Saturday 26 July 2008

Busy Bumblebees At Barleycorn

Everyone knows that bees and bumblebees are important for the environment, for without them, there would be no flowers, trees, shrubs, fruits and vegetables. Experts say that bumblebees are under threat because all the places they like to live are being destroyed, not to mention the frequent use of pesticides which does an inordinate amount of harm too. Meadows and fields of clover are much scarcer in today's countryside due to intensive farming methods.
We all know that wildflowers and crops depend on the endearing, humble bumblebees , so it is up to farmers and conservationists, and we keen gardeners to do what we can to help their plight, for, surely, we are all the stewards of the earth.
Unlike the honey bee - a distant cousin of the bumblebee - the humble bumble is gentle and slow, trundling around the garden collecting nectar and pollen. The streamlined honey bee, on the otherhand, dashes about all over the place.
The bumblebee is large and round and furry compared to the smaller honey bee. The male, or drone bee is the smallest, the female slightly larger and the Queen bee the largest of all.
Bumblebees are much more docile and less aggressive then honey bees so, if we want to have our flowers, fruit and vegetables pollinated, giving us excellent blossoms, we can afford to encourage a nest or two in our gardens without fear of them swarming.
There are over two hundred different types of bumblebee which live in a variety of sites such as amongst leaf litter, in an old mouse hole, under large stones or under the wooden floors of a shed. The nest is about half the size of a small grapefruit and will normally contain about six eggs.
Made of wax produced from special wax-glands on their body, the nest is a comb with a few brood-cells and is often protected inside animal fur or moss or grass. If you happen to find one when turning over the soil, just replace it and the bees will repair any damage.
The smaller bumblebees we see in our gardens all summer long are the female workers, who take over the duties of collecting the food to rear the young grubs as well as building and maintaining the nests, while the Queen devotes herself solely to laying new eggs.

The drones, which are the males, do no work in the colony, and spend their time mating with other queens from other colonies, after which they die. Once they are fertilised the queens leave the nest and begin their winter hibernation.Unlike young wasps, which are fed on caterpillars and insects , the young bumblebee grubs are fed on nectar and pollen. In the photograph below you can see bulging pollen sacs on the bumblebee's hind legs.
All the fairly large bumblebees we see in our gardens in early spring, foraging on the early crocus, anemone blanda and other spring bulbs, are the young nesting queens which have overwintered and are looking to build new nests. Nature provides their first meal from the succulent dandelion heads, which we should leave till the seed forms, thus helping the queens to survive after their long winter hibernation, and they, in turn, will repay our kindness by pollinating everything in our garden.
The Queen spins a bright yellow cocoon of silk around her first batch of pupated eggs, which emerge a few days later as adult worker bees. Unlike their cousins, the honey bees, the young queens will continue to live in the nest all summer and autumn.
Creating a nectar border in our gardens, or setting aside a little area for a wildflower meadow, or leaving clover on our lawns will encourage bumblebees to come to our garden and help their survival.
The kind of plants we choose to grow is also important. Pussy willow, winter-flowering heather, a continuation of summer-flowering annuals and perennials and honeysuckle are a few plants which will attract and supply nectar and pollen to hungry bees. All the plants in the photographs in this post are examples of species which are attractive to them.
Although bumblebees do not produce enough honey for commercial use - only a few grams at a time to feed their young - they repay us by pollinating our flowers, fruits and vegetables.
The chaenomeles japonica, or quince, which provides the opportunity to make a succulent jelly from its enormous fruits, is just one example of the benefits from the pollination of bumblebees in our gardens.
Ever since childhood, nothing pleases me more than to have the familiar hum of droning bumblebees for company on warm summer days when I am in the garden. No matter how early I rise they are always up and about, and even on cool autumn evenings, they are still hard at work.
Bumblebees are definitely one of Nature's most harmless and industrious workers, and as such, I have always felt an affinity with them for they are often my sole companions when I am in the garden before the world at large has woken up.
Whenever the wasps are around I keep alert and try not to disturb them as they can be unpredictable, whereas bumblebees rarely attack humans as they go about their business. Once they realise you do not have pollen, they fly off to the nearest flower.

