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Follow our progress as beekeepers, running the nursery, creating our own bee-haven and conducting research into the best plants for bees

Rosybee at Countryfile Live

One of the 'rosybee' borders in the Wildlife Zone

One of the 'rosybee' borders in the Wildlife Zone

I am delighted that we have been asked by not one but two organisations, to provide them with the plants for their floral displays at the Countryfile Live show at Blenheim Palace. (August 3rd to 6th)

We are providing the British Beekepers Association with the main centrepiece display in thier marquee and the Wildlife Trust with the planting for thier 'bee and butterfly ' borders.

Its been an anxious time trying to get the plants to flower at the right time, not helped by the very hot weather in June which meant everything began to flower a bit early. Howerver I am happy to say that we managed to produce some very nice looking plants and they are now all at the show just waiting for the visitors.

I will be there too for most of the show, mainly in the BBKA tent which can be found over the river in the wildlife zone.

hope the weather is kind to us all.

 

How bee-friendly is your garden?

Here are some easy steps to check how many bees come to visit and to assess your garden:

1, Once some flowers have started blooming in your garden, pick a warm sunny day when its not too windy, (bees prefer days when its above 10 degrees and calm)

2, Walk around your flowering areas slowly and look and listen

3, Try to avoid any sudden movements that will scare them away and avoid casting shadow on the flowers

o   you are looking to see which plants seem to attracting bees but - and maybe this is more important -  also look for which plants or areas of your garden are not attracting bees

o   look carefully because some bees are quite small and may look more like hoverflies.

Good bee plants should attract more than one bee at a time (unless it is a very small plant). So now you can assess the following:

Overall what proportion of your flower beds have any plants attracting bees? Are there some plants you should replace with something better?

Do you have areas where there is not much flower or the flowers dont last very long?: long flowering plants give more value to you and the bees

Is your planting scheme in bold blocks or do you only have lots of single plants? ; it may be you have the right plants but a single plant may not be energy efficient for the bees to fly to

Are your flowers in sun? ; most bees will only forage in sun although bumblebees will tolerate light shade as they are fluffy enough to keep warm

Based on the answers to these questions you can now decide what to change or just sit back and enjoy all that glorious buzzing.

Its too hot for the wild bees this week

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Its quite common to see advice about providing water for bees but generally this refers to honey bees who need to drink regularly. We put in a pond at rosybee with gentle banks where the bees can suck the moisture from the mud at the edge of the water.  Our honey bees use it daily as their main water supply but I have never seen any wild bees there. Most wild bees (bumblebees and solitary bees) seem to get their water purely from nectar or potentially from dew on plants.

This week as been particularly hot - both day and night - and one of the things I have noticed isthe honey bees are happilly foraging right through the day, even on some plants they normally don't bother with. Well, most of them are Italian in basic DNA so I guess they are more prepared for the heat, wheras bumbebees originate from the Himalayas, albeit several milleniums ago.

I am also seeing a good range of solitary bees out but the bumblebees are only out in the early morning and then I find them choosing to forage in areas of light shade and I keep finding them sheltering from the heat under leaves during the hottest part of the day.

I have never seen bees hiding from the sun before but maybe in was not looking carefully enough.

Cuckoo bumblebees; the most common bumble at rosybee this month

Bombus vestalis on knautea macedonica

Bombus vestalis on knautea macedonica

Very strange. We have always had a few southern (or vestal) cuckoo bumblebees - bombus vestalis -  but for the last few weeks they have been so numerous they account for half of all bumblebee sightings and definately more than the buff-tail bumblebees that they predate on. 

Cuckoo bumblebees will enter another bumblebee species nest and lay some eggs, using thier pheramones to influence the workers to look after them. Normally they do not take over a host colony completely like the bird cuckoo would, but co-exist with them. So it is very odd to have so many. It may be that last year a vestalis got really carried away and laid more eggs than norma. Logically, this is not sustainalbe as they will not all find host buff-tail nests and so next year I would expect the ratios to revert to normal.

You can tell these are cuckoos by two factors:

  • no pollen baskets on thier back legs - because they get other workers to do all that for them
  • very dark wings

They are large and striking bees but I feel a bit sorry for the poor buff-tails which are normally my most common bumblebee.

