Bees and Ponds - two good reads

We’re lucky this year to have two really illuminating books arrive on two topics of vital interest to gardeners: the one, by Minnesota writer Heather Holm, on providing the conditions that will help our native bees flourish; the other, by Southern Ontario garden expert Robert Pavlis, about creating a pond that takes care of itself. Here are my reviews:

Bees - An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide by Heather Holm (2017 -paperback, 224pp – Pollination Press $29.95)

Holm’s second book is a tour de force, combining plant knowledge with an intimate understanding of the native bees of Eastern North America. While this is a beautifully produced publication with stunning photographs, it is Holm’s genius for organizing information in a way that’s clear and accessible that makes it especially valuable.

There are more than 300 species of native bees here in Huronia. (The invasive European honey bee is not one of them.) Bee identification is a tricky business, especially as some bee look-alikes are actually flies, and some wasp look-alikes are actually bees. This book - which covers the Midwest, Great Lakes and Northeast Regions – will get you started with a useful chart that zeroes in on key identifiers such as hairiness, antennae length, number of wings, waistedness and eye position. Another chart helps narrow down the search by size, time of year and general appearance. Then you go to one of the chapters on each of the five major bee families found in Ontario.

I found it quite easy to determine that the dozens of bees I observed last week flying low to the ground in two different sparsely vegetated sandy areas were of the family Colletes, of the species C. inaequalis (unequal cellophane bees), which are among the earliest bees to emerge in spring. Few people would consider the areas where I found them – a former quarry in a tract of Simcoe County forest that’s favoured by clay target shooters, and a garbage-strewn waste ground along Huronia Rd. in Barrie – to be particularly attractive but for these extremely busy creatures that are among the first of their kind to appear in spring, they are vital habitat.

And the bees were fascinating to watch. What were they up to? Holm has the answer: The males typically emerge first from the nests (the entrances are small holes in the bank or path) and fly low to the ground, waiting for the females. When one comes out, they converge and compete to mate with her. The family gets its name from a waterproof membrane these bees make to line their nests against flooding, dessication and spoilage of the pollen/nectar provisions laid in for the larvae.

I’m interested in bees because of my passion for plants – and if you’re like me, you’ll be delighted with the second half of the book which is a treasure trove of information about plants. Holm has profiled more than 100 plants - the most important large and small trees, shrubs and annuals/biennials/perennials that provide forage for bees. All her selections are native. Native bees have developed a mutually beneficial relationship with native plants for thousands of years, she explains, and native flowering plants are four times more likely to attract pollinators than exotics (non-natives). Some bees are specialists and cannot survive or rear offspring without specific native plants.

Charts and graphics provide key information – the plant’s desired habitat, soil type, exposure (sun or shade), time of flowering, whether butterflies visit or are able to breed, whether food or nesting habitat is provided for birds and so on. Well-chosen photographs show the flowering and form of each plant.

At the back of the book, more useful data:

-A list of actions that will benefit bees (leave areas of bare soil, leave or add downed logs, leave leaf litter, provide a succession of flowering plants, plant forage plants in masses to create better visual attractants) or not (don’t till soil, don’t compact soil, don’t destroy rodent holes, don’t plant only annuals, don’t use pesticides).

-As well as a glossary of terms used to describe bees or plants, a list of websites and a comprehensive bibliography. Holm’s first book, Pollinators of Native Plants, takes a wider look at beneficial insects (bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and beetles) and their interaction with the plants they need. Both books are available from Return of the Native.

The leave-it-to-nature approach

Building Natural Ponds: Create a Clean, Algae-free Pond without Pumps, Filters, or Chemicals, by Robert Pavlis (2017 - paperback, 161 pp, New Society Publishers, $24.99)

I’ve been waiting for this book since we first dug my pond in 2005. I knew I wanted a pond that would function naturally, without requiring electricity, and without using chemicals. Fourteen years later, I’ve worked out for myself many of the common sense solutions Robert Pavlis provides. But he explains the underlying science that supports the laid-back, leave-it-to nature approach and has much more in the way of helpful hints arising from long years of experience in pond construction and management.

In many respects, I have to live with the mistakes I made in the construction. Had I had this book back then, I would have avoided them. My primary fault was a poorly planned edge with no spillway and no natural intake. Another mistake was choosing a location with insufficient visibility from the house and a lack of seating. I have subsequently removed a flowerbed and taken other measures to make the pond a place of contemplation for humans as well as a home for amphibians and dragonflies and other creatures. It would have been better to plot it out at the start.

I wish I had thought of the idea of establishing a rain garden, fed from the house’s eavestroughing, that could be incorporated into the pond’s design and could provide a natural input of water. I did, last year, put in a bog garden next to the pond to make a space for the plants that should grow by the water but can’t, if you have a rubber liner, because it’s as dry as a bone on the other side of the liner. Through the years, I figured out that much of the advice we get from pond professionals is make-work for us and make-money for them. But it’s so great to see Pavlis come out authoritatively on the just-don’t-bother side of the debate. For instance, no, you don’t need to control the pH, measure ammonium, add bacteria, install devices to keep the water moving, or clean out the pond every year.

So how does one keep a pond clear of algae and mosquitoes and undesirable odours? Pavlis explains the chemistry of keeping down the nutrient load and raising the oxygen level in the water. It’s simple: Grow pond plants. Not in soil – lowering pots of soil into the water  introduces nutrients and you don’t want those. Instead, weigh your plant roots down with stones. Let frogs and other creatures take care of the mosquito larvae, add fish if you want, but not too many and don’t feed them. My advice, from a climate zone north of Pavlis, is that keeping fish alive in a small lined pond is a winter headache, so don’t bother if your goal is to make the pond interesting. Watch the frogs instead. If you want to raise fish, Pavlis touches on how to make that work.

This book is workmanlike in the best sense of the word, covering just about everything a large or small pond-owner needs to know – from digging to design to plant selection. While Pavlis lists the invasive plants you should not choose because they have escaped garden ponds and become a problem in our waterways, he does not emphasize native plants, as I would, although many of the plants he suggests are native. I would for instance add our Northern Blue Flag Iris to his list of irises, I find them as lovely as any exotic.

To complement this practical volume with a keenly observed and beautifully crafted guide to the life you will become privileged to witness as you lounge by the pond, I recommend a book I picked up second-hand last year: Watchers at the Pond, by Franklin Russell. First published in 1961, with the most recent edition dating back to 2000, this should be a Canadian classic – along with many other works by this mostly forgotten but once-prolific nature writer.
Lori Hanna
- 22 April 2017 at 09:49am

Thanks Kate for these fantastic reviews! I will add some Northern Blue Iris in pots with stones to my pond this year! Do you have any suggestions on where to buy them?
Happy gardening!
- 22 April 2017 at 11:37am

Hi Lori, you can get this Iris from my nursery! Opening May 11
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