Bumblebees ~ these furry foragers are welcome in my garden

Today, as I showed a friend round my garden, we stopped by the self-sown pumpkin plants that have scrambled freely over a sunny spot. It was a visual delight as bumblebees, two to three at a time, crawled deep into the throats of the pollen-rich golden yellow flowers. Bumblebees flitted from flower to flower in their continual quest for nectar. Each precious insect played its essential ecological role for our benefit. Such hard-workers. I like these furry foragers, working in my garden. They are very welcome.

In January 2007.  I got lost in thought about the value of the beneficial insects. Years ago, Himself and I cleared a rambling Buddleia (B.davidii), an invasive pest plant, from our roadside boundary. Unfortunately, we disturbed a large colony of bumblebees nesting in the ground among the sprawling tangled root system. Beautiful bumblebees by the hundreds flew into the air as the tractor pulled the enormous trunk from the ground.

The prolific Buddleia flowers were obviously a great food source of pollen proteins and sugary nectar. The bumblebees were kind to us that day when in our ignorance we wrecked their nest. Quite a different story though when we’ve encountered and dealt to aggressive wasps in their nests.

I appreciate how various beneficial insects pollinate edible plants. Like the pumpkin blooms, the courgette, the cucumber and the watermelon flowers also seem to be attracting the bumblebees.

“Bumblebees rely almost entirely on flowering plants for food and their very existence is dependent on gaining adequate supplies of nectar and pollen, or `bee bread.’ Bumblebees work very long hours, foraging from dawn to dusk in search of nectar and pollen even on cold, rainy or foggy days which prevent other insects from flying.”

I read that to encourage bumblebees to live and work in my garden a permanent nesting box is part of the answer as does growing a diversity of flowering food-source plants across the seasons.

My Garden ~ the bees aren’t buzzing like they did last year

The bee is more honored than other animals, not because she labors, but because she labors for others. St. John Chrysostom

Bees seem to have vanished from my garden. I’m not getting much of a buzz. My orchard is a feast for the senses. The plum, apple and quince trees are smothered with sweet nectar-filled white blossoms. The calendula, broad beans, borage and lavender and other companion plantings under my fruit trees are gaudy in their their orange, yellow, purple and blue scented array. Spring has well and truly arrived here. In my blog (September 2007), I couldn’t ignore the buzzing in my garden. But now, one year later, I see and hear only a handful of bees working among the blossoms. Where is the rest of the horde? It has been the wettest of winters. And I know the varroa mite has wreaked havoc on the nation’s hives. The silence in my garden scares me.

 

Transfixed as we are by the seriousness of  economic woes and global credit crunch fallout, there’s a serious ecological problem that has just as far-reaching and potentially devastating consequences for people everywhere. We must pay attenion to the chain of events happening in our food producing habitats. Prescient words echo down the decades in a quote (15 April 1964) from Rachel Carson’s obituary published in The New York Times.

 

“Now, I truly believe, that we in this generation, must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.” 

www.rachelcarson.org/RachelCarson.ASPX

 

Earlier this year when Mum was dying of cancer, my brothers, sister and I recalled how when we were kids, DDT was mixed into the fertilizer that was spread by agricultural top-dressing trucks and planes in white billowing dust clouds over the local farms. I can still ‘smell’ the DDT as I write this. There was the economic imperative to develop farms in those days. I’m not exactly sure what made Dad change his farming practice, but he did so by the 1960s. Others in Mum’s age group in the district have succumbed to the same cancer. We haven’t been able to get conclusive answers that may link the cancer to DDT. There seems to be a wall of silence. I have digressed somewhat from the vanished bees. One consequence of the application of this insecticide is that DDT remains in the soil. It may be residual DDT is part of the explanation for the silence of the bees.

 

The health of honey bees is critical to the well-being of humans. In my blog (September 2007), I mentioned how Mum was buoyed by a book The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton Porter. So I was interested during my web search to read Joe Brewer, (25 August, 2007), Rockridge Institute, Berkeley, CA. Bee Keeper’s Wisdom for Human Flourishing.  www.celsias.com/article/bee-keepers-wisdom-for-human-flourishing.

 

Back to bringing a buzz back into my garden. I’m not alone in my concerns about vanishing bees. An article (October 8, 2008) gives pointers and describes Californian farmers work in re-developing native bee habitats.

 

“With honeybee populations weakened by disease and the mysterious malady known as Colony Collapse Disorder, farmers place new focus on work to benefit native pollinators. Decisions by farmers and ranchers to replace bare ground along irrigation ditches and roadways with native plants, trees and grasses, in order to encourage beneficial insects and eliminate weeds, have evolved into a movement to bring native bees back to the farming landscape.”

www.cfbf.com/agalert/AgAlertStory.cfm?ID=1147&ck=A1D50185E7426CBB0ACAD1E6CA74B9AA

 

I trawled the net for advice and insights to the nature of my gardening problem with the thought there must be something further I can do in my backyard. There’s any number of websites and blogs about colony collapse disorder and bees.

 

NZ newspaper item (6 October 2008) Fears that bee colony disease is here.

www.times-age.co.nz/localnews/storydisplay.cfm?storyid=3786935&thesection=localnews

 

National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand (25 September 2008) posted a Radio NZ report on the declining bee numbers. www.nba.org.nz

 

Linda Moulton Howe (31 August 2008) wrote about the poor health of honey bees. www.earthfiles.com/news.php?ID=1466&category=Environment

 

My Garden ~ too busy in the vegetable patch to write about much else

It felt hotter outside than the official 20C today. The ground is dry and surface cracks indicate the need for rain. Never-the-less, early summer is here and this gardening month is busy with successive sowings, cultivation and harvesting.    

