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Follow our progress running the nursery, watching wild bees, keeping honey bees and creating our own bee-haven in south Oxfordshire

Developments at rosybee

Over the 7 years since we opened rosybee, the business has been gently growing (thanks everyone!) and we finally ran out of space in our big polytunnel. To give us more capacity and a better growing environment for seedlings, in January we had Keder install a smaller (8m x 4m) propogation house. We chose Keder because the 'bubblewrap' walls provide both great insulation and light filtering for baby plants.

So far it seems that, with low level heat along each bench, the new house keeps the air temperature about 2 degrees warmer than the main polytunnel. This is just enough to make a difference.  The plants are looking very happy.

 

 

Alliums: spring bulbs for bees

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We are now stocking a collection of small allium flowers that are not only good for the bees but edible too - a bit like giant chives!! All alliums are good for bees but we have selected the following:

  • Alliums Roseum and Unifolium because, although less dramatic that the large purple pompom type, they produce many more flowers and their bulbs reproduce readily so that you get a nice 'drift' beween your other plants. We mix the two as they are very similar but together you get a longer flowering period.
  • Allium Sphaerocephalon - not easy to say but otherwise known as the 'drumstick' allium. Tall (80cm) stems with an egg shaped flower of deep pink and green florets.
  • Allium Nectaroscordum - Scicilian honey garlic - is a later flowering stately allium with very large (15cm) drooping flower heads in pale pink/green shades. Stunning!
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Plants for bees: heleniums

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I have been studying which plants attract the most bees for 6 years now and, as a family, the heleniums really do seem to be a winner. There are a lot of heleniums (around 40 species and many hundred cultivars) so we have not studied that many but I have yet to find one that is not highly attractive to bees. This is even true of those that have been 'improved' through breeding to have bigger flowers or specific petal colours.  This is really good news as most of the ones sold in garden centres tend to be those that are subject the latest marketing investments but even if they are sterile, they seem to mostly still have some nectar.

The classic popular varieties include 'Sahin's early flowerer' and 'Moorheim beauty' both of which are stunning plants and attract a range of wild and honey bees.

At rosybee, we were lucky enough to stumble accross a seed supply of a variety that seems to be either the species plant or very close to it; helenium autumnale. It has smaller flowers but many more of them, the latter point probably being the reason it attracts so many bees.  I find that when the flowers begin the bumblebees are attracted, then as the plant reaches full flower the honey bees decide its a worthy nectar source and decend. If you look carefully then sometimes, amongst the honey bees, we get tiny solitary lassioglossum bees.

Heleniums like full sun but are quite tolerant of soil type. They provide reliable and long-flowering late summer colour in bright hot shades. No garden should be without a clump of these stars.

Pulmonaria - great early bee food

Hairy-footed flower bee on pulmonaria

Hairy-footed flower bee on pulmonaria

Pulmonaria starts flowering as early as February and can go on flowering til May. Initially you get the shock of blue against a background of small over-wintered grey leaves. Then after the first flowers finish the plant sends up new lush bigger leaves with attractive cream spots.  If you cut the first flowers off when they are nearly finished you should get a second lot of flowers.

This plant is a woodland native so will tolerate shade but especially under trees. Its strategy is to flower before the canopy of leaves arrive overhead. This is why it makes a good early flowering plant to support bumblebee queens when they initially come out of hibernation and need to find food to fatten up before they start laying eggs. 

Later on the flowers will attract a range of the larger solitary bees; I get lots of the 'hairy-footed flower bees' - Anthophora plumipes - which behave like the hummingbirds of the bee world, hovering under each hanging bloom while the assess its value and darting from flower to flower (making photography very difficult).

See plants for our stock

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Anthemis tinctoria: great for solitary bees

I found this plant a few years ago in the gardens of nearby Denman College (WI training college) and was amazed at how many solitary bees it was attracting. It has taken me quite a few years to find the right version of anthemis tinctoria for selling at rosybee; first I tried the pale yellow 'E.C. Buxton' variety but found that I could only buy this as cuttings - not seed- and the ones available on the market appear to be sterile and attract fewer bees than the 'Denman' version. In the end, although I prefer the pale yellow, I have chosen the original species version which can get a bit big and straggly but attracts masses of solitary bees.

In our research bed during the summer of 2017 we saw males and females of adrena favipes, andrena cineraria, colletes similis and halictus tunulorum - most of them in multiples at any one time creating a shimering effect over the plants as the darted from bloom to bloom.

