Bumble Bee Bliss & A Change In The Weather

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April and it’s all change. On Saturday I was whinging about the snow that had invaded our early morning landscape. By Sunday we were sitting coatless on Benthall Hall’s tea room terrace, and consuming carrot cake and hot chocolate with the sun on our faces. It was February when were last there, and grey and stormy, with no possibility of sitting outside. Now we were in danger of overheating with a nice grey hen pootling around our feet, and the air filled with bee-hum. Later, when we ambled around the gardens, we came upon these newly opened rhododendron flowers and a very happy bumble bee. To say it was gorging itself is an understatement. Up to its armpits in pollen it was. Food at last. Bzzzzzzz.

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Check in at Cee’s Flower of the Day for  more floral displays.

Bee In My Bean Blossom

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In April at The Earth Laughs In Flowers, Jude wants to see our garden macros. This is also the Day 5 of the 7-day nature photo challenge. So here we have a bumble bee heading for my field bean flowers. I don’t blame it. They smell divine on a still, spring day.

This photo was taken up on my allotment, probably last year. At the moment the current crop of field beans, sown in September-October and overwintered, is only a hand’s width tall, but they’re looking quite healthy. Once they get going, they will grow as tall as I am, and need some support. The photo also shows bean weevil damage on the leaves. This is one of the drawbacks of allotment gardening. Pests like this become endemic. On the whole, though, the beans seem to carry on regardless.

Field beans are related to the broad bean (aka fava or faba) and they look much the same, but are less than half the size. Mostly they are grown in the UK as a green manure, the plants dug in before flowering. I grow them to eat. They make great re-fried beans, soup and a bean version of guacamole, which is astonishingly good.

My crop was so productive last year, I was able to eat and freeze them, and save masses of seed to dry and sow for this year’s crop. It’s the first time I’ve done this, so it will be interesting to see how they turn out.  In consequence, I probably have grown too many. But once I see how the plants are faring, I shall sacrifice some of them. I mean to chop them down and leave them to rot on the soil surface, rather than digging them in. This will let the worms do the work, and keep the soil covered until I want to cultivate it.

I am beginning to see that digging is a very bad thing to do the earth. It wrecks the surface soil structure every time you do it, and so compromises fertility. Instead, the No Dig method relies on covering the soil surface with organic matter/compost every year, and then planting through it. The only problem is you need masses of compost. It also helps if you do your planting in raised beds. This way you do not walk on the soil, and can keep building up the fertility. Raised beds are easier to manage, and mulching the plants should massively cut down on the weeding, and the need to feed, or to water during dry spells.

Since last autumn I have been doing heavy labour on the new allotment plot that came with my polytunnel. (I hadn’t taken this into account when I got all excited about inheriting the tunnel from allotmenteers who were off to new territory.) The ground all round was heaving with dandelions and buttercups. And since this was before I discovered the no dig approach, I admit to using the quick and dirty method (though NOT weed killer) and slicing off the top layer of weeds, and dumping it in compost bins to rot down for a few years. The ground zero method of gardening.

I then commissioned He Who Does Not  Garden But Lives In My House to construct and install on my plot several raised beds made out of recycled builders’ yard pallets. A couple went into action straight away, and were planted up in October with over-wintering onion sets. The others I have been filling up over the past few weeks. So far the onions are looking healthy and a few weeks ago I sprinkled organic hen manure pellets over their beds, an alternative to sulphate of ammonia, which I didn’t have to hand.

By now you will be beginning to grasp the lengths that this writer will go to in order not to sit in front of her computer and cultivate the master work. So far I have shifted around 30 barrow-loads of an old garden rubbish heap that has apparently been in the corner of the allotment for the last forty years, and until recently was covered in brambles and nettles. Strangely too, it was my idea to recycle it.

Off course when I say heap, I really mean small mountain. It’s full of bonfires past, rodent nests, and decomposed leaves from the nearby ash tree, as well as nearly half a century of weeds and waste. There’s also broken glass, bits of plastic fertilizer bags, and all sorts of unidentifiable metal items that gardeners of yore thought could be disposed of in such a manner. As I sift through the heap, I think how good it is that I’m putting the field practice of my long ago archaeology degree course to some sort of use.

In fact I have been keeping an eye out for old coins, remembering that a few years ago I uncovered a 1725 halfpenny right outside my shed door. It helps to keep me amused during the boring process of extracting unwanted detritus and plant roots.

