The sun is shining and there’s not a breath of wind but I know I need to rug up before venturing up to the garden. I can still see the frost lying thick on the ground – it must be only about two or three degrees out there.
As I wander up the hill, stomping off the frost and looking in all my layers a bit like a yeti, I gradually become aware of a deep, heavy hum in the air. It takes a while to realise that the loud vibrating buzz is the sound of thousands of bees busy foraging in the alder trees above the path. At this time of year there’s not a lot for bees to eat so I feel really pleased that we planted these alders. At the time I knew they’d be a good windbreak, but I hadn’t realised how important they would be to my bees.
Up in the vegetable garden the pickings are easy and plentiful and I return to the cabin laden down under the weight of my harvests – big bunches of winter silverbeet and leeks under one arm, a bucket of potatoes, onions and garlic in the other, a fistful of chives and my Swandri pockets stuffed to overflowing with fat, sweet brussels sprouts. I’m definitely set for dinner and probably lunch and dinner tomorrow as well, but as I unpack my loot to be trimmed and washed, I start thinking about the bees again.
If it weren’t for the alders, I don’t think they would be feeling so chipper. Before the first blooms of spring arrive there’s very little for them to forage here aside from winter roses (hellebores) and rosemary. Actually it’s the trees and shrubs, rather than garden flowers, that are probably the most important food source for bees at this time of year.
Kowhai, kaka beak, New Zealand tree fuchsia, karamu, five-finger, wineberry, grevillea, aloe and kniphofia (red hot poker) are all species that flower either through the winter or in the early spring, providing bees with nectar and, importantly, the pollen they need for protein. Planting these species in our backyards and public spaces can help support bees during the months when there is little else for them.
As we step into spring, one of the best things to keep bees happy is to start planting bee-friendly seeds and seedlings. I’ve recently launched a range of seeds in association with Tui, and when I was deciding which combos to include I was determined to create a pack specifically designed to draw bees into the garden. You can buy my Delicious Gardens seed range from my online store.
For my Bee Friendly seed packets I chose boarage, sage, purple tansy and queen anne’s lace seeds, but you could also plant small clumps of phacelia, lady’s mantle, forget-me-nots and other flowering species to provide food for the bees throughout the spring and summer.
During the drier months it's also a good idea to provide your neighbourhood bees with a source of clean water in your garden. A bird bath or pond is ideal.
As we all know, bees are in a lot of trouble these days. Their rapidly declining populations have started to prompt some major high-level initiatives in both the USA and Europe. Earlier this year President Obama called for a Federal Strategy on Pollinator Security to protect honeybees, native bees and other pollinators such as the monarch butterfly. Bees and other pollinators are behind more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year and are of vital importance to keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets.
There have been lots of theories bandied around regarding the decline of honeybees and other pollinators, including loss of habitat, varroa mites and other pathogen infections, as well as colony collapse disorder (CCD), in which bees abandon their hives over the winter and eventually die. This started appearing in 2005 and 2006 and since then scientists have been trying to identify and eradicate the responsible cause(s) of CCD. One of the causes being investigated is overuse of chemicals, so I always try to choose natural alternatives that will keep my garden and bees happy and healthy.