We all know that without bees, we are in trouble. And I don’t just mean as gardeners, I also mean as a surviving species on this planet.
A world without bees equals a loss in the procreation and survival of the majority of plants on the planet and the food, medicine, shelter and other resources that they give us.
And not only us, but much of the other species we share the spinning globe with. I won’t even quote Albert Einstein’s prediction on how long we have after the last bee — it ain’t good. But can we turn it around.
Maybe if we know what the problem is —so Colony Collapse Disorder (the mysterious desertion of hives or the mass death of the bees within the hive) is or was, for a time the biggy — CCD has been blamed on everything from phone masts to Donald Trump’s hairspray.
That last bit may be fake news but only kind of — as we pollute the planet as much with our toiletries as we do from fossil fuel usage.
It’s not just plastic in the ocean, its chemicals in our water supply (often also the gardens’ water supply) and chemicals in the air. Where do you think those shampoo suds and deodorant aerosol mist go?
In truth, the bees are in decline through loss of habitat, monocultural farming, pesticide usage and the combined stress of all these factors is decreasing their immune systems and lessening their capacity to fight off increased mite susceptibility.
Your garden with its diversity of habitats and food sources, its low or no pesticide usage, makes for a very welcome environment to help keep the bees going. In return, they will pollinate your garden and keep it healthy and productive.
The agri and horticulture industries are all too aware now of the bee issue and keen to halt the decline.
The fact is that bees provide pollination services for the production of more than three-quarters of world crops, everything from apples to coffee has a bee involved — some of the clothes on your back needed a bee to pollinate its original fibre plant form or to feed the animal it came from, (even sheep and cows need more than grass).
The loss of bees could knock us back to prehistoric living quicker than religious fundamentalism, and it’s a bit nippy around these parts to return to fig leaf couture. (The fig is pollinated by a tiny wasp, so perhaps it’s one of the post-apocalyptic survivors.)
According to the Department of the Environment, bees are worth an estimated €85 million per annum to the Irish economy. And that’s not counting the honey – that’s the pollination factor.
In all this (here and globally) the emphasis is to save the honeybee, but the honey industry and diligent beekeepers will not allow it to go extinct. I fear more for our wild bees.
Ireland has around 20 species of bumblebee and 80 or so species of solitary bee. Some under severe threat of extinction – no apiarists to treat for mites, easily succumbing to habitat loss and very often in the direct line of chemical feeds and pest control sprays.
Some of our bee species are relatively recent arrivals to Ireland, for example the early nesting bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) was first recorded as resident here in 1947.
Bees form part of our ancient heritage of fauna — even having a place in the foundation laws of early Ireland with the law of the beekeeper.
Ireland also has its very own distinct bumblebee subspecies Bombus muscorum var. allenellus, found only on the Aran Islands. So we have cultural wealth to preserve too.
These wild bees are visitors to our gardens as much as to the hedgerow. So our gardens are their life-lines. A hive is good for honey bees but nest boxes are best for the other 100 species.
Nectar-rich plants are what draws them, but what if you are more inclined to have your garden as a vegetable patch rather than a floriferous assemblage?
What if you have an allotment? Well, there are plenty of plants that can feed the bees from within the productive garden.
Edible flowers that feed the bees include calendula, cornflowers, zinnia, viola, sunflowers, rose, primrose, nasturtium, dianthus, peony, elderflower, daylily, honeysuckle and hollyhocks.
Fruit pollinated by bees include apples, pears, quince, blueberries, plums, peaches, apricots and nectarines, strawberries, passionfruit, tomatoes, aubergines, white, black and red currants, cherries, grapes, blackberry, boysenberry and all those hybrids.
Vegetables pollinated by bees include potato, beetroot, turnip, pak choy, mustard, sprouting broccoli, cauliflower, kale and other brassicas, celery, artichoke, Jerusalem artichokes, courgette and squashes, chicory, radish, beans and peas, lovage, fennel and so on.
You may think I want my cabbages and turnips up and cooked long before they go to flower, but the company you bought this year’s seed from needs bees to fertilise next year’s stock.
Companion plants good for the vegetable garden include borage, comfrey, tagetes, clovers, yarrow, poached egg plant, daisies, lupins, Californian poppies, phacelia etc. Herbs that bees help themselves upon include angelica, chives, chervil, coriander, dill, oregano, mint, rosemary, lavender. thyme, etc
Bees are the barometer of the health of the planet and the health of your garden as micro-environment.
Having them about is one of the best things gardeners can do. Having them about is as simple as having a garden.
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