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

Nectar rich seed trials: year 2 - June


The plan is to run the seed trials for 3 years and to see how the flowering behaves over time.  This will be our second year and I have just finished the very minimal amounts of maintenance that I think give the mixes a fair shot at success. As you can see there are some flowers now but also a lot of weeds. All the mixes we are trialling are sold by their various suppliers with claims that the flowering should last multiple years; some are mixes of annuals that are meant to self-seed to renew and others have perennials that should flower every year.

The maintenance has involved the following:

* we let the sheep graze all the mixes in September; a bit later than the suppliers recommend but definitely should have allowed any seed to drop

* the worst of the invasive weeds - patches of solid dock and areas of 5ft thistles - have been removed with herbicide

* we strimmed any tall tough stems the sheep but left the strimmings on the ground

* a few large bare patches have been reseeded

In addition I have now sown a new patch of the 'French mix' in an area near the road that was grass last year. I collected some of the seed by hand to use for this and have done this for purely aesthetic reasons to have a reliable splash of colour at the entrance but it will also be interesting to see how the collected seed works.

Having had a close inspection at the weekend have a few observations:

1, I can see that the 20% wildflower mix has now established quite a few perennials amongst the grass but oxeye daisy and forget-me-not and a few campion appear to be the dominant flower species. (that is what the picture shows)

2, The bumblebee mix area has been very swampy during the winter and has had several weeks of being underwater so I am not sure it will survive. This was not something I was expecting to test but unforeseen things will happen. The results is grass, with the dock and nettles coming through strongly but no sign at all of any self-seeded borage or phacelia

3, the French mix was completely bare dry ground until very recently but now there are signs of a few calendula, cornflowers (see picture - right), oh and the ubiquitous nettles. We resowed one section with seed collected towards the end of last years flowering and this looks like it has a wider range of seedlings coming through but probably not the same ratios of the original mix.

4, the DEFRA recommended mix looks like pure grass at the moment with about 10% dock

The dock and nettles are going to continue to be a problem and I am not sure if we should leave them or remove what we can; torn between letting nature do its thing and wanting it to look nice.

I will update again when everything is in full flower and hopefully also has bees to report!


Bees carrying pollen in early March


The bees have been out in force today. Although there is still a cold chilly breeze it was beautifully sunny and by lunchtime the temperature was around 10 degrees. I heard them from about 100 meters away  - something I dont remember experiencing since the heat of mid summer.  And sure enough, there was a big cloud of them milling around both hives and a carpet of them covering a fair portion of the hive front.  They mainly seemed to be basking in the sunshine.

Plenty of them were bringing in pollen of several different shades. I spotted a very pale buff or cream, light yellow, bright orange and a dark orange too.  Having checked the charts I think these will include hellebore (cream) and crocus (dark orange). I am also seeing them on the tiny little speedwell flowers but cant work out what pollen colour that has.  Any suggestions welcome.

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.

Bee plants for containers

I have had a lot of requests for bee-friendly plants that will work well in pots, window boxes and hanging baskets.  Most of my plant original plant range was selected to be tough and survive in wildlife gardens amongst grass, so containers are at completely the other end of the plant-care spectrum. Never the less, the bees will appreciate plants producing pollen and nectar wherever they can find them and therefore I am now testing some plants that I think will work well. One thing I will continue to encourage is that even in containers, its important to have a reasonable size block of the same plants to make it worth the bee to visit and so I recommend keeping the range simple.

I also realise that even if the bees dont care what the plants look like, people growing in pots do and so I have chosen a simple colour pallet of blue, mauve and pale pinks.

- dwarf scabious columbardia  - dusky pink pin-cushion flowers

- trailing lobelia - one of the few trailing plants that still retains nectar

- dwarf campanula carpatica - deep blue bell-flowers

- dwarf lavender

- echium blue bedder - this one is annual and all the rest are perennial - true blue spires.

Salvia nemerosa will make a good substitute for the echium as it will keep quite small if grown in pots but provide the same height with spires of blue/purple.

I will be selling these separately or as a package which is better value. Advance order can be taken now for delivery end of July and they should still flower this year.

In spring we sell a Collection: plants for pots and containers


Nectar rich mix trials; the 'french' mix

On holiday in France last summer we found noticed that as you drive through the countryside, you quite often find sections of field margins or areas at the edge of villages where there is suddenly a blaze of colour.  This is because the French government have been very active in encouraging seed mixes in spare land to provide environmental benefit.  (the French government is also one of those in Europe that have banned certain pesticides after working out they are harmful to the bees as well and the unwanted insects) We tracked the seed mixes down in a standard garden centre where we found a variety of mixes: some just for colour, others for birds, butterflies or pollinating insects.  We bought a big bag of the bee-friendly one and this became one of the mixes we are now trialling at rosybee.

I am writing this in July, having sown the mix this April, and can report:

1. it has grown well just scattered on the surface of the soil

2. it grew better on slightly raised areas of soil and I suspect that the very wet April may have inhibited (rotting) the gemination of the seeds that had landed in the furrows.

3. it contains (in order of flowering from June onwards) phacelia, poppy, cornflowers, echium, wild carrot, camomile, corn cockle and calendula.

4. bee numbers in June- July range from 3 to 5 per square meter in warm, dry weather conditions during day-time, which makes this a highly successful mix for bees.

5. the bees almost ignore the cornflowers and are mainly attracted to the phacelia and echium (not a big finding there!)

6. it is pretty!!! (I know, not a very scientific comment but I am sure most people we appreciate the benefit)

I will continue to monitor as the phacelia is now almost over and it will be interesting the track the bee-count.


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.

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.



June update from the hives

  After a frantic May with endless worries about losing the queens in swarms, queen cells hatching, more swarms and endless waiting for signs of laying......June has be quite peaceful.

We ended up with one extra hive from artificial swarming, taking our meager total to three.  Two of the three hives had a long period without a queen so it has taken all month for the masses of new brood to hatch and get to the stage of maturity where they can fly and begin produce honey. All that time the baby bees have been eating the winter stores and cleaning up the empty frames we extracted honey from.

The brood production in each hive looks very healthy; in one hive we have 10 frames of brood and so far, no queen cells but they are storing pollen in with the honey so we may need to give them more space.

In the other two, the have space but are both producing queen cells each week. In one, I think they are behind schedule for drawing up wax to provide space to lay - althought they have 5 frames of foundations sitting there - so we are giving them sugar syrup to help with wax production.  The other is just a really large colony which might be trying to split.   It is probably a bit late in the season for an artificial swarm but we can probably be lead by their judgment; so far this year they have been smarter than us!


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:

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.

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.

Bees collecting pollen to feed the brood

We haven't dared open the hive up to check them, but judging by the amount of pollen they are collecting, this lot must be building up a lot of brood. Today we observed 3 slightly different shades of yellow pollen and one very pale buff/cream. The main quantity is a day-glow bright yellow which I think must be from willow cat-kins where we have heard them buzzing.

Anyway - check out the video and seen them whizzing in and out of the hive.