It’s not all about you honey!

It’s been deadly quiet on this blog ever since I became vegan. I don’t feel I can keep honeybees now, and to be honest I think that’s a good thing. It has opened my eyes to the incredibly skewed view most of us seem to have of honeybees as nature’s best pollinator. They’re not! Far from it. For a start their proboscis is pretty short compared to that of other bees, drastically limiting the variety of flowers it can feed on, and they’re pretty fussy about their working conditions too. Plus honeybees are just one species, when there are 24 species of bumblebee and over 200 species of solitary bees, not including all the other insect pollinators.
As usual it all really comes down to money. People can make money from honeybees so that’s where politicians put their focus and their cash. However, it has been calculated that bumblebees contribution in terms of pollination is around £440 million, so they would be wise to fund more research into the decline in bumblebee numbers
This year, so far, I have seen very few bees, and even fewer butterflies, although the sunshine of the last few days seems to have brought a few out of hiding, and the numbers I saw feeding and filling up on some wall germander at the weekend made it look like Sainsbury’s on the Saturday after payday and before a bank holiday!
So I can salve my vegan conscience by concentrating my focus on feeding the bees rather than trying to get the bees to feed me.
The miserable spring has prompted garden centres to reduce the price of many of their plants, so it’s a great time to snap up some bargain bee-friendly plants. I shall report on which of my purchases turn out to be the bee’s favourite very soon.

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Plant Preferences

Nepeta is the winner by far, despite the competition from the cats! The runners up are Buddleia ‘White Mrs Keep’, Buddleia ‘Adonis Blue’ and Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavendelturm’. My apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) has just started to flower. It can grow over three feet tall, and I always allow some clumps of it to flower because bees and hoverflies seem to love it so much.

Of course, as preparation for honey bees, buying and planting a huge array of different plants is a bit counterproductive really. Honey bees are a bit like some of the people who appear on Freaky Eaters, they go for one foodstuff and then refuse anything else. Once an individual bee has been persuaded by a colony mate to go for one particular species, that bee will only go for that plant. If supplies run out it will apparently, – unless it is very young, and flying workers only live for about three weeks any way – starve rather than go to a different plant.

Bumblebees however like a bit more variety in their diet, and they seem to have a go at whatever’s available. This sounds like a much more sensible way of doing things; I can’t think of any evolutionary reason why sticking to one plant species for life would be a benefit. Within the colony they might feed on a variety, so perhaps individual specialisation has a benefit for the whole, but I can’t think of one!

Cursed by Bees

I have a sneaking feeling that somthing is out to stop me keeping bees. Last week I had a phone call from a lovely lady from the North Bucks Beekeepers, assuring me that they would be at MK’s Discovery Centre on Sunday. On Sunday I was just about to set off when the phone rang. It was the lady to tell me that although she and other volunteers had gone to the Discovery Centre, the event hadn’t been publicised, and was expected to be very quiet. As they had been there the previous week (but earlier than I’d thought they were supposed to be there), they turned round and went home.
I seem to remember about 11 years ago, when I first thought about keeping bees, I saw a course advertised at Bradwell Abbey and it was going to begin that evening. I wrote down the details so I could get in touch when I got home and then got smashed up in a car crash on the way home, thus rendering me in a less that fit state to attend! Maybe the bees are trying to tell me something!

Does Colony Collapse Disorder affect Beekeepers!

I’ve just returned from a visit to Milton Keynes’ City Discovery Centre where, according to their website, the North Bucks Beekeepers were supposed to be meeting the public. When I arrived at the site I saw one man just wandering out of the gate and another chap looking lost, who was also seeking beekeepers. Perhaps this is their cunning way of showing would-be beekeepers what it’s like to experience Colony Collapse Disorder!

Today’s plant preferences

Flavour of the Day today was definitely the Buddleia davidii ‘White Mrs Keep’ that has been growing in a half barrel for several years now. It has an enormous profusion of flowers, and bees, hoverflies and butterflies seem to flock around it all day long. I did notice a male Gatekeeper butterfly spending an inordinate amount of time gorging on the Origanum, and the nepeta was popular again, as was the verbena, but the buddleia was way out in front.
I’m not sure if it’s terribly good arboricultural practice, but we did a bit of crown lifting on an enormous horse chestnut tree today. Underneath it there are some Michaelmas daisies and some sedum, so the extra light should help them to produce more flowers to feed the bees later on in the year.

Preparing the Ground

Woburn Abbey’s Garden Show at the weekend was a great event to visit and select a few additions to the garden flora, to attract more garden fauna. It’s always great to see the plants in flower, and to see the local bees and hover flies giving their own consumer verdicts.

Top of the list of course was Nepeta. I bought a couple of the species ‘Six Hills Giant’. These should be quite easy to grow – provided I can keep the cats away from them! I have three Catmint plants that I bought earlier this year and they’ve not been allowed to grow more than a few centimetres high.

I also bought

Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’

Verbena rigida

Geranium ‘Sirak’

Geranium Sylvaticum ‘Album’

I’ve always avoided geraniums in the past, having been brought up thinking of those horrible dusty smelling pelargoniums as geraniums, but seeing how much the bees adore the cranesbill that seems to flourish in my garden I thought perhaps it was time to go with the flow and use these for more colour in the shadier parts of the garden.

And a Sisyrinchium ‘Sapphire’

They all look as if they should be attractive to bees, and as, at the moment, they are sitting around on my patio I shall be keeping an eye out to see if the bees have any preferences. So far the Nepeta has definitely proved the most popular -in fact, when I bought them, I had to shoo off a bumble bee that wanted to hitch a ride home with the plants!

Of course, if you take the easiest route from Woburn Abbey to my house, you have to go past Frosts and Wyevale Garden Centres in Woburn Sands, and I couldn’t just drive past could I? So I added a few more to the trial selection. (I’ll list these later). But as today was a lovely sunny day, I decided to go for a pootle up to Castle Ashby’s Gardens and see what they’re growing in their butterfly garden. (Photos later) I was very restrained in the plant shop and just bought a Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavendelturm’ and an Origanum Vulgare ‘Compactum’. The bees were already demonstrating their liking for these two, especially the Origanum, and as my golden marjoram is not quite in flower yet I thought I’d try this one.

All I need to do now is prepare a new bed to put them all in!