The Value of Bees; Peter’s Leeks and Daffodils; and Where Were You When the Slam was Won?

How to begin this week?

Moral capitalism?

(Actually this post has been delayed by a bout of glyphosate induced illness, so the text might seem a bit out of date, but the issues with using this widely promoted herbicide will wait for another day, so here we go).

In the week of Chancellor George Osbourne’s much previewed budget speech, there was the interesting mix of freezing age related income tax allowances for pensioners, with a reduction in higher rates of income tax, currently paid by a fairly small percentage of the UK’s more affluent earners. Perhaps the fact that this single item seemed to generate more animated discussion than other announced measures indicated a distanced view from the Treasury of the real world of many ordinary folk.

The above is a poor attempt to link with thoughts I’d already had after waking early enough to listen to BBC Radio 4’s farming programme last Saturday, when it featured UK cut flower production, majoring on a visit to David Austin’s rose premises at Albrighton. Firstly, I learned that the chances of my ‘White Dragon’ rose seedling (see previous blog) being a beauty are miniscule – apparently D.A. hand pollinates and then grows on 400,000 rose seedlings every year, of which only 4 or 5 are ever selected for commercial production.

I’d be delighted if my rose turned out to be anything like as attractive as our R. “Paul’s Himalayan Musk”, a rambler which I’m guessing is one of it’s parents. But the chances don’t seem great. Photographed in June 2011

But the main point that caught my attention, was that at this time of the year they were busy putting together bouquets for the biggest commercial floral event of the year – Mothering Sunday. It was explained in a rational way that to produce English roses in bloom for this early in the year would require huge energy inputs as heat and light, so that the firm used growers in Africa to grow their English rose varieties, which were cut, air freighted to the UK and cold stored in England before making their way out as bouquets to delighted mums.

But, asked the interviewer, did the firm tell customers that the English roses were grown in Kenya? Ummm, no. Moral capitalism? This is all very shaky philosophical stuff, since as I’ve said before in my blog we (all?) seem to live lives riddled with hypocrisy, but the same programme highlighted the fact that this year because of a mild spring in Scotland and a cold snap in Cornwall, Scottish daffodil blooms were fading in the fields, unpicked for Mother’s day, because the army of itinerant daffodil pickers were still working the West Country’s fields – usually they bloom a convenient 2 or 3 weeks later in Scotland.

Daffodils, not roses, for Mother’s Day next year, anyone? Narcissus “Jetfire” 18/03/12

The same theme of how much a manufacturer has to declare about their product had first surfaced with me after discovering Beepol bumblebee colonies last week in a gardening catalogue. Having researched their commercial use in tomato production last year, I was intrigued to see where the bee colonies were bred, since they were marketed as “UK native bumblebee species: a Queen, 40-50 workers and bee food”, under the headline “Discover the value of bees!” It actually required quite a bit of detective work to find the firm behind Beepol – “Dragonfli”, and then a phone call to establish that whilst the bees are a UK species, they’re actually bred in Holland by the same Dutch firm Koppert which produces the colonies for commercial use. The colonies are posted out to Dragonfli from Holland, then sent on by them to the final UK purchaser.

I did ask the company about issues with food supply for colonies once they reached the garden. “No problem”. The firm has linked in with a supplier of plug plants and seed so can supply suitable plant plugs and seed. (Of course these will take a little while to get going, and in the meantime?). And are the British bees identified as coming from Holland? Well….Umm, no. The intermediate supplier whose catalogue I read had actually told me on the phone that they were UK bred.

Another interesting bumblebee observation I made this year, was a result of me taking the bread out to knead. I always make it in a large stainless steel bowl, so that I can carry it outside if the weather is pleasant. Forget your bread machines, folks, kneading dough is a very therapeutic, contemplative activity!  Anyway, at about 5.30 pm as I sat on this stone seat, the air was suddenly filled with buzzing as about a dozen bumbles flew onto the moss covered West facing oak trunk and appeared to be settling into the moss. For the night? No, perhaps 10 minutes or so of soaking up some warmth from the very warm moss, before flying home to a probably very cool underground nest. When I’ve got some time I’ll try to write a bit more about how such insects actually develop quite intelligent behaviour patterns like this, with no other bumblebee able to pass the information on to them. 14/03/12