Renewing the research bed

The main research bed now - looking quite tidy!

The main research bed now - looking quite tidy!

We first started to plant the research bed in 2012 and since then it has expanded a bit and we have changed a some of the plants but this year I have been doing a more major overhaul with the following aims:

  • any plants that have really not proved to attract many bees has to go, even if they are pretty. This is hard for the gardener in me but the local Gardening Club will benefit for thier plant sale.
  • adding new plants to test
  • extending the area because we have run out of space - the original bed was 11m x 6m and we are now adding second slightly smaller one but it means digging out grass and weeds.
  • ensuring that each plant has a more accurate square meter of ground which involves adding a few more plants for some and extracting a few for others or just giggling things about.

This last point is needed because when we started, I hadn't yet developed the scrict research method we now use and so I just put in a tray of each time of plant - typically 10- in a block . My habits as a gardener meant that the planting was more aesthetic than logical for research; I simply wanted to know how my plants behaved and had only a loose idea of how I would monitor the bees. 

The work is very nearly complete but its so dry that some of the plants I have moved look most unhappy and have needed daily watering as if it was June. The new plants being added are:

  • Geranium x magnificum - highly recommended by the wildlife gardening forum
  • Geranium rozanne - because the RHS 'plant of the century' needs to be tested
  • Cirsium rivulare - becauseanecdotally (including several garden designers) it is great for bees
  • Helenium moorheim beauty - because I want to see how more helemiums compare with our top performing autumnale
  • Stokesia blue star - because I have seen it attracting bees and want a proper count

Most of these will not be mature enough to provide good stats until next year but we will have to see how they develop. I hope to get decent counts from the plants that we added last year; Perovskia and Buphthalmum, both of which I have casually observed attracting many bees in other gardens but its impossible to score them properly without growing them.

In response to a request from a London based charity I am also trailing some more annuals, specifically looking for ones that are easy to grow from seed and will work in pots or small garden spaces. More to come on this later.

Some plants are just beginning to flower and I did the first formal bee-count last week. I cannot wait for it all to really get going!

The new border where we still have quite a bit of digging to do.

The new border where we still have quite a bit of digging to do.

 

 

Best weed for bees in March/April: dead nettle

Carder bumblebee on dead nettle and with the orange pollen on its head

Carder bumblebee on dead nettle and with the orange pollen on its head

This plant seeds itself about on any bare piece of ground we have and is most prolific in our allotment where the soil is cleared in autumn and it can germinate before the winter arrives. We chose to let it flower in a bigger area this year, leaving it growing on a patch we dont need till later in the year, and have been very impressed by the constant stream of bees it has attracted. I have been paying careful attention on all the main local weeds and this one seems to attract more than the dandilions or any other herbaceous weeds currently flowering in our area.

We have seen each species of queen bumblebee visit as they begin thier lifecycles; first the huge buff-tails, then the carders and more recently red-tailed and early bumblebees. The honey bees dont seem so interested but maybe the small flowers are too long for them ...or its because the oil-seed rape is beginning to flower.  The dead nettle has bright orange pollen which give the foraging bees an orange stripe on thier heads. This weed is particularly useful to them as that pollen may be in short supply if there are few flowering trees in your area. It's certainly one of the few herbaceaous plants flowering vigorously and attracting bees at this time.

We will need to weed it out soon before it drops excessive amounts of seed but it is really easy to remove as it spreads from a central stem so the hoe cuts through it very quickly.

