Self-Sufficiency: Raising Bees and Finding Wild Food

Learn about the self-sufficient lifestyle. How to raise bees, hunt rabbits and pheasants, and collect mussels for food.
By John and Sally Seymour
September/October 1976
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Beekeeping is just one way for the self-sufficient homesteader to produce food.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/DARIOS44
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Note: All content here excerpted with permission from Farming for Self-Sufficiency: Independence on a 5-Acre Farm by John and Sally Seymour. Copyright 1973. Read More 

John and Sally Seymour's record of 18 successful years on a shirttail-sized homestead in England is important now and should offer welcome encouragement to today's back-to-the-landers . . . both real and imaginary. I started serializing the book in my No. 25 issue and I'm sure that many readers will want a personal copy for their home libraries.—MOTHER.  

Every farmer will understand me when I say, that he ought to pay for nothing in money, which he can pay for in anything but money. -- William Cobbett

How to Keep Bees

The pre-industrial Revolution manner of keeping bees would not commend itself to the officers of the R.S.P.C.A., because the bees were 'put down', as the latter would term it, every autumn. The hive with precision-cut moveable frames had not been invented, and the only way in which the honey could be extracted was to burn a little sulphur underneath the hive and liquidate the bees. The picturesque straw skeps were treated in this manner, and in Africa and most parts of Asia today this is still the manner of keeping, and ceasing to keep, bees. In Central Africa one frequently sees hollowed - out logs hung in the trees: these are the equivalents of the medieval bee skeps in England. There are bee keepers in dear old England today who, whisper it not, do this very thing. They put old orange boxes or other crates and receptacles around the backs of their houses, where the neighbours can't see them, and put a few old bee frames with a bit of wax on them and the smell of bees inside them, and either hope that some bees will arrive from somewhere (and if bees have been kept in that garden for a long time you can be fairly sure some will) or else go out and capture a swarm and put them in the box. The busy little insects fill the box completely with honeycomb and honey, but all jammed in there higgledy-piggledy, and there is absolutely no way known to man of extracting that honey without killing those bees. But there, the economics of the thing, from Man's point of view, are perfectly sound. The bees, by the autumn, have done their work. They have made their honey. If the man is going to keep them alive all winter it either means that he has got to leave a large part of their honey with them for them to live on, or else feed them with sugar. In a country with a high proportion of woodland and forest, and therefore of wild bees, there will always be plenty of fresh swarms in the spring, and a swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay, and worth none the less because you didn't have to feed it and look after it all winter.

It was the discovery of the bee space that made this yearly butchery unnecessary though. The bee space is the exact space in which a bee will build its comb and yet leave a space for itself to crawl about in. Thus the frames of a modern beehive are exactly the right distance from each other so that the bees will build the combs out from them to the correct size of combs but yet leave a bee space between the combs. If the frames were a small fraction of an inch further apart the bees would start building 'wild comb' between the frames and thus fill the whole space in; if they were a fraction nearer the bees would not be able to build out from both frames, because there would not be room for them to work. Therefore, with this discovery of the bee space, it was possible to construct beehives with such precision that the bees build their combs as we want them to, on frames that we put there for them, frames that can be removed to extract the honey without disturbing the bees too much, and be put back again for the bees to start filling with honey again. The stock of bees can be kept from year to year, which is more humane, and also enables the bee keeper to start early in the season with strong stocks of bees in all of his hives. He doesn't have to wait for the Lord to send him 'a swarm of bees in May' because he's already got several good swarms of bees tucked up in his hives in January.

The feeding of a little sugar to the bees to keep them alive in the winter and to enable the beekeeper to rob them more thoroughly in the autumn has developed, among many modern beekeepers, into feeding them on sugar all the time exclusively. Bees will not bother to go and look for nectar if there is plenty of sugar available, and many beekeepers buy stores of cheap sugar generally condemned for human consumption, and feed it direct into their hives, and the bees just turn it directly into honey. Which is why so much honey today tastes something like honey, and yet not quite like honey. The honey that comes in from underdeveloped parts of the world like Mexico, however, generally really tastes like honey, because the beekeepers in such lands cannot afford to buy the sugar to feed the bees: it is when labour is dear and industrial sugar is cheap relative to labour that beekeepers shove in the sugar.

But the keeping of a few colonies of bees is an obvious ploy for the self-supporter. The initial outlay necessary on modern hives and equipment is fairly high (you have to have an extractor, for example) but once you have the equipment there is a very valuable harvest to be taken every year for the rest of your life. You don't need to buy any sugar, condemned or otherwise, to feed the bees on. We have not so much kept bees as had bees around for the last sixteen years, and most years we have got some honey from them, and we have never fed them on any sugar. We merely abstain from robbing them too severely in the autumn.

