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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?

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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.

 

Oriental Poppy flowers - black pollen for bees

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The bees seem to really love these. They love all poppies, but these blooms each stay open for about a week providing huge loads of black or dark purple pollen. We have observed both honey and bumble bees coming out with large bulges on their back legs; so heavy they look like they are having trouble flying.

The oriental variety doesnt exactly look natural in a meadow, because the flowers are much larger than the native poppy, but does have the advantage of being perennial so that you can guarantee it will flower every year without fail and is fully hardy. This makes it an ideal garden poppy and has the added advantage that it lends itself to 'succession planting'; after it finished flowering at the end of May you can plan to have another plant grow into its space.  This works well with a later flowering perennial like rudbeckia or helenium.

We sell oriental poppies.

Bees carrying pollen in early March

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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.

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

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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.

Update from the hives: Feb '13

Finally some milder weather; wahoo!  On Friday it was a balmy 9 degrees at rosybee so we took the opportunity to have a quick peek at the bees; only taking the roof off to see as far as ekes we have put above the queen excluder as a space for extra food. It all good news: all four hive have made it through the winter although with differing levels of activity.

All but one had been eating the fondant (see above) we gave them at Christmas and one hive had completely finished their block so we gave them a bit more. There were not many bees flying but we did see a couple of bees carrying bright orange pollen (see picture left) into the hives which is a sure sign that their queen has started laying and they need the pollen to feed the babies.

wpid-3005701.jpgThe one hive that had not touched its fondant probably has plenty of honey as the hive still has some weight to it. However this may mean that their numbers are greatly reduced, hence why they have not consumed so much, therefore we will keep an eye on then just case.

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.

 

Shrubs for bees

This is a question that seems to come up quite often and although we dont stock any large shrubs I can provide some pointers. If you are planting shrubs for bees then, ideally you would plant a few different ones to provide both you and the bees with flowers at different times.  Shrubs (and trees) often flower when there is very little else out; early in the season and even some in winter, so they are also very useful to supporting the bees at these times.

March/April: traditional hedging plants are idea - blackthorn flowers first followed by hawthorn. Both prickly but masses of flower.

April/May: fruit trees and bushes - grow dwarf varieties of plum or apple. Both fruiting and ornamental currents are great too.

May-Aug: now you have masses to choose from: escalonia, hebe, roses (simple flowered) buddlea (orange ball type), lavender, hyssop, broom

Aug/Sept: heather and also consider ivy for really late nectar into October

We stock the very excellent bee sub-shrubs of lavender and hyssop.

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.

Checking the bees in February

Last Friday the temperature touched 10 degrees so I took the chance to check on the bees.  I hate beekeeping in Winter as I always worry that they are starving or being attched by something or dying of disease or, or anything....just because I cant see them and be reassured they are fine. I had noticed recently that one of the hives was lighter than the others and buzzing. In my mind I couldnt decide what that meant: was one hive cold and running out of food while the others were fine or did that mean that the noisy one was ok and the silent ones were dead!

Anyway, I went armed with fondant to top up thier food supplies but what I found was three happy hives with varying amounts of food but all with plenty. In the end I decided it was better not to give them extra food and to let them use up the hard old stores in the super so that they will have plenty of space to fill with fresh honey.

If they all make it through to spring we will have increase our hive numbers from 2 to 3.

Checking the bees mid-winter

Over the Christmas period it was so mild that the temperature rose above 10 degrees on several days so we decided we would take a peek and see how the ladies were doing.  So we made our plans and just waited till the wind dropped. The plan was to check food supplies and also administer the dreaded oxalix acid- as per BBKA news advice - before they start laying and the larvae might be damaged. We ended the season with three hives but one was a merge of two that were in trouble and we knew they hadnt put away as much sugar syrup as the other two. Sure enough the hive was lighter and as soon as we lifted off the roof we could see lots of them coming out of the crown board. Apparently this is the classic sign of hungry winter bees; they leave the wamrth of the bee-ball in the brood box and search the entire hive for food.  Actually they did still have some fondant but we have them another couple of blocks placed in the eke directly above the brood box.

The other two hives were behaving as you would wish; all quiet when you open the lid and hunkered down in the brood box.  Hopefully all  three colonies will make it through winter ok.

 

Bee plants - the trial plot in June

The idea of the bee-plot is the design a planting scheme that will ensure continuous flow of nectar and pollen throughout the season. So naturally when choosing the plants for this trial plot I was quite determined to make sure that I had a range that would ensure flowering right through the 'june gap'. Up till the first week in June this was going well but now most of the earlier flowering plants have almost finished and the next batch are still to bloom. It think the very warm spring weather had some bearing on this as it accelerated the flowering of the poppies and geranium pratense.  And now it is much cooler than expected. The borage is just beginning to flower but the agastache and monarda are not quite ready.  The only thing really flowering happily is the oxe-eye daisy which may not self seed when everything else gets established.

I think that there will be lots of  flowers by the end of the month so hopefully this is just a two week lull.  All the same, it shows that the trial was necessary and I now know what to adjust in the design.

Plants for bees - perennial geraniums

Geraniums are not often top of the lists of plants for bees but I think they are under-rated. Geraniums are a real stalwart of any herbaceous border. The extensive range starts blooming in April with the Phaeums and keeps going right through to August with the Oxonianums which repeat flower for a very long time.  But, as with all garden plants, they come from the wild and in the UK we have two very common native geraniums:

 

1. Pratense (bloody cransbill) - a tall willowing blue flowered plant that you commonly see with its head above the grass flowers at the edges fo the road and

2. pyrenaicum - a low growing, creeping variety with masses or small purple flowers

Both flower from end of May till end of June and hence provide a regular reliable source of  'June gap' nectar and pollen.

All the geraniums (with the exception of a few cultivated doubles) have an open flower which is perfect for all types of bee.

If they are planted in a big clump then you will see a variety of bees on them. Thier flowers are not packed closely together and so honey bees might find them an inefficient source if its only a single plant if there is competition nearby.  However, if other flowers are scare in June then the reliable geraniums will be most welcome.

 

 

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.

 

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.

Our spring honey harvest

Last weekend we managed to find time to take our first spring-time honey harvest.  We live in rural South Oxfordshire where most of the land is under grain production and of course, oil seed rape is one of the rotations.   We were not sure how much rape was in our honey as the nearest field has been over a mile away and the blackthorn, hawthorn and other tree blossom has been nearer and plentiful. Each week in May we checked to see if the honey was trying to set and then a week ago we saw the first signs.  We put the clearer boards in and took the supers off two days later. In that time about 10% of the honey had begun to set. I guess that was because the bees had been keeping it warm and when we cleared the out the temperature in the supers dropped.

We decided that we needed a really warm environment for the extraction. My creative-thinking husband suggested the conservatory which is south facing and was sunny.  This worked a treat although we all needed large amounts of water to avoid collapsing with the heat.

We have been having queen trouble for the last few weeks so the bees have not really been producing honey since mid April. In spite of that we got two supers from one hive and one from another.  In total it came to 50 jars of honey so we were delighted (but very sticky).

We left the last of it draining through the double sieve over night in the kitchen and by morning it had thickened so much that it was no longer going through the sieve at all. That just shows the difference room temperature makes with rape honey.

Its pale and taste mild with an almost peppery aftertaste.   I hope that the friends and family who have placed order like it.

 

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.

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.