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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

Native hedges for bees

We have lived in rural Oxfordshire for almost 20 years and I guess you come to take the ‘country’ hedges for granted. Rosybee has mature hedgerows on all the boundaries but mostly hawthorn and blackthorn. So, when we moved into our new-built house in 2015 the developers put ‘country’ hedge round our garden I was unimpressed. I thought we already had plenty of that and didnt really pay much attention to it.

But now, 4 years on, those hedges have begun to flower because we have chosen not to cut them back. Suddenly I find they contain lots of things which the cheaper field boundaries dont, such as guelder rose and a selection of cornus. Wow do those make a big difference to the bee value of the hedge. I have always found hawthorn and blackthorn to be very disappoiting for bees. Although they attract a good number of flies and hoverflies, even those seem few compared the the mass of flowers produced. But now that these elements are flowering I am spotted a lot of different solitary bees. They are mainly from the Andrena family but a good number of species.

So, all those people who rave about the value of country hedges are probably right but even more so if the hedge has its full range of recommended plant species.

Mason bees in full....er, swing?

Our mason bee city is busier than ever this year. The boys started to emerge in April and immediately set about patrolling the area and fighting with each other. Then the ladies arrived at the beginning of may and I have been amazed at how quickly they have been filling up and capping off the available tubes. When as cluster of tubes is completely filled, they move onto another set and seem to all go for the same ones, occasionally squabling over them.

I’ve been tracking thier working hours and on a fine day they seem to start as early as 8am (or about 14 degrees - not sure if its light or heat that is the main trigger now) and stop flying around 8pm. A 12-hour day sustained on only a few sips of nectar.

In addition to red mason bees (osmia bicornis) we also have a few blue mason bees (osmia caerulescens). None of the orange-vented ones but I think they come a little later in the season along with the leafcutters.

I love having my tea-breaks and watching them.

The problem with catmint and cats

This is my cat. And this is the way I now have to grow catmint.

With many cats, it really is true that catmint makes then behave in a really silly way. Ours likes to both chew it and roll around on it, rubbing his shoulder blades into it until it has been destroyed. He has been doing this for years but usually only in the catmint in the reasearch bed. I now grow that through an arch of stock fence. But this year he has started on the plants in the polytunnel. I pot them up nicely and next day I find he has pulledn them up again. So, I have steadily been cutting more and more sections of chicken wire as protection. I know that I was too slow to start this and have lost some stock.

I know not everyone likes cats and some actively avoid growing catmint in case it attracts cats to thier garden. But, the stuff is really good for pollinators. We grow a couple of strains - a low floppy one and a more standard upright version - and although they flower at different times and attract different bees they are both really valuable. The result is that I will continue to battle with the cat for their protection. I find that, by the end of May when the catmints are in full leaf, the cats may chew the odd bit but dont do so much damage. The protection is needed now to allow the new shoots a chance to thrive.

Sterile plants for bees?

Erysimum ‘Bowles mauve’ with ashy mining bee

Erysimum ‘Bowles mauve’ with ashy mining bee

One of the findings of our research is that some sterile plants attract a lot of bees and rank really well. Some of the reason they perform well is that they are the longest flowering plants in this study. The long flowering characteristic was presumably the plant breeders intention when they created them although I doubt they cared much about the benefit to bees. The specific nature of the sterility is that they have the ability to generate nectar but not seed. But these plants are apparently unaware they are sterile so they just keep generating more flowers in a futile attempt to reproduce. The result of this is that they continually flower for many more weeks than their fertile relatives. This also means a long flow of nectar for pollinating insects.

All this contradicts the standard advice that sterile plants are not beneficial for bees. Sterile plants in this study included:

 

Sterile plant name

Rank out of 111

Geranium rozanne - 1st but based on only one years data

Helenium ‘Sahins early flower’ 4th

Lavundula ‘Eidelweis’ 9th

Agastache ‘Blue boa’ 36th

Erysimum ‘Bowles mauve’ 42nd 

It may be coincidence but this list includes plants that also extend the flowering season. Erysimum ‘Bowles mauve’ starts flowering very early – sometimes in March providing nectar for emerging solitary bees. Helenium ‘Sahins’ early flowerer’ will repeat flower – at a low level - into September keeping the season going for bumblebee queens that have not yet gone into hibernation.