Of all the arts and crafts of the countryside, beekeeping is the one that least lends itself to being taught by a book. Also to give any idea of the subject would take a book at least as long as this one. Therefore, I must merely recommend the novice to join his local bee group, if he has one (and he probably has), or at least put himself under the tuition of some good master. Also, buy a book on the subject. There are many. We have two hives, but not enough 'supers' for them (that is stories to add to their height and make more room for honey), but this year we took nearly a hundred-weight of honey without going to much trouble and leaving plenty of honey to keep the bees through the winter time. A day a year is really all you have to devote to your bees. All I would advise is, do not make the mistake that we have made and get hold of components from two different sorts of beehive, also get a really bee-proof rig to wear when you are working with your bees. Nothing is more likely to diminish your love for these little insects than having a few score of them buzzing about inside a leaky veil trying to get out, while a few hundred of their sisters outside dive-bomb angrily at you outside trying to get in. And remember bees, when they alight on you, crawl upwards. They won't crawl down into Wellington boots but by God they will climb up your jumper if it isn't well tucked into your trousers. And the presence of a dozen or two crawling about your midriff, and occasionally stinging you, will not increase the calmness and efficiency with which you are likely to carry out your operations. If you are completely bee-proof you can be very cool and efficient, and cool and efficient you have got to be.

If you had enough bees, and looked after them well enough, you would not need to buy any sugar at all. Two hives, managed in a professional manner, would be enough. I for years in what was then called Barotseland, in what was then called Northern Rhodesia, in what I believe is still called Africa, without ever tasting sugar. There was plenty of wild honey. Once you have got used to it honey is fine in tea or coffee, and on porridge if you must eat the stuff. In fact there is no good purpose for which honey is not better than sugar. It is not in any way bad for your teeth, as sugar is, nor it lead to all the other evils now being put down to refined sugar. It is a lot dearer than sugar if you have to buy it, but if you don't have to buy it as we don't, it is, quite simply, free.

Hunting for Wild Food

It goes without saying that the kind of wild food that you will get will depend entirely upon where you live. As an example, when we lived in Suffolk, pheasants, hares and wild duck made up a very large proportion of our meat intake (particularly pheasants and hares); we ate, of fungi, parasol mushrooms, ceps, shaggy ink caps, saffron milk caps, puff balls, field mushroom; there were plenty of blackberries, some nuts, plenty of elderberries, sloes, plenty of wild plums every three years, mussels down on the estuary. In Pembrokeshire we find no pheasants, no hares, very few fungi except a few field mushrooms, tons of the finest blackberries, most years plenty of hazel nuts, elderberries and sloes, and cranberries on the mountains if we have time to pick them, which generally we have not. Small sea mussels, cockles and razor fish are there for the getting.

Hunting Pheasants

The self-supporter, unless he is just doing it for a game like Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess, will scarcely wish to indulge himself in shooting driven pheasants with twelve-bore cartridges at tenpence a shot. But there are cheaper and more effective methods of taking pheasants, and, if you have a game license, you are quite within the law shooting pheasants on your own land unless the right has been reserved by a previous owner when he sold the land. You can't own a rifle without a police permit, but if you have this then a .22 is a very effective weapon for killing pheasants, and 'short rifle' ammunition is very cheap.

In the first place, if a man occupies even a small piece of land, and his neighbours have pheasants, he can also have pheasants. There are certain crops which pheasants just cannot resist. One is the Jerusalem artichoke. A row or two of it won't make much difference, but a stand of, say, a quarter of an acre will bring pheasants from far and wide. They like the cover it affords them and they like the artichokes themselves as food.

Buckwheat is a marvelous crop for attracting pheasants. Kale is not bad but only so-so. Maize is good. Sunflower is absolutely splendid as good as Jerusalem artichoke, which it so closely resembles. But I would say the latter plant plus buckwheat are the ones to plant.

Dogs will catch pheasants. Many a gypsy man has a lurcher dog (a cross-bred with greyhound or whippet in his ancestry) which will take a pheasant on the ground. It is unforgivable of course to take a hen off the nest, and no decent poacher would do it. If it did happen by accident he would collect the eggs and put them under a chicken hen to bring them off.

But if you do get any pheasants, or partridges, hang them up, guts and all, by their necks (not their legs like chickens) in the larder, and leave them there for at least a week in the winter before you cook them. You hang them by their necks to keep the blood in the body, and also to keep the guts from tainting the breast meat.