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I’ve also filled myself with a big enthusiasm infusion by deciding to dedicate one of the raised beds to growing flowering annuals to attract more bees. I shall also use it to grow on perennials (verbascum, heleniums, echinops) and biennial foxgloves that I’ve just germinated on the kitchen window sill. The thought of a raised bed bursting with summer flowers is so heartening. Doubtless you will see the results as time goes on.

But for now that’s enough talk about gardening. The sun is shining, and the weather forecast tells us we have a brief window of opportunity before the rain returns, so I’m off to the allotment with my pea and beetroot seedlings. I  may even sow some parsnips. Happy Sunday one and all.

 

#7-daynaturephotochallenge

The Bees’ Knees In Vibrancy

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This is one my favourite photos. If you look hard you can even see the bees’ wings vibrating. And yes, for those who come here often, I know I’ve posted it a few times before. But isn’t it joyous – hot red, buzzing bees, sunshine.

And how about bees in the sneeze weeds (aka Heleniums)

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Or the bee on this sunflower that was growing last summer in a pot by the shed:

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All of which is to say we need to keep thinking about bees. We cannot do without them. They pollinate many of the plants that provide us with essential foods.  In the northern hemisphere new seeds are coming into the shops, so we can all think about sowing some bee-friendly flowers. You don’t need a garden. A pot of oregano will please them, and make you happy too when you’re making spaghetti sauce.

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And then sedums will provide a valuable late summer nectar boost for honey bees. There are many varieties of this plant – large and small. They don’t need much attention and will grow in containers too:

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If you want to find out which plants are bee friendly, there are many bee sites on the web. But for local first-hand information ask your local beekeepers society. There will be one. Meanwhile the Royal Horticultural Society provides some useful guidance if you want to give your life and bee-life lots more buzz.

IN 2016 THINK BEES

Happy Wednesday Wherever You Are

Vibrant

Autumn in my garden

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This little crab spider is for Ark at A Tale Unfolds. He regularly shares with us the fascinating wildlife in his Johannesburg garden. He’s rather keen on spiders. The one on my sedum (Misumena vatia)  is, if internet photos are anything to go by, capable of taking on a big, fat bumble bee. The bees here are being a tad regardless I feel, so keen are they to guzzle nectar.

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In fact sedums are bee heaven at this time of year, so everyone who can, do grow them. There’s a huge range to choose from. The bees are doubtless stoking up energy for the winter ahead. I also forgot to mention that the crab spider can, in a limited way, change colour to match the flowers it is hunting on, though it usually frequents yellow and white ones.

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In my September in my garden post I mentioned that the rose at the top of the steps, Teasing Georgia, had come into bud for a second flourish. At the time  the weather promised to be so dismal, I wondered if she’d get a chance to bloom without the flowers being rained off. Well, the sun came back and Georgia came out in all her golden flounces:

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And here’s another tiny spider, identity unknown, sneaking in the echinacea (centre right):

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And finally, a sun-dappled Japanese Anemone with a hover fly:

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I’m linking to this Cee’s flower of the day

Please visit her blog for a daily floral fix.

 

Bee-ing Bee-Minded

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An old meaning of the word vivid is lively and vigorous. And what can be more lively and vigorous than foraging bees? They and their produce are life-enhancing too, and in elemental ways. Their importance in the human life-cycle, for one, is marked in an old Shropshire custom of ‘telling the bees’ when someone dies. So it is my belief that we can’t think too much, or too often about bees. Not only do nearly three quarters of our food crops depend on them for pollination, but the natural environment needs them too – those plants and trees whose flowers are also pollinated by them.

Up at the allotment we are very lucky. We seem to have plenty of bees, and many varieties too, but then most of the allotment gardeners rarely use pesticides apart from the odd slug pellet. Yesterday when I was there, my raspberry patch was thrumming with bee-hum. It was mesmeric. They also love my neighbours’ phaecelia which is grown as a green manure. Pete and Kate decided to leave theirs standing just for the bees. The flowers are beautiful anyway.

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My field beans are another favourite. Again these beans, a relation of the broad bean, are usually grown to dig in before flowering and fruiting. But courtesy of the bees, I leave mine to produce masses of pea pod sized pods. The beans are small, and more delicious versions of broad beans. So thank you, bees. Also the bean blossom has a blissful scent. It’s a win-win-win situation.

