• People in Helmsley Walled Garden

May 2019 – Laburnum and the bees

As I write this, it’s lovely and sunny but we still live with the potential threat of frost turning up just as you think you are safe. We‘ve been bold and planted out our sunflowers in the cut flower border and I’ve been busy bulking up some of the display in the Physic Garden, things like Mugwort, Aquilegia, Agrimony and Parsley. In the sixteenth Century, Nicholas Culpepper gave it to patients to help with kidney function and getting rid of kidney stones and herbalists still use it to treat kidney ailments today.

But however busy I am (and it is pretty well crazy in the garden until the end of June getting everything into the ground) I always make time towards the end of May to make time to stand under the Laburnum Arch. There are many reasons to do this, one would be the delicate but heavenly scent, another would be to admire the rich gold of the flowers. But the best reason is to watch and listen to the bees. Standing there first thing before we open to visitors, the only thing I can hear is a prolonged buzz as bees of all varieties bounce from flower to flower, collecting pollen and nectar. For me it’s one of life’s pleasures to watch those industrious little creatures collecting as fast as they can, and it goes without saying that I am a big fan of honey.

We have kept bees in here at the Garden in previous years. Our last colonies went to Fountains Abbey when Mike, our last garden manager retired. I took the sad but realistic decision that with everything else I just couldn’t look after them on my own so we waved them goodbye as they went to their illustrious new home.

I’d really like to have bee hives back in the Garden at some time in the future as apart from being fabulous pollinators (and of course keeping me in the amounts of honey I wish always to be accustomed to) their outlook on life – if one can say a bee has an outlook – is something we humans could learn from.

Everything they do, they do for the colony from the minute they are born. The instant they emerge from their cell the first thing they do is turn around and clean it so the Queen can lay a new egg in it. Imagine if you could train teenagers to do that!

After that they are nurse bees, then guard bees, working at the entrance to the hive to check the bees coming in belong and there are no intruders trying to steal their honey supplies. Finally they become foragers, going out to find pollen and nectar and, if they find a good supply, coming back and telling other foragers exactly where the nectar source is by dancing. Sounds strange but they perform a complicated waggle dance which tells the other bees how far away it is and in which direction.

I should at this point mention that it is only the girls that do all this. Any males, called drones, born in the hive are there simply to mate with the Queen on her virgin flight. Once that’s done they sit around the hive until autumn arrives when they are thrown out to die as the colony contracts for winter. It’s a tough life being a male bee!

Do come and admire the Laburnum and the bees and maybe next time you spread honey on toast, think of those industrious girls who made it for you. Enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris May 2019