Creating a buzz just Bee Cause

Friends of the Earth are hoping to create a bit of a buzz with their Bee Cause campaign.  I attended a launch event in Northampton today – the aims of the campaign are to get those in power – specifically David Cameron, to acknowledge that the government needs to adopt and implement a bee action plan.  The launch event included a couple of talks about pollinators and their habitats.

Why are bees important?  Just to clear up a misconception, it is not just bees that are important it is all of natures pollinators – insects, animals and birds – even some lizards are important pollinators elsewhere in the world.  Across the world 87% of the estimated 308,000 plant species are pollinated by insects and other fauna.

There has been a lot of coverage about the collapse of honey bee populations across the world and lots of speculation about the reasons.  However, this is not a new phenomenon and since the 1800s the UK has lost 23 species of bee and 18 species of butterflies.  More recently there has been a 75% decline in moths since the 1970s and a 25% decline in hoverflies since the 1980s.  So, it would appear that the recent problems with honey bees are only the latest in a long line of declines.  Whilst there are lots of reasons for this, the overriding issue has to be loss of suitable habitat caused by urban expansion and the intensification of agriculture and removal of woodlands and hedgerows.  Indeed Northamptonshire holds the dubious distinction of having lost more species of wildflowers than any other county.  Not something to be proud of.

So, the Bee Cause campaign aims to raise awareness of this problem and get people taking action.  I’ll be writing some more posts outlining what you can do to help our pollinators in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, if you are interested in getting involved in the campaign there is a lot of information on the FoE website.  Alternatively, if you are in the Daventry area and would like to help, give me a shout and we can work together to make Daventry a bee-friendly place.

Garden Produce

This year I have tried to be more organised with regard to my productive garden (as well as my flower garden).  I even tried to think about succession planting for once – I know that anyone with an interest in growing their own should do this as a matter of course, but I am not the most organised person and I leave the planning for my day job (or so I tell myself).

This year’s master plan was to sow some dwarf broad beans (var. Sutton) early in the year and hope to harvest them in June.  The idea being that this would then make room for my French beans in the small bed at the bottom of the garden.  I started them off in February and planted them out at the end of March.  They grew quite well (some in the bed, some in a tub) and flowered a lot – as shown in the photo.  However, the beans themselves seemed to take an age to grow – I harvested some in the middle of the month, but these were in the tub which still remains empty in the vain hope that I can get a courgette to grow and get a late crop; and the bed remained quite full – see picture below.  I finally pulled the rest out last weekend – they were taking over and all of the salad leaves I had planted had gone quite leggy and had mainly been eaten during the damp weather.  I planted out some more French beans as I think the prolific foliage of the broad beans had held some of them back, but I had already planted out my aubergines (new for this year for me), tomatoes and courgettes.  Therefore,  other than the aforementioned beans and some very healthy-looking (i.e. not yet ready to harvest) garlic, I think that it will be some more salad crops for the next month or two in this bed.  The sad thing is that the crop of beans was nothing to shout about – there were on average 3 beans per pod and about 4-8 pods per plant – hardly an abundance.  I have decided to give broad beans a miss next year.

As you can see from the photo of the bed at the bottom of the garden, my mizuna bolted in the warm May sun (as did the rocket), but I got several salads out of them before I pulled them up.  I am not sure if pulling the mizuna up was a cunning plan as it was growing quite well, but was getting leggy.  I have some more in pots amongst the tomatoes and courgettes, and some in modules waiting to replace them, so, for the first year ever I think I have had a modicum of success in the realm of salad leaves.  I know they are supposed to be easy to grow, but I always seem to kill them off – usually by forgetting to water them.

On the positive side the soft fruits are having a better year this year.  Due to some mis-timed pruning last year we had zero blackcurrants – a fact that James is eternally ashamed of.  However, he resisted the temptation to get the secateurs out this year and we were rewarded with about a pound of currants harvested a couple of weeks ago.  This is also the second year that we have had the gooseberry (var. Invicta) in the front garden and it is the second year that it appears to have avoided the attentions of sawfly.  It seems to enjoy the extra sun and warmth of the front of the house, the crop this year (again harvested a couple of weeks ago) was about 3lb – about three times larger than last year.  Not bad considering that when it was in the back garden we never got more than 6 berries!



A cold day at Ryton Organic Gardens

I rarely visit Ryton gardens at this time of year because, well, to be frank, it is even less exciting than my own garden and much colder.  However, I felt the need to go out with my camera and so I called in on my way home.