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The debate over whether neonicotinoid pesticides are responsible for the massive bee deaths across the globe wrangles on. You can follow some of the arguments in the two BBC Science reports at the links below. One recent startling discovery by a study at Newcastle University, is that bees are attracted to the pesticides. They seem to like the nicotine in much the same way humans do. Researchers have yet to discover if bees also get hooked on the stuff.

So why do we need pesticides? The actual fact is that any large-scale, mono-crop production will attract, in huge numbers, the pests that use that crop for their food and reproductive cycle. Monoculture environments also lack the kind of predator insect diversity, that would, in a naturally diverse ecosystem, keep such crop pests under control.

So the demand for pesticides is created, and the drive for profit, and for the production of cheap food keeps us locked into pesticide dependence. It’s not hard to see why we seem stuck with this system. The economics of unpicking it look impossible to broach.

Here’s another thought though. Mono-crop systems are also vulnerable to new pests whose advent is ever more likely, either through accidental imports, or by climate-shift trans-located pests that may have no natural predators in their new-found homeland.

I have personal experience of what happens when dependence on one particular crop meets an alien pest. In the 1980s the Central American Larger Grain Borer beetle was introduced into Africa in a consignment of food aid maize, and once there, spread up the continent like wildfire, chomping the contents of village grain stores to dust. (And being faced with such a pest, who would knowingly want to put insecticide directly onto their food before eating it?).  This infestation is what took us to Africa in 1992 where Graham was working on a project to introduce a natural predator to check the LGB spread. (See Carnations, crooks and colobus at Lake Naivasha, and Letters from Lusaka part I ).

The consequences of this particular dudu’s arrival  were compounded by the fact that, since colonial times, maize had become a staple in many African countries (European settlers doled it out as rations in part payment to their African labour), so largely replacing the local cultivation of a wide range of native, more nutritious small-grain crops. Maize is also a hungry, water-demanding plant that can easily fail if there is insufficient rain. And, if repeatedly grown on the same ground, it will soon deplete fragile volcanic soils and contribute to erosion. This happened on Kenya’s native reserves during the World War 2 when Western Province farmers were encouraged to grow maize for export to Europe to support the war effort. They grew bumper harvests, but the land suffered, and probably has never recovered.

So we see in just one example the kind of vicious downward spiral of impoverishment that can result when humans think they know better, and don’t consider the consequences of tinkering with an existing system.

In fact when we left Kenya in 2000, German agricultural aid workers were advising rural farmers to go back to cottage garden farming methods, mixing different crops up together to fool the pests, and so avoid the need to buy expensive pesticides. i.e. advocating precisely what Bantu farmers had been doing for a couple of thousand years before colonial agricultural officers told them that inter-cropping was bad practice, and that they  needed to adopt European cash-crop methods in order to grow export-worthy produce.

All of which is to say, we all of us need biodiversity for our well being, if not for our survival. With climate change, we cannot afford to limit options in food production by remaining in thrall to the reductionist models perpetuated by factory farming, supermarket buying power, genetic engineering that reduces native crop diversity, and by the pesticide hegemony in general. At the very least we need the bees. Anything that threatens them, threatens to seriously limit our good food choices. The health of humanity and the planet’s ecosystems depends on them.

As consumers we have buying power. It is perhaps the one real power we do have, otherwise corporations would not spend so much money trying to persuade us to buy their goods. If we are able, we can support small local producers who do not use pesticides. We can say no to genetically modified crops that have caused their producers to give up, or lose their native crop varieties. We can grow bee-friendly plants, and if we can afford to, buy only organically cultivated produce. We can grow as much of our own food as possible. It’s amazing what can be grown in containers if garden space is in short supply, and sprouted seeds can be  grown in the kitchen all year round. So let’s keep our bees vigorous and lively, in whatever way we can.

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Bees get a buzz from pesticides

Widespread impacts of neonicotinoids ‘impossible to deny’
Vivid

Elephant tribe versus Man tribe: and how the bees are helping

We’ve been watching a very heartening series on BBC i-Player The Secret Life of Elephants. It followed the magnificent conservation work being carried out by Save The Elephants, a charity that operates in Samburu, Northern Kenya, and relies on the cooperation between  the nomadic Samburu people, local smallholder farmers and scientists from Kenya and beyond.  One of the key initiatives is to put tracking collars on the matriarch leaders of particular elephant clans, and also on the large bulls who, outside the breeding season, lead more solitary lives.

