Saturday, March 2, 2024

Honeybees are busier than we thought

Did you know that a good part of your honey may have come from insect poop. Yes, you heard that right, and I apologize if you’re drizzling honey on your cereal right now. A study of the DNA in honey carried out by Noah Wilson-Rich, an entomologist who founded The Best Bees Company, revealed that fact and other valuable information. The study sampled urban hives in major cities across the US and the preliminary results are surprising

AnatolianAuthentic Honey
We naturally assume that honey bees are busy collecting nectar and pollen from flowers, and we know they do because we watch them doing it. It’s a biased perception, however, as it’s easy to see the plants that bees are visiting in our gardens. We’ve not been paying attention to what they do at higher altitudes, and that’s one of the major discoveries that was made when the DNA in honey was studied.

The main sources of sugar in the honey tested did not come from wildflowers, but from trees, and not only from the blossoms; it also came from the excretions of sap-sucking insects, particularly aphids, those pesky critters that drive gardeners wild when they find them munching away on plants.

What goes in one end of a hungry aphid is the sap that the plant depends on to grow and flourish. Too many aphids and the plant can die. It’s what comes out of the other end of the aphid that attracts the bees. It’s a sweet, sticky substance called honeydew. Besides nectar from flowers, honeybees are slurping up honeydew, and there’s often plenty of it. We might see only a few aphids on plants in our gardens; up in the treetops there can be tremendous numbers — easy picking for bees, and there’s even more food available when a tree is in bloom, far more than in a garden below.

Whether from nectar or from honeydew, the study determined that 75% of the sugar collected by honeybees came from trees and not from wildflowers, especially in an urban setting. Although more native wildflowers than ever are being introduced into urban gardens to benefit pollinators, there’s often a far wider range than is present in a natural, rural area. In Boston, where interest in urban beekeeping has grown dramatically, the honey sampled contained the DNA of 411 plant species. Because of this larger diversity of plants, the hives there appeared to be healthier and more productive than rural ones.

Another discovery made by the researchers was regarding the types of trees and flowers the honeybees
preferred. Surprisingly, the flowers and trees favoured by them are not necessarily native ones. Honey bees don’t seem to care where lunch comes from. Even though coniferous trees are predominant in Seattle, the bees there favoured non-native linden and cypress trees.

Preferences varied from city to city because of the popularity of particular plants in a specific region. For instance, in New York, where even luxury hotels keep rooftop hives, the top three plants were locust and linden trees, and the flowers of sedum. In Portland, Oregon, known as the city of roses, no surprise that roses were in the top three along with begonias and sweet chestnut trees.

In San Francisco, where non-native eucalyptus trees have become an invasive species, there’s currently a debate going on whether to fell them or give them protection. The honeybees are not fussy. They’re such generalists, they don’t care that the trees are from Australia. They love them. Making up their top three favourites there are pine trees and rosemary.

Next time you hear buzzing in your garden, remember to look up, way up.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024


 Make a statement — plant a tree. If it's only what, where, when, and how that's stopping you, perhaps I can help.

Maybe you've already decided on what type of tree you wish, possibly influenced by childhood memories of lazy afternoons spent beneath a huge maple, or swinging from the branch of a sturdy oak. There's nothing wrong with those choices; however, it may take half a lifetime before those trees grow
large enough for you to relive those dreams, and that's if you stay in your home longer than the Canadian average of only a few years. The beauty of planting a tree, though, is the legacy you will leave. Someday, someone may relax in the shade or swing from the branches of your tree.

The ultimate size of any tree you plant is a serious consideration. Most building lots are small these days and can barely accommodate the house, let alone a tree, and planting large varieties too close to buildings, driveways, or neighbouring properties is a common error. Keep in mind, too, that a tree with a 25 cm wide trunk requires a soil surface of about 20 square metres to stay healthy. Fortunately, nurseries stock a wide range of smaller trees that are more suited to smaller gardens.

Before choosing a tree, consider the conditions around where it will be planted — things like sun and shade or type of soil. Most trees will adapt to local soil conditions, but some will have preferences as to how wet or how dry, how sandy or how clay-like the soil is. Try to select a tree with a shape that will complement the desired function. 

