Wednesday, 26 February 2014

A Bee-Friendly Garden for Spring (2)

First of all, sorry to anyone who has not been able to read this post before i.e. because it hasn't shown up.  Hope all is OK now and thanks for your comments letting me know about it.

In my earlier post here I decided on the flowers I'd like in my bee-friendly garden and I'm now happy that my bees are going to have plenty to forage on. Flying bees will be looking for four things; nectar and pollen (bee food), propolis and water.  Propolis is a sticky, resinous substance collected from various trees, which bees use as a glue to keep their comb in good condition. Beekeepers don't tend to collect propolis for use, although it can be used by us as an antiseptic and for other products such as soap...
Propolis Soap

Bees will also want access to water and they can collect it on my smallholding from the large pond or my new mini pond. Both have shallow areas for the bees to visit easily.

On a warm day in March or April, I'll spring clean the hives by transferring the bees to a clean hive and blow torching the old one to scorch all the detritus in it. I'll also replace old comb with new. This is a really satisfying job - it's the kind of spring cleaning I enjoy because I'm sitting out in the sun on the grass cleaning out all the winter muck from the hives (and it's so much better than spring cleaning the house!!) Good hygiene in the hives is important because it helps to keep the bee diseases at bay.

There was bad news on the subject of bee diseases last week. Recent research has found that two diseases found in honeybees have now been found in bumblebees (details here). Bumblebees (like honeybees) are already facing threats such as pesticides and a decline in the areas where they can forage and so this could well be another serious blow to their well-being. And, unlike honeybees, (which are managed in a hive), I'm not even sure how wild bumblebees could ever be treated...

But I'm going to help bumblebees as much as I can, so I'm creating a nest site for them. I've taken an old, broken storage jar and half buried it in the ground, drilling a bumblebee size hole in the front. I've also been collecting some moss, and when I've dried this out, I'll put it inside the jar for nest material. It may be a bit roomy, but I hope the bumblebees discover it and will want to use it this spring.

Like other beekeepers, I'll do my best to look after the health of my bees throughout the year. And I recently came across a new idea to help me do this - The Bee Gym.  I love the name! It's basically a framework of different shaped devices that are placed on a mesh floor of a beehive - and its purpose is to rid bees of the varroa mite (this is a nasty mite that attaches itself to bees and can eventually destroy colonies).  When the bee visits the gym, it scrapes the mite off of its body when it passes through the different devices - and the mite falls through the mesh.

I very much hope the Bee Gym works - the varroa mite is one of the most serious threats facing honeybees today and it's good to hear about a such a simple solution to tackle it.

Honeybee on Camellia

 I'm now going to source the flowers and seeds I need for my bee-friendly garden - and everything will be organic. Tammy at Casa Mariposa in her great post here talks about pollinator-friendly flowers in garden centres that are not what they seem because they have already been treated with harmful pesticides.  So that's something to look out for. Unfortunately, though, I can't stop my bees flying right over everything I've planted to a field of crops that have been sprayed with agricultural pesticides. This is just what bees do.  But I'm glad that the European Union has banned some of the most deadly neonicotinoid pesticides. The chemical industries are lobbying hard to overturn this ban, and the UK Government didn't support it in the first place, but it's important that it stays in place to protect our bees and other pollinators.

They need so much help.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

A Landscape of Water and a Field of Hares

Will it ever end? More storms here and heavy rain - but at least we're not under water like all the poor folk in flooded areas.  In a rare moment of sunshine this week I went to have a look at one of my local rivers, the river Wid, to see if it was about to burst its banks. It was very high and flowing fast, but there was mercifully no flooding. I remember driving over an old hump back bridge over the Wid not long ago and straight into the river. Eek! The road had completely disappeared under water. When a river has burst its banks, it certainly swallows up everything around it.

I was thinking about the Wid because I've been listening to the arguments in the news about rural verses urban when it comes to flood protection. This debate has already been had here, because it's been decided that Chelmsford (England's newest city) will be protected by a flood alleviation scheme that will impact on a couple of local parishes on the Wid.  The river will be diverted from its historic flow through the parishes, new embankments will be constructed and a flood storage area created. Chelmsford has been built on three rivers and dredging in this area has not been considered an option because (among other reasons) water would then flow more quickly into the city and the water levels would be higher there.

The gatehouse at Ingatestone Hall

Anyway, wandering along part of the Wid, (which doesn't happen to be a very long river), I came across the sixteenth century Ingatestone Hall. This has been closed to visitors for winter, so I couldn't take any photos apart from the gatehouse (Ingatestone Hall may be familiar from TV and films - I know it was used as the exterior of Bleak House in the superb BBC adaptation a few years ago). I've been inside the Hall once and the features I remember most were the priest holes (the owners of Ingatestone Hall in the 1500s were Catholics).  It's clear that someone would really have to be desperate to hide in these holes.  It made me feel claustrophobic just looking at them.

