Book Review: The Bee


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!



A Bee’s Delight


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.

Solomon’s seal sawfly – yuk!


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.


Snails have a use after all


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.


Final Postcard from Cornwall: Wild flowers and pasties


The thing that struck me more than anything during our week in Cornwall was the wildflowers.  Anyone who has holidayed in Cornwall will know all about the narrow windy roads with high verges.  I have often holidayed in this area in July or August and the verges have been grassy with a few flowers.  However, maybe because we were away much earlier than usual and also possibly because of the late Spring, the verges were positively groaning with wild flowers.

I have no photographs to demonstrate this as I was driving but the photograph above was taken by the car park outside Portscatho and this gives you a glimpse of what the verges were like.  We say bluebells, campion, foxgloves, various ferns, cow parsley, another unknown umbellifer which had angelica overtones, nettles and goodness knows what else.  There has been quite a bit in the news recently about local councils cutting verges destroying habitats in particular Plantlife has criticised councils for cutting verges too often.  We did see some verge cutting in Cornwall  but this was around junctions in the towns; the countryside verges seemed very much left to their own devices.


Even my sons commented on the meadows on the headland above Porthcurnick Beach, managed by the National Trust.  I do hope  that other councils will take note of the work, or lack of it, carried out by the  Cornwall councils.  After all in simple economic terms if they reduced the amount of verge cutting they would save signficant amounts of funds.


Oh and in case you are wondering about Portscatho and why we had visited it, the photograph above demonstrates what a charming fishing village it is.  Also I had read somewhere on the internet about The Hidden Hut at Porthcurnick Beach.  Apparently it was on a recent television programme about Cornwall and had good reviews.  The Hut is located about a 10 minute  walk from the car park and is a complete gem.


It has a simple lunchtime  menu of focaccia rolls, cooked fresh on site, with various fillings or steak pasties. They also did some hot dishes such as chowders but we opted for pasties and I have to say  it was the best pasty I had all week. They also do evening meals on special  nights and we spotted large paella pans and a BBQ.  It was such a clever and simple concept and delivered incredibly well. Even on a midweek lunchtime outside of the school holidays it was busy and I am sure that they will continue to go from strength to strength.

There can’t be much better than sitting eating a Cornish pasty overlooking the sea on a beautiful sunny day and I  think it will be one of the lasting memories of my holiday.


View from my favourite step

View from my favourite step


This is written in response to the latest prompt from the Grow Write Guild – the theme is what your garden sounds like. If you click on the link on the bird names you will hear what I hear.

For me the optimum gardening time is early evening when everyone else is busy with dinner, going out whatever.  At this time it seems I have the neighbourhood to myself – no lawnmowers, no strimmers, no children playing.

I sit quietly on the bottom step, my favourite place and listen.

The air is dominated by the strident high-pitched whistling song of the blackbird.  He warbles in a variety of notes and if you listen very carefully you can hear another blackbird answering him.  Such a hard sound to describe but its one I love and could listen to all evening.

Behind it is the softer trill of robins, we are visited by at least two on a daily basis and they have such sweet voices.  Gentle and reassuring not as demanding and strident as the blackbird.  Between them the air is full of sound.  If you close your eyes and relax it is almost deafening.

But now there is another sound, this time a man-made one, the soft but persistent drone of a car travelling along the nearby road on its way up the hills.  It is muffled and pushed to the background by the birds – nature winning out over man.

The blackbird and robin are occasionally joined by other birds I can’t recognise possibly thrush, starling, blue and great tit – all visit the garden regularly.  The one I do recognise is the dull coo of the wood pigeon accompanied by its clumsy flapping around the large prunus tree I sit under.  For me this is a sound I associated with an evening in the garden – soft, repetitive and familiar, almost hypnotic.

Other sounds sometimes pierce the bird song – the slam of a car door, the bark of a dog, the squawk of my near neighbours chicken and sometimes the call of a cuckoo but the birds always win.

This is my favourite soundtrack to the garden, its personal, private and very special.


