Leaf it Bee

Oct 2016

By Kathryn Pankowski

I have a story to tell you. Last winter, on one of those rare but extremely pleasant sunny days, I was seized by a fit of gardening enthusiasm and decided to clean out some of the six inches or so of old bamboo leaves that had piled up around the base of the clump.

I began tidying and, a few inches down, found a very sleepy bee who yawned, swore a bit, and burrowed deeper into the leaves. Then I found another bee. And then another. And then, eventually, it dawned on me that the whole leaf pile was full of dozens of hibernating bees. So I apologized, put back the leaves I’d taken off, and moved on.  

Photo by Kathryn Pankowski

The moral of this story, of course, is not to be too hasty in tidying up leaves.

I’m not good enough at bee ID to tell you what kind of bees these were, but they were some kind of native bumble bee. And one of the major threats facing our native bees is loss of habitat. The more we build, and pave, and tidy up, the fewer places there are for bees to nest and to overwinter.

Overwintering spots are particularly important for bumble bees because of their life cycle. The new queen bees emerge in the fall, and they are the only bees from the bumble bee colony that will live through the winter to start a new colony in the spring. So each of the bumble bees snoozing under my bamboo was not just one bee, but (potentially) a whole new colony of bees.

It’s not just bees that use fallen leaves as ‘insulation’ to survive the winter; other beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, also spend the dark and damp season tucked up under cozy leaf duvets.

So if you have a garden, think about where you could leave some leaves: tucked up under a hedge or around the stems of a large perennial perhaps, or between the corner of a fence and the shrub in front of it.

If you have a small townhouse garden – or even a balcony – you can still provide a bit of habitat. There are fancy ‘bug hotels’ for sale and plans on how to build them all over the internet, but these probably provide a lot more gratification to humans than to insects. All a bee needs is some dry leaves stuffed in a place where they won’t blow away or get too wet, and to have them left undisturbed until it warms up in spring.

So, if you’ve got pots on your balcony and leaves blow in and lodge in the corner behind them, see if you can bear to let the leaves stay there for the winter. Or stuff a big unused pot or a bucket full of leaves and turn it on its side, leaning something against the bottom half of the opening so the leaves don’t fall out. This, by the way, is a great project to do with kids: you can talk about how bumble bees are like bears and need a safe place to sleep for the winter.

Leaves. It’s not just what they’re called. It’s what we should do with (some of) them too.  

Neighbourhood Garden News

We’ll be holding our James Bay neighbourhood plant swap and sale again next spring, so, please, if you are dividing or thinning plants this fall, don’t compost them – pot them up and let them get all fat and happy for the 2017 swap & sale. Your neighbours will thank you!

Victoria City Council has passed changes to the by-laws that govern urban farming. What does this mean for you? If you have a garden and grow more produce than you use, you can now (with the purchase of a three-month business license for $25) set up a small farm stand at your gate and sell your excess produce. And if you don’t have a garden yourself, it means that, starting next year, you may be able to buy very fresh fruit and veg directly from your neighbours.

Kathryn Pankowski is the James Bay Neighbourhood Association Neighbourhood Gardening Advocate: she can be reached at jamesbaygardens@gmail.com. The JBNA would like to acknowledge the financial support of the City of Victoria for this initiative.