However, the lack of seeds is not necessarily a good thing as they would be food for birds and small mammals.

For more on our reseach click here

Winter in the research beds

Rosybee research beds in winter

Rosybee research beds in winter

In winter there is very little to do in the research beds. I tidy up the worst of the weeds in autum and then mulch with fallen leaves at the end of November.

Then I leave it all alone. No cutting back of old stems, no digging, and no further tidying of any kind. I dont even turn the compost heeps.

This inactivity is important as all that dead stuff is where the bugs will be during the winter. Birds will enjoy the seed heads. Worms will be working under the blanked of leaves and slowly breaking them down and taking them into the soil. Beetles and will be pupating under them too. Butterflies, moths and even spiders may be hibernating amongst the stems. You may even have bumblebees and solitary bees nesting just under the surface of the soil or in you compost.

So, I leave it all alone for as long as possible. But eventually I want to give light and encouragement to my perenials which will be the important pollinator food when they flower. Late April or early May is when I usually finally clear it all away and do a big weed. Even then, I weed with a hoe and never dig more than a few inches down.

Seed germination is much easier from fresh seed

Fresh helenium seeds being cleaned through seed seives at rosybee

Fresh helenium seeds being cleaned through seed seives at rosybee

Here is an important point that is rarely explained to anyone trying to grow plants from seed: most perennials germinate much more succesfully from fresh seed. So, all those times when you bought a packet of seeds and wondered why nothing germinated, well, it probably wasnt your fault. We know that seeds can be kept dry for very long times and can still produce plants, but that doesnt mean than its easy to get that seed to work its magic. I am not say dry seed is bad, just more difficult.

Annuals are much easier to grow from seed, which is why you can often grow them by sowing directly into the soil where you want them to grow. But, unlike annuals, perennials dont need to rely on seed for reproduction. Being ‘perennial’ some of them don’t even need to generate viable seed every year to survive as they have options: send out ‘runners’ or side shoots, grow new sections from rhizomes, or even just wait for next year. So they produce good seed when the conditions are right or if they are under stress, ie need to reproduce quickly in case they die. (This makes it difficult for the seed providers to even know if they are selling you good seed.)

Then, once the plant has made seed, it waits until the right time to drop it or allow it to be dispersed by birds/animals etc, and then the seed waits again in the soil for the right time to germinate. So naturally, seeds don’t sit around in a dry state for very long.

At rosybee, we grow the majority of our plants from seed and its very clear that if I sow seeds at the stage when they are ripe on the plant but not fully dry, they tend to germinate immediately. Also, nearly 100% of those seeds will germinate, versus a much lower % for fully dry seeds. This is no refleciton on my seed suppliers as the same is true of our own seed if dried.

This finding has meant that we have moved much more of our production from spring to autumn and I sow as I collect the seed. Its a job that I love doing, roaming the research bed onec or twice a week collecting what is ready and being led by the plants rather than the production schedule. We dont have any fancy equipment to clean our seeds but I managed to find a set of small seives which vary and mesh size. They stack so you can put your seed mixed with dried cases in the top course seive and shake them through the stack till the seed rests on whichever seive is the right size, leaving larger bits above and dust below. Very handy.

So, if you are confident with growing from seed, try gathering your own and sowing it fresh. Friends and neighbours will usually be happy to let you take seed, as it does no harm to the plant. Remember that if you sow in autumn and nothing comes up within the first month then the seed may want to go through the cold of winter and germinate in spring. Keep any seed trays that don’t respond outside in a spot where they will get some rain but avoid them getting really soggy. Beside a doorstep or sheltered wall is ideal or a cold frame if you have one.

Origanum structural differences and bee attractiveness

A range of dried origanum samples at rosybee

A range of dried origanum samples at rosybee

From our research it is clear that each of the different origanums we have tried is a great attractor of bees and probably all origanums are very good for bees. But, over the 5 years of our research I realised that I had accidentally mixed up some white flowering ones with the native pink that we normally sold.

It took a while to sort out where it had come from and what exactly it was. This involvedre-ordering plugs from a couple of suppliers I had used over the years and growing them to maturity to allow comparison. Eventually it was discovered to be a white variant of ‘vulgare’ that the supplier had been selling unknowingly (they thought it was pink) and even they dont know exactly what it is. This has been a happy accident as it turns out to flower for a bit longer than the native one and therefore ranks a bit higher than the others.

