HOW precious the spring blossom has been. At once a stunning spectacle, cheer-me-up and means of securing fruit crops. Equal in importance has been the insect presence so essential to the pollinating process.
The earliest apple blossoms emerged in April as usual and some have lasted into May, only to be joined by a fresh display from the later fruiting cultivars.
A so-called family tree which has Discovery, James Grieve and Charles Ross grafted onto it, has been ablaze with colour and attracted lots of flying visitors.
There is no doubt we’ll have a good set of fruits on that one.
Two elements are essential to secure an apple crop.
First the flowers have to appear then secondly insects must turn up to assist the pollination process.
If you plant a single apple tree described as self-fertile, there is a chance of a modest crop.
Plant another alongside, which flowers at the same time and you increase the chance of a bumper crop.
However, if the optimum pollen transfer period coincides with adverse weather conditions, insects can be grounded just as surely as aircraft. Hence the relief when we see embryo fruits appear.
Because crab apple varieties, especially John Downie and Golden Hornet, have such a long flowering period, it makes good gardening sense to have one of them planted alongside the culinary or dessert apple(s) of your choice.
Not only do they help pollinate each cultivar in turn as it begins to bloom but they are also attractive ornamental features in their own right - and carry the potential for crab apple jelly in autumn.
Whenever pollinating insects are mentioned in relation to fruit crops, bees spring to mind and rightly so because they bear the main workload.
There is currently world-wide concern over the demise of honey bee (Apis melifera) colonies and certain species of the humble bumblebee (Bombus) are also in danger. One of the positive things we can do to help as gardeners is grow flowering plants that are pollen and nectar-rich, with sufficient variety to cover the whole growing season. Another is to introduce a purpose built bee lodge or create a habitat which encourages them to build a nest.
The list of bee-friendly flowers in our garden begins with the invaluable winter heathers. They’re ready for insect visitors in December and are still going strong in deepest April. The supply tails off in late autumn as ubiquitous herbaceous perennials such as Michaelmas daisy (aster) and helenium flower up to the first frost. In between there are so many suitable types to choose from that it pays to be selective.
Soft and top fruits are often forgotten and perhaps that’s because the showy border flowers are synonymous with bees – but not in this garden. Apples, plums and all the currant and berry bushes are included on merit. And not just because of the pollination process. It’s a joy to see and hear the bee activity centred on a raspberry bed on a calm May day.
Garden Organic is an organisation that really cares about working with nature, protecting the soil and how garden crops are grown, including those we eat. Last year, they came up with a list of flowers that bumblebees favour, and the top five were; lavender, comfrey, raspberry, foxglove and pulmonaria. Just by chance all five are in this garden and Lavender Munstead lines part of the driveway. You would not believe the number of bumblers per metre run and different species that turn up each year.
Based on a combination of longest flowering period and greatest bee activity; heathers, lavender, pot marjoram, oregano, thyme, foxglove and Echinacea form the basis of my bumblebee survival kit.
The big Bombus we get in this garden is already nesting in one of those handy niches left in a dry-stone wall for robin, wren or whoever wishes to take up residence. But you can also attract them and keep the whole system under control by investing in a Bumblebee Lodge. This is something I was introduced to last week at The Alnwick Garden and it really appealed.
Shaped like a traditional beehive but less than one third the size, it is handcrafted in durable timber from FSC plantations, and has a hinged roof for observation access. The square-shaped recess inside holds a plastic box container with controllable exit and entrance ports.
A bumblebee colony of ten or so arrives in this and rapidly multiplies over the season. As they all disperse at the end of each year, you need to buy a new colony annually to place in the permanent lodge, or hope it is occupied naturally. The Beepol Bumblebee Lodge would be a great present for a keen gardener or naturalist. Get further information online at http//dragonfli.co.uk/ beepol_bumblebee_lodge.html
If a rare bird species were to be seen in the area we`d soon know by the cluster of telephoto lens cameras gathered near some local nature spot. But when a rare bumblebee turns up under our noses, it takes a visitor to spot it.
Such was the case when Jon Noad, who lives in Dumfries & Galloway, recognised a hairy-footed flower bee while visiting The Alnwick Garden. He sent a photograph of the bee to an expert at BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society.) who confirmed the identification adding that it was an exciting find, well north east of previous records. Should you find me genuflecting in TAG that is what I’m looking for!