Hunting Pigeons and Other Birds

Pigeon would be fine if they didn't cost so much to shoot. I used to shoot wild geese but don't any more since I discovered that they mate for life. We all may get fed up with our husbands and wives from time to time but we don't want them shot. Wild ducks don't though, and are noble food, so are most of the waders. Curlew, lapwing, golden plover, red shank were once considered grand eating, but they are protected birds in Great Britain. They all want hanging for a few days, at least.

Catching Rabbits and Hares

Rabbits,  if they ever come back, can be picked off with the .22 in the early morning or the evening, driven into a purse-net from their holes by ferrets, driven into a long-net at night by a dog or two. The long-net is set, very quietly, between the feeding grounds of the rabbits and their holes. It is set on sharpened pickets sloped into the ground, but very baggy. Then one operator takes the dog and walks round the feeding grounds and drives the rabbits into the net, while the other crouches down at one end of the net and runs along it to take the rabbits out and 'show them London' by breaking their necks in the manner I have described for killing chickens. I used to go long-netting with a deaf man, and as we had to be very silent (it was gamekeeper country) communication between us could be hazardous. A countryman will 'hulk' a rabbit (paunch it) and 'hock' it (cut behind the gam string of one leg and shove the other leg through so that it can be hung on a stick or on the handlebars of his bicycle) without using a knife. He uses the sharp claw of the rabbit's own foot. Gut or 'hulk' rabbits as soon as you catch them, but not hares.

Hares can be caught with a good lurcher. We had a very small lurcher named Esau who would run down a hare very often if he had the chance, and I remember taking him for a walk over the marshes when we already had too many hares in the larder and coming back with three more hares. A lurcher can be trained to keep out of sight, and never to come near his master if a stranger is in sight. Don't hulk hares immediately. They are game, while rabbits are not. Hamstring a hare, hang her up in a cool larder by her hind legs for a week (or a fortnight if you like game hung well) then skin her carefully before you gut her, then hulk her (a stinking and disgusting job but don't be put off by the whiff, it doesn't matter); always save the blood to put in the sauce. Hares are absolutely delicious and there are many ways of cooking them besides jugging them. A hare a week through-out the winter is not too many.

Edible Wild Fungi

Most fungi are edible and some, notably parasol, shaggy ink cap, and cep, are absolutely delicious. But I positively refuse to start describing which fungi are edible and which are not, for without very good photographs this course might lead to disaster. You must either get somebody to show you, or get a very good book. It is absurd though that only the field mushroom generally gets eaten, when there are so many other excellent ones. We have a good book, and try any fungus that we can identify as edible at least once. Some are edible but pretty tasteless.

Mussels and Other Sea Life

Mussels are fine if they come from genuinely unpolluted water but can be very dangerous if they do not. In any case do not take the advice of most cookery books and only steam them long enough for them to open their shells. This is very dangerous. They should be boiled, or thoroughly steamed, for at least twenty minutes. And make absolutely sure that you use none that were not tight-closed before you cooked them.

Cockles can be raked out of sand-beds at low tide with a steel garden rake. Professionally they are raked into a little hand net and swished about in shallow water over the sand to get the sand out. I have seen four men rake out a ton of them on one low tide. In such cases the fish are generally loaded straight into the holds of smacks which have been stranded on the sands at high water, but in Kent there are men who load them on to old bicycle frames, and in Wales women who load them on donkeys. Boil them for twenty minutes in sea water.

Razor shells,  or razor fish, are delicious to eat: a kind of clam. You may see their blow-holes in sand right down at the water's edge at very low spring tides. If you walk backwards over the sand you will see them spurt water after you have passed. Either dump a handful of salt on the hole, 'in which case they will come out and you can get a spade under them, or use a 'razor-fish-spear'. This is a slender steel spear with small barbs on it. You push it down the hole, the razor fish closes on it, and you pull him out.

Limpets can be eaten, and I have eaten them raw. To get them off the rocks kick them quickly before they know you are there, or they will cling down hard and you won't get them off. They are better cooked.

Refine Your Own Sea Salt

If you don't like buying salt take a large vessel down to the beach one fine summer's day, send your children looking for plenty of driftwood, light a fire under the vessel and keep pouring buckets of sea water into it. Make sure you draw your sea water from where it is fairly deep and has no sand in suspension. If you keep doing this all day you will have enough of the very best sea salt to last you for table use throughout the year, although not of course enough for curing fish or ham.


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