Plants for bees: stachys family

The stachys family is one of the largest genera of herbaceous perennials, with over 400 species, so there is no way I can claim they are all good for bees but, of the 3 we grow, they area all 'big hitters':

stachys officianalis (betony)  

stachys officianalis (betony)  

Stachys officianalis (betony) - a native wildflower which is also a very tidy and easy garden plant once established. It slowly expands to clumps of about 30cm accross and in June sends up deep pink flowers. Attracts a wide range of bumblebees and solitary bees

 

 

 

Stachys byzantina (lambs ears)

Stachys byzantina (lambs ears)

Stachys byzantina (lambs ears) looks completely different with fluffly grey leaves that quickly produce a dense carpet (very good weed suppressant) in the driest of soils and then produces tall silky grey spires in July. Attracts larger bumblebee species but also the wool carder bee (see special blog on thier behaviour)

Stachys sylvaticum (hedge woundwort)

Stachys sylvaticum (hedge woundwort)

Stachys sylvaticum (hedge woundwort) - supposedly likes damp semi-shade but copes very well in our heavy clay in full sun. This is a vigorous native and sends out profuse runners once established so put is somewhere where that wont matter or dilligently cut them off. Attracts lots of carder bumblebees and some honey bees

Update from the hives; March '17, first full check

willow pollen for feeding the brood

willow pollen for feeding the brood

Yesterday was gloriously sunny, all day. The bees were all out and it was warm enough to do the first full check on the hives.

We lost one of our 4 over the winter and had to merge another as the colony was so small it was unlikely to survive. But then we inherited an old and semi-feral colony from a neighbour but I had no idea what we would find inside.

The good news is all 3 hives have brood on several frames and plenty of pollen being brought in. They also still have enough honey reserves to cope if they weather keeps them shut in for more days.

What was really striking was the see of yellow pollen; almost all the same shade and so I would assume from the goat willows that are flowering all around our field. Such a sunny, happy colour.

The male willows are some of the first trees to flower and produce pollen in vast quantities making them the most valuable source of protein to feed to the newly growing brood. However, they do not provide much nectar so the wild cherries, closely followed by blackthorn and then all the other trees and hedges are the main foor for this time of year.  If you live anywhere near a willow, do not expect any bulbs in your garden to get much attention for a while.

Early spring flowers: how much good do they do for bees?

Snowdrops and winter aconite

Snowdrops and winter aconite

I am very unsure about the value- to bees - of very early flowering plants: all the standard advice is that its vital to have some plants in flower right through the winter, in case any bees pop out and need a meal. However, bees are generally quite smart and stay in their nests/hives except when its a mild sunny day with temperatures above 10 degrees.  How many of those do we get in January-February time?; not many. In fact, so far this year (written 8th February) I have only counted 3 and the forecast is now very cold for the rest of this month. I am trying to keep a record and observe what visits the flowers that are out now because I really do not know if they are providing bees with much value at all.

What bees might be out?:

* unlikely to be solitary bees as they will not emerge from thier incubation cells untill later in spring.

* honey bees will venture out on mild days but mainly to 'relieve themselves' and have a look around. If there's some pollen or nectar they will be glad of it but they should have enough stored in the hive to last them through to warmer days. If they dont, then it probably means that their beekeeper took too much honey and didnt feed them enough candy as a substitute.

* Bumble bees? Normally only the queens survive the winter and they are sometimes seen out on mild days. They keep very few stores and so the effort of emerging from thier nest may require some food to give them a boost, if only so they can keep warm enough to get home again.

From the plants perspective, if they choose to flower in January or February, they are doing so mostly because they are woodland plants that rely on flowering before the leaves form above them blocking the light. This also means that they beat the rush to complete for pollinators later in the year. However, many of our early flowers are bulbs such as snowdrops and winter aconites and crocuses are from more southernly locations such as the Alps, Caucuses or Peloponese where the spring warmth will come more quickly and so there would be more pollinators around.

Clearly, these plants thrive throughout the UK but thier propogation is mostly reliant on bulbs dividing or rhyzomes forming. Having said that pollination must take place to some extent because new forms do evolve.  Its amazing to think that the opportunities for that pollination may only be 2-3 days each year.

I think that we love our winter flowers as they symbolise the first signs of spring and that is reason enough to grow them. However, bees have been making it through winters for a long time and its not thier winter food supply that man has been systematically eliminating with mordern agricultural methods. If you want to provide early food for bees, plant some of the early native flowering hedgerow plants that have been severly depleted such as wild plum, blackthorn or hazel. All of these provide the natural early bee-foods and a are quickly followed by all the fruit trees; apple, pear, plum, cherry etc. all fantastic to add to any site.