Oh, what a wonderful thing to be,
A healthy grown up busy busy bee;
Whiling away all the passing hours
Pinching all the pollen from the cauliflowers.
I'd like to be a busy little bee,
Being as busy as a bee can be.
Flying around the garden brightest ever seen,
Taking back the honey to the dear old queen.
Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip's bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry,
On the bat's back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily, shall I live now,
Under the blossom under the bough.

The Bee Dance
Why hello, Mr Bee,
Can you please show me your dance?
Why hello, Mr Bee
I believe this is my chance
Why hello, Mr Bee,
Won't you please dance now with me?
Why hello, Mr Bee
How I'd like to be a bee.
We would dance through the flowers,
We would dance through the trees,
We would dance over hayfields,
We would be the bees-knees.
We would dance round the gardens,
We would dance through the trees,
We would dance over cowslips,
We would be the bees-knees.

Raspberries and strawberries are two fruits which I continue to grow at Barleycorn. With very little effort on my part, I am always amazed at the bountiful harvest each year. I know, of course, it is thanks to the pollination of the bees and bumblebees.
Bumblebees enhance the garden at Barleycorn and bring it to life, which is why I will always continue to be welcome these fascinating furry little beasties, for without them, there would be no garden at all.
There is a little video of bumblebees below. Turn up the sound for the best buzz!
Here are two sites with information on how to attract bumblebees into your garden.
List of plants
Persicaria Bistorta superba, Polygonum 'superbum', bistort
Pink Helianthemum, rock rose
Geranium Phaeum, cranesbill
Cirsium Rivulare Atropurpureum, thistle
Leucanthemum vulgare, ox eye daisies
Centaurea Montana, perennial cornflower
Papaver Orientalis, red Oriental poppy
Geranium Macrorrhizum Album, white geranium
Yellow Perennial Potentilla
Geranium Clarkeii, blue-veined white geranium
Alstromeria, Peruvian Lily (very invasive!)
Digitalis, common foxglove
Geranium Psilostemon
Allium Christophii
Geranium Magnificum
Chaenomeles Japonica
Lonicera Belgica, honeysuckle
Blue iris
Anthemis Daisies
Don't forget to watch the charming little video of bumblebees just below this post.

Busy Bumblebees At Barleycorn Video

Tuesday 1 July 2008

First Annual Poppies At Barleycorn in 2008

These are the first annual poppies to appear at Barleycorn this year. You will see where they fit into the story below.

