I am a woman possessed. The air this week has exploded with a myriad flying insects, and with my ears tuned in for the merest suspicion of a hum or a buzz, I am darting around the garden in search of bees like a mad thing. I’m beginning to realise what a mammoth task I’ve set myself in trying to identify all the bees in the garden, there are already so many different species around and we haven’t even got to the time of year where an array of female workers and males are thrown into the mix. I think I’ve added a White-bellied or Banded mining bee (Andrena gravida), a Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) and an Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) to my list but think is the operative word here since confident identification escapes me most of the time. I’m dipping into a wealth of excellent resources such as Steven Falk’s incredible collection of photographs but even then, not everything is helpful; for instance, the fact that honeybees have hairy eyeballs is an interesting one but doesn’t move me forward since that is the one species I can already identify correctly by sight and sound every time. I’ve also discovered they are one of the most accommodating species when it comes to photos, too, as demonstrated by this week’s ‘cover girl’ enjoying the newly-opened peach blossom.
A big part of the problem is that my subjects just won’t stay still long enough for me to get a good look. I spent ages one morning gazing up into a contorted willow tree where literally hundreds of small solitary bees were dancing and darting amongst the twisted branches . . . but not one would come low enough for me to see, yet alone land and sit still for a moment. Someone was kind enough to pose on a willow branch, though, as if offering me a small-but-perfectly-formed consolation prize . . .
If the bees don’t alight, then I have no chance of attempting an accurate identification. That said, even when they do give me the opportunity to snatch a photo or a good look if the camera isn’t to hand, pinning them down to the correct species is fraught with difficulty. I watched with fascination and absorption as the little bee below worked her way systematically through a dandelion flower but at no point did she present me with a view that would allow me to say with any certainty what species she was. I mean, where on earth do I start?
I’ve decided I need to keep things simple and approach this task in the same way I would have organised things for my primary school pupils: find the right level of challenge and break it down into bite-sized pieces. By the end of the summer, I would like to feel confident in identifying all the common bumblebees in the garden along with the most numerous solitary bees and beyond that, at least be aware of the main characteristics of different bee families to help me narrow things down a bit. I also need to refer to as many resources as I can and keep an open mind in the process; for instance, I was as sure as I could be that I had been watching an Orange-legged furrow bee this week until I read that they are a late bee and don’t usually emerge this early in the year. However, throwing my research net wider to include a few French sites, I read that in France it is perfectly possible to see these bees out and about now so perhaps I wasn’t mistaken. I also need to keep observing the same species as much as I can, not just in order to be sure of my identification but also to learn about their behaviours. Having spent time watching what I thought was a Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva), I now think it is actually a Red-tailed mason bee (Osmia bicolor) which is interesting as it nests in empty snail shells and I would say that of all the gardens we’ve ever had, this has to be the one most devoid of snails. Definitely one to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
I’ve been trying to capture a snap of the feral honeybee colony in action just to give an essence of what is going on at the end of the house. Unfortunately, the view is blocked by the large aerial we inherited, totally useless as we haven’t had a television since 2012 but yet to be removed. Still, hopefully you can see the returning bees clustered under the eaves to the right of the drainpipe from where they file upwards and left to the ‘hive’ entrance, stopping only to exchange messages with the outgoing foragers in the magical waggle dances I never tire of seeing. As a swarm, they would have arrived with a young queen last year and if the number of flying bees is anything to go by, she is certainly prolific. I can only imagine the nest of hanging wax combs secreted deep within the stone walls with their beautiful radiating patterns of brood, pollen and nectar but pressing my ear against the cool tiles on the bathroom wall, I can hear the soft susurration of thousands of tiny wings, fanning to drive water off the nectar and turn it into honey. Given the amount of activity, I’m surprised we haven’t found any lost bees in the bathroom yet but I’m wondering if perhaps nature has taken its course and the bees have plugged the hole with propolis from inside their nest? One thing I am sure of is that given the strength of the colony so early in the season, they are very likely to throw a swarm, probably in May. Many beekeepers spend much time ‘managing’ hives to prevent swarms but they are a natural and advantageous part of the honeybees’ life cycle, aiding propagation and helping to prevent disease; as with so many things, nature knows what it’s doing. We’re happy to let them get on with it.
