Christmas Forage & Fodder by Edward Hill

Commenting on forage is difficult as there is little available even if your bees are out and about during mild spells, but Christmas is a good time to look at the importance of pollinating insects and how they contribute to our festive season.

This has been another good year for hollies (Ilex aquifolium), they are covered in berries. There were lots of flowers on them in the spring and thanks to the honeybees, bumble bees and solitary bees they were pollinated. I will use some when making decorations for Christmas.

If you are buying holly plants, check them out in spring when they are in flower as they are either male or female. The flowers are located between the leaf and branch joint, the male flowers have more prominent stamens than the female ones which have a single ovary and stigma looking like a small green berry early in the season, turning red as they ripen. Most hollies are dioecious, meaning they have male and female on separate plants. There are some self-fertile varieties such as ‘Pyramidalis’ and ‘JC Van Tol’.

At this time of year Ivy (Hedera helix) is used in flower arrangements. It is also pollinated by honeybees, wasps, and hoverflies late in the year. This year we have the first confirmed report of the Ivy Bee (Colletes hedera) which collects pollen only from the ivy. The sighting was made at the Raven Nature Reserve, Wexford by Jim Kenny on 12th October. A specimen was confirmed by the National Biodiversity Centre and will be kept at the Natural History Museum for future reference.

Mistletoe is an introduced species often seen growing on apple, lime, and poplar trees. Once established it can seriously weaken and even kill the host tree. It has male and female plants and may be pollinated by wind, bees, and flies.

Cranberries are used to make sauce to accompany the Christmas turkey. In America the plants are pollinated by the Rusty Patch Bumblebee (Bombus Afinis) and the solitary bee, Cranberry Melitta (Melitta Americana). Most of our cranberries are imported from the US and Canada, although there are a few producers in Ireland. In Ireland the flowers require Buzz pollination which can only be provided by Bumblebees. Cranberries growing wild in the Wicklow mountains are pollinated by the Mountain Bumblebee (Bombus Monticola).

The Christmas stuffing is made of breadcrumbs, onions, and herbs. Wheat is wind pollinated, commercially grown onions are pollinated by flies when grown for seed. In our garden we regularly see honeybees and bumblebees visiting ornamental onions when in flower. Thyme, rosemary, and sage are all pollinated by honeybees, solitary bees, bumblebees, and butterflies.

Carrots and parsnips grown for seed are pollinated by solitary bees, flies, and some small beetles. The seed is carefully selected, and the crossing of plants is controlled to produce roots that have good colour, disease resistance, taste, and storage qualities.

Potatoes will be served for Christmas dinner. They are large food storage organs which do not need to be pollinated but are propagated by vegetative means. To produce fruit, they require Buzz pollination by bumblebees, as do tomatoes and other members of the Solanacea family.

For dessert Christmas pudding and mince pies will contain lots of fruit and nuts. Most of these are imported and cherries and nuts are big business for American commercial beekeepers, with many large trucks of honeybees moved around the country for the pollination of almonds. After the almonds have been pollinated in February, the bees travel north to pollinate cherries, plums, and apricots before finishing their travels in apple orchards.

For drinks cider is pressed from apples pollinated by bumblebees, solitary bees and honeybees, and mead is a very old alcoholic drink made from the fermentation of honey and water by adding yeast. The availability of mead in craft breweries is increasing with the trend for craft beers and cider. There is a continuous search for lost traditions and new tastes to add to the table as can be seen and heard on numerous cookery programmes on radio, television and online.

So, while looking after our honeybees at this time of the year is not a priority, the colour on our plates and the variety of produce available over the Christmas period is a reminder of the work that a lot of different pollinating insects contribute to our gardens and to the environment.

Until next time, stay safe and Happy Christmas.