This particular bumblebee queen (Bombus pratorum) really worked itself down into this moss covered crevice in the oak’s trunk. Notice the ubiquitous non parasitic mites. 2 weeks later when I remembered to check the temperature of this particular spot at about 5.15pm , but with a raw Northerly wind blowing, I discovered that most of the moss was about 34.0 degrees C, but in this crevice, the temperature rose to about 41.0 degrees C! Worth seeking out since air temperature was only 14 degrees C. 14/03/12

I’ve been interested by this commercialisation of what is a native insect, since in small print in the product information is the caveat that “Before bumblebee colonies die back (perhaps this should more correctly be die out! Sic.) they do produce new Queen bumblebees that start new colonies in the surrounding area, but it is recommended to remove the old hive and replace with a new one the following spring for optimum yields”. In other words unlike a honeybee hive, which with luck and perhaps good management you can maintain for a number of years, and even expand to more hives, by their very specific biological life-cycle a bumblebee colony will never survive in one nest for more than one season.

So the perfect product for commercial capitalism to exploit – it’s guaranteed to need replacing annually. And what price for this slice of bee action? A shade under £65.00, though if you add in a little wooden ‘lodge’ to sit the colony’s cardboard and plastic box into, that rises to £125. “Discover the value of bees!”.


Moral capitalism?

As I kicked this around with a friend yesterday as we caught the late afternoon buzz of the bumblebees around the flowers on our Pieris ‘Forest Flame’, he suggested perhaps I should catch some of the huge numbers of queens in our garden this year, and sell them. The large annual increase in bumblebees and other insects which we’ve seen in the garden over the last few years, does seem to endorse our policy of trying to fill the garden with the right sort of flowers, and particularly those that are of interest to our native species of insects (see my Botany of Desire Blog Pages). A lack of appropriate flowers in gardens and our countryside is probably one of the major factors, along with pesticide usage, for the decline in bumblebee numbers.  Before leaving the bumblebee and MC subject (PHEW), I’m providing  links here to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and Buglife sites which have really good basic bumblebee information for anyone interested, and it’s here that I discovered that in October 2011 the BCT was awarded over £300,000 to research and promote awareness of these declining species, and indeed to try to put a capital value on their true “WORTH” to the nation by dint of their pollinating capabilities.

This year the Pieris, particularly the white more mature P.’Forest Flame’ to the rear of this photo, has been a real magnet for bumblebees, as a nectar source in mid March. 18/03/12

Personally, standing in front of a 5 foot high Pieris bush in mid March with a distinctive honeylike nectar scent filling the air, and hearing nothing but the buzzing of tens of busy bumbles is reason enough for me to value and try to conserve and raise awareness of these fascinating creatures.

Another first for me this year. Seeing moths feeding from a Pieris I had to take a photo even if it was by torchlight, since my built in SLR Flash seems to have given up. But interestingly the 3 moths were feeding on a different cultivar to the P. ‘Forest Flame’, choosing P. ‘Purity’. This moth is a common spring flying moth called ‘Common Quaker’. It was only when I cropped the image and zoomed in to check for clarity that I noticed that the moth was feeding through a robber hole created by the bumblebees – you can just about make it out on this image. Going back and looking at the flowers in daylight I guess that 70% had similar small holes made by bumblebees – another example of clever techniques used to ease food gathering, which would have passed me by without this image. ( I’d seen it before on broad bean flowers, but not Pieris, which of course flowers much earlier in the spring than the beans). Honeybees can’t seem to make these robber holes through flowers, though will, like this moth, sometimes use those created by other insects to enable them to feed from flowers’ nectar which would otherwise be inaccessible. 21/03/12

We’re nearly mid way through our daffodil season now, with the earliest Narcissus  “Tête á Tête” and “Topolino” starting to fade as a new wave of “Thalia”, “Elegance” and “Ice Follies” takes up the baton. So I thought I’d include a few photos of last week’s best, as well as a brief reference to their historical importance as the National flower of Wales. There is some uncertainty over the origins of this. Wales had for a long time cherished the leek (Cenhinen) as its national emblem, and this apparently dates back to St. David’s time when in a major battle with the Saxons, David had advocated that the Welsh should all wear a leek in their helmets to distinguish friend from foe. Some even think that the battle took place in a field of leeks. In any event the Welsh won the day, so leeks (which after all grow well in the wet Welsh climate) achieved a permanent status as national emblem. Much more recently daffodils (which in one Welsh name are known as Cenhinen Bedr or Peter’s leeks, although there are other words used to describe them to complicate things further) became popular with Welsh ladies, and indeed were a more colourful and less smelly emblem than the leek.

