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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

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.

 

Winter heather - long flowering nectar source

Winter flowering heather (erica carnea) provides an unexpected splash of pink in March when everything around it is still rather brown and drab. It can grow, when well established, to about 4 feet across. Mine started flowering at the end of January and the bees have been visiting every sunny day since. Im not really a big heather fan and find the pink a harsh colour in the garden but as a bee-plant its top value!

Unlike summer heathers these ones dont need an acid soil to thrive and will tolerate a wide range of conditions. So if you have a scrubby patch were you want some low growing, low maintenance flowering plant that will also support the bees this might be a good option.

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 http://www.rosybee.com/?p=345  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.

Update on the bee-plot - March

A bee-plot is an area of herbaceous perennial planting devoted to supplying pollen and nectar for honey bees. We planted our first trial plot last autumn in a field near our house while we are waiting to get some land where we can try larger scale planting. I am pleased to report that despite being planted in August, with minimal watering and not enought ground preparation (you should have seen the weed!) almost everything has survived the winter. I have recently added a few additional items which were too small to plant out before. It still doesnt look like much as the plants are still small and most only have just a few leaves pushing up but it should look very different in just a few weeks. The snowdrops flowered first and are now over but the doronicums and erysimums are just opening up now. I think there is too big a gap between the flowering of these two but I think the erysimums will fill this if I add an earlier variety.

The plan is to give a monthly update so watch this space for April.