I have to admit, the drab and dreary weather (it started to rain whilst I was there) did not lessen the dull feel of the gardens, but, here or there were some hidden gems that made me think that underneath the mud and general brown tinge there was a whole host of life just waiting to get out.

There were quite a few hellebores there, but many did not look their best – not sure if it was the early morning frost or if they just needed some TLC – however, not far away were some bright points of blue – I think they are scilla – there were not enough to cover the ground, but they still grabbed my attention.

Whilst I didn’t see much in the way of edibles, the trees in the orchard were full of big, fat buds, and underneath they were planted with iris or daffodils.  The daffodils were just showing some colour, in a couple of weeks they will be amazing.

One thing that I did notice was the amount of bird life there.  They have put bird feeders in every garden.  I am not sure if they have always done this, but there are never any out in the Summer.  As a result, with every step, there was a flurry of activity as a chaffinch or blackbird or unidentifiable small bird zoomed off into the safety of the hedges.  The lack of visitors at this time of year, and the mist and drizzle lent an air of tranquility to the place.  The cacophony of bird song just added to this feeling.  One bird that I used to hear a lot more around Daventry, before they built even more houses, was the yellowhammer, so I was very surprised that to find it in the middle of the gardens.  I think it was just getting its voice back after the Winter, the song was almost there, but the characteristic wheeze at the end was much shortened.

I always like the sensory garden at Ryton – whatever the time of year they always have something flowering, and this weekend was no exception – look at the little cyclamen that I found.  I have planted corms several times in the garden, but whilst I seem to have one or two that will throw up some leaves, I never seem to get any flowers.  (However, my anenome blanda – all of which seem to be blue – have just started to come into flower.)


My biggest surprise of the day also came in the sensory garden – my first bumblebee of the year, foraging on some heather.  This will be a queen going out to gather food before the first of the brood start to hatch.  It just shows the importance of having some early flowering plants in the garden – mahonia and some early flowering honeysuckles are also good for the early bees.  Sorry for the poor quality picture though – I was taken a bit by surprise and she didn’t stay around for long!


Garden Tidy Up

I struggle with motivation to go out and do anything in the garden in January – it seems to be dark almost continuously and (this year excepted) raining.  However, as February arrives there is the merest hint of Spring – heralded by the slowly emerging snowdrops.  These are bulbs I have unsuccessfully tried growing for years – the breakthrough came when we were given several clumps by my mother-in-law and most of these seem to have taken.  However, just as these start to show their first white flower buds, a small group that I planted a long time ago in with a camellia that lives near the house is already in full flower (as shown in the photo).

These encourage me to go into the garden, have a general tidy up and see what is about.  I am pleased to say that the garlic that I planted in the front and the back garden is starting to grow, although it is easier to spot in the back garden raised bed than hidden amongst the tulip and allium bulbs that are starting to show in the front garden.  (Maybe one day I will be organised enough to mark where they are when I plant them.)  The hellebores are the main providers of spring growth at the moment, but, somewhat belatedly, I have taken away most of their leaves, as recommended by both Monty Don and Carol Klein.  This has left the earth looking somewhat bare, but did uncover some anemone blanda that I planted some time ago as well as the first signs of growth of the aquilegia.

Elsewhere in the garden we have some winter scent from the sarcococca confusa that we have planted and colour from a winter jasmine and viburnum bodnatense dawn.

In the front garden we have trimmed down all of the grasses, moved some of the zebra grass and pruned the white bramble that we have as a centre piece.  In doing so, we uncovered about a dozen hibernating ladybirds – if they survive for another month or so we should have no trouble with greenfly this year!

The home produce has hit a bit of a hiatus, although the rhubarb is starting to come up and we have lots of shoots on the blackcurrant.  I have all my seeds ready for planting in the next couple of months, although I will mainly be concentrating on beans, courgettes, chillis and salad leaves in the hope of getting some good yields throughout the year (although the aubergine is an experiment probably doomed to failure).  If successful I will move on and add one or more new types of produce next year.

I am trying seeds from the Real Seed Company this year.  I am hopeful that as they are all seeds grown on their farm in Wales there may be a better chance that they will grow here in Northamptonshire.  They also encourage seed saving and send instructions with the seeds.