Wild Thing, You Make My Heart Sing

Though it seems like yesterday, it was actually a little over ten years ago - a few weeks after we had adopted two ginger Toms from our local cat and dog home - that my husband shouted on me to come and see 'A Monster of a cat' sitting at our back door. He made deep sonorous miaows and asked if he could have something to eat. His inordinately, handsome face and impeccable manners - waiting patiently to be invited inside - were an instant hit with me. I mean, who could refuse such a gentleman? Certainly not was love at first sight.
After making enquiries around the village we learned he had been brought, along with five other cats, to be re-homed at a local farm. But, Mr Monster Man, as we named him, was a very frightened cat and did not take to farm life with all its strange noises. In actual fact, it took six weeks before he determined to stay with us. He would appear three times daily asking to be fed, after which he would scarper, only to re-appear the next day.
However, after much coaxing and encouragement on my part, he gradually came to trust us all enough to stay overnight...and soon he had chosen a cosy corner of the couch to curl up in. As you can see, his undercarriage had colourful patterns of silver grey, fawn and black. But, handsome or not, so bad had his life been before he came to stay with us, that it took two years of gentleness and kindness before we heard him purr.
Coupled with loud noises, it was men he was frightened of the most. Every time my husband walked within five yards of him, he was out of the back door like a shot, or under a chair if the door was closed. So, we can only guess as to the kind of bad experiences of his previous life. But, his luck had changed for the better. Our boys were delighted he had joined the Barleycorn cats. Monster made an excellent mouser...and was partial to voles and shrews as well - leaving me presents of the entrails on the doorstep. All these qualities endeared him to us all, as we had been known to have infestations of mice in the loft before we acquired our helpful moggies.
Best of all, Monster liked to climb on things. Indoors, whenever I was in the kitchen cooking or baking, he would jump up on the work surface beside me and wait patiently, hoping I would crack open an egg for him. Outside, if we had a group of friends visiting the garden, he would lead the way, and, while we stopped to chat, he would pose on the nearest log. On many an occasion, he would climb right to the top of one of our very tall trees, in the way a child might show off their latest trick...and this was in spite of tipping the scales at 8.1 kilos at one point. He came to us weighing 7.8 kilos, and, mostly, stayed at that weight.
In Winter, Monster loved to be outside exploring the different smells in the garden. He would sniff the chill air and charge around, making tracks everywhere, and sliding this way and that, as he tried to turn corners too quickly. Sometimes, much to our amusement, he would skate boldly across the frozen ponds, as if to say, 'Didn't I tell you I could walk on water?'
We all found him a fascinating character and I enjoyed making sketches of him and painting his portrait too. Mostly, these were from photographs I had taken, as he was rarely still enough, except when he slept. He found the garden a paradise and never went outwith the perimeter. Everything he wanted and needed was right here within its confines. Monster got on well with Jaffa and Baby, the ginger Toms, as the garden and the barn were large enough to support them all.
Once Monstie learned to purr there was no stopping him. Since there were four of us, each night there was a free knee to climb upon and be petted. So loud were the purrs, we often said it was like having three motorbikes in the house. It felt like bliss having a choice of cat to cuddle and stroke, and, many a Winter's evening, I enjoyed the warmth of my furry rug over my knees.
In 2005, sadly, we lost Baby when he died of diabetes and kidney failure. That was a huge shock as he seemed the youngest of our trio, though we didn't know their actual ages. After our trip to China last year, we came home to find that Jaffa had not survived an operation to help him eat, as he also had diabetes. During the three weeks we had been on holiday, Monstie had been in the cattery on his own, as Jaffa had died at the vet's a few days after we had left. We came home to a frightened Monstie, who never left my side after that.
He became my shadow and followed me everywhere. I spoiled him as he was the last survivor of the original Barleycorn cats. On the days I worked at the computer he sat on a nearby chair or curled up on the spare bed underneath his portrait, where I could lean across and stroke him. Occasionally, he sat on the chair beside me and fell asleep on my lap as I typed.
I found him great company around the house. In the garden, too, he was my constant companion. If I went for a walk, he came too. If I forgot a tool in the barn, he came with me while I fetched it. If I sat down on a bench for a rest, he curled up beside me and sang his purrbox songs. Our days seemed to begin and end together.
Early each morning, he would call on me to come through and feed him, even though there was always a little food in his dish. If I was too slow, he would scratch the door and give a loud miaow. Often, on a cold, dark Winter's morning, he would eat a little and come through for a cuddle on top of the bed, where, if I was lucky, he would settle himself and I would get another little lie-in with a Monstie cuddle and a Monstie serenade in my ear.
In the warmer weather, early in the morning, we often have our tea or coffee on the sunniest part of the patio. Monstie loved to join us there, taking his place on the chair next to mine for a spot of sunbathing. He watched the bees and the butterflies, the birds and the stray cats, come and go, while he stayed by my side.
I often fancied he was, like me, preferring the poppies best in the garden, as he was often found sitting or lying down near them. As a result I have many photos of him surrounded by poppies. He would sniff them each year when they came into bloom and brush his whiskers against them or the fur on his forehead.
