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

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

borage honeybee.jpg

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.


Bramble bees


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.

Bees need water


Bees need quite a lot of water to survive. In hot weather they may spend as much time collecting water as they do nectar. Honeybees use it to cool the hive and to dilute the honey they feed to larvae.  However - and this might seem like stating the obvious - bees cannot swim or stand on waters surface so they need to be able to drink from some for of platform or get their water from damp material. Floating plants work as a platform or muddy gradual pond edges where they can suck form the banks. Beekeepers should consider how close their hives are to the nearest source of water because longer journeys will put stress on the hive.

At rosybee we have put in a wildlife pond with graduated sides. The grass has now grown back at the edges and into the water itself. You can see in this picture how the bees find the water in the wet pond edges.

If you are a gardener you might want to think of providing a watering hole for pollinating insects - some capillary matting with one end in a reservoir of water will work. or a shallow tray filled with pebbles that will soak the water up.



Solitary bee hotel


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.

Blackthorn - one of the first to blossom


Blackthorn is a native tree and very common for hedging, particularly for traditional hedgerows.  It flowers much earlier than hawthorn and most of the other blossom producers.  It also flowers before it produces its leaves so you get this mass of dirty-white flowers at the roadside which seem really unexpected when all the other trees are still just winter bare. It produces dark blue berries in later summer that are the sloes that make sloe gin famous.

For bees, (if it warm enough for them to venture out ) blackthorn is a great source of both pollen and nectar; where this is planted as a main element of hedges it can be available in considerable quantities but each small tree will be covered in flowers so even a single a single one in a garden will be great source.

Mice in the beehives

Disaster! We forgot the put the mouse excluders on this year, and we thought we had got away with it. All 4 hives have made it through the winter (so far) but I was worried about one that appeared to have very few bees.  I did not want to open it up for a full inspection because the temperature has not made it above 2 degrees this week and the wind has been so chill, but our hives have open mesh floors so I took a quick look a the tray underneath.

To my horror I found it covered in a thick layer of crumbled wax and mouse poo. (see picture)

Having then taken advice - online- we decided that we had to get the mice out before they destroyed any more of the wax and food supplies. So, today, we very carefully eased the lid and crown board to one side, so that we could lift out just the frames at the side. Sure enough, the outer ones one each side have big holes chewed through the wax but no sign of any mice.  We quickly put the boxes back together and added the mouse excluders; phew.

There really are only, maybe, a thousand bees left in that colony but have food and with any luck they still have a queen so they should be able to recover.  Still very worrying so that has taught us a lesson.

Snowdrops - some of the first flowers for bees

Snow drops, and other early flowering bulbs such as winter aconites and then crocuses are some of the first flowers of the year. February is a very tricky time of year for bees; the cold and wet will have kept them in the hive all winter  and now their stores of honey (or sugar and fondand provided by the beekeepers). Now, they will start to emerge whenever the temperature rises above about 7 degrees to search for new food sources. The queen may already be laying and they will need food to support both the brood and their own more active brood-rearing roles.

To start healthy growth of brood numbers they will need the protein that comes from pollen.  These small flowers may take a time to bulk up and provide a plentiful feast for the bees but at this time of year small quantities of pollen are just enough to give them a bit of a boost until the rest of the spring flowers bloom.

Winter: wondering how the bees are doing

I am sure its the same for all beekeepers in winter time; on nice sunny mild days you go and have a quick look at the outside of the hives.  You are happy to see that they are still standing and there is no apparent external damage but it feels very spooky that there is no sign of activity.  You know that its only 6 degrees so you should not expect the bees to be flying but you can't help wondering if they really are alive and happily hunkered down or ....your worst fear... have they perished. We now have 4 hives to worry about; last week in the sun one hive had a few bees coming and going. Seeing this made me wonder why the other hives had no signs of life.  Its been freezing every day since so there has been no chance to open them up and check. But even on a nice day, will it be right to check on them just because I am anxious?  I will try and keep my nerve until after xmas and then find a day to open up and do a full check, add any fondant and douse them with varroa treatment.   Till then I just have to live with this nagging doubt.  Its weird to feel like this as I am not, by nature, a worrier and never feel like this about my kids.  Its the prolonged not knowing.......

Lawns for bees

Unless you have spent years methodically removing all plants from your lawn except grass, then you will be amazed at what happens if you let sections of it grow to its natural full height.  This need not look untidy; just a different form of lawn. We have a section of our garden where we have decided to let it grow long for the last two years - particularly in June and July when other flowers might be lacking. We cut round the edges so that the grass does not get into the borders and then my husband 'sculpts' paths through it so we can still get to the shed and compost heap without getting our legs wet.

