I’m not a scientific type, tending to accept that the planet turns, that day follows night and summer hopefully will be round after spring. Understanding how all these phenomena happen isn’t my thing. However, as a young lad in 1985 when I trotted off to college in the National Botanic Gardens to learn about how plants grow, how to look after them and how to design gardens using them, I was disappointed that so much time was given over to how to kill things.
I know there are many predators in the natural world and lots of creatures want our cabbage before we get to enjoy it, but for the life of me I couldn’t understand the obsession with chemicals in gardening. I decided I didn’t want to burn off things, drown things, or annihilate them through closing their breathing pores. Live and let live, I say.
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What is worrying is the tidal wave of reports and opinion which suggest that the bee population is declining worldwide. I know enough to realise there’s a balance that needs to be struck with how we live with nature.
We must look after the bees – and we’re not. A week ago I sat in a lecture hall in Dublin and listened while a soft fruit grower explained a new issue he was dealing with. Pollen is being left on fruit such as raspberries, causing discolouring to the fruit as it’s about to be delivered to shops for sale. And it’s being left on the fruit because it seems there aren’t enough bees to collect it. So where are they? There are many theories.
The European Commission voted a few years ago to restrict the use of neonicotinoids. These insecticides are poisons which work by damaging the nervous systems of insects and are applied to crops such as wheat and corn to prevent insect damage. There is a debate about whether and how this is affecting bees but many scientists believe these poisons are responsible for colony collapse disorder, whereby exposure to this insecticide damages the bee’s ability to gather pollen and return to the hive and reproduce.
Farmers have to protect their crops from harmful pests but they also need the bees to pollinate their crops. From now on, they may only use them on winter cereals and crops that bees are not attracted to.
As gardeners, we are on the front line. We make individual decisions about the use or otherwise of chemicals. I’m prepared to go along with logic: if those in the white coats tell me it’s not a good idea to fill our vegetation and our soils with poisons, it seems simple to me – let’s not use them. Gardeners can also do their bit by choosing plants that are rich in nectar, that the bees will like.
So, what are bee-friendly plants? Ideally, our gardens should provide them with flowers from February to November. So early spring bulbs such as crocus, chionodoxa, grape hyacinth and snowdrops will provide the first pollen. They love native wild flowers such as poppies, loosestrife, willowherb, teasel, valerian and meadowsweet. And many of our favourite annuals taste sweet to the honeybees – nigella, sunflowers, poached egg plant, zinnias, forget-me-not, cosmos, Californian poppies and candytuft. Plant in clumps rather than individually scattered.
Keep the border going with sedums, asters and anemones through to early autumn. The delicious smells of rosemary, mint, marjoram, sage and thymus will brighten up our cooking and help honey production at the hives.
And don’t forget trees and shrubs. Bees will be attracted to many of our favourite trees such as the fruit trees – apple, pears, plums and cherries – as well as the horse chestnut, hawthorns, sorbus, the Indian bean tree, the Judas tree and the strawberry tree. Include shrubs such as box, weigela, orange ball buddleia, rock rose, barberry, ceanothus, roses, ribes, heathers and lavender. All those plants add up to a most glorious sounding garden, for us and the bees.
The herbaceous border in summer will hum with the sound of bees if you plant scabious, verbena, nepeta, hardy geraniums, single-flowered dahlias, golden rod and gypsophilia.
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