Thursday 21 February 2013

Herbs for Pollinators

I've noticed that my herb garden is starting to look a little neglected and so I've plans this year to revitalise this corner of the smallholding.  I planted my herb garden when I first created a vegetable patch and many of these early herbs are still flourishing.  But when I planted them, I did so with an "I think I'll probably need this" approach and now, thirteen years later, I know a lot more about the herbs I'm regularly using in the kitchen and the herbs I don't use at all.  At the same time, I'm now looking at growing herbs for other reasons; I've learnt more about their uses in companion planting (so that pests are lured away from the fruit and vegetables) and I'd love to try using herbs in homemade hand creams, shampoos or even old-fashioned medicines.  But, most of all, I'm keen on growing herbs for my bees and other pollinators.  Many herbs provide excellent forage for pollinators and I have a vision of creating drifts of herbs that will hum and buzz with pollinators for almost every month of the year.

As well as the herb garden, I also grow herbs in other areas on the smallholding (among the cottage garden flowers, the wild flowers and in pots by the back door).  I've started to sketch out a plan of where my herbs are and whether they are still in the best place i.e. are their growing conditions ideal.  Most herbs prefer full sun and well-drained, moist soil - and over the years, some of the herbs I've planted are now being overshadowed by other plants. My mint is one of the offending plants that is now overshadowing others; it's flourished a bit too well in its current position and will have to be moved.

I've made a list of the herbs that I would like to grow for pollinators, but I also have to consider that pollinators love herbs when they flower - and the leaves of some flowering herbs can taste bitter.  So when I'm looking at these herbs (like basil) that I want to use in the kitchen, I'll have to keep some flower-free and let others go on to bloom.

I've decided to grow the following herbs for pollinators in the herb garden; chives, hyssop, sweet marjoram, rosemary, sage and thyme.  This list includes some must-have herbs for bees; rosemary is a good, early source of nectar and pollen for bees when there is little else about and flowering thyme is one of the best of all bee plants.

Honeybee on borage
In the wild flower area; I'm going to grow one of my favourite plants; borage. The lovely blue flowers of this plant produce nectar that flows like a spring for honeybees. I'm also growing comfrey in this area, which is loved by bumblebees.  I always like to find a few moments, first thing on a sunny, summer morning, to watch the bumblebees busily foraging on the comfrey plants.

In my cottage garden flower area; I'm growing bergamot - a favourite bee herb.  On the edge of this area I'm growing lavender (I've chosen lavandula angustifolia "munstead").  Lavender is loved by different pollinators.

Other herbs I'll grow in pots (like the invasive mint) or in the greenhouse - basil, for example, I'll grow both in pots and in the greenhouse as a companion plant to my tomatoes.

I've made a note to regularly look at where and how my herbs are growing and to spend more time tending to the herb garden; I won't leave it for another thirteen years (adding herbs here and there in the meantime).  Herbs are going to be an important part of the smallholding, for so many reasons, from now on.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Bees: The Beauty of Pollen and Homemade Beekeeping Equipment

Bumblebee with Visible Pollen Baskets 
One of the real pleasures of keeping bees has to be watching the bees return to the hive loaded with colourful pollen.  I often stand, very still, by the entrance to the hive (suited, of course, in case the bees object) - and watch the bees fly in with heavy pollen baskets.  Looking inside the hive, I can see that the bees have created their own rainbow of stored pollen in the frames.

I'm fortunate in that I've never suffered from hay fever - and so pollen has never troubled me.  Pollen is shed by flowers as part of their reproductive process and bees become covered in pollen grains when they forage.  The bees then pack the pollen into the pollen baskets which are on the outside of their hind legs.  Pollen is one of four things collected by foraging bees (with nectar, propolis and water) and it provides them with protein, vitamins and minerals.  When they return to the hive, they store the pollen near the broodnest where it is needed.  Early pollen i.e. pollen collected in early spring, is essential to feed the bee-larvae and build up the colony.

Snowdrop: An Early Pollen Source
Pollen sources in early spring include snowdrop and crocus.  Bees will also collect from hazel and willow.

I can work out where the bees have been from the colour of the pollen they bring into the hive.  Bees have favourite pollen sources; when they learn how to extract the pollen from a particular flower they'll keep going back.  Usually, from late March to May, I expect a large amount of pollen coming in to the hive to be bright yellow - because the bees will be foraging in fields of oilseed rape.  Bees love this crop and become quite excited in the hive when this is in flower.  They often return to the hive not only carrying oilseed rape pollen in their baskets, but also completely covered in the stuff.

Examples of the Different Colours of Pollen in a Hive

Homemade Beekeeping Equipment

A field of oilseed rape can yield a huge amount of pollen and nectar for bees.  Many beekeepers welcome this as it produces a large, early honey crop, but this honey also has to be dealt with quickly, because it rapidly crystallizes in the comb.  To liquify this honey (and any other honey) the honey has to be heated - and many beekeepers buy warming cabinets (or make their own) to achieve this.  To save money, we made our own warming cabinet when we replaced our fridge - we converted the older fridge into a warming cabinet by disconnecting the working parts and inserting a light bulb (to add heat) and a digital thermometer to give an accurate reading of temperature inside the cabinet.

Homemade Warming Cabinet
We've also made a very useful bee equipment carrier by buying a cheap folding trolley on eBay and adapting this by adding metal brackets to hold the brood boxes and supers which make up the hive.  A bungee cord over the top keeps them in place.  I've been carrying boxes up and down a steep hill for years - and so I'm really pleased with this piece of equipment.

Bee Equipment Carrier

I'm now looking forward to mild, spring weather, and the new beekeeping "season", when I can work with nature to care for my bees once again.