At rosybee our site extends to 6 acres and we are slowly developing it as a bee haven. With this in mind we just planted a few more trees: crab apples and rowans, which will provide masses of flowers for the bees in April/May followed by berries for the birds.
Follow our progress running the nursery, watching wild bees, keeping honey bees and creating our own bee-haven in south Oxfordshire
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.
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.
Within the rosybee site there is an area, slightly more than an acre, that we want to be able to sow with an annual crop of borage, phacelia and any other flowers that will provide masses of bee-food. This much area of borage provides so much nectar that it should support two beehives all summer and provide a real boost to all the other pollinating insects in the area. That is the plan, and so, last year we asked a local farmer to plough the ground for us to break through the grass and expose the soil. At that time we did not understand just how heavy our clay was and how quickly it re-compacted just with the, albeit very heavy, rain. To add to the fun the borage germinated poorly and was overcome the immediate emergence of a forest of various thistles. In autumn we were left with a mess of weeds - which we let the sheep munch - and by spring the clay had turned back into a solid mass.
This year, we are now equipped with our own little tractor but it has still a real battle of trial, error and patience to get the soil broken down into a fine enough texture to sow. My husband has invested to achieve this by going over and over the area pulling our ancient and unreliable disc harrow. Well done darling.
Now we need to improve the vegetative content in the soil to avoid the clay from continually re-compacting so this year, we will plant half of the area with a green manure to see if that helps. The rest has been sown with borage and phacelia again and, hopefully we will have better weather and it will quickly germinate and grow to compete with the weeds.
Right now, it is just a joy to look at our nicely tilled soil.
Here is our version of a bee hotel. Its just like the smaller versions you commonly see in garden centres but a lot bigger. Its made from a stack of pallets then stuffed with old pipes filled with the sort of hollow plant stems or blocks of wood with holed drilled in them - just the places that solitary bees with find to nest in normally. I confess that we copied the design of this from several pictures we have seen but I am still quite pleased with the result.
The crowning glory is our bee sculpture that was a very kind gift to us! We rather unimaginatively call her Queenie. Now we eagerly await some solitary bees moving in.
Willows (salix) is a large family of 400+ species, many of them native to Europe. I think these are worthy of special consideration as 'plants for bees' because of the mass of pollen and nectar they produce in spring when they are covered in catkins. You may think that willows are too big for most gardens and certainly many of them are large trees but there are plenty of smaller ones too or they can be managed to keep them short by pollarding.
The common UK goat willow (or pussy willow), Salix caprea, is officially ranked as a shrub and will grow to a maximum of 10m (30 ft) but if you chop it back to a stub of trunk, c. 1m high, every other year then it produces lots of fresh new growth which has attractive bark, and will not get above 3m. Similarly with the violet willow, salix daphanoides, which as the name suggests also has a purple bark which is nice in winter.
The catkins are actually the flowers and trees will either produce all male or female catkins. The male catkins produce the pollen and you will see the catkin turn from silky grey to a yellow fuzz like the picture above.
We have planted a variety of willows in our site at rosybee both to provide spring food for the bees but we also pollard them hard to provide winter colour from thier new stems.
Its been almost 2 years since we bought the site at rosybee and in that time we have learnt, the hard way, just how much work it is maintaining 6 acres of heavy clay without machinery. Today marks another milestone in our progress with the arrival of this beauty: a 30-year-old Massey Ferguson in remarkably good condition courtesy of its one previous owner. We will use this for cultivating the 2 acres we have ploughed so that we can sow borage and phacelia as well as some winter fodder for our sheep. It will also need to cut the grass, lift haybails and move pallets. That means we now need to buy all the bits to go front and back for each job.
