The Bee's Blog:

A Gardener Rambles

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Fall Is Here!

Gardeners are hard at work cleaning up their yards for the winter, but - wait a minute!! All that leaf raking is work that is unnecessary. If you leave the leaves in the garden you provide many pollinators and other invertebrates with the winter cover they need. By raking, mowing, and blowing we remove a bit of nature that is essential to the survival of moths, butterflies, snails, spiders, and dozens of arthropods.

The vast majority of butterflies and moths overwinter in the landscape as an egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, or adult. In all but the warmest climates, these butterflies use leaf litter for winter cover.

Beyond butterflies, bumble bees also rely on leaf litter for protection. At the end of summer, mated queen bumble bees burrow only an inch or two into the earth to hibernate for winter. An extra thick layer of leaves is welcome protection from the elements. There are many animals that live in leaves: spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes, mites, and more – and they support the chipmunks, turtles, birds, and amphibians that rely on these insects for food.

Mason Bee Nest Blog November
Mason Bee Nest Blog November

Gardeners may have worried that fall leaves, matted down by snow or rain, would have a negative impact on their perennials. In reality, a thick layer of leaves provides additional insulation against bitter cold weather, and can protect newly planted perennials when frost-heave may expose tender roots. Anyone who has spotted fragile spring ephemerals popping up in the woods knows that all but the frailest of plants will burst through the leaf litter in spring without trouble.

For those worried about the effect on the lawn by leaving the leaves, try raking them onto the flower beds, or around shrub and trees. However, research has shown that lawns actually benefit from a thin layer of leaves.

You gave the pollinators flowers and a place to nest. You tended your garden and avoided pesticides. Don't carry all of that hard work out to the curb. Simply put, when we treat leaves like trash – we're tossing out the beautiful moths and butterflies that we'll surely miss and that we work so very hard to attract.

Excerpted from The Xerces Society

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Rainy Days and Wild Flowers

My yard is very green and lush this year thanks to all the rain we've had in southern Ontario. Everything looks so healthy; even the lawn is growing like crazy and needs mowing every week, to my husband's consternation! These wet and somewhat cool growing conditions this year are also loved by wild flowers and what many would call weeds…I have Queen Anne's Lace taller than me, and Scottish Thistle that I can't see the top of. Unfortunately, the rain and cool conditions also affect the bees; like us, they prefer to stay "indoors" and dry when it rains.

The other afternoon however, the sun was shining softly and there was hardly any breeze at all, so I took the opportunity to wander into the wild flower area to see what was growing and whether bees were around. A lot is growing, including sumac, which unfortunately seem to be taking over the whole area – there is a job to be done, clearing out Sumac! However, I do have a small patch of wild flowers, which looks beautiful, and which the bees love.

I stood still and observed the insects flying all about; a multitude of bees were buzzing and their favourite bloom was obviously the thistle! I am not sure what kind of bees they were; some were very small and "timid" and others may have been wasps…either way they were all going about their business and in the process pollinating the flowers! With the abundance of flowers there are also numerous butterflies around including Monarchs and American Painted Lady; the wild sweat pea that grows all over my 4 acres is a favourite with them.

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Growing Hydrangeas For Bees

My sister-in-law has a beautiful flower garden full of perennial plants that pollinators like. And with the wet and somewhat cool conditions here in southern Ontario this year, the garden is a showcase of colourful lush plants at the moment. I was amazed to see how the bees were foraging around a variety of plants including a very beautiful pink lace cap hydrangea. Not sure what kind of bees they were; they were quite small and very busy. Turns out bees are attracted to a number of different hydrangeas, though many are sterile and hold no attraction at all for them. So, if you are adding a hydrangea to your garden do a little "digging" to find one that attracts bees; here are some suggestions:

Climbing Hydrangeas are a beautiful addition to a fence or a wall; be aware though that they have aerial roots that stick to a surface like cement. The flowers of a climbing hydrangea give both nectar and pollen for pollinators and it blooms from June to July.

The Lace-Cap Hydrangea has flat heads of fertile flowers, fringed with the showy sterile ones; this was the one my sister-in-law had and it was absolutely stunning, and full of bees!

Rough-Leaf Hydrangea flowers are nearly all fertile, unlike other hydrangeas. The bees love them and the flowers are also fragrant which makes them a lovely addition to any garden.

The Wild or Smooth Hydrangea is a native plant with white flowers that feed bees as well as many other pollinators.

Tardiva Hydrangeas can grow to be 20' tall so you will need a lot of space for this one. Tardiva's flowers are a mix of sterile and fertile flowers that open in August. The bees seem to love them.

And a last word on the popular PeeGee hydrangea: this one has a lot of sterile flowers. If you want a hydrangea that attracts bees, I suggest you choose one of the ones listed above.
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Happy Summer Holidays- For The Bees, Too!

