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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

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.







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.

 

 

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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Wool carder bees - territorial behaviour

 Wool carder male on betony

Wool carder male on betony

This fascinating species of bee (Anthidium manicatum) have very distinct behavior and there are some plants worth growing specifically to attract them.

The males find a patch of plants they particularly like - normally because they expect it will be popular with the females - and set about patrolling this patch as their territory. They can be seen darting about and chasing off other bees that might dare to come along. They will even take on bumblebees that are double thier size. The females are allowed in to forage in return for a chance to mate.

In addition to the normal foraging for nectar and pollen the females also collect hairs (cards) from certain plants that they use to line their egg cells. These plants include stachys byzantina (lambs ears) and hairy verbascums (mulleins).

At rosybee this summer I have been watching wool carder bees fighting over a patch of stachys officianalis (betony) and only occasionally on the stachys byzantina. The former, as far as I can tell, is not hairy and so I guess they are simply defending a prime nectar source. 

They move so fast that photography is difficult but I did manage to catch the above picture. One of the other distinctive aspects of their behavior is that they are able to hover which is really unusual in bees and can help identification if they dont stop long enough to see them close-up.

 bumblebee on stachys byzantina (lambs ears)

bumblebee on stachys byzantina (lambs ears)

New to rosybee plant range: Anthemis tinctoria

 Anthemis tinctoria and a solitary bee: Colletes species

Anthemis tinctoria and a solitary bee: Colletes species

I have the Denman House (the WI training college) garden to thank for this find. I keep bees in their grounds and am friendly with John, their head gardener so when I check the bees I try and also have a look round his luscious herbaceous borders.  He keeps one section that he calls the 'bee garden' and it is full of herbs and catmint. In this area I noticed that this pale cream daisy was almost vibrating with movement and on closer inspection discovered that it was covered in a range of small to tiny solitary bees. 

Most solitary bees dont really buzz - or if they do its very quietly - and they are so much smaller than honey or bumblebees that its quite easy to mistake them for flies if you only give them a casual glance. Close up, though, you can see the detail and often quite defined bee stripes.

These little miracles are very effective pollinators, in part because when they collect pollen they dont glue it to themselves with nectar, the way honey bees do, and so they drop much more as they go from plant to plant.

I am still working on how to identify which is which but when I find a plant like this which, at that time, had at least 20 bees per square meter it must deserve a place in both our research beds and our shop. The plant flowers for June and July with masses of daisies on fine grey foliage, 60cm tall. See shop

 

Borage; one of the very best plants for bees

 honeybee on borage

honeybee on borage

At rosybee we plant about half an acre of borage each year, just because its so good for the bees. Its particularly loved by the honeybees - so I am hoping its boosting our honey - but we see plenty of bumblebees on it too.

For this season, I sowed a large section last September and it over-wintered well and started flowering in April. Now it is nearly over but the spring sowing should start to flower in a few weeks.

The honeybees go for the nectar and the bumblebees appear to collect both nectar and pollen, the latter being very pale, almost white.

Each week I try and pick as sunny day and count how many bees/ square meter. The average has been about 6 bees with a ration of 5 honeybees to one bumblebee (mainly bombus pratorum, hypnorum and a few laidarius and terrestris.)  Because of its sheer attractiveness and the number of weeks of flower, those two factors combine to make it one of the best bee-plants we have found. We will combine these stats with the results for all the other plants we grow and aim to publish a ranking towards the end of this year.

 our borage patch

our borage patch

Echium vulgare: one of our 'top 5' plants for bees

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This is a one of our top 5 plants for bees; a native that is so dramatic it looks exotic.

Also known as Vipers Bugloss, Echium Vulgare, this native British biennial is a member of the boraginaceae family and,  along with its cousin, borage, it is a massive source of nectar for bees and a great generator for honey.  From June through to September it produces tall (4ft/120cm) spiky spires of deep blue flowers that attract the full range of bees. It is particularly special for bees because it continues to produce nectar throughout the day and for abut 3 months; so you will even see bees on it in late afternoon when other flowers have dried up.

The vulgare (common) species  is not a plant you will ever see in garden centres and I think this is probably because the leaf rosette looks really ugly before the flowers come.  But from those scruffy leaves suddenly comes a spire of wonder. It grows wild in the chalk downs where it thrives in well drained soil and although it is a biennial but it will  self seed in poor dry ground; I recommend sprinkling some sand or grit under it to improve seed germination if you have nice garden soil.

