- The Rectory, Bull Lane
- TN26 3HA
Loving the Wild Edges
by Pauline Rose
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.
On a scorching hot late July day, the hottest so far with the promise of many more to come from the forecasters, I walked through the old metal side gate at High Halden to see what I could find surviving the heat. Above the gate, spiky green conkers are swelling with their mahogany treasure.
Children from the village school still collect these tactile seeds as they have done for generations and many people now put them on window sills and thresholds to keep spiders from entering their homes.
Ducking under the low swinging branches of the horse chestnut I found a brown desert before me. The council have been again and in their relentless pursuit of barrenness have strimmed every bit of green to brown stubs. Of course the green will return and hopefully the rain and storms promised will gently kindle life back into our beloved Churchyard.
In the old rectory orchard the apple tree is full of gently blushing apples, coaxed to ripen early this year by the unusual heat. Sitting in the shade of this old Malus is bliss, just the sound of sweet birdsong, humming bees and chirruping grass hoppers. I sat a while and rested, nature is the real teacher of mindfulness, only ever living in the moment, in harmony with the flow of being.
Feeling rested I walked a little further and found wild flowers in abundance. Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) at the edge of the meadow, (some had already finished flowering and were folding inwards to create a cage of ripening seeds), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) floating above ferny leaves, Vetch (Vicea sativa) twining around the grass, its tiny pea pods of seeds swelling and drying in the sun and everywhere I looked glorious Knapweed (Centaurea nigra), beloved of so many wild creatures.
These pretty amethyst flowers warrant closer inspection, each flower is made up of many tiny florets that all together make a ragged blossom. At first site they resemble thistles and many of the birds that eat their seed also eat thistle seeds. Gold finches were called thistle tweakers in Anglo Saxon because of their healthy obsession with thistle and knapweed flowers.
The Latin name Centaurea comes from the myth of the wise centaur Chiron who was said to heal his wounded hoof with this plant. Much of our flora and fauna is deftly wound into our culture and myths, in this way the wisdom becomes part of our oral history. Culpeper agreed with the myth and recommended it as a treatment for sores and wounds.
The colloquial name of Hardheads comes from the small drumstick head shaped flower buds that the flowers spring from. In the photo above, the dark edged feathery bracts that cover the lower part of each bloom can be seen; these give it the second part of its Latin name, nigra meaning black.
Knapweed has a reputation as the flower of love, maidens would hide a plucked flower in their bosom and if it bloomed again true love was near. The wonderful poet John Clare wrote about this tradition in his poem May;
They pull the little blossom threads
From out the knapweeds button heads
And put the husk wi many a smile
In their white bosoms for awhile
Who if they guess aright the swain
That loves sweet fancys trys to gain
Tis said that ere its lain an hour
Twill blossom wi a second flower
And from her white breasts hankerchief
Bloom as they ne’er had lost a leaf
Here in the orchard I could see how Knapweed really excels. The purple flowers were alive with the nectar fuelled mischief of honey bees (Apis mellifera). Too many to count and they were very busy moving determinedly from flower to flower. These wild delicate blossoms are pollinated by a wide range of insects including bees, flies, butterflies and beetles and this was demonstrated by the sheer abundance before me. Common Blue, Comma, Marbled White and Meadow Brown butterflies flopped between the flowers, sometimes resting nearby on the flattened heads of the Yarrow. Many solitary bees were also taking advantage of the profusion of blooms, their furry bottoms the only thing visible as they pushed between the florets.
Meadow Brown Butterfly
It’s wonderful to see and hear honeybees working; I always feel humbled by the hive mind, a humming fraternity, each bee working selflessly together for the health, safety and welfare of the hive. There are three types of bee in the hive, the Queen, a few hundred drones (the males) and on average 50,000 workers. The Queen is of central importance to the hive's happiness. As she moves through her subjects she gives off ‘Queen substance’ which her ladies in waiting lick from her body and spread throughout the hive. This pheromone keeps the bees happy and they feel a sense of well being and calmness. As the Queen bee ages the amount of substance she can produce slows, which triggers the workers to build Queen cells where eggs will be placed and when hatched fed royal jelly to create new Queens. This can also happen when the hive has grown larger than the Queen can support.
