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!



Butt – its a competition

A couple of weeks ago I promoted a survey being carried out by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust to see how we use our  water butts and to encourage people to use WTthem more effectively.

I have two water butts and I wish I had more since I never have enough water when it is hot and dry and I know that I could collect far more if I could squeeze in more butts.  My problem is that both the downpipes from my roof are on the corner of the house between the side path and windows so there is only room in each place for one butt.  However, I am wondering about getting a couple more butts and putting them in other locations to collect rain water in the garden and this would also save me having to lug the watering can up the garden, which can be hard work given the slope.  My only concern with doing this is that the butts would have to be left uncovered and this means that they are more likely to attract insects laying eggs in them etc.  Also one of my few memories of my grandfather’s house  when I was quite small was of his retriever puppy getting into the open water butt and nearly drowning which was very upsetting at the time.  I will have to ponder it further.

Anyway, the WWT, as part of its month long Festival of Gardening for Wildlife, has come up with a competition to encourage people to think about using water butts better.  So, as part of the campaign, WWT are offering hundreds of pounds worth of gardening vouchers in a competition looking for a) the ‘Best worked butt’ in the UK, which will be judged on a photo (or video) and no more than 50 words and b) those in the ‘I want a great butt’ category pledges from those inspired to install one. There will be £250 gardening vouchers up for grabs for each of the two categories, courtesy of NFU Mutual, sponsors of WWT’s Festival of Gardening.  The competition doesn’t open until the 21st March but you could start preparing your entry now.


The competition will open on 21 March and close on 30 June.

Entrants should email with their name, address and contact telephone number, then complete in 50 words or less, either the sentence “I work my butt well by….” or “If I had one, I would work my butt by…” Entrants should also send supporting photos (of no more than 1mb) showing them and their water butt (or the water collected in it) in action. Alternatively, entrants can enter by uploading a video of them and their water butt in action, and us sending us the link via

Visit for full details of WWT’s Festival of Gardening ‘Work Your Butt’ campaign and the competition. You can also find more useful advice about how to work your butt to the best of its ability.





To tidy up or not?

Phormium - slightly flattened by  snow
Phormium - slightly flattened by snow

Having spent quite a few hours in the garden this weekend tidying up after nearly a month of bad weather I found myself smiling at Victoria’s post about her winter garden.  In particular it was her confession of being a neatnik that amused me.  Not only is it a peculiar expression but it connected with my musings whilst collecting leaves and cutting back collapsed perennials.

There has been much over the last year, if not longer, in the gardening media including blogs about a change of attitude towards the autumn tidy up of the garden.  Those with a focus on wildlife and an organic approach to gardening have been advocating that gardeners should be less fastidious in their gardens.  Not only should we leave seed heads for the birds but it is better to leave leaf litter on the borders so that wildlife can hide and keep warm under it.  The recently departed editor of the RHS The Garden, Ian Hodgson, in his welcome to the December 2010 edition, admits to a less tidy approach to his winter garden given a “realisation that all the detritus has a purpose in providing homes for wildlife, particularly overwintering insects.”

So as I was heaping piles of leaves into my trug there was a niggel at the back of my mind that maybe I shouldn’t be expending so much effort on the big tidy up.  However, as I pondered and plucked fallen sodden leaves from amongst the perennials I came across slug after slug.  Not the big ones but the little  black ones which in my opinion do the most harm.  My cutting back was not as comprehensive as in past years, this year I have left lots of seedheads for the birds.  This change has come about from watching birds attack the Agastache seedheads during the snow last year. But I cannot bring myself to leave the borders covered in leaves.  As far as I am concerned leaving leaf litter in my borders is just providing a haven for those annoying slugs to hide and wait for the young  new shoots to appear – my perennials  and bulbs won’t stand a chance.

Not only this but I suspect there is a degree of neatnik in me.  I find it more uplifting to look at the garden and see neat borders with  the hint of fresh green shoots appearing than to look out  at a sodden decaying brown mess. I find winter hard to get through so anything that lifts my soul is important to me.

Buds of Christmas Rose appearing from under the leaf litter
Buds of Christmas Rose appearing from under the leaf litter

My conclusion was that, like so many things in life, if you choose to pay attention to the things you read or see in the media then you shouldn’t feel obliged to follow it religiously. Instead it is a case of finding an approach  that works for you, following your instincts.  My  approach to the tidy up is to lessen my fastidiousness.  The leaves have been collected from the border where the perennials and bulb are but not from under the trees, shrubs and hedges.  They have been racked from the lawn but not collected from the wood chip paths (after all that is quite  a hard thing to do!).  The  collected leaves have been piled up under the hedges and at the back of the garden.

After all I don’t mind providing somewhere for wildlife to hide out during the winter but if they are going to munch on my young plants they can at least make the effort to get to the young plants instead of lying in waiting!!

birds dismantling wildlife pond

Its all very well having a wildlife pond but when the birds start dimantling it you wonder why you bothered! When I build the pond about 3 years ago I covered the liner edge with turf as per Alan Titchmarsh’s instructions in How to be a Gardener.  This hasnt worked as the grass grew into the pond and I have had a constant battle with it pulling out clumps.  I cant get the mower to it either.  Last year the Magpies decided that the edge of the pond which was quite muddy was an excellent source of mud of their nests.  I ended up with bare patches with the liner showing through.  This spring the Blackbirds have joined in!!  Whilst I am happy to be assisting the birds with their nest building I am struggling to come up with alternatives for edging the pond.     On a plus side though, I noticed two clumps of frogspawn this morning.  Hopefully this year they will do better – last year they got hit by a late cold snap and were killed.

Have given up on trying to garden today due to the strong winds and rain.  Spent an hour in the greenhouse picking our some Heucheras.  The seedlings are so tiny they make you go cross eyed.  Sowed some more flower seeds from the CGS and also some Tomato Red Cherry (free this week with AGM).  Not much has germinated yet – although this blog is entitled the Patient Gardener it is not my normal state of mind more something I aspire to!!

Favourite plant at the moment is a gorgeous Camillia – I have no idea what variety.  I rescued it from a nursery that was closing down a few year ago and it is really looking good now.