Bee

Courtesy of MARION OWEN

A queen bumblebee uses her clawed “toes” to hold steady as she dips her tongue under a stone to drink sugar water syrup prepared by the author.

On a recent chilly morning, I carried my coffee outside and walked around the garden. I spotted new buds on the cherry tree and salmonberry bushes.

Closer to the ground, rhubarb leaves were fanning out, and primroses — those spring treasures of bold colors, shapes and textures — caused me to pause and appreciate them as if it were the first time. 

More flowers, though not as buoyant as the primroses. Clumps of white, purple and yellow crocus flowers were beginning to shrivel, thanks to rain and fog that doused our island 10 days ago.

The wilted flowers made me sad, because bumblebees — finally emerging from their lonely winter dens — would find less to eat.

I continued my trapline inspection of the garden, stopping at a cluster of not-as-faded blossoms and, to my surprise, a red-butt bumblebee (or so I call the ones with rust-colored bands on their abdomen) was perched on a crocus flower like a cat stranded on a rock during an incoming tide.

I figured the bee had just emerged from the flower after spending the night tucked inside the closed petals, and that she was cold, unable to fly (until her flight muscles warmed up) and hungry. 

I dashed to the house, made a beeline to the fridge (sorry, Marty, for tracking dirt onto the floor) and grabbed a covered glass container containing a sugar-water syrup I’d made the day before. Bumblebee food.

To prepare the plate, so to speak, I took a clean pill bottle cap and drizzled a couple tablespoons of the sweet liquid into the bottom and then placed two pebbles in the pool. You’ll see in a moment the purpose of the stones.

I returned to the bumblebee, which was still clinging to the top of the crocus, and placed the bottle cap on the ground. I held a twig in front of the bee’s face to entice her to let go of the flower so I could transfer her to the liquid food.

Slowly, she lifted one leg, then another, and crawled aboard. I gently lowered the stick, twisting it carefully so the bumblebee could get a whiff of the fluid with its antennae, where a bee’s sense of smell is located.

Within seconds, the bee crawled onto the pebbles, unrolled its golden brown tongue and plunged it into the syrup. 

Every spring, queen bumblebees emerge from their winter digs. Perhaps you’ve seen or heard them buzzing in your yard or while hiking on Near Island.

As sole survivors from last summer’s brood, they’re homeless as they search for a new place to establish a new colony. And, as I said, they’re hungry. 

Imagine hibernating underground, alone, in the dark, for seven months, grazing on the same old stale pollen, day after day. Wouldn’t a dandelion feast sound really good to you? 

If you were a bumblebee, a field of dandelions would be as welcome as a freshwater stream in Death Valley. For that reason, I’m encouraging you to hold off revving up the lawn mower or weed-whacker to mow down dandelions. At least for a little while, to allow early pollinators to bulk up.

That’s just one of many things to keep in mind this time of year. And to not panic. With the sap rising in the garden and in gardener, it’s not unusual to feel like your to-do list is already full. Let’s cover a few tips that will make a big difference in your growing season ... and your stress level.

MIND YOUR SOIL TEMPERATURE

Soil temperature is important to monitor, especially when transplanting seedlings outside. Best to have the soil temperature at least 43 degrees. A soil or compost thermometer is a useful tool (perhaps yogurt thermometers).

As for perennials, taking care of them in the spring will help them bloom longer in the summer. As I mentioned last week, primroses will tell you if they need dividing. If they are growing a tight mass or doughnut circle, they’re sending you a clear message that their shoes are too tight and it’s time to relieve their suffering.

HOW TO DIVIDE PERENNIALS

To divide perennials, use a sharp-edged shovel to slice right through the plant and root mass, which can be quite woody. Select a chunk and begin teasing the roots apart. If the roots refuse to untangle, this might call for a little encouragement in the form of dunking the root ball in water and swishing them to and fro as you gently pull them apart. Be patient. It works. Now transplant the roots in the garden or into 4-inch pots to give away. 

PLANT SALE

Speaking of dividing plants, a few Gardening Angels are organizing a plant sale for Saturday, May 9 and they are looking for plants. If you have rhubarb, raspberry plants, perennials, seedlings or shrubs, please pot them up in a container and bring them to 1223 W. Kouskov Street on Friday, May 8 and leave them in front of the garage. For more questions, or if you need assistance with plants, call 907-539-5009.

The plant sale itself will take place on May 9 (just in time for Mother’s Day) from 10 a.m. to noon. All proceeds from the sale will benefit Kodiak Island’s public radio station, KMXT. 

As for my sugar-water offering to the bumblebee, she took her sweet time at the feeding station. For five minutes she pulled on the liquid. Soon her abdomen began to flex, a sign that her internal temperature was rising, and her flight muscles were warming up. Suddenly, her whole body trembled a little. She raised her head, stepped off the rocks onto the ground, did a little dance (I like to think she was saying thanks), and flew away.

To finish up today’s column, I hope you’ll consider participating in Saturday’s plant sale, growing food for your neighbors and leaving a few dandelions for our bumblebee friends. 

GARDEN CALENDAR

• Divide rhubarb plants before leaves reach 6 to 8 inches tall.

• Sow cucumber and summer squash seeds.

• Start basil.

• Plant outdoors: Peas, spinach, onion sets or seedlings, potatoes, Swiss chard, mustard, kale, arugula, broccoli, calendula.

• Might be a bit too early to set out nasturtiums, ageratum, alyssum, snapdragons.

Get Marion’s free Photo Tips PDF, a collection of her favorite photography tips, on her blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com. Connect with Marion: Facebook and Instagram or send an email to Marion at mygarden@alaska.net.

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