From SAGE member Stephanie Williams
Anyone who has read Mireille Juchau’s novel “The World Without Us” (Bloomsbury 2015) will know that bees are serious business. And because it is hard for us to imagine a world without them, I dedicate these words to all those marvellous, mystical and magical creatures.
As the days grow warmer they are about their own serious business of tasting and collecting and pollinating, drifting and hovering among newly opened flowers. I listen to the steady drone of their voices and observe their movements.
Scientists tell us that bees can recognise blue and green and ultra violet, while we see blue and green and red. I always think they do seem to favour the range of blues provided by lavender, rosemary, borage and salvia, but I feel sure that anyone who has observed them working in a more variegated garden palette will have a different story to tell. We obviously don’t know the half of it, but it is clear that bees themselves are the experts in knowing where to look for sustenance.
The lack of water recently seems to have contributed to a new degree of hardiness, longer and firmer stems, thicker flower heads and a more concentrated fragrance in my lavenders. The borage is putting out even more flowers to attract pollinators, survive and reproduce. This is because plants concentrate or increase their levels of phytochemicals as a natural reaction to any sort of depredations, including drought, which may threaten their survival as a species.
The rosemary remains a thing of beauty — my prostrate forms have spent the winter putting out thousands of perfect indigo florets on long trailing limbs. The flowers are now losing their brilliance but the bees are still finding plenty to interest them among its dense growth. There is so much more to this hardy and beautiful plant than its military association with friendship, loyalty and remembrance; its culinary use as a perfect accompaniment to meats, soups and stews, or its aromatherapy benefits for memory, focus and concentration.
The phytochemicals contained in the hardy Rose-of-the-Sea (Rosmarinus maritimus, R. officinalis) demonstrate hundreds of biological activities, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antibacterial, antispasmodic, antiviral, anticancer, antitumor against various tumors, anaesthetic, analgesic, anticonvulsant, cancer-preventive and liver protective properties. In herbal medicine, it is associated with ailments of the head, eg. -aches and tension, and has been used as a tonic, stimulant, and for indigestion. It can relax spasms, relieve pain, stimulate the liver, and improve digestion.
Rosemary contains volatile oils, flavonoids and phenolic acids, camphor, cineole, alpha pinene and borneol. Its properties make it a good alternative preservative for butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) used by the food industry to keep things like cereals, flours, seeds and ground meals etc. dry and viable on the shelf. Since the industry treats both the food and the packaging materials, we might be better off buying loose dry foodstuffs and storing them in glass with big sprigs of rosemary.
Back to the bees. After buying in some soil to improve the builders’ rubble and clay of my rough back yard, I planted out a few species of lavender, rosemary, thyme and sage, and put in a Laurus nobilis (Bay laurel) without realising how big they can grow! The borage, calendula, fumitory, violets, mint, nasturtiums, rocket, chamomile and centella all began to flourish after I’d turned the compost bin out a couple of times. I consider that where species thrive together, nature has her reasons, and thus have left well alone.
While many of these plants are considered weeds by some people, they are in fact incredibly useful to the pollinators, and thus to us, if only we could allow ourselves a bit of wilderness among the trimming and grooming. And if we place our compost bin or pile among the wild weeds, so much the better as the worms will burrow down among the different root systems, doing their endless improvements.
Leaving nature to do her work and allowing these wild plants to develop into bigger clumps has paid off because the bees and other pollinators come in greater numbers.(1)
While science reduces the whole to the sum of its parts in order to study how a small part of a system works and then deduces how this may affect the whole, nature brings it all together and works perfectly by creating numerous feedback loops within whole self sustaining eco systems which then have ripple effects throughout the whole garden. The bees are part of this whole, and we often interfere at our peril.
But even the eco scientists have admitted they know very little about the role of other vital pollinators like flies, beetles, moths, butterflies, wasps, ants, birds, and bats, among others. What we do know is that they all rely on plants, and that the plants and animals, including our own species, rely on the capacity and health of all the pollinators to carry on their work.
(1) I do not condone the mass planting of invasive or exotic species. In our shire, the regional botanic gardens, landcare volunteers and the Council’s environmental officers have always done and continue to do a great job of educating people about particularly invasive species and swapping them for native plants at community events. This has led to a huge increase in awareness among the local community and regular visitors and hopefully to the gradual decrease in invasive species.