The first two weeks of June were sunny and hot, after a monsoonal May. For honey bees, this was the perfect time to swarm, and swarm they did. We found two swarms in the field near the river; heard, from alarmed neighbours, the progress of a swarm making its way from garden to garden before being collected by a local beekeeper; and watched the bees from our big Warre hive swarm out of the hive, form a cluster on a Japanese maple nearby, and then swarm back into the hive.
One of the central tenets of conventional beekeeping is that you try to stop your bees swarming at all costs. Swarm prevention is a large and complex topic and there are many different established methods and techniques of achieving it. Coming from a different school of beekeeping thought, I have struggled to understand why beekeepers are so worried about ‘losing’ a swarm. Yes it depletes your hive which means less honey in the immediate future. Yes it can upset your neighbours. But swarming is the manner in which bees reproduce. Should we be messing with that?
And so from the sex life of bees to that of chickens. Many people prefer to keep only hens. They lay an egg most days. Without a cockerel around there is no chance of fertilised eggs and the resulting chicks, many of which will be male. Male chicks are a problem because they consume food, take up coop space and fight, once they grow up – and they give no eggs as recompense for all this. So you either have to give them away, if you can find a taker, or kill them. All in all a messy business and one many prefer to avoid, buying or rescuing instead when they want new birds. But one problem remains for the all-hen flock: some hens will still go broody, and want to hatch their (unfertilised) eggs. A broody hen means less eggs and more pecking, and her broodiness can be catching. So a broody hen needs to be ‘broken’, ie: forcibly dissuaded from sitting on and trying to hatch her eggs.
Exchanging reproduction for egg production is certainly convenient. The collateral damage – the hens that are killed at 17 months once the cost of keeping them exceeds the profit they bring through their daily egg laying; the male chicks culled at birth because we humans have no use for them; and the abysmal quality of life that layers have on commercial farms – is almost always out of sight out of mind. Still even the most hard-hearted bee- or chicken-keeper has to consider the long term health impact in not allowing their animals to reproduce naturally.
My knowledge of larger farm animals is hazy, but they certainly don’t mate or mingle freely. Stud animals are big money, and they and their sperm command a high sum. Cows are artificially inseminated regularly to keep them in calf and therefore in milk, and in some cases the calves are then kept near but not with the mothers so that their continued call for milk – a call never to be satisfied – will stimulate the mother’s milk-making hormones in a manner similar to the ‘let-down’ of milk that new (human) mothers experience when they hear their babies cry out to them.
Cats and dogs are again bred selectively, and owners are always extremely careful not to allow a female in heat to be impregnated by any passing tom, dick or harry. Many choose to have their pets neutered to prevent unwanted puppies or to make a ferocious or errant dog more docile. And often puppies and kittens are weaned prematurely.
All of this intervention made me think of Brave New World, where humans are no longer allowed to choose their sexual partners or even to give birth to and raise their young. Instead they are selectively bred in test tubes by a central authority and women who experience that broody feeling are cured with a pill.
As custodians of both pet and productive animals, how do we navigate these difficult waters? Certainly our completely hands-off approach to animal reproduction (and animals in general) in Sakleshpur wasn’t entirely successful. The free-range poultry quickly turned feral, rarely gave us any eggs and the one chick that did hatch was killed on day two by one of the dogs. The dogs themselves, all rescues or offspring of, had a grand life with no leads and no boundaries. Our Mudhol hound though, who wasn’t castrated, ranged so far and so often that he started to go missing for days. When he did come back he was aggressive and in time he departed never to return. And the two bitches both became pregnant at a very young age, to the detriment of their health, because we weren’t vigilant enough.
So I do now appreciate the need for animal husbandry, and not just in the realm of reproduction. Domesticated animals are by their very nature dependent on us humans, and if we find ourselves in charge of these animals we cannot neglect them. On the other hand modern agriculture treats them as resources to be used and then discarded. No one ever questions our right to be in complete control of every aspect of these animals’ lives; would you check with your dog before castrating him? Did Indira Gandhi ask the 8 million men she had forcibly sterilised in 70s’ India for permission?
I’m still trying to figure out where we will draw our line. Our Labradors are both neutered – Bullet from before we rescued him and Lassie after giving birth to her seven puppies – so no decisions to be made there.
This year I let the bees decide whether to swarm or not, having given them all the space I could so they wouldn’t swarm just because they’re overcrowded, and I’m almost certain they swarmed at least once if not twice. So we lost some bees from our first hive, but we also gained some: we managed to hive another swarm which issued, most probably, from a wild colony high up in a willow nearby. It was a small swarm but it seems to be gradually building up and hopefully will grow big enough to survive the winter.
And among our cockerel’s ten-bird harem, we’ve so far had two broody hens have a go at hatching their clutch in a safe (so the rest of the flock doesn’t peck the chicks when born) separate broody coop. As we can only have one broody hen in there at a time, we gently dissuade other sitters in the main coop, mainly by lifting them off their eggs and removing the eggs from the nesting box. At last week’s full moon, our first chick was born, with two more following over the next few days. We’re trying to supervise without intervening – ensuring Mum is showing her offspring how and where to eat and drink, providing commercial chick crumb (might review that next time round) and a chick waterer, and keeping all four of them separated from the other birds. Three half-hatched eggs didn’t make it so our success rate so far is 50%, but, still, an improvement on Sakleshpur.