Apparently their popularity was cemented when Lloyd George began to wear one on St. David’s day.  Also, the thought that although leeks were introduced to Wales in Roman times, there has probably been an indigenous daffodil species growing wild in Wales for thousands of years before this. (Narcissus pseudonarcissus).

Narcissus ‘Topolino’. A bit taller than Tete a Tete, and a bit later, but a very vigorous cultivar. Regular followers may recall that last year I moved some of these “in the green” out of a Dumpy Bag, at fortnightly intervals after flowering, but starting with the first batch of 10 bulbs immediately the flowers faded. The results are quit interesting though probably “not statistically significant” to use that horrible phrase. They all survived, but the first 10 produced no flowers this year. The next 4 groups produced 3 or 4 flowers per 10 bulbs. The next batch of 10 (so the bulbs were lifted about 2 months after the flowers faded) produced 7 flowers. The N. “Topolino” planted in the garden at the same time as the batch in the Dumpy Bag, also flowered very well in this second year, with probably an average of about 7 flowers per 10 bulbs. Many cultivars get nowhere near this in the second year from planting.  So for what it’s worth, maybe waiting a little while after flowers fade would be optimal. But weather differences at lifting time might also have played a role. In addition I didn’t dead head any of the flowers, since this cultivar set huge amounts of seed. 18/03/12

The N. ‘Topolino’ trial. Planted in an arc from right to left, in groups of 10, at fortnightly intervals. The fifth group has most flowers. (7 out of 10) 24/03/12

And these are seedlings from all the ‘Topolino’ seed collected last year. There are 4 in a diamond shaped pattern. Thousands of seeds sown into holes made in the ground with a raking out hammer. And I’ve just checked that it may take up to 7 years for these to bloom for the first time. Don’t take up gardening if you’re not patient! 19/03/12

Another view of N. ‘Jetfire’. One advantage of being of very low fertility is that the flowers last for much longer than ‘Topolino’. It flowers about a week later with us. 18/03/12

I’m still unsure what this cultivar is.  I think it’s ‘Brunswick’.  It’s in full flower now, is the tallest cultivar we grow, but not overblown, and the flowers last longer than any other variety and it naturalises really well in grass. 18/03/12, but at its best a week later.

Finally, most people in the UK and ALL people who live in Wales will now be aware that for the third time in 8 years Wales have just finished the 6 nations rugby championship winning every game, and hence the coveted grand slam. As a teenager in the 1970’s I was riveted by the passion of the Welsh rugby team of that era who achieved similar grand slam heights, and indeed the wonderful singing from the old national stadium at Cardiff Arms Park. But the sound from the new gladiatorial amphitheatre of the millenium stadium is perhaps even more impressive (at least over the radio). I can still remember exactly how I spent the lovely day when Wales beat Ireland 8 years ago to win the first of this current sequence by moving Crocus in the green – (a disaster by the way), with the radio on and plugged into an outside extension lead.

This year’s championship has largely passed me by. However, I shall remember the 18th March very clearly, since I pottered round the garden as the sun broke through the clouds and I took a few photos of dancing daffodils. And finally, since you inevitably end up on hands and knees, or backside, or chest to get the best perspective, I found myself relaxing with wet denim on knees and backside, slumped against our Rosa glauca hedge gazing towards the distant blue, black mountains and beyond, out of sight, towards Cardiff, and soaking up the sun and birdsong.

As I sat and contemplated this view, it did cross my mind that this would make quite a good final resting place.  18/03/12

A moment to savour, with no vehicles travelling on the road to Llanybydder. Before stiffness set in, I ventured inside and caught the last 10 minutes of commentary on the game as “Hymns and Arias” rang out around the stadium. And for a while the Welsh nation revelled in its day of glory.

With no concerns for moral capitalism.

Lovely clouds over Carmarthenshire on the day the Grand Slam was won . 18/03/12

3 Peacock butterflies this week on the White Honesty (Lunaria annua var. albiflora), but this Peacock has had a close shave – a chunk is missing from one wing. 23/03/12

The pretty buds of Rhododendron ‘Cilpinense’, which have escaped frost damage this year, so far. 18/03/12