With a selection available, at the end of last season I took some specimens of each origanum and looked more closely at them to see why some might flower for longer than others. The obvious difference was the size of the flower head. On closer examination it is clear that the white vulgare has 5, sometimes 6, rows of flowers on each part of the flower cluster compared with 4 of the greek vulgare and only 3 in the case of our native (or at least the version I have). As each row of flowers opens in succession, closing after pollination, then those with more rows of flowers will naturally flower for longer.

Anyway, they are all really useful plants for both a herb garden, culinary supplies and provide nectar for bees (mostly honey bees but with a few bumblebees and solitary bees too) for 7 to 10 weeks depending on the plant.

Rosybee sponsors Bumblebee Conservation Trust

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I am very pleased to announce that we have decided to become a corporate sponsor of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

At rosybee we care passionately about creating and sustainable future for all wild bees and so our aims and that of the BBCT are very closely linked. This is a great charity and I hope we find more ways to support each other.

This decision builds on this years engagement with the BBTC as a bee-walker which has been a natural extension of the bee-counting research we already do.

Our Bee-forage acre

In addition to maintaining areas of wildflower, long grass and hedgerows, we also sow an acre of the rosybee site to a mix of borage and phacelia. Both are fast growing, reliable and abundant producers of nectar to give all local pollinators a boost. On a nice warm day this area attracts up to 16 honey bees and 4 bumblebees per square meter and the odd solitary bee, butterfly and moth too.

We try to sow in three successive strips to extend the flowering period, from the natural 6 to 10 weeks that these plants would flower, to up to 4 months. Most of the time we manage to get the plants to self-seed and if the timing is right we get at least one section to over-winter as small seedlings. We also collect and dry as much seed as possible for the following year.

Not having a farming background this has taken a few years to understand and get right. However this year summer went on for such a long time that the self-seeded section we had targeted as the over-winter crop is knee-high and flowering now. There are only a few bees visiting it as most of the bumblebees are now in hibernation but the honey bees are still working it if the sun warms the day up enough. It was warm enough last week for a few new buff-tail queens to have a go but they should be safely underground now.

The lush crop you see in the picture will die back in the coming months and we will lightly harrow it into the top soil and resow.

We believe that this nectar resource has been really important to support our local bees and well worth the effort. Both phacelia and borage are really easy to grow from seed and can be fitted into any spaces you may have in your garden: just chuck in some seed and pull out any excess later.

Cleaning the solitary bee cocoons

Mason bee nesting back in May

Mason bee nesting back in May

This is a lovely October job. Tube-nesting solitary bees, such as red mason bees have a tough start life and a bit of TLC might just improve thier survival rates.

They start as an egg layed on a bed of pollen and safely sealed into a section of thier nest tube by mud. They will eat the pollen and evolved into a lavae that will then create a cocoon around itself to insulated it right through the winter will they are ready to emerge in spring.

Not only do they have to survive very cold and wet weather but they are also commonly predated by mites, spiders and also a variety of different solitary wasp lavae that may have been sneaked into the same tube when mum wasnt watching.

For the first time this year I have had red mason bees nesting in a box where I can follow the expert advice and remove them, clean them and store them in the fridge till spring. If I do this right then a much greater proportion of them such survive to become adults. The cocoons included 56 that look viable, 3 that were empty and 11 with was lavae, which I think is quite a good ratio.

Most solitary bee tube nests dont allow you access to see all the potential distruction that is happening behind the mud facade. I now have a few that do and its facinating; look out for either nest blocks that can be seperated or cardboard tubes you can gently slice open.

Here are the steps I followed to clean and store them. You will see the wasp lavae in the middle picture.

Please do not try this is you have closed nesting tubes and you will simply squish and kill the cocoons!.


Plants for bees: asters

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Asters, autumn daisies in a wide range of colours from white, through all shades of pink and purple. Almost every garden has them and I know some gardens where they almost grow as weeds.  They flower really late and give a strong splash of colour in September when most other flowers are beginning fade. They will tolerate light shade and bright sun and are relatively trouble free; what more could you want in an autumn flower.

We grow, and sell, Aster novi-belgii which is grown from seed (many cultivated varieties are sterile) and seems to be one of the most reliable for attracting bees as well as other pollinators. Right now (mid September) my asters are the buziest thing in the garden.







