of smaller posses. They looked like they were on a Duke of Edinburgh Award challenge and were well kitted out, with sturdy boots and large rucksacks on their backs.

One group had decided to take a break by the side of the path. We greeted each other, and they were very friendly and cheerful as they ate their snacks. I walked on further with the dogs, watching other groups of the teenage hikers ahead of me as they made their way good-naturedly along the route.

After a while, it was time for me to turn back and once again I passed the spot where they had taken their break. To my utter dismay, scattered across the ground were several freshly-empty crisp packets and sweet wrappers. I was so cross that they blatantly disregarded the beauty of the countryside within which they were walking, and now they were nowhere to be seen.

Had I met them again, I would have asked if any of them had attended the recent ‘Fridays for the Future’ climate strikes where, instead of attending school, thousands of pupils took a day off to join marches against pollution and climate change. I have a feeling that a good number of them will have done that, not registering the hypocrisy of leaving their litter behind to pollute the environment they claim they want to protect.

I do think the issue of littering is worse these days, and yet, it is nothing new. In his column from 19th May 1979, my dad wrote: “It seems we are a careless society, whose people care not for the landscape, their environment or the lives and health of wild creatures.”

And the particular threat of plastic pollution was already concerning him back then too. He expressed disappointment that so many of our groceries were being packed in plastic wrapping and containers: “Many plastics will not deteriorate, and will consequently lie in the grass or on the moors forever, unless some hapless animal like a cow or a sheep attempts to eat it.”

But there are people out there who are coming up with clever ways to help combat the problem. I came across a fascinating video on social media featuring Balinese social entrepreneur Kevin Kumala. He has invented a new kind of carrier bag using starch from the cassava, a root vegetable grown in many Asian countries. The carrier bags are strong enough to hold your groceries, and yet 100% biodegradable and harmless to nature, being totally safe if animals ingest them. Unlike conventional plastic bags, which take hundreds of years to break down, these take just three to six months and are made without using any harmful oil-based chemicals. In fact, they completely dissolve in warm water which is then safe enough to drink.

Is it time our big supermarkets start leading the way by ditching their conventional bags and choosing those that are kinder to our environment?

Another entrepreneur, Toby McCartney, has also come up with a groundbreaking idea, this time to turn plastic waste from the household, commercial and agricultural sectors into pellets that can be used in the construction and repair of roads. It means less waste going to incineration or landfill and, so he claims, results in stronger road surfaces that are less prone to potholes. That will be a welcome solution to many of us in Yorkshire who are well acquainted with that problem.

Cumbria County Council is the first in the country to start using this new plastic compound on its roads, so I wonder if North Yorkshire has any plans to follow suit?

Lastly, if you are a teacher, adult leader or parent associated with the large group of teenagers who were walking down the York to Selby cycle path, past Bishopthorpe, on Saturday 27th April, then please get in touch with me via this paper so we can discuss what we can do to help our young people be more responsible around litter.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 17th May and the Gazette & Herald on 15th May 2019

In the dog house

Me with the letter I received from a rather disgruntled reader

I have received a rather stern letter from a reader who seems somewhat annoyed with me. I’m quite pleased that I have reached almost 100 columns (this is number 99) and it is the first message that has not been positive and encouraging, so I will take that as a good sign!

I love to receive letters and communication from readers, even the negative ones, as it proves that people are reading what I am writing, which can only be a good thing for our newspaper. And if I demonstrate my ignorance then I am more than happy to be corrected. After all, every day is a school day!

The column I wrote in early March entitled ‘A wolf in dog’s clothing’ discussed the dangers of letting dogs off leads in the countryside, especially at lambing time, and it was this one which prompted the letter.

I think my dad will be looking down and chuckling at what my son jokingly called my first ‘hate’ mail, because I know Dad received his fair share of critical mail too. Of course, it is far from ‘hate’ mail, and is written by someone who has seen first-hand the carnage caused by sheep worrying incidents so is understandably angry with irresponsible dog owners. I’d like to thank them for taking the time to get in touch, and for imparting other nuggets of country wisdom that I don’t have the room to include here.

But in relation to the column, the writer seems to have the wrong end of the stick and make assumptions that are wrong. They did not include their address, so I can’t reply to them personally, so I shall set them straight here, just in case any of you reading are also living under similar misconceptions.

The letter-writer states, “I am surprised you walk your dogs off the lead. I am assuming you copy what your father did, now you dog walk with your sons, so they in turn will do the same.”

In fact, my dad never owned a dog in my lifetime, and so I have not learned anything about walking dogs from him to pass on to my sons.

The writer then goes on to tell me how dangerous it is to walk dogs off leads around sheep at lambing time, and of the potential costs to pregnant ewes and the farmers who own them.

Now this makes me wonder if the reader had actually read the whole of my column, or was so incensed at the first few paragraphs that they had to stop and immediately put pen to paper to express their anger.

The whole point of the column was to demonstrate the dangers of having a dog off-lead around livestock. Some cases of sheep attacks are because owners do not believe their dog has the capacity to attack, and so I shared my own case precisely to demonstrate that even the most placid of dogs can chase sheep. This was one occasion in the early 2000s outside of lambing time and no harm came to the sheep. I certainly learned from it, and I hope that others, including my sons who were there at the time, do not make the same mistake.

If that point wasn’t clear, then I apologise.

The reader also suggests that country folk are not at fault, but lays the blame for thoughtless behaviour at the door of uneducated ‘townies’. Perhaps they have missed recent police rural crime team and National Farmers Union statements which declare that country dwellers who allow their dogs to roam free from their own homes are a major part of the sheep-worrying problem.

I would like to assure the writer that I am not one of those (I don’t actually own a dog, but look after other people’s). Nevertheless, one of the greatest pleasures of dog walking is letting well-behaved pooches roam freely off the lead, but ONLY when it is safe to do so, away from livestock and other dangers. I see many farmers, and rural and urban residents alike, doing the very same thing, as they have done since time immemorial, and I will continue to do so myself. It is just a small irresponsible minority who ignore those dangers.

I hope this has set the record straight, and assure the letter-writer that myself and my boys take our dog-walking responsibilities very seriously indeed.

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 10th May and the Gazette & Herald on 8th May 2019