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

Plants for bees; Doronicum - a march-flowering yellow daisy for b


At this time of year the bees are just beginning to emerge more regularly and very soon they will find much of their food from trees and shrubs. Most perennials and particularly most of the daisy family tend to flower later. Doronicum is a significant exception flowering as soon as the temperatures begin to head above 10 degrees. My plants are just showing buds now. Honeybees love all types of daisy-shaped flowers as they are very open and accessible. They also tend to flower for weeks opening up new nectaries on a daily basis until the centre of the flower has a fuzzy appearance.

Dornonicums are  meant to like damp conditions but I have found they also cope well in quite light soils.

They clump up relaibly but are not invasive; all in all a very well behaved but tough garden plant.

Bee update: collecting swarms and feeding

This week, in between all the rain showers, we found two swarms.  We have provided the world with several swarms but never actually seen any before let alone had to deal with them so this was a big excitement. I am sure you have noticed that it has rained every day for the last 10 days but prior to that the weather was warm and fine. Our bees, and therefore presumably everyone else's too, had been booming in the fine March weather and beginning to make queen cells.  With both of the swarms we found, they must have been waiting to emerge and then took their chance during the brief periods of sun between the showers.  In each case they were hanging on the outside of one of our hives...which of course made them rather easy to find.

For the first swarm we had a spare nuc box so they went straight into a serviceable temporary home. The other had so spent a few hours in a cardboard box until we could borrow another nuc box.

Handling them was very strange. We swept them into the box gently with a bee brush and it felt like moving a viscous liquid, like custard, rather than bees. Also, they were strangely still but that might have been the cold.

Having already taken two artificial swarms to stop our hives swarming, we were not really expecting - or stocked - for another two. But they are with us now so that means 6 colonies to which need support in building up the wax. Now we have received the email from the BBKA advising that the weather has been so bad for so long that the bees might starve. Luckily we were feeding anyway but will be more vigilant now.

Plants for bees ; cheiranthus cheiri (wild wallflower)

Also know as Erysimum, this is the original European wallflower which is common in the wild right across the continent from Greece to the UK.  Its value for bees is that it flowers, bright yellow, from March through to May providing mainly nectar. It  can even have a second batch of flowers later if it is lightly pruned after the first flowering. It is sometimes categorised as a biennial but I find that if left to its own devices its more of a short lived perennial.  After the second year the plants tend to get a bit woody and 'leggy' but produce masses of seedlings so you just need to

1, dont cut off the seed heads until they have split open and dropped

2, ensure that you dont weed them out by mistake and you will have plenty of new plants every year (and probably spare to give to your friends).

Both of these activities can be served perfectly by completely ignoring them!! This will be great news if your are planting for bees in a wildlife area and for those who like to keep a tidy garden then just be a bit careful.

Have our queens swarmed?

Its a difficult business being a new beekeeper.  We probably should have spent more time getting trained but learning from books seemed to be going quite well till recently. A week ago we had lots of queen cell activity and were working on how to manage an artificial swarm.  However another week on and we find that neither of our original hives seem to have any new eggs or larvae which strongly suggests that our queens have swarmed.   So our current status is:

  • one original colony has two capped queen cells and only capped brood - assume old queen swarmed a week ago just after our last check. There are slightly fewer bees but still a viable quantity. Luckily we missed squashing a couple of cells so hopefully one of them will hatch and carry on the colony.
  • the other original colony has loads of queen cells, some capped, and some small larvae but no eggs and no sign of the queen who was marked.  Looks like the old queen swarmed a few days ago so we should have taken action on this hive last week to avoid this.  The good news is that there are still a lot of bees.
  • new artificial swarm colony - the queen cell has not hatched after 8+ days so is probably not viable and they have started to create an emergency queen cell.  About a third of the larvae appear to have died but some are fine; we probably didnt have enough nursery bees to look after them properly.  Not great but we have decided to just wait and see what happens to this colony.

Having done our research after yesterdays inspection we have decided to get home from work early this evening so we can go back into the 2nd hive to deal with the surplus of queen cells; we need at least one to replace the old queen but multiple queens risk a further swarm.

But where do the swarms go? We have had no complaints from neighbours and our lure hive is untouched.  Do they just disappear?


Trying to find the Queen bee

It is just us or is finding the queen almost impossible? We started our beekeeping last June with two “nucs”.  One lot came with an unmarked queen and the other with a small mark which then must have been rubbed off in winter.  We have occasionally glimpsed a queen - resulting in conversations that go something like this:

R: "was that her? I don’t know, she's disappeared round the back now." P: "Hold it still will you? R: "Turn it to the light. She was somewhere over there" P: "I can’t see anything. Are you sure you saw her?" R: "No, but I thought I did."

We know both queens are there because they are laying fine and with each check we find fresh eggs. But all the same, without spotting them we feel like really bad beekeepers unable to achieve this mark of competence.

This year we want to try and increase our hives by using artificial swarming. All the methods talk about moving the frame with the queen on into a new brood box. Well, that means we have to find her.  At the weekend we spent about 20 minutes carefully checking through every frame and failed to see any sign of them.  But we did find queen cells so we will need to decide on our strategy and quick.

I did see a artificial swarming method in a publication recently where you didn’t need to find the queen, but having turned the house upside-down last night hunting, I can’t find it. Typical!  From memory you remove the frames with capped queen cells into an extra box that you place above an additional queen excluder on top of the stack you took them from. Then allow the worker bees to sort themselves out before moving the brood box to a new site.

If any of you have any advice for artificial swarming without knowing where your queen is that would be most welcome.

Fruit blossom - beautiful and great for bees

The trees are definitely flowering a little early and in very quick succession;Last week (end March) some of the plums flowered, this week the pears are in full bloom as are some of the 'crab apples' and our bramleys blossom is plumping up and looks ready to flower next week.

This bee was caught by our neighbour on their Malus which is one big white ball right now.

This means a continuous supply of very large volumes of both nectar and pollen. Because they flower over an area of both height and width, a fully grown fruit tree will provide as much of both foods as up to 10 times the acreage of ground-grown flowering plants. So this makes them a very space efficient way of providing bee-food.

The pollen comes in quite a wide variety of colours and the brood cells inside our bee hives are beginning to resemble a colourful patchwork quilt. You can just about see the purple pollen in this pear.

The only down-side is that they will be over all too soon. Still, beautiful while they last.

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.

Hedges; bee heaven in Springtime

A traditional English 'country hedge' is made up of mainly hawthorn or blackthorn but also with a selection of elder, dog-rose, maple and hazel. This mix has been forming our hedgerows for centuries and is still the hedging that Natural England recommends as part of their stewardship schemes today. Not only does this country hedge form a tough, spiky barrier which keeps animals in and trespassers out, but it is easy to maintain with an annual trim. In addition, for those of us who want to support bees, it provides a great source of flower from the end of March through to May.

The blackthorn flowers first (pictured), flowed by the hawthorn and then any of the other elements mainly come along in May. In our area, (South Oxfordshire) some of the hedges have such a high proportion of blackthorn that sections of them turn a surprising white for a time as the flowers come before the leaves.

Our bees have easy access to a lot of hedging as it lines all the lanes near their field. Right now they are coming back loaded up with the dark rusty red pollen from the blackthorn.

But these hedging shrubs should not be considered only suitable for leafy roadsides out in 'the sticks'; they can be used anywhere that a hedge or flowering shrub would normally be considered, providing flower when not much else does.