Elephants may cover vast distances in the course of their annual migrations. But once they leave the national parks they are more vulnerable to poachers, and also to irate farmers who are tired of having their year’s livelihood consumed in a single night. By tracking and mapping the herds’ movements on computers, and  maintaining channels of communication with the pastoralists and farmers, Save The Elephants researchers  are working out ways to lessen conflicts, and present solutions, and above all, to secure the future for wild elephants.

The Samburu pastoralists have always been wise enough to respect elephants, and are now anxious to do what they can to protect them. This is their view on the matter:

 

The first man said the elephant is like us, like our brother, and we have to live together, not hunt elephant. That’s what we say we were told at the beginning. That’s what we still believe. The elephant has always been, and will always be, special to us. This is why we protect it now.

Samburu people on the importance of elephants

 

 

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For farmers it is a very different matter. People are often killed trying to drive elephants out of their crops.  And so one of STE’s objectives is to work out the best place to erect elephant fencing so that elephants can be channelled away from farming communities as they pass by on their seasonal trek between the river where they congregate to breed,  and the mountain forests where they go to browse.

Fencing, though, is not always the total solution it seems. Elephants are not daft. The old bulls have learned  how to open gates onto the vast European wheat farms that lie to the west of Mount Kenya. But while the large-scale producers can tolerate some elephant grazing, smallholders cannot. For them it is a matter of living or starving.

One of the STE researchers, Dr. Lucy King has come up with a very simple, low-tech and productive approach to keeping elephants out of Kenyan farmers’ cabbage fields.  It began with the discovery that elephants will move off if they hear the sound of bees buzzing. African bees are especially aggressive, and on a very short fuse temper-wise. She thus came up with the notion of placing beehives around farm fields.

Traditional African beehives are made of lengths of hollowed-out tree trunks that are then suspended in trees. These were hung at intervals on the field perimeters, and connected up by tripwires. When the elephants tripped the wires, the hives were duly shaken and out would swarm the angry bees. Elephants would then beat a retreat, leaving farmers with both their crops and a new source of income from the honey.

As Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith was so often wont to say in The A-Team: “I love it when a plan comes together.” In this case, though, it is clearly the work of the B-Team.

Copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Related:

I’ve written more about elephants in Elecommunication: So Many Connections

And last but never least, thanks to Paula at Lost in Translation and her guest challenger, photographer Guilhem Ribart. TRIBE is the prompt. For more interpretations, please also follow this link.  I should add that my photos here were taken in Lewa Downs which is part of Save The Elephants’ sphere of operations. The original negatives are very degraded, but seem to have a new lease of life translated into B & W. In fact they also seem to capture the elephantness of elephants rather better than the colour originals, which is interesting when you think about it.

Thursday’s Special: Seeing Red

I’m in love with the Japanese crab apple tree in my garden at Sheinton Street. There is hardly a moment in the year when it does not give pleasure. Even now in February there are still a few tiny apples on its bare branches – minimally disposed like a left over Christmas tree that someone forgot to undress. The black bird still visits, although by now the apples have been frosted and lost their bloom.

But then I also know that by the time the last one has fallen, there will be tight rosy-red buds bursting to make the next crop, bees permitting. And while I think of it, I’m grateful to fellow blogger, Mélanie at Mon Terrain de Jeux who tells me that crab apples sound much lovelier in French, and I agree – pommes sauvages.

On the other hand, my little tree is so finely wrought and well bred, and its fruit so exquisite, that I can imagine no situation when it might be tempted to wildness – unlike its large, unruly English cousins that grow in our farm hedgerows. Those I raid in October for their not so pretty fruit to make jars of crab apple jelly. (How could I possibly pick my own pommes sauvages?). The jelly is delicious on toast and croissants, and the jars glow like jewels as the hot jelly is poured into them. Mmmm.

More things to look forward to then: blossom, bees, pommes sauvages, toast…

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For Paula’s Thursday’s Special challenge ‘Red’ at Lost in Translation

Still Life at the Allotment

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Mid October and the marigolds are still blooming up at the allotment. I love the way they simply grow themselves amongst my vegetables. In a mild winter they may flower into December.  It was also good to see this bee out and gathering pollen. These days, every bee is precious. Once we have killed them all with agri-chemicals, we can expect to starve. It’s as simple as that. My allotment empire has recently expanded – more of which in the next post – so I’m intending to grow more varieties of late and early flowering plants on my plot. Or maybe I should simply stick to marigolds, and let them grow EVERYWHERE. The flower petals are lovely in salads, and a herbal tea of marigold flowers is good for warding off flu. Simply looking at them makes you feel better. All that orange straight into the brain, lighting up the little grey cells as the days darken.

