It’s been a really really tough time for all insects, good and bad. This long cold winter has bee especially bad for the bees, not just honeybees and bumble bees but the solitary bees too. Imagine enduring the long cold winter to be confronted by the coldest March for decades and then finding little in flower to provide sustenance for the emerging bumble queens and foraging honeybees. What a disaster. Those that actually survived the winter and spring are now desperate for nectar and pollen to feed their brood and keep the colonies going and it is our gardens that can provide a smorgasbord of plants to satiate their urgent needs.
Greenhouse gardeners can help bring on flowers such as peaches, apricots and bulbs to provide an earlier source of sustenance, but also have a part to play in bee rescue and support.
Greenhouse blossom attracts bumblebees especially. The tempting early prunus flowers are a fabulous nectar source for bees. If they are container plants, move them out of the greenhouse during the day and they will very soon attract nectar-supping insects. These plants replenish their nectaries regularly and are a vital source when little else is in flower. If the plants are permanent in the glasshouse then be vigilant. At this time of year most cherry sized bumblebees are queen bees and if they become trapped in the greenhouse and fail to return to their developing brood, both will die. An exhausted bee of any form can be rejuvenated with a drop of honey or sugar syrup. Become a bee paramedic and try and rescue every exhausted buzzer that you find. A butterfly net helps you reach the high greenhouse eaves, to bring a desperate glass banging buzzer to safety. Every bee is precious and every one saved could mean the life or death of the colony. Automatic vents can allow these foragers into the greenhouse and then close and trap them overnight. So a daily check is essential.
But gardeners, garden owners and greenhouse gardeners can do much much more than bee rescue and providing a food bank for our essential pollinating insects. As guardians of what amounts to a huge acreage of nature reserve, we have the freedom of choice concerning pest control and the majority of creatures that gardeners recognise as pests, such as vine weevil, aphids, spider mite, whitefly, lily beetles and ants are all insects. The pest controls used to deal with these problem insects are insecticides, chemicals that kill insects. Honeybees, bumblebees, hoverflies, ladybirds, butterflies and solitary bees are also insects as are many of the biological controls that greenhouse gardeners use inside their glasshouses. The chemicals are designed to kill insects, and cannot differentiate between good and bad ones.
The healthiest option is to err on the side of caution, not just in the greenhouse but in the garden too. If you are growing for flavour, freshness and health issues, it makes more sense to avoid all chemicals and grow organic. Consider every ‘pest’ a meal for something in the food chain and employ barriers and traps or the ‘bug-eat-bug’ biological controls to deal with any pest problems. Encourage wildlife such as birds and hedgehogs, frogs and toads into the garden by providing water, food and shelter and be safe in the knowledge that all garden visitors will be safe in your pesticide free environment.
In any event growing organic produce is an even better way of getting the very best value from your investment in greenhouse, compost and seed. A generous bowl of organic salad could set you back £2-3 or more in the supermarket, so if you have your own production line growing in the garden, coldframe and greenhouse you could save yourself a fortune on salads alone, let alone the exotic glasshouse crops you plan to grow this season.
Support the pollinators by sowing and growing fast growing annuals such as borage, nasturtium, and Californian poppies as well as clover, vipers’ bugloss (echium), and comfrey. Sow in modules in the greenhouse and direct into the border. Chose organic seed where possible and check every packet you sow to see if they have been treated or coated with pesticides. Bee aware, bee wise and bee safe.