I will keep making my observations and hope to have an update later

honey bee on winter aconite

honey bee on winter aconite

Winter gardening tips for your bee-plants

An echium vulgare seedling - yes, really ugly but the flowers are magnificent

An echium vulgare seedling - yes, really ugly but the flowers are magnificent

If you have bought any of these plants from us then here are some winter care tips that will help you get the most from them later in the year:

Echium vulgare : Avoid weeding out echium seedlings as they look like weeds at this time of year (see above). They can be distinguished from other prickly weeds by the course white spots on thier leaves and also the tips of the older leaves tend to go black.....and, of course, they should be in the area where and echium vulgare flowered last summer.

Hyssop: if its more than two years old or getting a bit woody, cut it back hard- as much as half way into the bush - to encourage new growth. I have had dear take mine right back to just a stump and they still grew again.

Lavenders: if you didn’t trim them after then flowered then take the chance to do so now before lightly they start new growth – just about an inch of the growing tips. This will help keep them bushy and last a few more years.

Heleniums: watch out for slugs as it warms up

Also, Don’t worry if some of them seem to have disappeared completely e.g. Calamint as that’s just their winter habit. It helps to keep their old stalks on to mark where they are.

Bee-hives: mid-winter check

Our bee-hives January

Our bee-hives January

Just checking to see if its warm enough out?

Just checking to see if its warm enough out?

Its been tricky finding a chance to check the hives because its been so cold or wet. I am worried about a couple of our colonies which where a bit small in autumn and I think they are likely to not make it through the winter. They definitely dont need me lifting the lid and costing them all thier warmth.

btw - did you know that to keep warm honeybees disconnect thier wings and vibrate thier 'shoulders'?

Anyway, I realised yesterday that I have forgotten to put the floors in under the open mesh floors and even though this is not totally necessary for healthy hives I thought that it would help the smaller colonies. As I added each floor I also hefted the hives to check thier weight. I then let each colony drop to the ground causing a small bump, which - for a live hive - generates a gentle 'buzz' reaction from inside. My smallest colony felt very light (they would not take much syrop in September but I have given them a block of candy) and there was no audible reaction so I concluded they may already be dead.  I lifted the lid and was very surprised to find a few working on the candy block so very quickly put the lid back.  I then want back and spread some of last years honey directly onto the queen excluder. They immediately started to work on it so I hope this gives them enough of a boost to make it.

 

Great yellow bumblebees in the Hebrides

Great yellow bumblebee

Great yellow bumblebee

Last summer my family took a trip to the Hebrides including South Uist, Eriskay, Barra and then Tiree. I have been to the west coast of Scotland many times, and to Skye, but never to the outer isles before. Naturally I took my passion for bees with me (much to the annoyance of the rest of the clan who had to keep waiting while I inspected what might be buzzing at the road-side).

I was really keen to see the great yellow bumblebee (bombus distinguendus) which can only be found in that part of the UK. Here in the Hebrides, it makes its home in an extensive strip of floral meadow just back from the white sandy beaches called 'the machair' (pronounced 'macker'). We were very lucky and sighted several great yellows on our first day on South Uist but then sadly did not see any more for the rest of the trip. Tiree, in particular, is meant to be one of the best places to see them but it was mid-August and the end of their season, so we may have just missed them by the time we travelled there. They are a large and impressive bee. The ones we saw were probably a bit faded due to age so more light brown than yellow but stil very different to the black and white stripes I am used to of the more common bumblebees.

Moss Carder bee

Moss Carder bee

Still we enjoyed the machair and plentiful sightings of Moss Carder bees (bombus muscorum) which have truely orange heads on this location!

I had heard about the machair (below) but it really has to be seen to be appreciated; mile after mile of pink clover and various yellow daisies, in August, but apparenly it changes colour through the seasons.  We intend to go back in June time to see in an earler colour mix and hopefully more Great Yellow Bumblebees too.

the floral 'machair' on Tiree

the floral 'machair' on Tiree

Our compost - always peat-free

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We always use peat-free compost, which we do not find causes any issues, but since we installed to our new posh flood-bench irrigation system last year the compost we were using tended to hold too much water and something more free-draining would be better. When we were originally choosing our compost we attended the Four Oaks commercial growers show as a good way of speaking to the suppliers and seeing their products, and from there identified two worth testing. 

