Saturday, 21 April 2012

Being A Bee - Dark Eyes

Now here's a fretful, plaintive little song, one that starts so small and weak, only gradually building strength, even then sadly thin and fearful.

I'm not about to claim that I understand what Dylan wishes to tell us about in this song, but I can hear him buzzing, like a puzzled bombus terrestis or bumble-bee; knocking about, from image to image, looking for nectar.  Does he find it?  Listen and see what you think.  He starts off near some people drinking and laughing by the river, then flies heavily off contemplating life and death, the doom that awaits the bee.  His wings are not graceful, stubby bits of gauze, more like fans than wings.  His purpose seems confused.

He's looking for dark-eyed flowers perhaps.  He's focussed on dark eyes, even in his sadness.  He pays a heavy price for hunger and revenge is of no interest to him.

Perhaps he's really a she and looking for the dryish part of an ordinary open compost heap.  That seems to be a favourite area for nesting.  My sister and I, who share an allotment, were once beset by bees.  We'd left some dry leaves in a wheelbarrow, in the open.  Bumble-bees considered it a desireable residence and  failed to apply any theoretical understanding to the meaning and purpose of a wheelbarrow.   You could say we were bedevilled, every time we turned round there was another one, demanding to know what the hell we thought we were doing, coming so close.  We quite enjoyed the squawking and the running about though - you might as well have a bit of fun.

In the end, we had to abandon that area, kindness NOT fear, for most of the summer.  Yesterday, in a garden where I work, I noticed a huge buzzing materfamilias, prospecting round a leafy heap under a tree.  This time I felt blessed and enthusiastic.  She's clearly an intelligent and discrimating animal, who's picked a perfect spot.  So we choose, so we judge; nature's beasts but persuaded of our omnipotence.

The song, Dark Eyes, is the last track on Empire Burlesque, a generally poorly acclaimed album.  I say no more at this stage.  It is a quiet little song of searching and memory, just guitar and harmonica, none of the musical backing used elsewhere.  This makes it stranger, even more plaintive and other-worldly than it might otherwise be.  That's my strongest feeling about the song - this sense of lonely alienation and distance, like an inability to be roused by more ordinary worldly concerns, a loss of contact, of warmth and emotion. 

And let's have a look at the other-worldiness of the bumble bee.  For a start, it's awfully hard to understand how the poor thing, so bulky, so frail, achieves flight at all.  Phalanxes of scientists have not yet been able to explain exactly how such a body/wing combination is able to rise into the air and stay aloft.  More wing is needed, or less body.  But it happens, so it's a failure of research money and understanding, not the laws of physics; something to do with angles, speed and type of flapping.

Bumble-bees look shaky as they tool about, heavy but uncertain, clumsy but fragile.  I feel like that sometimes - it's not comfortable, like riding a bike with a lot of luggage.  Yet I feel a deep fondness for them; a robin and one of these, so long as they're just researching food and nest options: they're the perfect company as you weed.  I would love to comfort a bumble bee, and I have a plan to do so.

We all know that bees are in trouble.  And why should they be alright?  Given the state of everything else, it would be odd really.  I'm not complacent, just convinced that the whole issue of honey bees is so fraught with strange agricultural practices, commercial considerations and deeply compromised interests that we're not going to get any real sense out of the situation.  Anyway you already know all about it.  Over-fertilised monocultures, that about sums it up.

I want to mention another book here, one that may be hard to obtain but is delightfully sensible and sensitive. It's Hedgerow by Anne Angus, a transplanted American who took up residence in Wales.  She observed the life of her local hedgerow with a diligent intelligence that gives the reader a clear understanding of an entire separate universe right under our feet.  It's a book that helps us to garden too, warming our hearts and minds.

Enter Ken Thompson too, who I've mentioned before, and who still fills me with confidence and enthusiasm.  He makes a lot of things clear, things that otherwise get lost in a haze of sunshine, guilt and confusion.  For a start, you don't have to have a meadow to do your bit, all you need is a regular domestic garden, with lots of plants and variety in it, plus a general aim of having something in flower for as long as possible, and a few easyish practices. Foreign plants are good for lots of things.  Don't use insecticides, don't be too tidy.  Try and find space for a bit of long grass.  Grow single flowers where there's a choice.

Here's a honey-bee observation, made by me in two different gardens in America.  The mountain mint, or pycnanthemum muticum.  I hope you can see them, I can count  24, on this area alone.

