It’s Almost March, Are Your Native Bees Ready?

Prepping tubes for mason and leaf cutter bees.

Buy Bright Creations mason bee tubes – US

Buy Milliard mason bee tubes – Canada

Just like that we’re (hopefully) through the worst of winter here in the Pacific Northwest. We’re into March in a month, which means it’s time to ready your bee homes, and the residents they’ll house. 

While there aren’t any blooms out at this point, other than a handful of crocus’ providing a splash of colour, the various berry bushes have produced buds, with the gooseberries showing the first hint of leaves. It won’t be long now, and previous years have taught me that without the mason bees, we’ll be lucky to get fruit from the gooseberries, blueberries and currants.

My chief learnings from the last year would be the following, along with mitigation ideas for this time around.

  • Angle the bee houses slightly forward. Last year, despite facing the tube openings eastward there were a few days with heavy wind and rain that saw moisture enter the bee home. This year I’ll be tethering the homes more securely to their anchors to prevent even the slightest shifting in wind, and I’ll be angling them slightly forward so that any liquid that enters has a natural path out.
  • Reconsider wooden bee houses. My wooden houses are in rough shape after only two seasons. This year I’m thinking of trying to repurpose something like plastic milk jugs or 2L soda bottles to form the shell of the bee home. Benefits I’m hoping for are that it allows reuse of an existing material, is impermeable to water, can be cut to the necessary dimensions including an overhang to limit water ingress, and won’t break down under the stresses of Vancouver weather. The test will be securing the bee tubes side the slick plastic shell.

Finally, if you’re looking for a source of good quality, well-priced mason bee tubes here are the ones I’m testing this year. I’ll be comparing them to the drilled bamboo tubes I used last year.

Buy Bright Creations mason bee tubes – US

Buy Milliard mason bee tubes – Canada

There you have it. Good luck!

Growing Cape Gooseberries – Physalis peruviana

Cape gooseberry (aunt molly's ground cherry) grown in Vancouver, BC

Buy Physalis Peruviana Seeds – US

Buy Physalis Peruviana Seeds – Canada

You may be wondering what a cape gooseberry is. I’m fairly certain you’ve seen one, even if you didn’t realize what it was. Cape gooseberry, aka Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry, aka Aztec berry, Golden berry, Inca berry or Poha berry fruit are small (in my experience less than an inch in diameter) round fruits that grow in a ‘husk’ similar to tomatillos. As the fruit mature, they change from green to yellow/orange, and the husk changes from green to brown and papery. At this point the fruit start to drop from the plant and are ready to eat. The fruit stays fresh for quite a while so long as it remains in the husk.

Cape gooseberries are related to tomatoes and potatoes as a member of the nightshade family. The flowers are very similar to those of tomatillos, and the bees seem to love them. The ripe berries are safe to eat, though as I understand it, the leaves, stalks and unripe fruit can make you sick. In my experience the plants grow to about 18 inches in height and branch to around 24 inches in diameter. One plant produces are surprising amount of fruit.

As far as care is concerned, I’ve found them very easy to grow, however there are a few things to note. First, I’ve never seen cape gooseberry seedlings for sale, so I’ve always grown them from seed. They start to sprout as soon as the soil starts to really warm up. They’ll also reseed themselves in subsequent years if you let the fruit drop. While I’ve experienced good fruiting from such self-seeded plants, I’m going to use pure seeds this year as I don’t know how crossing might affect them (I grow both cape gooseberries and tomatillos in my garden). These plants like heat so I plant them in the garden in full sun. The most success I’ve had was actually at our previous place in pots on a balcony. Amount of sunlight wasn’t that much different, but in that location the plants benefited from reflected heat off the building. Again, this is just an hypothesis. The only pests I’ve experienced were aphids which swarmed the plants two summers ago. That said, I had no issues with aphids this past year. I have no idea what the difference was.

Finally, watering. Cape gooseberries will let you know when they need water as their leaves begin to droop. I’ve tried to keep them supplied so that it doesn’t get to this point, but anytime it has they’ve recovered quickly. Toward the end of the year I’ve noticed that too much water will see the fruit split their skins. In this over-watered state they also lack the sweetness that you’re looking for… so in my opinion it’s better to under-water than over.

Don’t overthink these berries. They’re easy to grow and delicious so give them a shot. I’ve had luck with seeds from all over. I can’t speak to the different variants of cape gooseberry, but I’ve purchased seeds from Westcoast seeds and eBay with success.

Buy Physalis Peruviana Seeds – US

Buy Physalis Peruviana Seeds – Canada

The Problem With Pollinators – Early Flowering Plants And Missing Bee Population

Mason bee home suspended in a tree - Vancouver, BC

Buy Mason Bee houses and refill tubes – US

Buy Mason Bee houses and refill tubes – Canada

What’s the problem with pollinators? There aren’t enough of them… and they sleep in.

My second year, I added berry bushes to the roof, and added to the count this past season. What I found is that the berries bud and flower much sooner than vegetables in this climate, and apparently much sooner than bumblebees and honeybees surface to help with pollination. As a result, I’ve had very limited fruit production, though this past year I was able to get some improvement by manually making the effort.

The fruit in question are:

  • Gooseberries (european): 2 bushes
  • Blueberries: 2 bushes
  • Currants: 3 plants

Growing blueberries, gooseberries and currants – Amazon.ca

I don’t know if the issue is that local pollinators aren’t emerging at the same time, or whether the location, and relatively limited flower options means they don’t visit until blooms are more abundant. Regardless, it’s a problem that I’m trying to deal with on a couple levels in 2019.

First, I scattered wildflower seeds in some beds reserved for non-edibles in hopes that they will emerge and flower to provide additional options for any pollinators that do emerge and visit early in the year.

Second, I’ve purchased a number of solitary bee homes and will be seeding them with mason bees in March, in hopes that the early-emerging mason bees will bridge the time between early flower emergence and the arrival of the pollinators that service the broader pool of fruit and vegetable plants.

If anyone has other ideas I’m all ears, as I’d like nothing more than to have bushes loaded with berries through the spring/summer of 2019.