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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

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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Anthemis tinctoria: best plant for a range of 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 andrena 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. In fact there were so many solitary bees on this plant that, with only two years of data it has jumped up our rankings and is now the best plant for solitary bees that we have found.

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

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.

 

 

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.

The 'June gap' - a tough time for bees?

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The 'June gap' is as strange phenomon which appears to occur in the UK and some other countries.  This term refers to a period when there is a sudden reduction in the amount of pollen and nectar around to feed honeybees (and, presumably, other bee types too but much harder to monitor their food intake and brood production quite so closely).  This is an problem for bees because in May, the colonies of many bee species are growing rapidly. Honey bees will be reaching peak colony size and bumblebees will have thier workers out in force. The flowering times of plants follow the following pattern:

  • During spring: in addition to many early flowering herbaceous species flowering there are vast volumes of pollen and nectar produced from trees and hedges.  To put this into perspective a single mature lime of willow tree will yield the same amount of bee food as an acre of wildflower meadow.
  • Then in May, if your bees are rural types, the rapeseed flowers bringing a serious glut.
  • But come June, all of that is over, and the grass is now long suppressing most wild flowers.
  • Then by July a variety of tall herbaceous species find ways to push up through the grass and once again we have flowers through to September. Also at this stage late flowering fruit species such as brambles come into thier own.

But why is there less flower in June? It doesn't make much ecological sense as you would imagine that some species of plants would evolve to take advantage of the reduced competition for pollinators.

I am not totally convinced that the June Gap exists in the UK  - or maybe not every year  - and is really just beekeeping folklore to explain years when honey yeilds are poor.   The weather will affect the times when plants flower and can make the gap greater or smaller. Also, some plants will be in flower - just less.

Here are some of the best garden perennials that do seem to still flower through this period so if you have a chance to plant some the bees will be greatful:

- Most of the hardy geraniums including the native geranium pratense, Veronica spicata, helenium 'Sahins early flowerer', nepeta mussinii, centaurea montana. (see plant for more)

-  Lots of herbs; thymes, coriander, rosemary and, best of all borage (pictured above)

and..... if you have an area for seed Phacelia which will flower for 6 weeks right at the time the bees need it.

 

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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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.