Where my bee identification is lacking, my knowledge of birds is much greater so I can say with all certainty that a fluid warbling of rapid notes means the blackcaps are back in the garden and the dark robinesque bird flicking its tail to reveal underskirts of scarlet is a redstart, returned to nest with us for another year. The swallows have also arrived, just squeaking in at the end of the month, and as ever I am overjoyed to welcome them back. No cuckoo yet but it won’t be long and I have been listening out for that first evocative call whilst catching up on a pile of garden jobs after our week away in the UK. It’s the start of the silly season with a to-do list as long as my arm, which makes me a very happy bunny: the housework will suffer serious neglect from this point on. I was relieved to find that my tender little plants had coped with my absence but are now at a point where it benefits them to spend the day in the warmth of the tunnel before returning to the house in the evening if night-time temperatures fall into single figures; it’s a tricky time of year. I’m left wondering again how I ever managed without those fat ball buckets, they make the best windowsill cloches ever and now double as handy plant carriers, although the potting bench is now so crowded there is no room for, um, potting.
Apart from the lovely wrap-around warmth, the tunnel is currently a pleasure to visit as the broad beans are in flower and their gorgeous perfume meets me at the door. I’ve noticed that something has been piercing the flowers at their base to dip into the nectaries without actually climbing inside the flowers; clever stuff, but not very helpful where pollination is concerned. Thankfully, they are partially self-pollinating but insects do contribute to a higher yield so I’m hoping there are a few willing volunteers to crawl inside and do the business.
No problems with the indoor peas; the row isn’t particularly dense but it won’t be long before we are tucking into those little green treasures.
There’s much planting to be done at this time of year, starting with potatoes and onions which for us is always a team effort as it’s a pretty big task. I realise just how
lax lazy relaxed I’ve become this season: I haven’t bothered to label the different varieties of pepper and aubergine plants and this week I decided against counting the number of potatoes going into the ground. I might be wrong, but does it really matter? I know the bulk of spuds are ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Blue Danube’ (also know as ‘Blue Sarpo’, an early maincrop potato which makes the best roasties on earth) plus a few free ‘Acoustic’ from the local country store and a handful of special Scottish gift potatoes which I’m very excited about growing. If I can recognise them as seed potatoes then I’ll know them as plants, flowers and crops so why worry about numbers or labels? We’ve opted to use the Not Garden as the main potato patch this year; we’ve worked hard at improving the soil and Roger’s hedge renovation has made a huge difference to the amount of light and air circulation so we’re hoping for a much more successful crop this year . . . and no, I won’t be tucking a layer of mulch around the emerging plants until the soil is good and wet this year, even if that means hauling lots of cans. You live and learn.
The Mandala Bed has been an exercise in experimentation right from the start and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue in the same vein. After all, if food crops fail, we have the insurance of plenty in other places and I think it’s important to keep on pushing boundaries and exploring possibilities in safeguarding our food production in the future. I’ve been planning to try some no-dig potatoes since last year, the idea being to lay down some sheets of cardboard on grass and grow them under hay; however, it occurred to me that I could grow them on the Mandala Bed without any need for cardboard, just sit the chitted potatoes on top of the mulch and cover them in a thick blanket of old hay.
In theory, they should send roots down into what is fast becoming wonderful soil, push plentiful foliage upwards and produce a mass of potatoes on the surface of the soil which can be easily harvested by lifting the hay. We’ll see. It was certainly much easier than planting in the conventional way, although I had to water the hay heavily to hold it down as high winds were forecast and I didn’t want to have to retrieve it from the other end of the garden (as happened with the rhubarb). I planted a mix of ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Blue Danube’ so that I can compare directly in terms of growth, health and yield with what comes out of the Not Garden patch. I had a handful of tiny onion sets left over so I popped them in to fill the bed section; last year, everything went in as pre-sown plants in pockets of compost but as soil is rapidly forming, I’m interested to see how direct sowings do this year. My own little garden laboratory: I love it.