My Garden This Weekend – 7th April 2013



I think it is safe to say, if my aching muscles are anything to go by, that I have had a good gardening weekend at last.  Though to be honest it has taken a lot of determination not to just give up.  Whilst the weather has been demoralising at times the reason for my despair has been the badger.  I have blogged about the badger throughout the last winter and tried to be light-hearted about it calling it the ‘tulip craved badger’ but if I am honest it has driven me to even consider throwing in the towel and moving.  People under-estimate how strong and destructive badgers can be, they are also very determined.  I have tried very hard to live and let live but when you go morning after morning to discover another collection of deep holes with bulbs chewed and scattered, and not just tulips, and other surrounding plants damaged and dug up with their roots nicely frosted it takes a better person than me to shrug their shoulders.  I decided last week that I would dig up the remaining tulips, a dozen left from over 60 planted over the last two years, in order to try to protect the other plants in the border.  Then on Thursday the boys told me there were two badgers in the garden, not one.  This was a badger too far – two would soon lead to three, then four and then, well it doesn’t bear thinking about.  I spent the evening doing more research and found a helpful  document on the Badger Society website.  They advised that it was not the best idea to put food out for badgers in order to detract them from your plants as all you would end up with is more badgers – this was contrary to advice I had received via social media.  They advised removing bird food and wind falls before dark so there is no point in the badgers coming in the garden.  They also advised in using paving slabs along the bottom of fences sunk into the soil to try to prevent the badgers coming under the fence.  Being at the end of my tether I decided it was all or nothing. So, the bird feeders have been removed and the tulips dug up.  My sons have sunk some paving slabs along the fence line (our  neighbour who is next on the badger’s route had done the same last week and thought it was successful).  So far the badgers haven’t been back.  I feel bad about the birds and I miss them but the surrounding gardens are full of bird feeders and the alternative was to just give up on my hobby.  Fingers crossed we might have made progress.  Maybe one day the bird feeder will come back.

Meconopsis reappearing

Meconopsis reappearing

Feeling a little more positive and trying to convince myself that any work in the garden won’t be trashed I have been very busy working my way through the ridiculous list of jobs that need doing.  First I moved an Abelia from the front garden and planted it by the new steps, where it will screen the fence.  I’ve started moving the plants where the workshop is going to go with a large iris being the first to pack its bags.  It wasn’t very happy  in its old home so I am hoping that moving it to the sunny side of the steps will cheer it up, within 24 hours it looked a more perky.

I have also potted up some succulents as I have a notion to enter them into the Open Garden section at the Malvern Spring show, something some gardening friends have been encouraging me to do.  I got enthusiastic about alpines and other potted plants I think as a direct result of my inability to control the damage the badger was doing but it is definitely a good  development and I have met some great people.

Pulmonaria 'Sissinghurst White'

Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst White’

The rest of my gardening time I have spent working through the border along the top of the wall (below), removing the debris of the tulips, filling holes, cutting back frosted shoots and planting out delphiniums, evening primrose, verbascum, francoa, forget-me-nots and geraniums.  These plants were all grown last year and have been taking up room on the patio and in the cold frames and they needed to be moved on and planted out.  I have struggled  with this mentally as I will be digging up the lawn soon so the front edge of the border will then be the middle of the border.  However, if I waited until I dug the new border I would never get the plants in the ground and it would all just grind to a halt so I have decided to do all my garden tidying jobs etc and then do the new border.  At least these way I might have some nice borders in early summer – fingers crossed.

2013_04070027There seems to be a lot of bare earth but all those little glimpses of green, grey and red are shoots emerging and pushing through the soil.  The hose is out as the ground is quite dry and given the number of plants I have planted I decided this was an easier approach than watering cans.

Working through the border was the best thing I could have done today as I kept spotting new shoots emerging and old friends reappearing.  My Meconopsis has reappeared which is fabulous as I wasn’t sure if it was a monocarpic variety or not, fingers crossed it will flower for a second year.  Various plants are appearing in the woodland border and I can start to see what I need to move to make the woodland path work but that is for later in the year.


Plus my tin bath of tulip bulbs is looking good and has escaped the attention of the badger.  I crammed it with reduced bulbs bought at the end of the bulb buying season so it should be garish, bright and jolly.  I have also really tidied the patio and put out the little table and chairs so there is now somewhere nice to sit with a cuppa – its only taken five years.

As I have said before I feel that I neglected the garden for two years while I was playing at growing veg at the allotment.  All I see at the moment is the jobs that need doing to try to bring it back to scratch but as many gardener will tell you we are our own worst critics.  The trouble is I am juggling jobs to bring the garden back to how I want it plus the new projects plus the annual seed sowing etc!!  However the weather forecast is looking promising and I think with slightly warmer temperatures I will be able to do a little bit of gardening in the evenings and to be honest if something doesn’t get done it won’t be the end of the world there is always next year – for that is the beauty of gardening as a hobby.