‘Happy Autumn’ northern dwellers.

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For more vibrant treats visit Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge

Rooti-toot-toot, it’s spring at the allotment: up close and vegetal

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Well the old shed has made it through another year. A couple of bits have fallen off, but last year’s application of internal bracing by the Team Leader, aka Graham, has kept its tendency to list in an easterly direction in check. Would that we all had such a bracing. Over the winter it housed a poor mummified mouse, and snails still go to roost in there. I’m not showing you the inside, though. You definitely do  not want to see in there.

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Instead, here is the ancient greengage tree with its delicate blossom. Already I’m wondering if it will give us some fruit this year. Greengages are notoriously temperamental, and after the magnificent crop in my first year of allotmenting that had us, and all our friends and relations, dribbling with delight over bucket loads of luscious harvest, it has borne very little. That was seven years ago. Maybe this year is the year then.

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There are loads of jobs to do, not least digging. The endlessly wet autumn and winter meant that winter digging was impossible, so there has been much to catch up on. Meanwhile the weeds are literally having a field day, which makes this the the season of dandelion beheading. (Sorry, dandelions). They are sprouting up all along the paths between everyone’s plots, and I’m afraid I find great satisfaction in slicing off these cheery faces with my strimmer. Their replacements are anyway there the next day, beaming vigorously.

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Then there is the comfrey forest to manage. This plant I crop and cherish. You cannot have too much of it, and it obligingly grows  itself in a huge clump beside the shed. If you cut it down after flowering, it will grow again and again during the summer.

Comfrey, as I have mentioned before, is the organic gardener’s dream plant. It comes in other shades, pink to purple through blue. Its ability to mine otherwise inaccessible  nutrients from the soil (dynamic accumulation I believe this is called) and repurpose them in its foliage make it an endless source of cost-free fertilizer. It is one of the reasons why you can’t look in my shed. I do my brewing in there. And no. It’s not what you think.

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For those who missed an earlier post on this, I stuff old compost bags with the comfrey’s  top growth, seal them with clothes pegs, cut a hole in the corner of each bag, and prop it over a bucket and wait. In the warmth of the shed the vegetation soon rots down, giving out a dark and evil looking liquid that collects in the buckets.  This stuff is pretty smelly, although nowhere near as pungent as the slimy residue left in the bag, which then ends up on the compost heap. The liquid I  decant  into old plastic bottles, and use as a feed through the growing season. It is 3 times richer in potassium that farmyard manure, but it must be diluted 1 part comfrey essence to 15 parts water.

The blurry bee above would not stay still for the shot, but that’s another good thing about comfrey. Bees like it. As I took this, I spotted at least 4 different kinds: a honey bee and three bumbles of varying liveries and sizes. Having written of the dire things that are happening to bees, it’s heartening to see so many at the allotment doing their work. Thank you, bees.

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The mild winter has meant that many crops simply kept going without dying back. Yesterday I noticed that my globe artichokes have already made globes almost big enough to eat. In May? What is going on?  But thank  you, artichokes.

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The Swiss Chard has been magnificent too and kept us going through the winter with fresh new leaves. It is only now going to seed. Nor did I sow it in the first place. It seeded itself around my plot from my neighbours’ plot. Thank you,  Pete and Kate.

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And now you can look at my Red Duke of York spuds, their foliage just pushing through the soil. I love the purple flush on the new growth.

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And next are my over-wintered field beans (rather like broad beans I am told, but smaller and tastier). This is the first year I have tried them. The metre tall stems are covered in blossom from tip to root, and the scent is glorious. The bees are busy here too.

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And last but not least, the strawberries are flowering like crazy…

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And the Welsh Onions are bursting into bloom beside the Lemon Balm, although I’m not sure whether I should be stopping them from doing this. On the other hand they will look rather splendid as the flowers open, and of course make lots more seed.

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And finally, the brightest face of all at the allotment, other than mine after too much digging. This is yet another lovely plant that grows itself up there with no help from me, and flowers into the winter. Its petals are lovely in salads, and it makes a good herbal tea that is said to improve pretty much any condition. I can believe it. Simply looking at this flower does you good: the orange goes right through your eyes and into your immune system. A big hand then, for the marigold. TARRAAAAH!

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© 2014 Tish Farrell

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