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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.

 

Echium vulgare: one of our 'top 5' plants for bees

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This is a one of our top 5 plants for bees; a native that is so dramatic it looks exotic.

Also known as Vipers Bugloss, Echium Vulgare, this native British biennial is a member of the boraginaceae family and,  along with its cousin, borage, it is a massive source of nectar for bees and a great generator for honey.  From June through to September it produces tall (4ft/120cm) spiky spires of deep blue flowers that attract the full range of bees. It is particularly special for bees because it continues to produce nectar throughout the day and for abut 3 months; so you will even see bees on it in late afternoon when other flowers have dried up.

The vulgare (common) species  is not a plant you will ever see in garden centres and I think this is probably because the leaf rosette looks really ugly before the flowers come.  But from those scruffy leaves suddenly comes a spire of wonder. It grows wild in the chalk downs where it thrives in well drained soil and although it is a biennial but it will  self seed in poor dry ground; I recommend sprinkling some sand or grit under it to improve seed germination if you have nice garden soil.

We sell echium vulgare

Plants for bees - nepeta

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Commonly know as catmint, this is a family of around 250 species. I find this amazing as you are lucky if most garden centres even stock one!  They originate from southern Europe right across into Asia and are found in hot dry conditions. The normal garden catmint is racemosa or mussinii which loves a sunny spot and will form a mass  of soft grey foliage up to 1 meter accross and will flop casually; looks great over a  low wall or at the edge of a border spilling onto gravel.  We also stock the smaller nervosa which is a bit more shrubby and has greener leaves. This is more contained in a smaller space.

Bees (and cats) love it and you will see the whole range of short-tongue varieties (bumblebees, carders, mason and honeybees). The reason cats go potty is it gives of a scent that has a weird effect on them like a temporary 'high'.

Roses

Roses are a good source of pollen and nectar - not a top 10 source - but its nice to be able to have some 'showy' plants in the bee-plot that are good for the human soul too. The critical thing is the type of rose; they must have an open flower (like this one in the picture) where the bees can easily get into the centre.  The ones with the highest amounts of nectar tend to be species roses like Rosa acicularis which is the indigenous European rose or the more commonly found hedgerow plant Rosa canina or dog rose. These are available from most places that sell hedging plants.

David Austen sells a good range  of nice species roses but avoid anything with a double flower.

 

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!

 

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.

 

 

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.