Posts Tagged ‘bees’

Feeding Our Pollinators

Sometimes I write a post that is a thinly disguised excuse for posting a bunch of pictures of flowers. However, it isn’t frivolous because flowers really matter. One of my gardening goals this year is to keep a fairly steady supply of flowers going for the pollinators and notice which ones they visit the most.

Starting in early spring, the Japanese plum trees were heavily visited. The next thing that bloomed was the black locust tree, and it was absolutely mobbed with bees. I could sit under the tree and listen to the loud hum.

Next, wisteria, which seemed to be especially attractive to bumblebees.

Turkish Rocket  proved to be a fair bee plant.

The olive-leaved sylvetta arugula is exceptionally attractive to pollinators of all kinds. It’s reliably perennial in my garden and can tolerate any amount of neglect.

The most wildly attractive of all my nectary plants are the poppies. Lavish Shirley poppies, unimproved cornfield poppies, breadseed poppies, Oriental poppies, the bees adore them all. They would be worth a lot of trouble to have, but they aren’t any trouble.

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This year I planted patches of bee’s friend, Phacelia tanacetifolia, which is supposed to be the best nectary plant going.  In my garden it bloomed at the same time as the poppies and is being somewhat ignored in the poppy frenzy, but bees do visit it and I enjoy having it around, so I will certainly plant some more next year.

Ornamental and edible alliums that are allowed to flower are a hit with honeybees.

I plant alfalfa all over the place and always let some flower, and my common yard hollyhocks are visited frequently by bees.  There are many unspectacular flowers that the bees like just fine. I  grew a lot of arugula around my yard and let it go to flower so that it will see that self, and the bees like the small nondescript flowers.  If you grow vegetables in the mustard family and don’t get around to eating them all, you can always let one or two go to seed and the bees will enjoy them. Edible weeds dandelion and sow thistle are liked by bees, making them nice  to have around on two counts.

Just don’t spray. Please don’t spray.

A Quickie on Pollination

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There can’t be anybody left who doesn’t know about our pollinator crisis. I was saddened recently when an experienced beekeeper who is profoundly attentive to her bees told me that she lost a third of her hives over the last year. It can’t be overstated that our friend over millennia, Apis mellifera, is in deep trouble and therefore so are we.

This makes our remaining pollinators even more important. Everyone recognizes bumblebees and knows that they are active pollinators,  and in my area most people recognize the coal black stylish looking carpenter bee.  Unfortunately, they recognize it because they think it is a danger to their houses and tend to reach for spray the minute they see it.  Carpenter bees are active pollinators and adapted to our area and spraying them is a really, really bad idea under most circumstances, but when I did a search on them to find a photograph, I was horrified to find that almost all  the hits that I found were about exterminating them and advised application of “residual pesticides,” i.e. pesticides that leave residues which kill for a long time after they are sprayed.  This is sick stuff, in my view, especially since it kills large numbers of other species.  On the other hand, I own a house with exposed wood beams and don’t want my house bored into any more than anybody else does.  I have repeatedly noticed that the carpenter bees like cottonwood, and have decided to keep a pile of cottonwood logs and branches where the bees can burrow around at peace.  I read that they also will not attack painted wood. Clearly, I will be watching my beams closely for signs of invasion, and if I see carpenter bee activity I will consult an entomologist (not an exterminator, since they have a business interest in selling me their poisonous services) about what to do. But so far that hasn’t happened. And I guess that’s my real point: the mere sight of something that might potentially be harmful but that is minding its own business at the moment is not a reason to get reactive and act harmfully. The mindset of permaculture and homesteading is to avoid making a hazard out of something that isn’t.  This point is rather neatly illustrated below:

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Help our bees. All of them.

Pollinator Independence

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When I think about our country’s independence, I think about personal independence and how important food supply is to that. In maintaining a steady home food supply, one of the things you need is a steady supply of feed for your pollinators. I have been paying a lot of attention to trying to have a steady supply of nectary plants throughout the summer, and in our hot desert summer that can be difficult. Currently, the poppies are pretty much finished blooming, and I find that cardoons and artichokes are extraordinarily attractive to bees when allowed to flower.  I have a number of cardoon plants that grow beautifully in our hot summer and alkaline soil but have not turned out to be much good for eating; one day soon I will post on that depressing topic.  But the plants more than earn their keep by feeding my bees in fiery July.

