There is currently a lot of concern in the UK about bees. Not the bs who tailgate your car when you’re trying to keep to the speed limit, nor the bbs who strew litter all over our beautiful country, and not even the bts whose customer service makes Fred@Karno’s-Army.com.uk look like a professional outfit. No I’m referring to Apis melifera the honey bee.
We gardeners owe them a great deal as they are a major pollinator of our fruit and vegetable crops. I don’t know what you’ve noticed in your garden but over the past few years the numbers here have reduced markedly. I’ve still got myriads of bumble bees, not so many wasps, but quite a few hornets.
These are also members of the order Hymenoptera and probably very useful in their own way at pollination. However, the wasps and hornets are carnivores and while wasps do a good job predating aphids and caterpillars, the hornets do attack honey bee colonies. Their attacks on my last remaining colony a few years ago led to a hiatus in my small-scale beekeeping activities. For a while pollination was under contract to my neighbour, who maintained a small apiary, but last winter he too decided that varroa mites and colony collapse disorder were making beekeeping too arduous. He kindly offered me his beekeeping equipment at a very reasonable price and this spurred me into restarting. I had left a couple of empty hives at the bottom of the garden in the hope that an itinerant swarm might take up residence, but all the talk of unwelcome immigration must have frightened them off.
There’s a kind and helpful man in Pangbourne called John Belcher. He’s a supplier of all things apiaristic and I ordered a new colony nucleus from him, for delivery in late May early June. With that in mind I sorted through my equipment including the old hives, turned out the uninvited mice that were squatting inside and gave everything a spring clean.
However, even after setting up a hive ready for the new nucleus, I still had loads of surplus equipment. Not having enough room in the garage for it all, I left some of the empty hives outside.
A couple of Saturdays ago, John phoned to say that he would deliver the nucleus the following Tuesday. The evening he called, we were due to attend a neighbour’s barbecue and, as I was shutting the upstairs windows, my attention was drawn to the stack of surplus hive lifts, roofs and floors. It was surrounded by a huge swarm of bees. Talk about buy one get one free.
I related this story to John when he arrived on Tuesday with the nucleus. “Do you think I should feed either of the two colonies,” I asked? We’d been looking around the garden which, even if I say so myself, was looking particularly floriferous. His response was affirmative because of the June gap, when there is a dearth of nectar forage for bees in the UK and Ireland.
Gardeners are used to the concept, because of the hungry-gap in May. All nature is growing hell-for-leather and there’s nothing to eat in the veg plot but asparagus and rhubarb. Brassicas have finished, courgettes aren’t ready yet and even early peas are not certain, so we know how the bees must feel.
There’s another potential gap in the fresh vegetable production line in the early autumn. Staples such as beans and courgettes are beginning to run out of steam. Sweetcorn has been harvested, brassicas and leeks aren’t really ready and one’s plate is rather crying out for something green among the root crops.
Which is where the so-called Chinese or oriental vegetables come in. They are cultivars of the brassica family and Sichuan Province, where most originate, has a warm, humid climate with plenty of rain from June to August. After that it becomes drier and cooler, but there is little frost.
Because they are brassicas oriental veg are also prey to club root, cabbage-white caterpillars, slugs and turnip flea-beetle. Accordingly, it’s important to include them in your crop rotation, which avoids growing the same vegetable group successively on the same patch of ground. Additionally, some sort of fine net or fleece protection will be necessary unless you can use DiPel, a biological control for caterpillars.
Above all other considerations, Oriental veg must not suffer from dry conditions. In addition, because they are fast-growing, leafy vegetables, they need copious supplies of nitrogen-based fertiliser and an organically rich root run.
Such conditions often exist after first and second early potatoes have been lifted, and that’s where I tend to grow my own Oriental veg. Some authorities recommend direct sowing of seed into the soil but I’ve found that, provided they are not allowed to dry out, Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, chopsuey greens, pak-choi and Japanese mizuna greens will all germinate quickly from seed and can be transplanted successfully. Copious watering and feeding is the key, so applying a liquid feed regularly will enhance cropping.
August and early September are good times to begin sowing, but do not expect young plants to tolerate any frost. Crops can be ready about six weeks after sowing and most of the seed companies have a good range. For organic seeds, Marshalls and Thompson & Morgan are available online, but Suttons also sell plug plants as well. I’ve tried them, but got better results from my own sowing.
Once planted out even older plants will succumb to a sharp frost, so lifting mature, hearted, Oriental veg will enable it to be stored in the fridge or a cool larder for a week or two. Loose head Oriental veg, such as pak-choi will need the salad drawer of the fridge. All will enliven stir fries, but can also be eaten raw with a nice honey and lemon dressing. That’s always providing a swarm of bees turns up on your doorstep.
To be or not to be
The June gap refers to a dearth of nectar forage for bees during June in the United Kingdom and Ireland and is significant because the energy requirement in the colony will have built up significantly by the time the dearth occurs. This is particularly true for a nucleus or emergent swarm. Many garden flowers have been bred as eye candy and produce little or no nectar for bees. Additionally, the yellow rape will have finished flowering, as will hawthorn and fruit trees. Plants that can help provide nectar in this gap are Cotoneaster and Pyracantha. Later on in the year, lime trees, bramble and ivy will sustain the colony.