You could be quite artistic with the mower and make squares or some other pleasing shapes so that is still feels like a garden rather than a weed patch.

Anyway the point is, we found to our delight that we now have quite a lot of bee-friendly extra flowers: several types of clover, common  daisies (of course), self-heal, a small geranium and even some oxeye daisy.


Bees foraging for pollen - early March

At this time of year the main bee food supply comes from trees. The bulbs are still going but trees offer a much greater volume of pollen an nectar; a mature willow tree in March/April can provide as much food as  an entire acre of wildflowers in June. Pollen is the priority for the masses of new brood the queen is laying to quickly swell the colony size up from the c. 10 thousand that made if through the winter to 50 thousand or more which make up a healthy productive hive.

I have been studying our bees and the main forage sources they are collecting now are:

  • grey willow which provides this very bright yellow pollen (see picture)
  • wild cherry - which has a caramel coloured pollen (centre bee in picture)
  • grape hyacinth where they are collecting both pollen and nectar

It has been warm (minimum high of 12 degrees) so the bees have been out every day and are streaming in and out of the hive with at least 100 at the entrance at any one time. The bright yellow willow pollen is easily seen from a distance but the other more muted colours are hard to spot; we will see it in the cells on the next inspection.

As most of the trees finish flowering, by mid April, the herbaceous ground level plants start - like natures batten handover.

Dealing with wasp attacks

During late summer wasps can attack beehives in large numbers causing distress and sometime killing the hive.  We found that this year was particularly bad and found 3  whole nests within a half mile of hives. The problem is apparently caused by the drone wasps which, after mating earlier in the season, really dont have much to do for the rest of summer.  So they roam, like teanage boys do, around looking for trouble and food.  Thier numbers peak around August time before they begin to die off as winter approaches.

Unlike bees that mainly focus on nectar from plants (and honey if they can find it) they will be attracted by anything sweet. This is why you see them in large numbers on rotting windfall fruit. Unfortunately they can smell honey inside the hive so its very common for them to try and get in the front door or any other crack in the hive.

To protect your hive you need to:

  • put the hive doors in place to restrict the area that the bees need to defend
  • make sure that the supers are stacked neatly to ensure there no other ways in
  • avoid feeding with sugar syrup until the worst of the wasps has passed
  • set up traps - see picture - and check them several times per week when the wasps are bad

We find that the simplest trap is a wide neck bottle with a dilute solution of cheap stawberry jam and washing up water; smell of the jam attracts them in and small amount of detergent breaks the surface tension to speed up drowning and make it harder to climb out. This jar probably has 200 wasps in it which were collected in about 3 days this August.  We put one trap out behind each hive and hope that they will distract attention from the front of the hives. Judging by the numbers trapped, they are doing something.



The bee inspector pays a visit

  What a delight it was to spend 40 minutes with such a source of experience!

Our hives are registered on Beebase so as any time a Defra Bee Inspector can come round and check that you are not spreading any nasty bee diseases.  So when I got an email from Philip I was a little apprehensive as it feels like you are being checked up on.

He turned up today and promptly started checking through each hive, frame by frame.  Immediately I found I was picking up tips while I watched him handle the frames and the bees. Things like covering retaining the crown board to cover each super as you lift them off the hive.  Apparently they dont like our CO2 as we breath out so the crown board protects them from this as well as keeping them contained and in the dark.

Anyway, we have a been given a clean bill of health but there were a few capped brood cells left in otherwise hatched frames which contained bees without fully formed wings. These were probably varroa damaged. We are therefore under strict instructions to get the honey off the hives asap and put in the apiguard.  Will do.


How the bees play when the queen is away

When our bees were without queens earlier this year (when we carelessly let them swarm) we noticed some interesting behaviors in the hives: 1, aggression: they were not happy at all. Even the most passive of colonies was dive bombing anyone who came within 100 feet of the hives. Almost everyone using the field got stung.  They were particularly aggressive in the evening

2, disorganised behavior in the hive; they undertook the basic jobs that keep the colony alive in the short term, such as raising the brood, but we commonly found them eating the recently laid-down honey stores rather than being out collecting more.

3, weird wax formations;  we also found that the way they raised up wax became uneven and they mixed drone brood cells in with honey stores.  This picture shows how we are now left with some very strong raised wax that they do not want to use for honey stores:

Honey from rapeseed (canola)

Honey from rapeseed has many advantages but, for beekeepers, it is tricky to process.   In this article I am trying to balance the various perspectives: For the consumer

Appearance: The honey is an opaque pale buff/cream colour which is lighter than the supermarket style set honey. (LEFT:light coloured jar next to our darker autumn honey)

Texture: it is a firm honey but not too hard to spread.  It is also a very fine creamy smooth texture as the sugar crystals are very small.

