Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Keeping the Bees

When I first moved into the Green Tenancy with its tangle of a backyard, I had a notion of keeping bees. It was one shared by an upstairs neighbour who daydreamed of apiary. Sadly, it was a dream we could not fulfill because doing so would put us in contravention of the Ontario Bees Act.

But not being allowed to keep honeybees doesn't mean you can't enjoy bees or the pleasures of amateur mellitology.

Bees are an absolute necessity for any gardener. They pollinate our fruit and veg, making it possible for us to grow most of our food crops (though grains and corn generally work without 'em). Over the last few years, I've been enjoying watching the various bumble bees, hornets and swat bees (I think that's what they are) buzzing around my various flowers.

Last week, I sat down with a copy of Keeping the Bees, an excellently written and very lively book by York University mellitologist Laurence Packer. If you like bees or gardening, this book is a must-read. Not to mention a fun read.

It contains more than just an overview of bees, bee genetics, bee habitats and a solid argument for using them as environmental indicators. It also shares the author's incredible passion for his subject and provides some great ideas for urban gardeners. Here are a few tips I picked up from the last chapter:

  1. Plant a variety of flowering plants, particularly native species. Some ornamental flowers aren't very bee-friendly, many native plants are. A variety of plants is good for a garden anyways, and it seems my mixture of strawberries, peas, beans, tomatoes, flowers, triffid-like squash and more is as good for the bees as it is for my plate.
  2. Plant some raspberry or blackberry canes and don't chop them down at the end of the season. Some bees live inside old canes, which is really cool. Besides, these brambly vines produce excellent fruit for eating and for attracting birds (which, like wasps, are great natural predators of common garden pests). I planted blackberry canes in the back alley this year. If they grow anything like the ones I had in London, then they'll likely deter the raccoons a bit, too.
  3. Provide nesting sites. In addition to blackberry canes, you can stake tomatoes with bamboo. Leave the stakes out year-round to provide bee habitat. Carpenter bees also like holes in wood. I tossed an old tree trunk in one corner of the garden that I let go wild. That corner has sprung up with bee-friendly wildflowers such as goldenrod, as well as mint and several other plants, and I've no doubt that both the soil and the old trunk are now home to all sorts of nifty insects. Will have to go back there with my son and a magnifying glass to check it out sometime.
  4. Buy organic food when possible. Many pesticides are bad for bees, either killing them or sterilizing them. Kind of a silly practice when you consider that bees are important pollinators for most non-cereal crops. As Packer points out, "You can help the bees in this way even if you live in a high-rise without a balcony."
  5. Encourage politicians to support bee-friendly policies such as planting wildflowers on verges, banning cosmetic pesticides or letting areas of parks grow wild. To my city's credit, they've banned cosmetic pesticides and are letting several sizable areas in parks grow wild (which is far more attractive than you might imagine).
Luckily, many of his suggestions are ones I'd picked up from other sources over the years or had already done by pure coincidence. And I am enjoying watching several bee species in the garden, despite the predominantly rainy weather this spring.

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