We chose Petersfields peat-free supreme and have since changed to thier peat-free, high coir version as we found we wanted the extra drainage.

Its proved to be excellent as it is open enough for quick rooting. The low loam content does not seem to leak out of the holes at the bottom, which is important as we water from below in flood benches.

Its also a consistant product so well done to all those at Petersfields/Hewitts Turf.

 

Look what happens if you forget the mouse guards....

Mouse nest and the hole it made in the wax

Mouse nest and the hole it made in the wax

We were a bit busy this autumn and all the hives still had the entrance blocks in and set to the narrowest door sizes from the wasp problems in September, so, I had thought I could get away without fitting the mouse guards.  I have often forgotten the guards in the past and have only ever once had a problem. Therefore I was quite shocked to find that 2 out of 3 of our empty hives had mice nests in. 

But here's the real problem: its now too cold to check the active hives and so I have no idea if they have also had mice invading. The mice produce quite a lot of wax debris so I suppose I could try and scrape a stick along the hive floor and see what I can drag out. But even that would involve removal of the entrance blocks and disturbing the bees.

I think I just have to wait until Spring now and keep my fingers crossed.

This was also the first year we have had any problems with wax moths. They make quite a mess too but I think this is a symptom of hives being empty.

Lesson leant!

Wax moth larvae tubes

Wax moth larvae tubes

Monarda - improved plant and still good for bees

There are several species of Monarda, all originally native to north America, and all have an exotic look with long tubular petals that tend to stick upwards resembling a crown.

Monarda, also known as 'beebalm' is one of the plants that is regularly recommended for bees and has been on our stock list since we started business. We stock M. didyma because it is also a reliable garden plant but it does tend to get mildew on its lower leaves which detracts from its appearance towards the end of summer. This year we thought we would try the new didyma cultivar 'Jacob Cline' which is meant to be more mildew resistant and I am very pleased to report that, in our very heavy, unwatered clay, this is proving to be true.

In fact, its a stunning plant with much larger deep red dramatic flower heads that each seem to last for about 4 weeks. It stands at about 120cm and is really eye-catching in our research bed. Normally Monarda, with its long tube flowers, is attractive to the longest tongued pollinators; the garden bumblebee and some butterflies so I was quite concerned that I was not seeing any of these coming to the 'Jacob Cline' flowers. Then I took a closer look are saw honeybees bottoms just poking out of the flowers. It appears that the larger flowers of this cultivar are big enough for the smaller bees to crawl up inside....its just that I couldnt see them. The downside is that the larger bumblebees dont fit.

This shows that a few millimeters difference means that even within the same species the plants will attract different pollinators, These observations make take me the rest of my life!

Today I counted 11 honey bees per square meter on our new patch of M. 'Jacob Cline' and - now I know how to find them - I anticipate it will give a good performance in this years research.

 

Trying to help solitary bees

Solitary bee emerging from tube and dropped pollen

Solitary bee emerging from tube and dropped pollen

For several years, at rosybee, we have been trying to support solitary bees by providing nesting tubes of various kinds in a 'bee hotel'.  Each year a few of the tubes are used but really nothing to get excited about.

Then this year I have invested a few new resources bought on-line; mostly bamboo cane tubes with nicely drilled holes of varied sizes. To my surprise the first new set of tubes was almost completely filled by the end of May. I got really keen and bought some more .........which have been completely ignored. I think I have now missed their 'nesting window' but at least I have managed to attract more than usual. 

Teucrium for honey bees and gardeners

teucrium hircanicum

teucrium hircanicum

The teucrium family has hundreds of species but for some strange reason you rarely see them in Garden Centres. I know people with the subshrub types that observe they attract large numbers of bees and I certainly find its true for the herbaceous version we grow: teucrium hircanicum.

Its a really well behaved perennial that gently clumps up without trying to take over the border, sets the odd seedling but without scattering them as weeds and - a big deal this year - seems to be resistant to slugs as well as cold, damp and dry conditions. 

At rosybee its just beginning to flower now, at the end of June, and will keep providing its dark pink spires right through to September.

