Marianne Van Osch (Patrick Davies, 100 Mile Free Press photo)

Marianne Van Osch (Patrick Davies, 100 Mile Free Press photo)

In praise of caragana and the working bees

The workers are bees and their job description is to get every bit of nectar possible

On the corner of Aspen Street and Dogwood Avenue, in the very heart of 100 Mile House, an enormous project is underway, one that employs thousands of workers. The workers vary greatly in size and background and work non-stop from early light until dusk. As they work, a loud hum fills the air, as if there were a huge freeway nearby.

The workers are bees and their job description is to get every bit of nectar possible from the tall caragana bushes that outline the four sides of Wally Hargrave’s property. Hargrave is a learned gentleman, one who appreciates the tremendous amount of work going on around the perimeter of his lawn.

Caragana is a member of the pea family. When farmers from Eurasian countries emigrated to the US they brought caragana seeds with them to plant as a valuable source of food. Caragana pods and seeds were used in many old country dishes.

However, as nutritional as they may be, it is the yearly cycle that the caragana goes through that makes them so interesting. At my home in Forest Grove, we have a row of caragana about 19 metres long and four metres high. It begins at the corner post of our carport so we have a front-row seat for all kinds of action.

Around the middle of May, bee scouts begin to show up along the bushes. By the end of May, the prickly branches of the shrub have filled out with lovely, vetch-shaped leaves. Small, fragrant yellow flowers begin to bloom along the branches, and suddenly, thousands of bees are on the job site. They are all sizes, from big bumblebees to tiny fellows. Despite their differences, they work together in harmony, perhaps because they are all humming the same tune.

The bees are no threat to anyone. We sit right beside the shrubs and they have no interest in us. They are focused on the job at hand. They come and go in flight patterns high above us. In a few weeks, flowers and bees will have finished their chores. We have no idea where the bee’s honey factories are located as we have never seen a hive nearby.

Now the caragana move into a completely different phase. Flat shiny green pea pods seem to appear on the branches overnight. Just as mysteriously, lime green aphids begin to cover the pods. Tom Godin, my go-to nature guy, explained that aphids fly to the pea pods where they multiply quickly and are farmed by ants, who move them around and feed on secretions from the aphids.

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Several kinds of warblers fly in to feed on the aphids. They sing before they get to work and then rustle around in the branches. They stay for a week or two until all of the aphids have been devoured.

By then we are moving into late summer. The long caragana pods dry to a burnished brown. Then, on a warm, dry day, Kapow! The pods suddenly curl into tight springs and start blasting their small seeds in all directions. Some travel a surprising distance from the bushes. At the end of the week, seeds and pods litter the ground. Flocks of birds arrive. They scratch and peck around for seeds under the bushes. Finally autumn puts an end to another busy summer and the caragana can rest.

Caragana is called the hardiest, toughest shrub in the world. Rows of them are often planted in the shelterbelts that protect prairie farmhouses and fields from fierce winds.

The rich pods are also used as a nitrogen-fixing plant that helps enrich poor soil. Caragana is planted extensively by beekeepers.

The hope is that more homeowners will plant a caragana or two. What a simple but effective way of helping bees to survive in a world that seems to be against them.

In the meantime, in the fall if there is anyone with a ladder and a hankering to trim the tops of some very important bushes, Mr. Hargrave would welcome the offer.

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