I have never seen a plant so adored by honey bees, and it's a shimmery bluey silver - very nice.  I tried to grow it here but it didn't germinate.  This means nothing of course, lots of things fail for all of us, I ought to try again, being more careful, but you know how it is.  Further research tells me it's so easy to grow that it can be aggressive so you will find me firmly in my place for the rest of the day.  But, I'll point out, in a whiney voice, maybe it justs grows well in America.

Anyway, it's good on woodland edges, so it can cope with a bit of shade, it's a perennial member of the monarda tribe, it smells of mint, it flowers for a long time and both times I saw it it appeared to be a bee factory, so many were on it and around it.

Butterflies love it too, the flowers have nice platforms for landing on and are composed of round masses of florets.  Perfect.  If you can, give it a go, it should be in every garden.  Constant, even moisture is mentioned but that may be a counsel beyond perfection, so we'll draw a veil.  Of course it's not blazingly colourful, and that tells you something about bees - they're not bothered by colour apparently, and red is a turn-off.  Their eye-sight is extremely poor.  They might be helped by bee guidelines and dark eyes.  I have no idea how anyone works out what bees think about colours.

This next plant appears not to grow well in America, at least according to a relative.  But here it's indispensable for the early bees, who need good spring provisions to start their cycle of nesting and procreation.  I understand it's becoming rare in the wild, and I hope it won't suffer the fate of so many discreet perennials in gardens, and gradually be supplanted by more glamorous temporary inhabitants. It's pulmonaria officinalis, in all its forms.

A shade lover, rapid and promiscuous but clearly clump-forming, nearly always busy with bees, like all the comfreys, its close relatives.  As it becomes preoccupied with seed production and its flowers start to fail you can, if you have a sweet nature and especially if there's some other worse, more pressing task calling you, settle down beside it and pick out all the gone-over stems, just with your hands, like picking flowers.  That will stop it seeding for a bit and make it flower longer for the bees.  It will also make it look prettier.

When the flowering is finished, strim or cut it to the ground - instantly it will produce beautiful new fresh leaves which will look good for the rest of the year.  If you don't do this, it will gradually exhaust itself with seeding, mildew and sad muddle-headedness.  That's what makes it unpopular.  These small attentions you know, they make all the difference in small gardens.

What I originally wanted to say though, is slightly different - it's my usual hobby horse, derived from many years of gardening every day, in an area where winters and summers are not different worlds but shade into each other.  And it's about planting for continuity of nectar and pollen, using  layering, shade and shrubs and trees as well as the usual knee-high flowers in the open sunny spots.  That way, you cover shelter for hibernation and nesting as well as supermarkets for food, as provided by colourful and beautiful meadow planting.  That's it really, an unoriginal thought but one that gets ignored when it suits fashion to reject shrubs.

Here's a mahonia, possibly aquifolium Smaragd, in a cold garden on a cold  showery day, so not covered in bees.  It's looking gorgeous, and strangely sunny with the white dicentra;, very few would choose to plant it these days, but it furnishes, shelters, feeds and protects.   Dicentra too is popular with bees, you see them hanging underneath, shouldering their way up into the gentle waxiness, the lovers' pearls we hear in the song perhaps.

In the UK, you can cover the entire year, quite easily, providing comfort stops for innumerable different pollinators, just by including a few common stalwart shrubs and trees in your planting.  Mahonia, so good in dry shade, hawthorns, apples, cotoneasters, hydrangea villosa (blue legs are charming on a bee), flowering ivy, eupatorium ligustrinum, eucryphia Nymansay, ligustrum of any kind, escallonia bifida - all of those will be beseiged, massing flowers in three dimensions.  Robinias, honeysuckles, wisterias, brooms - they will all assist and comfort.  My beloved vinca difformis is useful whenever there is warmth between November and May.  It has dark eyes, but they're actually small pits.

So let's go back to the song - of course it's not really about a bumble bee but it's oddly apposite, that notion of "a million faces at my feet" and "Time is short and days are sweet".  There's a bit of drunken driving about as well and a sense of resistance to mechanisation.  A war seems to be going on in the background, with soldiers and sad mothers: that must be the war on wildlife and pests, conducted by anxious humanity, bound for sterile cleanliness.