It is also noticeable how many herbs have survived the Winter – I have lots of oregano, some sage, wild basil, rosemary, and burnet all looking healthy so far (and I have some hopes for the fennel that has been in for the last two years and is much beloved of hoverflies).  The chives are also starting to show bright green shoots amongst the darker spots of the garden.  Next year I will be adding borage (for bees) and sorrel (for soups) to the mix as well as more thymes and lavender (also for the bees).

Bumblebee Identification

I joined the Bumblebee Conservation Trust last year following a Summer trying to photograph them which made me realise how interesting and different they all were.  Couple that with all of the coverage regarding the plight of the honeybee which also extends, although for different reasons, to other pollinators, and I decided that it was time I discovered more about the bees in my garden.

Fast forward a year and with my new found interest in invertebrates I started to discover there were more bees about than I had realised, including my favourite, the red-tailed bumblebee, and others such as the wonderfully named hairy footed flower bee.  Despite many attempts and lots of photos, I still felt at a loss when it came to positively identifying them.  When I saw an advert for a bumblebee identification session at Leicester University on a Sunday afternoon then I signed up straight away.

I arrived early and thought I would go and try and find some bees to photograph – as you would (and, amazingly, got some photos I was really pleased with).  They had some lavender beds in their herb garden which we literally buzzing as well as some other plant such as echinops which also seemed pretty popular.

Anyway, back to the course.  It was run by a lovely lady called Maggie, who is obviously obsessed by bees. She went through the lifecycle of bees, some of the differences between them and included a list of plants that she had created and which she had subsequently grouped according to how many species of bee visited them.  I came away realising that I had to be a little more choosy about the plants that I am putting in the garden and with some ideas for research that I could also undertake.  First, however, I need to be able to identify them.

I was hoping to come away from a couple of hours amongst the flowers with the ability to recognise the common bumbles, the big six.  But, there are queens, workers and males – so the big six became 18, and then there are the cuckoo bumble bees – another 4 types with males and females so we are now at 26!  Suddenly it was not as easy as I had hoped.  (Cuckoo bumbles don’t need workers as they parasitise the nests of particular bumbles so use their workers to care for their offspring.)  Then, as the bees get older, just like us they fade and get greyer, well, paler – so then all the descriptions seem to go out of the window!

Did I come away knowing many of the 26?  Well, we did find four of the big six – but they are mainly males and workers at this time of year, the queens are in the nests.  So, I can recognise a carder bee (a little fluffy, ginger bee), and the red-tailed bumble bee, I will also have a go at the buff and white tailed bees  (the male white-tailed bumble bees are particularly lovely – see photo above), but we didn’t see the early or garden bumblebees, so I will carry on looking.  However, we did find three or four species of cuckoo bee, which I may have seen before and just not realised what they were (such as the one in the photo on the right)!  So, although I am not fully convinced that I can get the big six yet, I have now a better idea, and think I can have a go at finding cuckoo bees.  I will also be planning some winter research and some more bee-friendly plants for next year.


I am very excited –  it does not take much I know – anyone who has spoken to me about bees will realise this.  However, the reason for the excitement is my gooseberry bush (Invicta).  Although it is a bit early to be picking them, we are getting our windows replaced tomorrow and I am worried they would be knocked off.

Why so excited.  Well, prior to this year, the biggest harvest we have had was a massive 6 gooseberries.  This year I have over half a kilo!  Moving the plant  to the front of the house and putting it next to the rosemary also seems to have distracted the sawfly for this year at least – all the leaves are pretty much intact.  I just have to work out how to prune them now.

I have also picked the first sweet peas of the year – not many, but I am experimenting by putting them in the front garden, the plants in the back do not seem to be showing much sign of flowering yet, so this also seems to be paying off.  Next year I need to find some nice looking supports so I can put them all in the front garden.

This week’s nature roundup.

It seems that the warm weather has really started things moving this week.  And, the more you look, the more you find.

For a starter, many of the trees and plants are bursting into flower.  Cowslips (primula veris) are springing up everywhere – the one posing in this picture was taken next to the car park at work.  These are fairly common on open ground around the UK and have uses in traditional medicine for the treatment of headaches, although some people are allergic to them.  Also noticeable is the preponderance of dandelions decorating roadsides (and dare I say gardens) at the moment, providing a useful nectar source for the increasing number of bees.

