officially, bees need your help

There was an interesting story on BBC radio this morning about how small populations of bumblebees become inbred and then tend to suffer more from the effects of parasites. The study was carried out by researchers from Stirling University* on several Hebridean islands and the bee is the Moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum). The richness of the natural habitat  allows the island bees to remain quite healthy, but the supposition is that inbred bees in poorer habitats will suffer and  potentially die out. There is a concern that some populations of bees are becoming increasingly isolated as a result of habitat loss, and this will in turn lead to that detrimental inbreeding. There are 24 species of Bumble bees in the UK and a quarter of those need conservation help, mostly in terms of habitat preservation.

One of the most helpful things we can do as individuals is to grow old-fashioned nectar and pollen rich plants to help feed bees. Any of the old cottage garden perennials will do and seemingly many of the herbs we use in our kitchens. Chives, mint, fennel, dill, hyssop, rosemary, marjoram have all attracted clouds of bees this summer in my garden, as well as the king of all the bee plants, lavender. English lavender.

I have had a real road to Damascus moment this summer about the planting in my garden and cannot now see any reason to grow  any plant that isn’t going to be a bee bar in my small space. Gardens are hugely important nature reserves, especially in areas where intensive agriculture takes place. We can make a difference by providing plants to help these beleagured little pollinators who demand precious little of us and give so much.

Of course, for some it is already too late. The job is done for this drone, but he had his days in the sun. It would be a very sad thing for all of us if summers were devoid of “the hum of bees in immemorial elms”. And the elms are already gone. Given that it is September, perhaps you might think about tucking a few crocus bulbs into various parts of your garden or in pots. Early bumbles will thank you for it next Spring and you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are gardening for bees.

*A Stirling bumblebee project has been voted the UK’s best environment project at the National Lottery Awards 2010. Read about it here

predator, prey

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So many observations, so little time. The first of today’s highlights was a green woodpecker collecting ants from the edge of the lawn. There are signs of ant activity-little mounds of soil and bare patches, and in the mounds now there are beak marks. I used to put ant powder down-but saw the error of my ways, and  enjoy woodpeckers instead. The second highlight was watching a sparrowhawk swoop across the garden about 6 feet away from where I was planting. This attack was unrewarded, but what a fine sight.

I have been pondering  food chains in the garden for some time, since I saw the lovely parasitic wasp in my new bee hotel, to be precise. You may recall I understood how things are in balance, given half a chance, and if something is living in an area, it must be eating something and being eaten. The solitary bees are feeding on nectar and pollen and laying their eggs, and the parasitic wasps are going to be keeping the bees in check, and no doubt birds will be eating the wasps et etc. You know it goes, food webs are amazing.

So the woodpecker and ants, the sparrow hawk and sparrows or blue tits seem to have the balance pretty well sorted but I found yesterday’s discovery more uncomfortable.  On the patio, three blackbird chicks, five days old. All dead. Fallen from their nest above the patio doors in a climbing rose, the place I thought they would be safe, eight feet from the ground. And in the rose, cat hair. The nest was tipped up. Just don’t ask me to like cats, that’s all I’m going to say. Not even a little bit.

But the blue tits successfully reared their brood, all  fledging  yesterday from their south-facing nestbox, fixed on the wall just 12 feet away from the carefully camouflaged blackbird nest. And the chaffinches brought their brood to the bird table as well.

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Picture from 2008-no camera handy for yesterday’s very fast emergence.