Keep the pollinators in your thoughts when you do any yard planning and planting. Remember that they are extremely sensitive to sprays, and in my opinion there is not a good justification for a home gardener to use insecticide sprays in the garden.  Look around your neighborhood in July and August and see what is blooming or ready to bloom, and think about providing some of it for the bees and wasps.  Right now cardoons are front and center in my garden, cutting celery that I allowed to bloom is drawing beneficial tiny predatory wasps in large numbers, and sunflowers are just starting.  I planted a few cannas this year in order to do kitchen experiments with the bulbs in the fall, and as long as they are kept well mulched and given some water they sail through the heat, and those flowers also seem attractive to bees.

Bless our bees, because oh, how we need them.

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The Bee Banquet

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Surely everyone knows by now about the bee/pollinator crisis, and all I plan to mention here is that we gardeners can do a bit to maintain the bees that we have left. If you want your fruit trees and squash to bear, then bees are a personal issue for you, and the best things that you can do for them are garden without any insecticide sprays (the drift from which can spread a long way and is very toxic to bees) and feed them. This year I’ve managed to keep a succession of plants blooming that are attractive to bees, but by far their favorite is the common Shirley poppy, available in nearly every seed catalog. While the weather is still cold, scatter the fine tiny seed around in spots where the poppies can get big and bushy in midsummer, keep the area watered and weeded, and let them do their effulgently gorgeous thing. I scatter the seeds around my tomato bed in late winter, they hog the bed in June, and then can be pulled out after blooming to give the tomatoes breathing room. Every morning they lift my spirits twice: first when I catch sight of them and again when I get closer and hear the continual hum of bees working. I am thinking of getting a beehive so that the third thrill can occur when I see them filling combs.
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I should add that the leaves of Papaver rhoeas are edible in cooked greens mixtures, but they are no great shakes, so think of this plant as food for the bees, not you.

Sudden changes of plan


In urban homesteading as in the rest of life, it’s never possible to know what the future holds. In early July as I was planning and starting my fall/winter garden, my very beloved husky was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and a short life expectancy. Thanks to the care of a wonderful canine oncologist he is free of pain and enjoying his last weeks, but it rapidly became clear to me that the fall garden was not going to be a priority after all, both because of his care needs and because I want to spend all the time that I can with him. Weeding, planting, and the constant ongoing care that a garden needs came to a sudden halt.
So, what to do about the garden? I was soon able to identify the vegetables that flourish on neglect. Corn did well, and we gorged on fresh sweet corn regularly, although the last planting was too young to take the neglect and so our corn season ended early. Sweet potatoes have been unstoppable. Swiss chard has done well, and the winter squash is out to eat the world. We have a problem with borers in our area, so this year I limited myself to squash of the C. moschata variety, which are rumored to be resistant to them. The vines are producing well and not a single one has shown that sudden disheartening wilting that heralds the squash borer. My enthusiasm for edible weeds really paid off, as we ate greens dishes full of lambs-quarters, mallow, amaranth, and purslane. I always let some of my spring crop of arugula go to seed, and a self-sown fall crop is coming up to supply our salad bowl. Self-sown chicory is showing up here and there. Dandelions have grown a foot across, and are too bitter to eat now but after a few frosts they’ll be perfect for braising. Mallow enjoys heat and neglect and even offers pretty purple flowers if you grow the Malva sylvestris type. The wild-type daylilies are spreading happily and will supply spring shoots. Peruvian purple potatoes are healthy and strong. They form tubers late, but in a couple of months we expect to be eating a lot of them. Cherry and paste tomatoes are winding their way through the general melee and producing a surprising number of tomatoes.
At the time that my dog was diagnosed there were hundreds of wild sunflower seedlings all around the property, and I decided to let them grow unmolested, thinking that they would eventually supply green matter for mulch and would keep worse weeds from taking over. We now have a sunflower forest twelve feet high on two sides of the house, and the beauty of the flowers lights up the days. They also attract thousands of bees to the open flowers, and the ripening seeds have drawn hundreds of goldfinches to my yard. Hummingbirds strafe each other over my head, and my husky spends his good days wandering in his own private jungle.
To me the spirit of urban homesteading is one of making do as best we can despite uncontrollable circumstances. It’s a spirit that sets priorities and says “First things first.” My priorities right now are clear, and there are more important things then a carefully planned winter garden. To feed the bees and birds and to find my life unexpectedly full of bright color, flashing movement, wild life,and even good homegrown food although not the food that I had planned on is a gift that I hope I won’t forget.