Speaking of bees, there do seem to be a lot about at the moment.  Most noticeable are the massive red-tailed and buff-tailed bumble bee queens flying about, but, if you look closely, you may see other types of bee that you hadn’t noticed before.  One of these, again spotted as I was leaving work, was a tawny mining bee (adrena fulva).  I don’t remember seeing these before, but they are bright orange and, although fairly small and constantly on the move, they are not easy to miss.  These are solitary bees that often make their home in lawns, digging a hole to lay their eggs in and to provide a safe place for the young bees for which they collect pollen.  The picture that I took was the best I could get as they seem quite jumpy and do not settle for long even when sunning themselves.

Also of note this week are the increasing number of house martins that can be heard, if not seen, in the skies above Daventry, the first bluebells starting to open and a few more butterflies on the wing.

In the garden, the courgette seeds that I planted last weekend are coming up, although my beans, which are outside, whilst presumably enjoying the sunny days are not appreciating the frosty nights and are refusing to put in an appearance.  Tulips are in full bloom and the blackcurrant and blackberry are coming back to life.  I am also contemplating pulling my first rhubarb of the season.

New for this week – coming to the Natural World near you.

So, what has happened in the last 7 days or so?  It would appear to be quite a lot, other than a rather exciting ash cloud that has managed to reduce the carbon output of Europe and leave all those planes on the ground.

Firstly, or rather lastly, on Saturday I first heard, and then saw, my first housemartin of the year.  They were fairly high up and did not stick around for long, so I think they may have been on their way to elsewhere rather than birds returning to hang about in Dav.

I saw the housemartin whilst sitting in the garden watching bees.  You may have noticed that there is a lot of blossom about at the moment, not only is the blackthorn still flowering, but there are cherry blossoms on almost every housing estate, and, along with the blossom there are the associated bees.  The main attraction in our garden at the moment as far as bees are concerned is the blue Pulmonaria Trevi Fountain as evidenced by cette photo la, with rather lovely bumblebee attached.  Also out in numbers this week have been the native two and seven spot ladybirds, as yet though, there are no harlequins that I have seen.

In terms of wild flowers that are out at the moment, one of my favourites is the forget-me-not.  James calls these devil flowers, because they self seed everywhere.  Indeed the one in the picture found its own way into the front garden.  Has anyone ever planted a forget-me-not, or do they ‘just appear’?

On the garden front, I am pleased to report that the gooseberry has loads of flower buds on.  I am hoping that the sawfly don’t find where we’ve hidden it and that our huge rosemary will help disguise it – fingers crossed!  I have also planted my courgette seeds and french bean seeds, ready for planting out in a couple of months.

This week in the garden

It seems as if Spring has finally arrived, although I am sure there will still be some frost to come.  The snowdrops have gone over this week, and the crocus are not far behind them – although the pigeon trampling is helping them on their way.

In the front garden I have a lot of Spring and Summer flowering bulbs starting to come up, and the first of my early tulips are starting to flower and bring some much welcomed colour into the mainly brown area at the front of the house – I really must find something to brighten it up in Winter and early Spring next year.  The gooseberry is coming into leaf, we will see if we have surprised the sawfly or not by moving it, and the rosemary is also flowering.

The back garden is now showing much more promise.  The daffodils are now out, and the hellebores are providing a much needed nectar source for the queen bumblebees that I am seeing in greater numbers every day and the primroses are valiantly trying to keep their flowers above the ground despite the, at times, heavy rain, which has given them a pounding.

Spring is also starting to develop its own soundtrack.  Although I have yet to hear a chiffchaff this year, the blackbirds are singing each evening as the sun is setting, adding to the slightly melancholic song of the robin which has been singing and holding its territory all Winter.  The blue tits are also getting more agressive, even the much bigger bullfinches are intimidated by the mad little beasties.

Although I have yet to see any in the garden, I also spotted my first butterfly of the year during the week; a Brimstone that I saw from my office window.

A bit too early maybe?

Last year I had my first ripe chillis after overwintering some that did not grow very quickly during the Summer.  Naturally I thought I would do the same again this year and planted a couple of Heatwaves a bit later trying to repeat my success.  (I also have some that I have planted early this season to see how they fare – they are three weeks old and growing well.)

As you can see from the photo, one of them is flowering already!  This is about two months earlier than last year – I am a little worried it may be peaking too soon (although I have a dwarf chilli Prairie Fire that has been flowering but not fruiting all Winter).

So, what has gone wrong this time?  Last year we put the chillis on the north facing, cooler (as we use the room for only minutes at a time), back bedroom windowsill.  This year they are on the south-facing, much warmer front room windowsill.

It will be interesting to see if these work out well again this year.