Rosybee is situated in the flood plain of the Thames valley in South Oxfordshire. The site itself is a flat sheet of clay with slight ridge and furrow from the ancient ploughing. When we bought this site, we knew it was prone to flooding but as my planning advisor said, 'so what, you are building a floodable building'. That is true but even though the polytunnel comes to no harm with a few inches of water, and our plants are all off the ground on benches but its not nice and makes hygene difficult. Last year we only had water cover the floor once but it got a bit boggy serveral times. We all now know that 2012 was a very wet year but we decided that we want to try and manage the flooding as best we can. Therefore, we worked in stages to reduce the risk and each time had to wait (not too long obviously!) for it to rain again, observe what was working and not and amend again. I am very pleased to report that in the last wet spell just before Christmas, all the fields around us had standing water - or full lakes with swans in one case - we only had temporary standing water in the furrows and by the next day it was just damp.
We have achieved this through:
- reinstating the ditches to the correct depth on three sides of the field including wide 50cm culverts (above) where access is needed
- adding a new ditch from the centre of the field to the edge to help the central furrows drain
- put 'french drains' of gravel and porous pipe round 3 sides of the polytunnel
- installing a sump and pump with a float switch to automatically remove excess water round the polytunnel
The last step has meant that we can move the water quicker than gravity and ditches alone would allow and this means that we can keep dry even in heavy rain.
Having finally finished all the construction work we have now started to turn out attention to making the rest of the site as bee-friendly as possible. This will involve planting lots of different plants, shrubs and trees as well as evolving the plant trials areas. We started just before Christmas by planting the following in clumps around the area of the site we are allocating for 'meadow':
- 30 willows which we will pollard every few years to encourage them to grow stumpy with lots of 'whippy' new growth. That way we well benefit from the catkins for the bees and the colourful new bark for us - 30 cornus - 10 rosa rugosa - 10 currant and gooseberry bushes
We have learnt (the hard way) that everything we plant needs to be protected from deer, rabbits (and our sheep) so we use a mix of tree defenders and chicken wire fencing.
It will take a while before we can see the effect but hopefully it will add much more interest to the site as well as more pollen and nectar.
18 months after buying the site and a year after launching the business, the infrastructure at rosybee is finally complete. This means that we now have a fully functioning plant growing environment, irrigation system as well as secure storage in the form of the barn. The picture show our nice smart approach to the polytunnel with its newly laid recycled road planings. This areas provides a comfortable turning place for delivery vehicles. For me, its a joy to be able to walk around on a level surface without either mud or the uneven crushed concrete we lived with for months.
It has been very difficult operating the business while building works were going on around us and I am really delighted that I can now focus all my efforts on the business and the research.
We also plan to do some more landscaping and planting esthetic purposes as well as the benefit the bees; I have just ordered lots of willows, cornus, fruit bushes and some silver birch so I hope we get some milder weather to make the planting a bit easier.
To you this probably looks like an eye-sore but to me this is another huge milestone in development at rosybee. After much deliberation (due to the extortionate cost) we decided that it was vital to have electricity. We wanted as wind turbine the planner didnt so, in the end we did go for a connection to the grid.
The electricity will enable us to run an automated irrigation system and also to have a sump pump to keep our flood risk spot under control. In the winter we will also be able to run the propogation heat mats and some heat blowers to keep the tunnel from freezing. All quite essential.
Oh, and it will also be handy for a kettle; I cant quite get used to it and we are still boiling water for the tea on the little gas stove.
So much for a nice relaxing long weekend! Over Easter, we have had the digger back on site and to make sure we got value for our rental money we attacked a list of jobs. Chief amongst these was re-opening the 200m of service trench ready for the electricity cables. (My job was the less glamorous barrowing of sand to line the trench - 2 tonnes so far). However our friend Mike make such good progress with the trench that he also had time to sort out the pond. We had started digging it out months ago but now has been shaped the way we want and all the spoil is nicely mounded up on one side. The reason for having a pond on site is to ensure there is always a water supply for the bees......and we just fancied having one! The rainwater tank and sump will overflow into the pond when required so it should have some water even in a very dry summer.
In this picture you can see how it looks full of water. This is temporary as its not got a liner in yet. Our soil has a lot of clay so we will monitor how long the water level takes to go down and then work out the next stages of lining and planting round it.