Going for a walk around my gardens the other day something blue caught my eye; a patch of cornflowers enjoying life at the bottom of a steep hill. Upon further inspection I realized bees were buzzing around the lovely blue flowers. I am not sure whether bees are attracted to the blue, but it did make me consider the colours in nature, and what is attractive to bees; they seem to prefer the colours in the higher end of the colour spectrum such as purple and blue hues.

While pondering this I was trying to determine what would be a good red and white combination to plant in honour of Canada's Sesquicentennial celebrations this summer. Many of our favourite annual plants are red, but as such may not be the favourite of bees (though red petunias are loved by hummingbirds). Many have also been manipulated to tolerate our growing conditions etc., but have lost their attractiveness to bees.

So I decided that instead of annuals it might be a better idea to use perennials that bees love in the red and white colours, such as red bee balm and the white Shasta daisies. They look spectacular together if planted in an area where they have room to spread and the bees love them! They can be kept in a planter for this year and then planted into the garden at the end of the season.

And… for those who live in the northern USA with similar climate to us here in southern Ontario, it is easy enough to add the blue colour for the 4th of July celebrations. Catmint will flower over a long period, or maybe a blue delphinium will work as long as it will flower around the same time as the daisy and the beebalm.

Happy 150th Canada! And a Happy Fourth of July to those south of the border!

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Herbs In Flower

I readily admit my knowledge of herbs is somewhat lacking, however, as I explore more about our native bees I have come to realize that bees love herbs. So I have done some more digging about the best herbs to plant to attract bees – and to cook with of course!

I love scrambled egg with chives, served on a lovely piece of grainy bread with smoked salmon! Yes, no cream cheese or red onions to be seen! And they are also great in an omelette. Chives are very easy to grow, but a word of caution: they can spread like "wildfire" so I grow mine in a container. Amazingly, the plant thrives and comes back every year.

One of my favourite springtime meals is fresh lamb flavoured with rosemary. As rosemary flowers quite early in the year, it is a great source of food for the early bees. It grows well in a pot, and in warmer climates it is a perennial; here in Ontario we treat it as an annual. Every year I have big plans to dry or freeze my rosemary, as both of these methods work well to preserve it; maybe I will get to it this year?

Mints are aromatic, almost exclusively perennial herbs. I like to spread my hand over the leaves to enjoy the fragrance as I pass by a container of mints. They need to be left to flower of course, but as they spread very vigorously there is always enough fresh leaves to add to your tea or lemonade. I did once make the mistake of planting mint in the corner of my vegetable garden, but now I always grow it in containers. Live and learn!

When we moved to our new home a few years ago we found that the previous owners had allowed many herbs to self-seed around the property; in particular oregano and dill. These self-sown herbs cover a large area and the bees love it.

There are a multitude of other herbs that attract our native bees such as borage, sage, savory marjoram, lavender and hyssop; the thing to remember is to leave the flowers for the bees!

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April Showers

April showers bring May flowers the saying goes, so rainy days are most welcome at this time of year. Not only does it wash away the gray of a long winter, it fills creeks and ponds, and "greens up" the farmer's fields and your own lawn. Spring seems magical every year!

Last fall we took down a couple of overgrown Manitoba maples in our yard, and now I have a lovely sunny area which will be planted with wild flowers to attract more bees and other pollinators. We live in the country so it seems quite appropriate to have colourful meadows of native flowers. Wildflower seeds are easy to plant, and need hardly any care once established, so why bother with structured flower beds and hybrid annuals? I already have a few areas with wildflowers, but as the trees around them grew over the years, the sunny areas of the yard shrunk, hence the demise of the poor old Manitoba maples.

We are very lucky to have a lovely large verge between us and the quiet gravel road on which we live. Verges like this are favourite areas with pollinators of all kinds. From early spring flowering colt's foot and dandelions, to the summer flowers of white clover and daisies, to the late summer goldenrods and asters, the verge is a kaleidoscope of colours, sounds and fragrance: a virtual haven for native bees!

I have very fond memories of being a child picking bouquets of flowers along verges like this at the side of the road, proudly giving them to mom who would display them in a glass on the window sill. Such simple pleasures! So allow the "weeds" to grow, pick some for your window sill and enjoy!

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Gentle Pollinators

It is still winter in Southern Ontario, but somehow spring seems imminent. The geese are already staking a claim to the frozen ponds, and bulbs are poking a tentative sprout through the ground wondering– is it time yet? Even wildlife is getting spring fever judging by the 3 racoons gorging themselves on the birdseed on our feeders! Days are longer, rain is washing away the dirty snow and there is a hint of green on the farmers' fields. Yes, spring must be right around the corner!

If you are a gardener like me, you know it is always a struggle not to get too "antsy", and start digging in the soil too soon. Having been cooped up inside for such a large part of the winter, all I want to do is spend time in the garden. This year I plan to plant a wild flower area for the bees, and as we have a ton of milkweed growing, I expect not only bees, but also butterflies to visit.