Over the past few months I noticed that Monstie was gradually slowing down. He was not as able to jump up onto our laps, certainly not the kitchen worktops as he used to. He was eating slightly less than his usual diet, though nothing to concern us.
Monstie's sleeping patterns changed too. Whereas he used to have several naps, as is common in cats, he became less active, preferring to stay indoors some days rather than follow me around the garden. When we were laying the ten tons of gravel recently, he mostly slept in a sunny spot on the patio.
It wasn't that he couldn't climb up any more. It was just that he did it less often. When he slept on my lap in the evenings I noticed that his breathing was laboured at times and he seemed to be in a deeper sleep than usual. He also liked to be lifted up onto my lap as opposed to jumping up of his own free will.
All these little signs painted a picture. I realised Monstie was getting old with less energy to climb, or wander around the garden all day. On hot days he often preferred to stay indoors where it was cooler. He also didn't come running for a piece of freshly cooked chicken, which had always been his favourite.
As long as he was eating well, even though it was less than he usually ate, and was doing most of the things he normally did in his daily routine, I didn't worry too much about him. I accepted that it was probably a matter of age taking its toll.
He was far from being an invalid, as you can see from the photograph, above, for that was only taken in March this year, when he was out prowling around the garden. But all the little signs were pointers to his overall condition.
On Friday evening of last week, he complained when I carried him through to his chair where he slept each night. It was a loud miaow, followed by a hiss - something he had never done all the time we had had him. I wondered if he was objecting to being moved from his comfy position on my lap or if I had touched a part of him, that, unbeknown to me, was sore.
As Monstie was due to have his yearly injections, I decided to take him to the vet the next morning. All the way there I was steeling myself in case it was a serious matter. I must be brave and think of Monstie's best interests, I kept telling myself. I explained all the recent changes in his behaviour to the vet, who listened patiently to all my concerns. After he had completed his examination, he was able to tell us that Monstie had a heart murmur and fluid in his lungs. He commented on how Monstie lay down, almost prostrate, in order to breathe more easily. We told him that had been happening more and more recently.
We asked the vet for his advice. He said Monstie reminded him of an old man who had to stop every few steps for a breath. He could give Monstie drugs to alleviate the problem of the fluid in his lungs but he would have to keep increasing the dosage each fortnight and that the drugs might affect other organs. In other words, there was no cure for Monstie, no betterment, and there was no guarantee that Monstie would survive the treatment. He also offered us an x-ray to determine whether or not Monstie had a tumour in his thyroid, as he strongly suspected there might be. Then there was the question of whether Monstie would survive an anaesthetic.
All the vet could offer us was experimentation, with no guarantees. He was nothing if not honest. I explained I didn't want Monstie to suffer any pain. I had Monstie's best interests at heart. I felt very brave at this point. When the vet asked me what I would like to do, I looked at my husband and said I'd like to look after Monstie till the vet felt it was no longer kind to keep him alive. I expected the vet to say that that was a good idea, and that we should bring him back when we felt that things were deteriorating and that life was becoming too difficult for Monstie. But, he didn't. What he actually said was, 'That time is today...right now, this very minute.' That was when my bravery left me..and the tears flowed steadily down my cheeks. It was all suddenly happening too fast. I was going to lose my beloved Monstie. While the vet went off to get what he needed, I hugged Monstie, while my husband stroked him. All the while, I whispered calmly in his ear.
Faithful Monstie, loyal Monstie; my trusty companion these ten long years while I worked in the garden; my shadow; my Wild Thing who had allowed me to tame him; my singer of purrbox songs; ever cheerful, in a state of constant bliss; my warm furry rug on cold Winter evenings... Monstie had also been the family's pet, beloved by our two sons and my husband whose lap he had sat upon every morning while he read his paper. They were the only men he was able to trust. I put one arm around Monstie while cradling his head in my hands, all the while continuing to speak to him in gentle tones. My heart was breaking. It is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life. But any other choice would have been selfish. The vet knew better than we did, just how ill Monstie was and we had to trust him.

Back home, I dug the first part of his grave, my husband the second part. We buried him at the side of the parterre, where I grow my herbs and strawberries as Monstie always liked the smells of the various mints. That night, it was only as I lay down and tried to sleep that I suddenly realised the herb bed is immediately through the wall from our bed, and that Monstie was, in fact, right behind me - appropriately enough - just as he had always been.
Next morning I walked around the garden early. And who was there, keeping watch over Monstie's grave? Why Taz, of course, his little companion since Jaffa had died. And what had opened up at the front door of the house? The first of the annual poppies...I smiled through my tears, and thought of Where The Wild Things Are.


Ravenous tongue,
Purrbox song.
Gobble, gobble
Munch, munch!
Can he digest
All that lunch?
Yes! He Can!
He's Mr Monster Man!
Looks tragic,
But he's magic!

The little video below, taken on Mid-Summer's Day, is in memory of Monstie, as he followed me around during filming.
Even the smallest feline is a masterpiece.
Leonardo da Vinci