The most exciting part of walking in the countryside on this day was spotting four interesting bumps in the middle of a large field.  Through the binoculars, I could see that the bumps were four Hares. I wondered if these were pairing up and if so, were they thinking of boxing? We're coming into that time of year and I'd love to see it take place - I've never seen it before. Sadly there was no boxing today; instead they seemed to be too busy enjoying the sun. They were also keeping a wary eye on me, because I was moving closer and of course each time I did, they moved further away.

But I'll be back over the next few weeks, to see if I can catch a glimpse of them boxing at last.

Something else has been keeping an eye on me, too...

I didn't see many Kestrels last year, but I've already seen a handful around here this year. I hope it's a good sign.

Back that evening to feed the animals, I've two new companions that follow me around looking to take some of the food for the Chickens and Geese.  This little Robin nips in and takes the Chicken food in a daring raid when he thinks that me (and the Chickens) aren't looking...

And this Duck has taken to following me around, too. She's very cute, half the size of the other females (and the Drake she hangs around with), but she's twice as noisy and is always at my heel letting me know she's there...

You can see how muddy it is around the Geese and Chicken houses.  Some of these squelchy holes are quite deep, too.

We've also had some lovely Swans visiting the surrounding arable fields...

I expect they're comfortable wandering everywhere at the moment, because everywhere is so wet.  I think this is a landscape for them.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

A Bee-Friendly Garden For Spring (1)

Honeybee on Hellebore
It's stormy here again today, but on Sunday we had some lovely sunshine (and it even felt a bit warm at last). To make the most of it, we met with some friends and had lunch on one of the Thames barges moored up in the quay at Maldon.  I love the barges and I was delighted to discover that the cafe was on 'Thistle', which was the same barge I hired out for my family for part of Mum and Dad's Golden Wedding Anniversary celebrations a few years ago.  We had a fabulous day then - and being back on 'Thistle' brought back all those memories.

Thames Barges

Anyway, this brief glimpse of sunshine has also made me think about plans for the garden and whether it will look how I want it to look this spring. Most of all, I want to be sure that it's as bee-friendly as it can be. I'm planning to move more beehives back to the smallholding (from the fields) and it's important that there are enough flowers here and in the surrounding area for my honeybees (and other pollinators) to enjoy.

So; here is a wander around the garden (and the smallholding) with a review of all the flowers the bees will forage on from late winter to late spring. I'm also including the flowers I'll be adding to my 'must-plant-this-year' list.

Crocuses - perfect for bees

Along the edges of the garden under the trees, I can see that there are several clumps of snowdrops flowering.  I've planted them with cyclamens, although these have finished flowering. I'm now considering planting some winter aconites with the snowdrops because I love this combination of white and yellow flowers. The bees will forage on both of them, flying to the aconites when the weather is mild and these little flowers open their petals.

I also have a shady area full of beautiful hellebores, a favourite of mine and of the bees! Another bee-plant is mahonia and so this is a must in my garden. Crocuses are also important for bees in spring and I've planted these just about everywhere, although it's always a disappointment to see how few of the crocuses I've planted actually come up each year. What on earth happens to them?!!

Many of the spring flowers for bees are yellow, which is a colour bees can see. Bees, like us, can also see green and blue, but they can't see red, and when they're drawn to a bright red flower like a field poppy, they're drawn not to the red in it but to pigments that reflect ultraviolet (which is a colour they can see and we can't, of course).  The pollen they collect from field poppies is a dark blue.

Wood anemone - loved by pollinators

In my local woods, bees will forage on wood anemones and bluebells. In the fields they'll be attracted to dandelion.  Apparently dandelions mainly release pollen in the mornings, so this is when they'll be particularly attractive to bees. On the edges of some of the fields, which have been cleared over recent years, I've noticed there are still gorse bushes surviving. Gorse is always reliable because it flowers all year.

In the arable fields, my bees will forage on oilseed rape this year.  It's been planted close to the smallholding and some of it is flowering already (which won't please the landowner).  Bees love this crop - a field of oilseed rape is a real bee-banquet. They become very excited when foraging on it and return to the hive covered in the stuff. They also become very grumpy when the crop has finished flowering, because this plentiful source of food is suddenly no longer available.

Apple blossom

Bees also look for flowers in the trees and hedgerows and here, they'll find catkins; apple, pear and cherry blossom, horse chestnut, and blackthorn.  I have lots of hawthorn, too, but this doesn't always provide something for bees (it varies from year to year), possibly due to warmth and weather.

Bees love grape hyacinths and wallflowers.  I have grape hyacinths due to flower but I'm annoyed with myself that I didn't get around to planting any wallflowers for spring this year. The seeds are still in the packets! I would like to grow lots of wallflowers so this is a must-do for this year. Meanwhile, in my herb garden, I do have plenty of rosemary, which is the best early flowering herb for bees.

Clematis Montana 'Rubens'

Close to the house, the bees will be attracted to the clematis montana covering the pergola in April and May. They will love the pyracantha and holly when they flower, too.

So, having reviewed the garden, I'm pleased that my bees and other pollinators will have something to interest them here from now until May.  But I'm aiming, next year, to have so much more ready for them.