Wildlife in winter
It's winter and the garden is a quiet place without summer's buzz. The robin and our regular pair of blackbirds attend us every day and sometimes the robin will appear to charm our visitors as well as us, which is lovely. The sparrows twitter and flit from willow to cotoneaster and back again.
Winter plants are flowering – bulbs, hellebores and Christmas box, Sarcococca confusa. The witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis, is glorious, its ribbon-like flowers glowing in the winter sun. There are a few insects to be seen, bobbing gnats dancing in the air and the occasional bumblebee, but the honey bees are spending nearly all their time inside the hive. We probably won't see much of them for several weeks and then the day will come when they come out to find the spring flowers. I feel a keen anticipation for that day.
Caring for bees
I have been thinking about the bees and looking into ways of helping them to stay healthy. I came back to something I'd read about last autumn and turned to my favourite mycologist, Paul Stamets, who, with others, has investigated how bees use fungi. Stamets had some raised beds in his garden, which were covered in a thick layer of wood chips, and he noticed that the bees were paying a lot of attention to the chips. He saw that they'd moved some of the wood to get at the mycelium growing beneath and were sipping droplets of liquid from it. Being both mycologist and bee keeper, he wanted to know more. The bees were attracted to sugar-rich cytoplasm from the mycelium and were seeking it out. That seems like a good reason to encourage mycelium in the garden and to pay attention to good cultivation rather than turn to fungicides.
Stamets has also created a mix of honey, and a particular fungi that the bees search out, for immunological benefit and has found that it improves bee's disease resistance and longevity. This means that bee numbers stay at a healthy level and that young nurse bees are not prematurely recruited into becoming foragers, leaving the bee nursery under-staffed. It is thought that improving the overall health of the hive should reduce the incidence of Colony Collapse Disorder.
Putting theory into practice
It's fascinating to read and think about and I find Stamets' enthusiasm infectious. To this end, mulches of wood chips have been laid on the beds, where mycelium will form and spread. Birch logs, one of the woods said to attract bees, have been added to the log piles. This was done in early autumn so whilst there will undoubtedly be a wait for the mycelilum to develop, once the weather warms and it gets started, the bees should find it and start investigating. I'm very keen to see what they do. Another bee keeper has told me that she's noticed bees investigating rotting wood and has heard reports of the same from others, so I'm hopeful that this experiment will prove positive.
To find out if the wood chips and logs are attractive to the bees will mean I have sit in the garden watching the bees. This does not seem too onerous a task and I shall ready myself for it.
Please note: the contents of this blog reflect the views of its author, which are not necessarily those of the RHS.