We are very lucky to live on parts of an abandoned fruit orchard, with apple trees that bloom profusely every spring: a great attraction for the mason bee. If you have fruit trees in your yard, even if the fruit is not that great, the bees will love the blooms. And of course living in the country, we are not so picky about weeds in the lawn; bees love dandelions and white clover, so they should feel right at home with us.

As a child I remember being very afraid of bees… actually children are often terrified of a number of flying insects – thank goodness we "grow out" of this. The solitary pollen bees that visit our bee nest are not aggressive, and will retreat rather than attack, which makes the nest very safe; using one is a good way to introduce bees to the young ones. It is fascinating to observe these busy little flyers coming and going in the garden and watch them build their nests for the next generation.

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A Gardener In Winter— Planning Ahead

The days are already getting noticeable longer as we head into the depth of a Canadian winter. Don't despair; there is still a lot to enjoy in nature, and even in the garden. My birdfeeders are a hub of activity, the smaller songbirds giving way to the larger woodpeckers, who in turn has to give way to the squirrels; all taking their turn in a relatively orderly fashion. I noticed the male cardinal the other day visiting the feeder along with not one, but two females …is it maybe "spring fever" already?

Many of us will spend the winter months reading about gardening and getting new ideas for our own yards. There are new products available to the gardener every spring; many designed to make gardening easier. New strains of favourite plants, developed to withstand pests and harsh conditions, are always tempting us with their beauty. But don't forget that often such plants are not attractive to our native pollen bees. Though beautiful to look at, many of the new plant hybrids do not have much pollen or aroma, and the double blooms variety are of little interest to our native bees.

Pollen Bee Nest Native Plants

Bees have a different view than we have when it comes to attractive blooms; what we view as weeds are often the most desirable flower for the bee. So don't fret if you have a few dandelions or violets in your lawn – the bees will thank you for it. And when you are planning your flower garden include an area of wild flowers; not only is it great for bees but it also looks beautiful. Packages of seeds designed with native bees in mind are available from most seed companies, so add some native flowers to your garden design and watch the bees feast. And if they also have a safe place to nest, you will have a bunch of happy bees and lush flowers.

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One of the best gifts for the gardener on your list is helping the bees

Through the months of October and November a feeling that the fall would go on forever permeated all my senses. The leaves on the trees being as colourful as I can ever remember, the days staying mild with hardly a night of frost, and flowers still blooming; even bees buzzing about, it had a kind of optimism about it. Of course, reality has a way of poking its ugly head through the mist of denial, just checking the calendar pulls me up short. Only weeks until the Holiday Season!

All of which brings me to the act of gift giving and receiving. You may not be thinking of gardening gifts when winter is just around the corner, but as any sensible gardener knows, planning for next year's garden is what makes us endure the winter days. So if you have a gardener on your list, or anyone else for that matter, consider a solitary pollen bee nest as a gift.

Pollen Bee Nest

What is that you might ask? Well, as the name says it is a nest for pollen bees… yes a nest – not a hive. Solitary bees lead solitary lives, and do not produce honey or live in hives with a queen. Considering that there are about 4000 species of bees in North America, and most are solitary bees, a nest is a good way to provide shelter for a variety of these bees. And, as in the movie, if you build it – or in this case, hang it – they will come. (There's more detailed information on our nests here and you can purchase them online here.)

Though many of us are quite familiar with the honey bees and the bumble bees, it is the native solitary bees that most efficiently pollinate our gardens, and they do so with little recognition. So place a pollen bee nest under the tree this year - and in the garden come spring – the bees will show their gratitude with lush flowers and bountiful crops next summer.

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A Passion For Gardening

I have had a passion for gardening for many years; reading up and learning a lot along the way. Even so, I was floored to discover that North America is home to 4000 species of bees! Like most people, when I think of bees, two species come to mind, the bumble bee and the honey bee. But it is the solitary pollen bee, such as the mason bee, leafcutter bee and miner bee etc., that is the hardest worker, and pollinate most efficiently. The term solitary pollen bee was coined to identify all bees that pollinate our crops, except for the honey bee. And as the name would indicate these bees live alone without a queen, and they do not produce honey for human consumption.

There are solitary pollen bees all around the garden and most do not even look like bees. Some are metallic green, others are black, and some look like flies or wasps. These bees are active at different times of year, following the growing season of their favorite flower. Some people are afraid of bees, but no need to worry as most of the solitary pollen bees are very gentle and will hardly ever sting. They tend to go about their business unobserved, but they are themselves vulnerable. Research has shown that the solitary bee population has also been declining in recent years, same as the honey bees, though the reason for this is not clear.

To help the solitary pollen bees I have installed pollen bee nests in my garden. I did so quite late in the season, around August, but I was astounded to see them fill up almost immediately. I spent some time watching these bees as they went about filling the tubes in the nest and I was excited to see that there were a number of different species using the different sized tubes. So the wait for spring and the new bee generation has started; patience is a virtue they say.

As we all become more aware of our environment and work to conserve our planet, offer a thought to the lowly bee. Bees are important indicators for the health of the environment. When something is wrong with our bees, something could be wrong in the environment!

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