Taste:  it is a mild honey (this varies slightly according to the variety or rapeseed and also what else might be mixed into it) with a very slight but pleasant peppery aftertaste.


For the Beekeeper

Rapeseed is a mixed blessing as the bees can produce quite large quantities of honey in May and June (and this year - 2011 - even in April).  Its always good to have a plentiful source of nectar and pollen to promote healthy productive bee colonies and even better to get lots of honey.

But....and its a big 'but'....beekeepers have to keep a close eye on the honey being produced when it contains rapeseed as it crystalises so readily it will set in the frames making extraction almost impossible.   Most beekeepers empty any capped or half-capped frames at the end of May but if the temperature in the hive drops below 30 degrees the honey can begin to set within 24 hours.   The reasons why the temperature might drop are:

  • reduction in bee numbers keeping the frames warm - possibly because they have swarmed
  • a very cold night reducing the temperature at the top of the hive further from the brood box heat
  • the honey is fully capped so the bees leave it alone to cool as their work is done

You can tell if it is beginning to set by scraping the cappings off a small area of honey cells. If you see that the honey is some of the cells is opaque, its setting. Once it has begun to set there is no stopping it and the race is then on to remove the honey as quickly as possible.

Once extracted, it will set completely in the jars within a few weeks. If you want to keep it clear you need to pasteurise it by heating gently to about 50 degrees centigrade.

For the bees

Rapeseed is great for both nectar and pollen and therefore really boosts brood production.  They will fill any free areas with pollen - sometimes more than they need taking up space that would otherwise be used for laying.

The colony can be so boosted that risk of swarming is much greater so weekly checks for queen cells will be vital from the first sign of rape flowers in the fields.


Plants for bees - phacelia with blue pollen

This plant is a great one for bees and so easy to grow in really rough ground.

I am generally all about planting perennials for bees so that you have a guaranteed sources of nectar and pollen every year but there are a few annual crops which cannot be ignored for their bee-value.  Phacelia is one of them.  It provides masses of blue pollen for honey bees and nectar for lots of other types of bee (see  for our observations on types of bee).

In several countries (US, Germany) it is grown as a green manure to enrich arable land. In the UK is is sometimes included in the mix for game cover but I have not seen it sold for crop rotations although I have seen it sold as a green manure in small packets in garden centers - presumably aimed at allotment holders. It doesnt seem to have any product other than its humus benefits..........and its masses of pale purple flowers.

My sister gave me a 100g packet she picked up in Germany and we had a patch of field going spare not far from our bees.  So, having rotivated to break it up a bit I liberally chucked the seed around, raked it over roughly and then ignored.  In spite of it being the driest spring on record and having to compete with well established weeds, it has come up thickly and now (first week June) is just beginning to flower.

As part of the plant trials I will be observing how it performs for the following questions:

1,  how attracted the bees are to a clump 3mx8m?

2,  the flowering timing - will it fill the 'June gap'?

3, after flowering will it self seed and continue to compete against the couch grass and thistles?

My observations are that the bees of all types love it and this is a fabulous 'June gap' filler. However, being an annual, you do need to sow it in freshly prepared ground every year.  For a selection of perennial plants that will reliably flower every year and support bees, go to the rosybee plant range.

The hives have re-queened (at last)

We have had a traumatic 5 weeks ever since our hives started to produce masses of queen cells in mid April.   We tried to do artificial swarms but got the timings wrong resulting in multiple hive swarming and getting lost.  Then we waited for the new queen cells to hatch. They did but no sign of queens or laying so we waited.....and waited.... Eventually one hive was found with a laying queen and we were able to take eggs and put them into the other two remaining hives to encourage emergency queens. Last week when we checked, they were raising emergency queens nicely.  But yesterday, to my great surprise, we found that those emergency queen cells were still only at 'cup' stage........but the hives had newly laid eggs.  So the queens must have been there after all but took a very long time - 4 weeks - to start laying.

So, finally each of our hives has an active queen and hopefully they can begin to recover their numbers and get back to full health.  I cannot tell you what a relief this is.

We took honey off them last weekend and have given them back the empty messy frames.  I hope this gives them a nice honey boost as the clean them up.

Bee plants - the trial plot in May

What a change! To look at the bee-plot now you would never know it had only be planted last September.  I did pack the plants in closer than I would normally recommend but it is now almost completely filled out. The succession of flowering is also going well with the Oriental Poppies and the Geranium Pratense picking up from the Doronicum and Erysimum.