The plants themselves flower from early June to early August and can be 'chelsea chopped' to keep them tidy and longer flowering. I suspect they will be a short-lived perennial giving 2 or 3 years of value but will self-seed a bit if grown in dry conditions. Click here to see the plants in our shop

Caithness and Sutherland: any bees?

Bumblebee sanctuary at Bettyhill

Bumblebee sanctuary at Bettyhill

Last summer I was lucky enough to find a few Great Yellow Bumblebees on South Uist in the outer Hebrides but I didnt have enough time  - ("come on Mum, you've been here long enought")  to really study them so wanted to go back.  I didn't really have time for the long sea trip so thought I would try Caithness and Sutherland instead, besides this is a part of Scotland I had never visited.

I set off in early July, dropping my daughter off in Edinburgh en-route, but otherwise driving nearly non-stop the 550 miles to Caithness. I had done some research about where to go and the Bumblebee Trust had also given me some locations so I started in Thurso on the north coast.  Armed with my list of the best 'hunting' spots I set off and quickly found a large coastal strip of flowers beside the dramatic ruin of Thurso castle. And bees! Initially I thought I was seeing lots of Great Yellow bumbles but then I got my 'eye in' and realised that they were just much paler versions of the Moss Carders I had seen last year in Uist.

I moved on to the nearby Castlehill Heritage Centre, where flagstones used to be quaried and the beach is still littered with thier remains. They have been developing the site with bumblebees in mind and have planted several areas of wildflowers. Again, more Moss Carders along with several other common bumblebees. Then I caught a glimpse - about 6 feet away - of something much more yellow feeding on some tufted vetch. And then my camera started playing up and it was gone........!!!!

Pale form of Moss Carder on tufted vetch

Pale form of Moss Carder on tufted vetch

Sadly, although I spent the next two days looking both back at Castlehill and then further west along the coast, I didnt see any more Great Yellows.

I did visit - and would recommend it to others - a beautiful bumblebee sanctuary planted behind the church in the small village of Bettyhill. Its close to the beautiful white sandy beach typical of the very exposed sites that the Great Yellows seem to enjoy. I spotted 5 other bumblebee species which does indicate this spot is a good bee resource.

In Durness - my last stop, at the end of a 40 miles of single track roads - I found that there had been sightings of the Great Yellow earlier in the year but none recently. So close but no prizes!

Luckily, the weather was lovely and the scenery stunning, so I was still happy to have made the trip. Next year I will go in hunt of Billberry Bumblebees, which I have never seen, and are much closer.

 

Rosybee 2017 wildlife report

Marbled white - grass breeding

Marbled white - grass breeding

Its been a weird year for weather but a very good year for wildlife, here at the rosybee site in south Oxfordshire.

We've been slowly developing the site over the 6 years since we bought it and it seems our efforts are now being rewarded. Most of our focus has been on bees, and the small flock of sheep my husband keeps,  but the combined effect seems to be having much broader benefit.

In addition to increased bees, both in terms of numbers and species, this year I counted 16 species of butterflies. I have not been able to keep records of the many day-flying moths but it appears the night-flying ones are also very abundant based on two observations; firstly, some of my bee-friendly plants failed to attract many bees but were clearly being pollinated by something unseen as they set seed prolifically and second, the vast number of dismembered wings we have been finding in the polytunnel.

Some of the grizzly remains of moths (and the odd bee) in the shade netting in our polytunnel

Some of the grizzly remains of moths (and the odd bee) in the shade netting in our polytunnel

I had no idea what the significance was of the latter until Andy Salisbury - RHS entemologist - pointed out that this indicates a healthy bat population too.  I keep both sides of the polytunnel fully open during the summer so we think that the bats swoop through, catching any moths stuck or sheltering under the canopy.

The increase in butterfly numbers is probably due to good supply of breeding habitats we have: areas of long untouched grass, shortish grass (where the sheep have been), patches of nettles and also a good supply of pollen and nectar. This year it rained so much mid-summer that we had so much grass of the sheep that we were able to keep them off some areas and let the clover flower. It was a joy to walk through with both butterflies and crickets darting out of the way.

The grass at rosybee kept at different lengths for different butterflies

The grass at rosybee kept at different lengths for different butterflies

Our pond is still a bit of a disappointment, not helped by ongoing issues with the liner that mean it often dries out, but it is still mellowing and showing potential. I can report it was visited by 2 different dragonflies, 3 damselflies, and our regular common newts.

I am beginning to track more than just the bees now so we can see if it was just a good year or if the site is really getting more bio-diverse.

The pond at rosybee - water very low in summer and almost completely covered by grass

The pond at rosybee - water very low in summer and almost completely covered by grass

 

 

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

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.