We sell echium vulgare

Planning for bees in your garden

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This is the time of year when us gardeners are still stuck indoors but our thoughts begin to turn to how we want to improve the garden this year. Maybe you are planning a major project or just working out how to fix that corner which needs a bit more colour.  Maybe you have been meaning to work out how to make your garden more wildlife-friendly. You are probably aware of how 'at risk' our pollinating insects have become and how vital they are for the health of all plants including many of our foods.  The good news is that by including the right plants in your garden we can all make a significant difference. You may want to consider how effective your garden already is in supporting pollinators:

* Think about the sunny areas of your garden (some bumblebees will forage in shade but most bees prefer sun) and consider how you might fit in some more flowering plants: do you have flowering shrubs and perennial plants rather than annuals? or do you have room to fit in a few more of the best flowers or substitute some plants that are not providing enough value?

* If you are short of space then one way to fit in more plant is to try 'succession planting' which means that you plan to have one set of plants that flower early and then another that flower in the same space later. In this way you can have bulbs like tulips providing pollen in April, followed by an Oriental Poppy in May/June and then a later flowering daisy like Echinacea or Rudbeckia in August - all in the same space.

* Look at our shop or plant list and see if you already grow some of these - we only stock the best herbaceous plants and small shrubs for bees so if your plants are not on our list then they are probably not very bee-friendly

You are very welcome to email us for advice.

 

 

 

Bee-plant of the week: agastache (mid Aug)

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We grow agastache foeniculum from seed collected from our own plants and both honeybees and bumblebees love it.  The first central spires of flowers started to bloom at rosybee in early July when it was still hot and dry. Then in the last two weeks the secondary spires have matured and a second wave of purple is now added to the first. This plant smell of licorice but is actually a member of the mint family (they could have a whole sweet shop going on here!).

Its also a great plant for 'bee watching' because the spires have many tiny flowers and the bees work their way systematically and slowly around the flower spike in a fairly upright position. This typically means the bees stay 'posed' on the flower for at least 20 seconds, and are still enough to allow identification.

So if you like to watch your bees and find out what type they are I recommend you grow agastache

Visit to Sussex Prairies

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I was recommended to visit Sussex Prairies by a friend who is also deeply into bees who said that the plants range they grow results in a great display of bees as well as flowers. Oh boy, was she right! Knowing that they specialise in a style of planting that is meant to evoke the American prairies, we chose to visit in August when many of the native american prairy plants - echinacea, rudbeckia, helenium - are at their best.

I have to say it was sensational with its giant sized, sweeping borders, planted in blocks of between 30 and c.100 plants at at time of the same species. The result is bold blocks of colour , height and texture.

The bees were particularly drawn to the echinacea (pictured) and veronicastrums which were a mass in full bloom. We took the opportunity to increase our stock of bumblebee photos and where delighted to add some species we had never seen before including  southern cuckoo bumbles.

I strongly recommend a visit at http://sussexprairiegarden.co.uk/

Bee-plant of the week (1st wk Aug): Hyssop

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Hyssop appears to be a forgotten shrub; you don't see it in garden centers or mentioned on the TV gardening shows but it really is a very valuable plant both for bees and gardeners. Hyssop is a sub-shrub which looks and behaves a bit like lavender but unlike lavender does not tend to go 'leggy' so quickly. From July til September it bears a series bright blue flowers along the full length of the new growth forming a compact ball of blue.  The bees go crazy for it and this week I counted more bees on this plant than any other on site; up to 18 per square meter, which is extremely high.

This seems to attract all types of pollinators: honeybees, bumblebees, carders, moths and butterflies, hoverflies, and some solitary bees.  Its categorised as as herb and supposedly good in casseroles, a bit like thyme but I cannot say I have tried it ...yet.

Phacelia buzzing

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In one corner of the rosybee site we plant 'crops' specifically to provide the bees with a boost. These always include sections of borage and phacelia because, for a large area, they provide maximum benefit and are very reliably grown by scattering the seed on the surface (as we don't have any seed drill machinery).  For the last two weeks the phacelia has been in full flower and buzzing. I have never heard such a loud noise from bees while foraging. It is really quite an experience to stand in the middle of that sea of pale purple flowers and be surrounded by a mix of bumblebees and honeybees manically darting from bloom to bloom. The bees I spotted included honeybees, buff-tailed, red-tailed and garden bumbles, common and moss carders, and I think I even saw hairy-footed flower bee. It was difficult to count bee density because they were moving so fast but it averaged around 12 bees per square meter, which is very high.  Fabulous.