I checked the growth of my potatoes planted 30 September.  The Kowiniwini, Urenika and Maori  heritage potatoes are about to burst into flower. I was somewhat surprised to find the Swift (early variety for Xmas ) potatoes are almost ready to be harvested. Two-year-old Grandson who became an expert ‘tato inspector last year, inducted baby brother in the art of choosing the biggest and the best ‘tato for dinner tonight. He also picked the very first tiny courgette of the season (as you do) when you’re a connoisseur of baby vegetables. The early potato crop probably thrived because of the thick applications of mulch. The soil around the plants was friable, warm and moist despite no watering and drying conditions. We are careful how we use water because our domestic water supply is from rainwater collection. We pump water from the stream to the troughs for the animals. So gardening for me must be about conserving moisture and mulching. Our predominantly clay soil becomes rock hard in the summer – digging is a no go – hence I follow a permacultural approach to diversity and building up soil to encourage worms and beneficial insects.   

The Calendula are making a great show among the potatoes. With that in mind today, I filled gaps among the other vegetables with more heat-loving flowers as companion  plants Rudbeckia, Zinnia and French Marigolds. That should make the friendly insects giddy with delight (or confused should the pests have pesky intentions).  November here is a great month for flowers – I use different edible flowers in salads and drinks.  

I under-planted the sweet corn with a long green cucumber – my Dad used to do this as a living mulch so I though I’d give it a try this year as well as letting pumpkins sprawl under the corn plants.  I could have used beans – but I have these growing elsewhere. My last tasks today were to plant Sweet Peppers and to stake Beefsteak tomatoes – under-planted with Sweet Basil of course as I have visions of home-made pesto in mind.

My Garden ~ Plum Blossom and Bees

Hibernation is over – I can’t ignore the buzzing in my garden anymore.  The plum trees are smothered with blossom and bees each determined to get its quota of pollen. It’s a wonderful sight and this spring I’m looking with fresh eyes. Recently I was able to locate The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter for my mother whose health is declining. It is a book she’d read long ago in her youth and one she wanted to read again. A soldier wounded during WWI looks outwards as he finds inner strength and peacefulness after he undertakes to care for the Bee Master’s bees.  As the garden is fruitful because of the bees so life becomes meaningful. I shouldn’t be surprised that spring is well and truly arrived here.  The harbinger daffodils have finished, but the calendula, broad beans, borage and lavender also planted as companion plants under my fruit trees are showing off their colours and too are exciting the bees. The buds on the apple, quince and peach trees are bursting – quite the visual feast. Which reminds me – I must get busy with camera.  

Planting an orchard is potentially one of the best investments you could ever make. It’s an investment in your health (keeping in mind that our current western shop diets contain only 3 of the 8 polysaccharides essential for a strong immune system and that they’re actually only present in tree ripened fruit!) and the health of your family, … it’s an investment in your mental, emotional and spiritual health, it’s an investment in the health and future of the planet.” Kay Baxter, 2002          

My Garden ~ planning for tree planting

Trees are still very much on my mind. At a recent family gathering, the importance of the function of trees in creating carbon sinks was a topic of conversation. My brother referred to something he’d read to the effect, ‘plant 101 trees for every one felled’. So it was with some interest tonight that I read Willem Van Cotthem’s Desertification  post, and I quote:

“The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has launched a major worldwide tree planting campaign. Under the Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign, people, communities, business and industry, civil society organizations and governments are encouraged to enter tree planting pledges online with the objective of planting at least one billion trees worldwide during 2007.”

Great idea!  I won’t be able to plant ‘101 trees’ though. I still want to plant some trees as a living connection – but I’ll broaden the ecological context. This autumn I’ll plant groupings of native trees and other plants for their flowers, berries and nectar that are valuable  sources of food for the native birds such as tui and keruru (wood pigeon) especially in the winter and spring, and let’s not forget the bees. The shades of green, the shapes and different heights should not only create a restful visual effect, but also an ecologically beneficial habitat. 

My Garden ~ beneficial insects

There’s a certain languor to the pace of living in this summer heat and humidity. The most energetic workers in the garden lately are the insects. Dragonflies hover and we find ourselves rescuing them from the swimming pool. The longer a dragonfly lives the more mosquitoes it can chomp the better. Himself says the mozzies have a personal vendetta against him as he slaps yet more insect repellent on each night. For some reason, I’m don’t seem to get bitten which doesn’t help Himself under siege. Bumblebees flit from flower to flower in their continual quest for nectar. Each has a useful ecological role in the garden. Once when Himself and I were clearing a large Buddleia (I think it’ B.davidii) which is an invasive weed plant here, we disturbed a colony of bumblees nesting in the ground among the tangled root system. Obviously the flowers were a great food source. The bumblebees didn’t sting us – they weren’t aggressive towards us that day unlike wasps. I have since idly wondered about how to  breed bumblebees as I understand they can be useful pollinators of plants grown in greenhouses.

None of this really prepares me for return to work tomorrow after the summer break. Insrect life will still happen and at the end of each workday I’ll escape into the garden.   

My Garden ~ surviving a hot day

 It’s been the hottest day this month – 26 to 27 degrees C at our place. My focus remains maintaining moisture. I use green mulch to cover the soil and to attract beneficial insects, and compost in raised garden beds – my answer to gardening on hardpan clay. Snapshots taken late this afternoon show some plants I’m growning.

Collage

Sweetcorn  Green Mulch Purple Sage Potato  Santolina       

New raised beds    Borage/comfrey     Purple Sage             Potato-‘Heather’          Santolina            

This year, I’m trying out a late potato variety called Heather. According to my garden centre info sheet  it has a purple skin, is oval shaped, has a smooth skin, is white fleshed and cooks well.  I’ll see how it goes.