I agreed to review The Bee: A Natural History by Noah Wilson-Rich because I was curious to know more about bees. As a garden blogger who uses social media extensively I have felt bombarded in the last year or so about the demise of the bee and how we have to help them. I am of course aware that recently bees have suffered from viruses but given that the number of bees seem to be increasing in my garden and also in the ‘garden’ area outside my office at work I often feel a little perplexed by this apparent contradiction. I have also started to notice the difference between the various bees visiting my garden so I was hoping the book would help me work out who is who.
The author, Noah Wilson-Rich, as well as being a Biology academic, is the founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Best Bees Company in Boston which supplies gardeners with bee related products; profits from the business fund research into bee disease and immune function. However, despite the academic background of the author the book is very accessible.
The book starts with Evolution and Development at which point I learnt that bees evolved from carnivorous wasps and that bees evolved as a result of plants developing flowers; I had never even thought of the origin of bees before. We then go through the anatomy and biology of bees and I have to admit I got a little befuddled when the book talked about genomics, informatics and the endocrine system! Luckily the book is illustrated extensively with photographs and drawings so if like me you don’t have a scientific background you can still get an idea of what is being discussed!. The third chapter focusses on society and behaviour which is really fascinating particularly when you consider, as Wilson-Rich draws to our attention, how the evolution of the honeybee society and reproduction is contrary to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest is completely at odds with the honeybees approach of all new bees in a hive being produced by one female, the Queen. I am going to go back to read through this when I have more time as I find it intriguing.
We then trip through two chapters on Bees and Humans and Bee-keeping which I have to admit to skimming as bee-keeping isn’t of interest to me. Then we move into what was for me one of the best chapters of the book, A Directory of Bees, which looks in detail at 40 of the “world’s most remarkable bees”. These are divided into solitary, bumble, stingless and honey bees and there are some wonderful names out there such as the Sugarbag Bee, the Teddy Bear Bee and the wonderful black and spotty Domino Cuckoo Bee – all from Australia.
The book closes with a chapter looking at The Challenges Faced by Bees. I was interested to see that Wilson-Rich debunks the theory that if bees were to be wiped out humankind would only have four years. Apparently this is a comment ascribed to Einstein although there seems to be little factual evidence backing this up. Wilson-Rich argues that humankind would be able to continue albeit on a dull diet as we would eventually loose all bee-pollinated food crops and would be reliant on wind-pollinated crops such as grains. It was also interesting to learn that in China they are already hand pollinating almond trees due to bee loses. I would stress that Wilson-Rich does not argue there is no real substance to the environmental claims relating to bees but what this book does is to explain the issues in accessible language without an emotional overtone which I often feels comes across in the media at the moment. He closes the book by encouraging readers to plant bee friendly plants, to get involved in Citizen Science by recording what bees they see and lobbying. His last paragraph points us to the success story of the reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee in the UK.
I would recommend this book to anyone who has a passing interest in bees as its presentation with beautiful illustrations will encourage you to dip in and pick up more information as you do. You can also look up bees from your country and find out what food sources and habitat they require so you can be more targeted in your approach. Many of the facts are intriguing – one of my favourites is that drones do not have a father, but they do have a grandfather; now that does get the brain cells working!
This year I planted a drift of Allium sphaerocephalen along the edge of the front lawn. I had seen them growing at Cotswold Garden Flowers last summer and liked the fact that they were one of the later alliums to flower.
They have thrived in the warm and dry border and I am particularly taken with the way they open their florets from the bottom up so they look like they have pointed tops.
However, as much as I like them the bees seem to be completely obsessed with them. This evening while I was watering the pots in the front garden I noticed that the bees were spending a long time on each bloom. On getting my camera I found that the bees were so busy, and almost drunk, with the pollen that I could film them for quite some time before they moved off to the next flower.
I am fairly pleased with these pictures but I think my struggle to get the bees and flowers in focus has persuaded me that despite what some people say I really need to progress to a DSLR. As for the bees I shall be planting three times as many Allium sphaerocephales next year.
From a little research I have discovered that the common name of this plant is the round-headed leek and you can eat the bulb. It is native to Europe but there is only one wild colony in the UK, in the Avon Gorge, so unbeknownst to me I have planted a native species which is possibly why it is popular with the bees.
I have only myself to blame – I have been away too much recently; the majority of the garden has been neglected due to clearing space for the workshop; and recently the heat has reduced my energy and enthusiasm. How do I know that I haven’t had my eye on the ball? Well you only have to look at the state of the Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum) leaves above.
I had noticed something had been nibbling the leaves when I was potting up on the patio a couple of days ago. Today when I was watering I noticed that a second plant was being nibbled and then I noticed that the first plant had been almost completely defoliated.
In the recesses of my mind I knew this was caused by the Solomon’s Seal Sawfly, obvious really given the name. As I was watering I turned over the leaves on the lesser damaged plant and spotted a grey caterpillar, very tiny and thin, almost missable. So I dutifully sprayed all the stems with the hose to blast the caterpillars off. However, it occurred to me that the caterpillars would surely just crawl back. Having put the hose away I decided to investigate further and battled to the back of the border where the first defoliated plant was. The fact that I battled shows how out of control things are since I had planned to put a simple bark path round here last Spring; if I had done this I probably would have noticed the damage earlier.
Looking at the stems there were still some caterpillars and then I lifted a stem which was lying low and was horrified to see the mass of caterpillars below – it really turned my stomach!
What to do? I decided to cut both plants back to the ground and to put the stems, with caterpillars, in hot water. Then I will bag up the stems and put them out with the rubbish rather than adding to the compost bin or adding to green waste at the recycling centre.
Research says that the sawfly lays its eggs in the base of the stems in early Spring and this causes purplish brown scars on the stems which were certainly in evidence when I was chopping everything back. I will know what to look for next Spring and I will also think about spraying in early Spring but will have to consider this carefully since I am loath to use chemicals in the garden. One of the bits of advice was to encourage wildlife into the garden to eat the caterpillars. Well my garden is swarming with wildlife: birds, frogs, aphids and still I have this infestation so I don’t know what the answer is. If the plants are attacked as badly next year then I will think about removing the plants altogether which will be a huge pity as I love Solomon’s Seal.
So having spent half an hour going ‘yuk, yuk, yuk’ the caterpillars have been removed and there is a hole in the border. Hopefully I will have reduced the problem next year as apparently the larvae overwinter in the soil before laying their eggs next year and if I have removed the larvae, hopefully all of them, then this should break the cycle although of course there is nothing stopping more sawflies flying in.
I think this is a case of upcycling. I spotted the idea on a shoot of a garden in France on the recent BBC series on French Gardens and pinched it.
I am frequently coming across snail shells in the garden and I think they look much more natural than the various plastic or wooden things you can buy to stop you poking your eye out on a cane. My son isn’t so keen as he thinks it looks like the snail has been impaled on the cane but then again he doesn’t have the upset of seeing snails munching your seedlings.