New collection: prairie daisies for late summer nectar

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Our native meadow species have evolved to finish flowering before the hay is cut in June so August can be a tough time for bees. In America, there are still vast expanses of natural, uncultivated, prairie land which are the equivalent of our traditional meadows; swathes of grassland containing patches of flowers. These daisies are native to the prairie landscape and provide very welcome nectar until the frost begin. Try this collection and maybe add veronicastrums too for real autumn drama in the border! 

How quickly do our plug plants grow? - update

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This border was planted in June last year and as you can see it is now a mass of colour with very little bare earth showing. We put in 12 trays of our plants in an area 4m x 6m - which equates to 5 plants per square meter. This is a little  denser than I recommend and will probably need to pull some out at the end of this season to all more room for growth.  But it does show just how quickly they grow and how colourful great they look.  Oh, and the really good news is; lots of bees. We get an average of 3 bees per square meter on a sunny but it does vary by plant.  We will continue to monitor and have more stats on this later in the year.

Bramble bees

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There were so many bees on the newly opened brambles that the other flowers need not have bothered! Today was hot and great clump of bramble (blackberry) bushes in one side of our site has begun to flower. I had been wandering around in the sun with the camera trying to see what the bees were favoring when I was attracted by the buzzing.

It was covering in black darting dots, mainly honey bees but I also spotted, white, buff and red tailed bumblers, carder bees and some black shining mining bees.

The oil seed rape is still in flower so it was great to see the honey bees on something else. This should also help produce a better balance of honey; oil seed rape honey is very quick to set but bramble if the opposite.  We will be taking another honey harvest as soon as the oil seed rape is over so we will see how it compares.

New additions to stock for late summer

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We have now added echinacea and veronicastrum to our range of stock to add even more choice for the bees as well as colour to your gardens. We also sell many other plants that are ideal for sustaining flowering through the late summer, which in many areas is have less natural nectar resources than the traditional 'june gap'.

Update on our wildflower seed trial

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I was very disparaging about trying to get a nice looking meadow effect from seeds last year and, our initial experience was all about weeds. Now we are in June and the area we planted (about 500 square meters) actually now looks stunning although not rich in variety or bees. We still have lots of dock, thistles and creeping buttercup which were such features of its original really wild look but the oxeye daisy is in full bloom and visually dominant.  We did have some pink campion but that is now finished and if I look amongst the daisy and grass I can see a few other things coming through but not much.

However, its objective is to support pollinating insects and on that score the oxeye daisy is clearly a hit with a wide variety of hover flies but with only an occasional solitary bee.  I did manage to catch this shot of a leafcutter bee on one.

Plants for bees - nepeta

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Commonly know as catmint, this is a family of around 250 species. I find this amazing as you are lucky if most garden centres even stock one!  They originate from southern Europe right across into Asia and are found in hot dry conditions. The normal garden catmint is racemosa or mussinii which loves a sunny spot and will form a mass  of soft grey foliage up to 1 meter accross and will flop casually; looks great over a  low wall or at the edge of a border spilling onto gravel.  We also stock the smaller nervosa which is a bit more shrubby and has greener leaves. This is more contained in a smaller space.

Bees (and cats) love it and you will see the whole range of short-tongue varieties (bumblebees, carders, mason and honeybees). The reason cats go potty is it gives of a scent that has a weird effect on them like a temporary 'high'.

Plants for bees: campanula

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As far as I can tell, from both observation and reading, many of the 500 species campanulas are good for bees. This is probably because they propagate quite freely and are already very attractive plants so maybe the plant breeders did not feel the need to muck about with them in order to make more dramatic plants.  From the wide variety of campanulas that grow happily in the UK, some are native wildflowers and others are good reliable imports that have become popular garden plants.  All of the following are worthy of a place in your garden: For herbacious borders:

Campanula persicifolia - blue or white; tall (50cm) elegant stems with the flowers rising up the stem.  So common it has become 'naturalised' in some areas - will seed itself about but not invasive

Campanula glomerata - denser habit, 60cm with large deep blue clumps of flowers at the end of its flowering stems

Campanula lactifolia - great mass of leaves to 1m with a ball of pale pink bell-flowers at the top of the flower stems.

For pots or rockeries

Campanula carpatica - small tidy mounds of foliage with disproportionately large flowers - 25cm

Campanula poscharskyana - small trailing version - trails to 50cm

Native

Campanula rotundifolia - our native 'bellflower' which grows wild in Scotland but does not require acid soil. Its is a smaller plant - 30-40cm and will be quite happy at the front of a border, in a rockery or even a pot but do not overwater.