Thursday, 26 January 2012

Welcoming the incomers

At last our snowdrops are out properly in the garden. I've watched them every day since they pushed the first green spears through the earth at the end of December. Spear isn't too strong a term - the points of their leaves are specially hardened to pierce the frozen ground should they need to.Then the slivers of white appeared tucked deep within the leaves, and slowly swelled and stretched each day, finally curving down today to form perfect, green-tipped bells. Those spears have made another little rip in winter's straitjacket.

Despite the fact that so many of us see them as one of the first signs of spring in the UK they're probably not native - and certainly not this far north. There aren't enough invertebrates around at this time of year (unless we have an unusually mild winter) to pollinate the snowdrops, so they can't produce viable seed. Most of the time they can only spread vegetatively - and that's a sure sign they didn't evolve to live here.

That doesn't stop me celebrating their arrival. And it does mean that if we do get a few calm, dry, warmer days there will be something for another not-really-native (but loved as one anyway) to eat. The queen honeybees, like the snowdrops, wake up in response to the lengthening days, not warmer weather. They, like the snowdrops probably, were introduced, in the bees' case by the Romans. And they also plan ahead. They store up food in the form of pollen in the autumn to get them through the first few weeks of egg-laying if the weather's bad. But if it's good, yippee! They'll be out of that nest as quick as you can say Apis mellifera to find some fresh food. That's where the snowdrops come in.

Ironically gardens are now more and more important for honey bees as our so-called 'countryside' is becoming more monocultural. There's almost always something flowering in a garden, whereas fields are likely to offer bees a feast for a few weeks in early summer, followed by a famine of many months. Just to add insult to injury some of the relatively new systemic insecticides, called neonicotinoids (derived from nicotine) that are in use seem to be reducing the bees' ability to breed and feed. Funnily enough this seems to be yet another example of cutting off the nose to spite the face - as farming relies on bees to pollinate a large proportion of its food crops. No bees, no fruit, no seed, no food, no us. I believe the commonly bandied figure is four years for the human race if we lose the bees. I will be looking out very keenly for my first bee -  so there's hope for the world this year at least.

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