Do you need a  tree that will act as a screen or a windbreak, one that's dense enough to provide summer shade, or one that's airy and open like the honey locust with its lovely lime green foliage? If you have this information before heading out to the nursery or tree farm, it will be easier for knowledgeable staff to make recommendations. Early spring is a good time to plant deciduous trees whilst they're dormant and more so for evergreens. Fall can be a better time to plant deciduous as it allows them to direct growth to the roots before winter. In spring there's a greater demand for water in summer when the tree has leafed out.

After purchasing a tree, be kind to it when handling and transporting. Lift the tree by the container or root ball and not by the trunk. If you can't plant it right away, leave the tree in a sheltered corner out of the sun, but don't forget to water it.

Digging a good hole for a new tree can be a challenge. If the ground is very dry, give it a thorough soaking ahead of time and digging will be much easier. Planting depth is most important. The tree should be planted with the root flare visible --  where the roots leave the trunk. It may be not be visible in the container if it was planted too deep. Always dig the hole wider rather than deeper. Make it bowl-shaped not pail-shaped, up to three times the diameter of the container and loosen up the soil only a little at the bottom, leaving a slight mound on which to set the root ball so that the tree won't settle.

Remove the tree from its container at the last minute before planting and check the roots. Most of the soil can be shaken off or even washed off because the material it was planted in will be nothing like the local soil. Check the roots and if they've been circling in the container, loosen them and spread them  out.

When filling in the hole, don’t amend the soil. Enriching a small area around the tree with large amounts of manure and peat moss isn't advised as it will only discourage the roots from spreading. There is no need to add fertilizers. Pack the soil in carefully and water well, but don't drown the roots, especially if the soil is slow to drain. Continue to water as needed until your tree is established, keeping the soil moist but not soaking wet. Mulching with wood chips will help retain moisture, so put down a layer
about 50-70mm deep and do not pile it against the trunk.

Unless the tree is especially tall or in a windy location where it's going to be whipped about, it isn't essential to stake or anchor the tree. If you feel it may be necessary, keep it lower on the trunk and anything wrapped around should be soft — no tight ropes or wire. A piece of loose fabric or old pantyhose is good, but guys, ask first.

And that's the what, when, where, and how, of planting a tree. As for the why, it's because trees are essential to our survival. Care for them and they'll care for us. They are the lungs of the planet.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

For my latest column, follow the link below then click on "Columns" top left.
Does your garden have winter interest? Unless there’s a fresh coat of pristine snow on mine in February, it’s as likely to be covered in grubby slush.


Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Sick Seedlings

Starting seeds indoors is always fun, but sometimes it can be disheartening, especially for beginners when newly sprouted seeds begin to grow and then overnight the seed tray looks like a mini tornado swept through. Seedlings are left horizontal, dead and dying, and appear to have had their stems pinched right at the soil level.

What happened is a disease called Damping Off. It’s caused by any of a number of fungi that occur in all soils and tends to attack slow-growing or weak plants. As the name suggests, the disease prefers damp conditions, exactly what is required for growing seedlings. There used to be commercial fungicides designed specifically to control damping off but they are no longer available to home gardeners.  A few precautions, however, can reduce the likelihood of damping off. 

Use clean containers and a soill-free potting mix for starting seeds. Fill seed trays or pots right to the brim with the soil and avoid spreading seeds too densely. This allows for more air movement at the surface. A small fan blowing across seedlings can be helpful, but keep in mind this can rapidly dry out the soil.

If you start your seeds under a plastic cover, which is the usual way, remove the cover as soon as germination has taken place as fungal growth loves the high humidity under the cover. For the same reason don’t overwater and avoid watering from above as this ensures the soil surface remains damp and conducive to fungal growth.

Many untested suggestions such as sprinkling cinnamon on the soil surface have made the rounds online, and though cinnamon does have anti-fungal properties, the only hard evidence is on cinnamon oil, rather than the powder (which may not be pure cinnamon), so I’d save it for the hot chocolate and apple pie.