To make honey the bee collects nectar from many flowers, about one hundred on each foraging trip. The nectar is mixed with an enzyme from the bee’s mouth and placed in a cell in the wax comb. The bees fan over the comb with their wings to help the water in the nectar to evaporate. Once the nectar has thickened into honey the cell is capped off with wax.
I think most people have heard of the famous waggle dance of the honey bee. When a bee who has found a new source of food returns to the hive this is her way of telling her fellow foragers where the source of nectar is. The waggle dance was first understood by the Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch. This little video clip is worth watching if you are interested in knowing how he worked it out and how the bees communicate by dance, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFDGPgXtK-U&feature=youtu.be
Each bee will collect enough sweet nectar to make a very small amount of honey, about one twelfth of a teaspoon. To make one pound of honey, foraging bees will have visited two million flowers and flown 55,000 miles! When you read these figures it brings some understanding as to how these dear little creatures have been brought to the brink. Recent studies have shown that in summer bees struggle to find enough food sources, flying huge distances to find nectar. The bigger the hive, the more food is needed. The flowering plants of summer that are in any quantity are often cut back by overzealous councils, the road verges which are so important for wildlife are mown and the wild edges of churchyards (as I sadly found) often prematurely strimmed. Modern intensive farming practices leave little room for our wild kin. There is a fine balance yet to be found between the needs of man and those of the bee and other insects. The facts about honey bee decline in this country and worldwide make frightening reading; what would a summer day be without the gentle buzz of our bee friends, how would we pollinate our crops? Pesticides are rarely used in most churchyards, meaning that the bees can forage on unsullied pure nectar when wild spaces are left for them. Hopefully we can find the right balance and not lose this very precious insect.
“The Bee is small among the fowles
Yet doth its fruite passe in sweetnesse”
Ecclesiasticus 11 v3
The Christian Church has a close and long association with bees; a symbol of chastity and hard work the bee was held in high esteem and sacred to many in the early Church. The wax was used for the Church candles that represented Christ, the wick representing his soul and mortality, the flame his divine light and the female worker bees who made the wax, the representation of his virgin mother Mary. Many of our own village ancestors will no doubt have paid their tithe in bees wax and honey.
At Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, made famous by the Da Vinci code, there is a beautiful space for a hive built into one of its ornate pinnacles. A carved flower entrance has a small hole for the bees to enter by. The Rosslyn chapel website https://www.rosslynchapel.com/news/bees-cause-a-buzz-at-chapel/ has a wonderful picture of a bee swarm around the pinnacle.
At another St. Mary’s in Hartpury, Gloucestershire, a most ornate and unique set of bee boles (bee shelters) are set in the churchyard. The handwoven basket hive placed inside is called a skep.
Photograph Courtesy of Neil Smith
Made by Master stonemason Paul Tuffley in the mid nineteenth century this work of art was moved to the Churchyard for protection when its original site was being redeveloped. It has room for 28 skeps, that’s enough room for 840,000 bees! A beautiful example of bee inspired architecture.
Photograph courtesy of Neil Smith
I hope you will recognise my writing as the passionate plea for conservation and respect for the natural world that it is. The more I learn and share about our natural world the more I realise how important it is to everyone whether they realise it or not. For those that have not ears to hear its music, nor eyes to spy its beauty, the rest of us must surely do the seeing and hearing for them. What is human life without the natural world that it is born from and nested in? Our culture demands that we preserve the things that define us as a society, buildings, institutions, art, music and science but nature, which is more complex and yet more subtle than anything man has ever created, is thrown by the wayside or ground up and spat out in the pursuit of mammon; God's greatest work cast aside with no care, and yet still she rises.
References and further reading
Field guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain
Biology, how life works by James Morris, Daniel Hartl, Andrew Knoll and Robert Lue. (Fantastic resource).
Please don’t take chances with your health, any references made in my articles to medicinal, health or wild food value of plants are made as a point of interest not as medical or health advice. Always seek the advice of a Doctor if you are unwell or wish to use alternative remedies and thereafter of a qualified herbalist if you wish to use plants or flowers. If you wish to forage for wild plants its best to seek the advice and training of a wild forager, there are many suitable teachers that can be found via the internet. Nature demands respect.