The self-seeding section also appears to be working with the Borage beginning to power up through the Mysotis as it is ending its month of flowering.

This May has been a good few weeks ahead of normal so I am anticipating the 'June Gap' might be early too.  In the general area, the rape is over as are the Hawthorn and most of the flowering trees.

The Elder is approaching full bloom right now but after that comes the tricky time for bee nutrition and so I am hoping the bee-plot will pass the test supplying pollen and nectar in the gap.

Look out for Junes update for find out if it does!

April - update from the bee hives

A week ago (first week in April) we did a full check through the hives.  It had been three weeks since our previous check and the change was dramatic.  Previously they had been active and healthy, bringing in lots of pollen, beginning to lay in multiple frames but still had some winter stores left in their one super.  We had added an extra super just in case. By last week the 2nd supers of both hives had drawn up comb and about half full of honey.  Not bad in 3 weeks!  But also both hives had several queen cells which which we thing are due running out of space in the brood box and thinking of swarming; the brood boxes (standard National) are well over half full of brood in various stages.  The queen cells were still uncapped but we could see larva in some.

One other point of interest is that we had followed the FERA advice for varroa control and added a super frame into each brood box to encourage them to make free-comb for drone brood.  To our surprise this worked perfectly in both hives although one had capped drone brood and the in the other some of the cells were already vacated.  The plan with this system is that you cut off and discard the drone brood and with it a disproportionate share of the varroa brood.  We did as instructed but found the drone brood to be entirely free of varroa. This seems a bit wasteful of the bees energy but they dont need that many drones anyway and it is quite an easy system so we shall continue.

As this is only our second year as beekeepers we needed to ponder on what to do with the queen cells. During the week we took advise on how to increase your colonies without needing to find the queen and managed to work out a plan.  Yesterday we went back into the first hive and, as you might expect, most of the queen cells were now capped. We selected a nice looking 'dimpled' one, brushed all the bees off (see top pic) and transferred that and a couple more frames into a new brood box.  We then squished all the other queen cells left in the old brood box.

The new brood box then went back on the same hive stack above an additional queen excluder to allow the bees to sort themselves out inside and some nursery bees to rise up the stack to tend the transferred brood.

Well it work fine with the exception of one unforeseen incident; our queen cell was at the base of the frame so we had not realised that when we placed the new brood box on top of the stack that cell was sticking out of the bottom fo the box with nowhere to go. We noticed immediately as the frame rose up at the top. The result was a slightly flattened tip to our queen cell and we have no way of knowing yet if that will prove fatal.  We resolved this issue by adding in an eke to provide the vital extra space. The stacked looked massive when we had finished. (see pic)

Today we had a brood box of bees which we moved to its new site.  Fingers crossed we didnt do damage and that by next week we will have a new colony.




Tulips a blaze of colour with dark brown pollen

This year several plants seem to be flowering slightly ahead of schedule. In my garden (South Oxfordshire) we have had dry and hot weather for the last two weeks.

Suddenly all the tulips have come into flower at one time where normally a few open each day over a few weeks.

Right now the bees have a lot of choice as the hedgerows are still flowering, the fruit trees have started and the rape fields are just beginning to turn yellow. But still, quite a few of our bees had found this colourful display.

The pollen is mostly dark brown - almost black - and the bees were carrying such heavy loads that it was making their back legs dangle down with the weight.I was surprised they could even fly but they managed although I saw some who looked a bit wobbly. In this picture you can just see the black bulges on her legs hung low under her body.

A 'queen cup' in March!

This weekend it was 13 degrees and sunny so we took the opportunity to open the hives and have the first full check of the season. Here is what we found:Hive 1 - both the remaining super and the brood boxes were really full of bees. Since we checked thier food stores last month they have eaten about half of the remaining set honey. This is good news as we want them to empty these frames to make room for the fresh new honey. I caught a glimpse of the queen but I was too slow to catch and mark her. There are about 4 frames of brood in all stages of development. Happy hive.

Hive 2 - a lot fewer bees here. During the winter we had worried about this one but they seem to have made it. They had a full super of honey left; the lesser number of bees havnt consumed as much as the other hive. The exciting thing in this hive was the brood box; some capped brood and lavae but about 4 frames just of nice tidy laid eggs.

But also, a queen cup, tucked in the middle of one frames face with no other signs of laying around it; wierd. The current queen is obviously healthy and they are not short of space so we have no idea why they have created this. Its empty at present so we decided to just leave it and monitor regularly. It might be that we have the type of colony that just naturally and calmly replaces the queen each year. If so, great, as it will save re-queening.

We will let you know what happens.