2018 annuals trials 10 weeks on

This has been a hot and challenging summer for many plants and the annuals have suffered a bit from lack of water. However, as you can see, we still have some colour.

I dont know the bee-count results yet but from a purely horticulturla perspective I have some comments:

Cleome - stately, elegent, easy and long-flowering....but no bees at all

Cosmos - beautiful as you would expect but high-maintenance on the dead-heading and stopped flowering if not done. A few bees including leafcutters but not wildly exciting

Calendula - very vibrant for a few weeks with a good variety of bee species but, again, needed dead-heading and stopped flowering when we went on holiday

Cerinthe - flowered really well for about 7 weeks with plenty of bees but then it was over

Clary sage (suspect its miss-named) - the star of the set: still flowering well after 10 weeks and only needed a light pruning of the older stems to keep it looking good. Attacts bees consistently. I will grow this again.

How have the bees been coping with the hot weather?

Tree bumblebee in the shade of a rosa rugosa

Tree bumblebee in the shade of a rosa rugosa

How have the bees been coping with the heat?

This is a question have been asked quite frequentl but quite a complex one to answer and I think it will take quite a lot of analysis and discussion with other colleagues before we have good answers. But, having said that, my impression is that the bumblebees numbers observed foraging have been down which is natural as they don’t like high temperatures but and I have also noticed a high number of very small bumblebee workers which may indicate that food was not making it to the far corners of their nests to feed all the young bees. However our honey bees have had the best season for many years with a reasonable crop of honey and no apparent mid-summer loss of queens.  As for the solitary bees, there are too many species who all have annual ups and downs to see any reliable pattern but I think the ‘mason’ bees (above ground nesters) did very well but the miners (ground nesting) less well.  Our heavy clay will have been very hard for digging in but I am not sure how the cope with that in a normal summer anyway.

I hope to have a better picture of all this once I get into our research analysis at the end of the year.

Shortage of bumblebees this summer?

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For the last few weeks the lack of bumblebees around the rosybee site has been very noticable. I have had feel like a fraud to several groups of visitors, trying to convince them that my beautiful colourful research border really is full of bee- attracting plants.

There may genuinely have been a drop in numbers but I think its much more likely that its due to the 6 (!!!!) hot dry weeks we have had. This will have two impacts:

  • simple lack of nectar in the plants due to lack of moisure in the ground
  • bumblebees dont really like it this hot and may be cowering in the shade

....and thirdly, I was expecting a shortage of buff-tails as we had so many vestal cuckoo bumbles last year which would have impacted the buff-tails reproduction.

I think its a combination of these factors as I have occassionally put the sprinkler on the border - when its got to the point of plants wilting - and have not noticed more bumblebees the following day.

So, who is pollinating all the plants this year? Honey bees! The adaptable little things have had an unchallenged pick of the plants and I have seen them on several flowers that I would previously have said where only a bumblebee choice. Solitary bee numbers seem unaffected but the year-end data will confirm.

It will be very interesting to see if bumblebee numbers pick up when the weather cools down.

Solitary bees 2018 - better than telly!

This has become my favourite spot for tea-breaks and late afternoon when my legs tell me its time to sit down. Earlier this year my husband decided we should improve our solitary bee accomodation and added logs with holes drilled, a few plants and lots more 'tubes'. So, I have to credit him with make this our best year ever, at rosybee, for solitary bees.

The first solitary bee activity started in April with the 'red mason' bees (center above), and since then we have also had 'blue masons', 'orange-vented masons' and now the leaf-cutters (right above) have started as well as one 'wool-carder' bee.

Its great to just sit and watch what is going on and being 'stingless' you can sit as close at they will tolerate.

For the last month a single male leaf-cutter bee has been patrolling the pallet stack and chasing off any competition. Initially he was waiting for the girls to come along but now he is protecting thier nests from parasites. This is a big job as not only do we have plenty of bees we also have several 'cuckoo' solitary bees and paratitic wasps. They will will typically  sneak in and lay competing eggs in the solitary bee nests when the lady is out collecting pollen. Our male leafcutter shoos them off all day long. Drama in the log pile!! Better than telly.

Testing more annuals for bees

Newly planted annuals in sq meter blocks

Newly planted annuals in sq meter blocks

Cleome

Cleome

Every year I try a few different annuals to see how many bees they attract. If you choose the right annuals they can be a both a great asset to bees as well as a fantastic source of vibrant colours in your garden.