Do you remember when every hardware outlet offered complicated insect zappers, ones with some kind of sonic allure, calling out to all flying insects in the vicinity.  They would home in, only to die, singed on a kind of electric net.  I despised them, mosquitoes do bother me and I'm quite keen on the idea of genetic modification to eliminate dengue fever, hopefully malaria could go the same way eventually.  But the idea of simply eliminating mildly inconvenient insect life, all of it, struck me as beyond hubristic.  May the inventors and buyers of such gizmos die in the flames of their own patio heaters - the heat and flame of the song, where beauty goes unrecognised.

The awful thing is that these zappers are not half as prevalent as they were, I fear this is because the number of insects has become inconsequential.  Like the loss of squashed hedgehogs on the roads, this doesn't mean the hedgehogs have got street-wise and safety-conscious.  Just that there are so few left; they're not lurking comfortably in warm happy hedgehog homes you know, telling each other that they won't go out until the traffic's died down.

Swallows, house-martins and bats are dropping in population  - they all depend on skies full of insect life - there are more like that than I can enumerate.  Oh God, I'm driving myself into a sad low state.  All I see are dark eyes, not at my feet for I am not a rock star, but under my frantically beating wings, peering up towards me as I blunder vainly about, searching for pollen for my losing larvae, nectar to fuel myself, not avenge myself, and hope for the future, just for survival. I must memorise life and death, otherwise there really is nothing left at all, those dark eyes will be empty, no pin points of sparkle, no come-hithers or stay-heres.

But I don't like to leave you, or myself, like this.  Let's comfort the earliest bumble-bees with sheltered garden niches, made to imitate warm, busy populated hedgerow bases.  There we can grow violets, ajugas, sedums, thrifts, nerines and zauschnerias for much later, origanums, maybe species tulips or anemones.  I'm startled to see how much life there is in a tiny semi-circular bed against my terrace.

It's so full I barely ever weed it, but it's always colourful and active, it doesn't need tilling and resowing like the gorgeous annual meadow beds made by the council in the centre of the dual carriage-way, the first photograph in this piece.

I just sit beside this little bed every now and then and tidy it a bit, when I'm worn down or exhausted, and I become so fascinated by what I find that I can hardly tear myself away.  That's when gardening is truly therapeutic, when there's really not that much to do and you sink into the vast complexity of nature in its smallest, most detailed form.  All the little eyes darting and winking, their darkness revealed by light.  That's when I feel I have found the strange peace that the singer seems to convey in his final two lines, when he seems to connect with the million faces.  He doesn't do it closely or easily but he seems to feel the dark eyes in their massed otherness, even as he sees them, they're alien but alive.


  1. I love pulmonaria, not unconnected with the fact that it loves me as so much does not up here. I also agree entirely about the usefulness of shrubs for pollinating insects. I find the trees and hedgerows in my garden are full of insects, as is the cotoneaster.

  2. I have bought seeds from Herne Bay in Bloom(responsible for roadside planting around here) I am going to scatter them among my regular planting so fingers crossed, I also have several nests, one in a large pile of litter under a wall and one in wooden planter, has been in use for the last 3 years.I hate insecticides but how to help my spindle tree survive attacks by rampant blackfly??(helped by ants)?

  3. Jane, I am looking for something for the shade. I may give it a try here in New England. I have come to love my bumblebees, and your post was terrific. Oh for the energy and physical ability to get down in the earth again. My spine will not allow it! I plant in pots and waist high and the flowers reach over and above the fence. The bees and hummingbirds love that.

    My secret garden is coming to life. Amazing what is out in those woods. I will post you when I put up some photos, but sill without names for many. Just having it take care of itself is heaven. Thanks for this joyous post and blog, gin

  4. Thanks for these comments, excuse late response, it's no lack of appreciation but I'm messing about in Italy and finding most things rather puzzling! Where to find wifi included.

    But DELIGHTED to hear from you, all very pro-insect, like sane people. Jenny, have you tried the soft soap, obviously you have, silly question. Some people say milk but I'm not convinced. Strong blasts of water? Would probably knock the tree over. Mild detergent solution on a cloth? Or mineral oil? Christian Science? Or start again with new healthy specimen? Anyway be in touch.

    Gin, great to hear from you. Your place sounds wonderful. I look forward to seeing more - I know you have marvellous scenery.

    Elizabethm, enjoying your blog too, you seem to cover every front - I have a lot to learn about coping with a large area! Pulmonarias here in Piemonte are twice the size of mine, but far fewer flowers and leaves with poor indistinct spots. So much is different, but the same, it's disorientating.