In our research it ranks 9th out of the 80 plants we have tested so far, attracting mainly honey bees but also bumblebees and butterflies. Because its flower are arranged in spires with a 'tier' of buds opening each day or so, the bees tend to land and then do a circuit round the spire. This means you get a really good look at them too.

 

Knautia macedonica - stunning scabious

Standard dark red form of knautia macedonica with buff-tail bumblebee - face planted

Standard dark red form of knautia macedonica with buff-tail bumblebee - face planted

Our knautias have been if full flower for about 3 weeks and bring a really welcome shot of colour to what has so far been a drab June.

The standard version of this plant has the dark red blooms but we have some of the 'melton pastel' version mixed in that includes several shades of pink too. Knautia flowers can rise to 150cm high and will lean outwards giving a big area of colour; our square meter of planting at ground level becomes about 3 square meters at bloom height. I recommend a bit of support to keep them from flopping on top of other plants.

They attract all bumblebees; yesterday I counted 6 different species at the same time on our patch and an average of 12 bees. This display will last about 6 to 8 weeks - longer if you trim of any stems that have finished flowering an encourage more to grow.

'Early' bumblebee on a lighter form

'Early' bumblebee on a lighter form

Where are all the bumblebees?

I was talking to my friend, John, the head gardener at Denman College last week and he commented he is not seeing very many bees in the garden yet even though his great bank of catmint is beginning to flower - pictured above. I wandered over and. sure enough, in a 4 meter section there were only two hairy-footed flower bees but not a single bumblebee.  I had noticed the same lack of bees at rosybee so I checked back at my records.

If you have read my blog before you probably know that I count bees regularly to quantify how attractive various plants are to them. So, I am doing my normal thing whenever it seems dry and warm enough: head out with the clipboard and look for bees to count....but there is a notably lack of them.

Its now the end of May and the weather is still grey with a chilly wind coming from the north so I thought that maybe this was putting the bees of but looking back my at notes for the last two years I see that the last two weeks in May were not particularly warm and definitely breezy. The only real weather distinction is that the days were brighter if not warmer.

The solitary bees seem to be about and also the carder bumblebees are putting in regular appearances but I am seeing very few of the other species, where normally I would expect to see early, buff-tailed, and red-tailed bumblebees in greater numbers by now.

I am wondering if the very long wet winter impacted these ground-nesters?

Worker bees laying eggs: doomed hive?

Multiple eggs in the cells indicating a worker bee has laid them

Multiple eggs in the cells indicating a worker bee has laid them

The winter of 2015/6 was bad for the honey bees at rosybee. We took 5 hives into winter although we knew two seemed weak so were not so surprised that those colonies died out, but a further colony then went queenless. This can happen when the queen gets too old during a winter period and unfortunately this queen made no arrangements for a successor. Often this results in no new brood being laid in the hive and so, without intervention, the hive would die.  In our case we had an even worse predicament: one of the worker bees (who are all female but sterile) started laying eggs. A workers eggs can only develop into drones and so, again, the hive is doomed.  The sure signs that you have a laying worker are multiple eggs in the cells. In our case the worker(s?) were very prolific and produced many more eggs than the hive was able to feed and nurture resulting in generations of new eggs being layed on top of withered shrunken older eggs. In the picture above you can see the eggs of different sizes in the cells.

To make matters even trickier, you cannot find a laying worker and eliminate her as she looks just like all the rest.  So what to do...?

We tried merging with another hive - before I read the advise- but unfortunately the queenless bees killed the queen in their new host hive. So realising my mistake I split the colonies again an then tried adding some eggs from another source, but they did not raise a queen (although luckily the hive with the killed queen did). So finally we tried the last resort recommended by the books which is to move the hive away from its site and shake all the bees out of it. The majority returned to old site of their hive where we placed a new empty hive. This seemed to work as we found worker laid eggs in the old hive with just a few remaining bees and no eggs in the new hive....but they are still resisting the idea of raising a new queen. I have just given them one further sheet of eggs as their last chance and fingers crossed.  I would give up but not sure what to do with quite a considerable number of rogue bees anyway. Any suggestions?