I choose ones I can grow from seed as many of the pre-grown annuals you get from the Garden Centre are sterile and not able to provide pollen or nectar. You can see the annuals we have tested previously in our full research paper.

This year I am trying a few from the Sarah Raven seed range for pollintators:

  • Clary sage
  • Cleome
  • Cosmos - both pink 'sonata mixed' and orange 'bright lights'
  • Cerinthe major (for the 2nd year because it did well last year)
  • Calendula officianalis (basic pot marigold)

Each was grown early in the year and developed in pots until I had a chance to prepare to ground. Now they are beginning to settle in and have the odd flower so I can include them in the weekly bee-count. I wont know the results until winter time when I sit down to process of the data but for now I can enjoy thier aesthetics.

 

 

Rosybee species sightings

Andrena haemorrhoa - newly identified this year

Andrena haemorrhoa - newly identified this year

Five years into our formal research into which plants attract the most bees, last year I finally started to list the individual species I saw. This might seem like an obvious thing to do but if you have ever tried to identify solitary bees you will understand that it takes a while to get your 'eye in'. 

There are over 250 species of bee in the UK (due to several probable extinctions and the odd new arrival no-one knows and exact number). Of these around 25 are bumblebees, one species of honey bee and all the rest are solitary bees.

To identify each bee for the first time I normally need to either have a really great couple of photos showing both head and tail, or I need to catch it in order to have a closer look. I do not kill them and pin them, not for sentimental reasons but because I dont yet have a microscope and so would not really get the extra benefit of a dead specimin.

Anyway, I am now up to 50 bee species identified with a reasonable confidence and finding more each week. I dont know if this is normal for a site of 6 acreas but I hope that it reflects the variety of habitats we have managed to cultivate. I am also tracking butterflies because they are both beautiful and relatively easy to id.

I will publish the list under our research section and update when I remember!

Salvias - plants for bees

Salvia nemerosa

Salvia nemerosa

clary sage

clary sage

Salvia is a large family of plants and includes both annuals and perennials, native and exotic, many of them herbal. Most of them are good for bees but this does not include the brightly coloured bedding plants that are sold in most garden centres as, even if it produces some nectar, the flower tubes are too long for the tongues of most British bee species.

At rosybee we stock

  • salvia nemerosa which is a very hardy and reliable small perennial; good at the front of a sunny border and holds purple bracts even after the blue flowers are finished. It attracts a mix of carder bumblebees, honey bees and some solitary bees and even wasps
  • clary sage - native dramatic hedgerow plant with multiple pale pink spires reaching 120cm in mid-summer. This one attracts less bees but plenty of butterflies and moths.

 

 

Centaurea montana (perennial cornflower) - spring-time resource

This is a tough and early-flowering perennial cornflower which is native to Europe and grows wild in Southern European mountainous areas (hence the name).

Centaurea montana froms from April to June and if cut back often flowers agaln later in the summer. We find it attracts a series of differnt bees as the season progresses: first come the red mason and sometimes other solitary bees, then bumblebees and sometimes the odd honey bee too.

The picture above shows an 'early bumblebee' collecting pollen. You can see the bulging pollen baskets on her back legs and you can just about see how both the petals and bee are dusted pollen.

This plant because it provide all the benefits of the annual cornflowers without the hassle of having to clear some ground and sow the seed. 

It grows in clumps that get to about 80cm across, flopping slightly with the added benefit of suppressing any weeds.  You can grow it at the front of a border an let it flop over the edge at about 50cm high or plant it further back into the border -  and supported  - to reach its maximum height of about a meter.

Click here to find this plant in our shop

Join the Wildlife Gardening Forum

Last year I joined the Wildlife Gardening Forum (WGF - www.wlgf.org) and really enjoyed the regular newsletter and thier autumn Conference, which focused on 'meadows'.  Now, I have volunteered to become a Trustee as I believe this organisation is doing really important work in making sure that simple but accurate and relevant information is available to gardeners.

The aims of the Forum are to encourage more gardeners to help wildlife in thier own garden. It collaborates with other wildlife charities to carry out research and make sure the advise given is correct (there are a lot of anecdotes and myths our there).

The Forum is free to join and I would encourage all of you to do so....there simply is no downside to being part of a free valueable wildlife information hub.

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