I’m definitely happy with my Pea-Off Rodent experiment, those tubes of young plants haven’t looked back and not a single one has succumbed to beastie attacks. I will certainly carry on collecting cardboard tubes for next year and I think I’ll plant the sweet peas in them, too, as they hate root disturbance. I’ve planted up a couple of wigwams made from hazel poles, one in the Bonfire Circle in the potager and the other in the Mandala Bed as these are areas I’ve earmarked for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, all of which need some pollinator attention. The sweet peas hated the hot, dry weather last year and were over all too quickly but I’ve planted them in deep pockets of compost and muck as they like plenty of nourishment underneath them and hopefully it will help with moisture retention. I know they will go into a bit of a sulk now, especially as the weather forecast is for that classic April cold (yet again) but with any luck we will have a gorgeous scented show to enjoy later this year.
Fruit has been a bit of a theme this week and as I eat my way through the last few bags of frozen gooseberries, redcurrants and cherries for breakfast, I’m looking forward to some new additions to the menu this year. I really ought to be pulling a few rhubarb sticks by now but all five plants continued to grow far too much through autumn then collapsed in a pile of mush once the first hard frosts arrived. I covered them in hay to protect them from the worst of the weather and they are coming back strongly now, I just wish they’d hurry up. I made a lasagne bed against the west wall of the Oak Shed a couple of months ago and have bought two vines to plant in it this week: a white ‘Birstaler Muscat’ and a black ‘Muscat Bleu’, both table grapes with excellent reviews. The shed wall is made from galvanised tin and enjoys maximum sunshine from now on so I’m hoping the vines will luxuriate in the warmth as well as cover what is a bit of an eyesore; as metal paint is expensive and packed with unpleasant chemicals I think living camouflage is the best bet. Like the broad beans, vines are self-pollinating but benefit from extra help so I deliberately made the border wide enough to accommodate some of my beloved frivolous flowers, too. 😊 The goji berry and three honeyberries I bought as tiny bare-rooted sticks struggled with the weather last summer but have clung on and put in a tremendous surge of growth in recent weeks; the latter are now covered in creamy tubular flowers which have been visited by Red-tailed and Early bumblebees so hopefully we will have our first crop of berries in a while.
While I was mulching their bed with grass clippings, I found stems on the goji berry and one of the gooseberry bushes which had layered themselves down on the woody winter mulch and grown some wonderful roots so I’ve potted them up to make new plants. I do love a freebie! Talking of which, all six stems from a broken blackcurrant branch that I potted up a few months ago have made healthy, sturdy plants so now I need to find some spots to plant them, possibly in gaps as part of our ‘edible hedge’ project. Roger was very chuffed to be given a saskatoon bush for a birthday gift as when he lived in Canada, saskatoons were his favourite berry; given they can survive the rigours of winter in Alberta then produce a mass of delicious fruit in summer, it’s surprising they aren’t better known in more temperate climates. The first flowers are just opening in a mass of little white stars so fingers crossed for fruit to follow; we don’t normally bother netting fruit bushes as we work on the theory that if we grow enough of everything there will be plenty to share with the birds . . . but somehow, I think this special one might need a bit of protection from gourmet blackbirds.
It’s also been a lovely week for flowers as, despite the rollercoaster weather ~ t-shirts and outdoor living one day, woolly hats and stove-hugging the next ~ spring has really started to burst forth. The front of the house is looking pretty as the windowboxes of pansies and violas have filled out and the sweet-scented species narcissi and first of the tulips in pots have opened. I’m hoping for great things from the gravel garden this year and as I’ve forgotten exactly what was planted in there last year, it’s good to find a few colourful surprises popping up.
We’re so lucky to have the space and attitude that allows us to mingle the cultivated with the wild in a chaotic abundance and I find much pleasure in both. The soft pink of the peach blossom is truly beautiful but then so are the delicate white stars of blackthorn; we have swathes of (cultivated) periwinkle flowers in stunning blue but I’m just as charmed by the carpets of red deadnettle and celandines. Interestingly, although periwinkle is cited as being a great source of early nectar, I’ve yet to see a single insect feeding on the flowers which is a shame as we have masses of them. No such problems with the flowering currant which is a-buzz with foragers and the sunny dandelions are doing a roaring trade 😂 (sorry, couldn’t resist that one . . . especially as March is going out like a lion rather than the proverbial lamb!). The air smells of pollen, leaf buds are fattening and creating a soft haze in the woods, birds are nesting and my fingers are itching to sow seeds. What a special time of year it is. 😊