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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

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

Nectar rich seed mix trials - first year results

In spring this year we planted 5 different seed mixes which are marketed as being good for pollinating insects: 1. an 80% grass, 20% wildflower commercial mix to the DEFRA specification advised for field margin Environment Scheme

2. a ‘bumblebee’ mix of 100% flowers including borage and phacelia

3. a more expensive 30% wildflower mix with a much wider range of perennial wildflowers

4. a mix that is widely used and recommended in France

5. a ‘nectar and pollen’ 100% legume mix with lots of clovers - this was planted on a different and poorer soil to the others

Now in September I can report the first years results. As you would expect from the range above the results are very mixed.  Weeds that we failed to fully irradicate first have been the main challenge which is very common story with seed mixes.  We had sprayed the area with a general weedkiller the previous autumn so our perennial weed has not been too bad except for the nettles; our challenge has been germination of both annual and perennial weed from seeds we exposed when we ploughed in spring. We should have waited longer for that to germinate but then you loose the ideal time to sow the seeds you want. The lesson is to fully prepare the ground in autumn or sow later in early summer after the weed seed has sprouted and been removed.

Flowering results:

a. Growth and weed suppression

Mixes 1, 2 and 4 all grew quickly which reduced the content of other species of plants. The most effective at weeds suppression appeared to be mix 2, the bumblebee mix, as the phacelia grows very fast and then the clovers pack out any remaining space. The wildflower mix has the most weed as even the grass elements are slower to get established. The sellers have deliberately chosen slower growing grass types to avoid the perennial wildflowers being crowded out; the problem is that allows other weed plenty of opportunity to get in there. This patch now looks terrible but we will leave it to see how if fairs over time.

b. Flowering

The mixes with a high content of annual flowers not only won the war against the weeds but also produced the most flower this year. The two with the most flower are the 4, the French mix (pictured above in Sept) and 2, the bumblebee mix.

The least flower was produced by mix 1, the DEFRA spec, which is only now producing a few flowers from 10% the clover content but the overall effect is 99.9% green.

The French mix has been the most dramatic and colourful and has changed every month going from purple phacelia in June, through blue cornflowers in July and on to yellow calendula and coreopsis in August.  However the phacelia, then borage, then clover content of the bumblebee mix has been more muted in shades but a very similar flower density up to August.

c. Bee attraction

Both the Bumblebee and French mixes did very well for insect attraction. In part this was because they both contained phacelia which was clearly the winning plant for be density.  Our method of assessing is the pick a sunny day, at times between 12 and 3 pm and then count bees per square meter.  The full results were as follows:

 

 

 

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.

 

Planting for bees in our village

One house in our village has decided to take out the grass in front of their house and plant a nectar rich meadow area instead.  Penny and Dudley are well known in the village and actively involved in a number of environment related activities: Dudley is a biologist by training and now, retired, has become the local wildlife expert; Penny is a passionate gardener. Together, their vision is to try and encourage the entire village to make more environmental use of any patches of spare land to benefit pollinating insects.  Fabulous! The picture shows how thier front garden looks in May, about 8 weeks after planting this seed mix and a few of my plug plants to give it a boost.  The dry weather in March delayed germination and then the grim April delayed growth but it is now coming on well as you can tell be the green fuzz effect.

In parallel with their activity we have also been planting a range of nectar rich seed mixes at Rosybee which I will be tracking and comparing.

Anyway, "well done" to Penny and Dudley.

Phacelia - good for lots of different bee species

We are finding that this plant is really good for many different types of bees. Here are results of our brief study: Our phacelia plot is about 24 square meters and we first studied the bee activity  in June at midday in full sun for about 20 minutes.  We then continued observing for more types of bee at various other times of day for 5 minutes at a time.

Bee density: approximately 9 bees per square meter when in full sun, 5 per sqm at when overcast - the difference being reduced numbers of honeybees when its cloudy.

Bee diversity: & species observed, most of them repeatedly:  honey bees were the most common (but our hives are only 50 meters away)but we also saw the following:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • buff-tailed bumblebees
  • red-tailed bumblebees
  • early bumblebees
  • brown banded carder bees
  • common carder bees
  • field cuckoo bumblebees
  • tree bumblebees
  • garden bumblebee (just one)
  • hairy footed flower bee (just one)

Quite a haul!

Observed behaviour:

The honey bees were purely collecting pollen but most of the bumblebees were after the nectar.  The latter have to push their faces past the forest of stamens to get into the small centres to the petals.

It was quite common to see multiple bumblebees in a single flowerhead but the honey bees will not go near a flower that has any other bee on it.

The pollen is dark purple/blue and makes the bees legs look like they have a plaster  on.

Growing phacelia

We  cast the seed on the surface in a rough patch of cleared earth in our field. Then we totally ignored it and left it to fight amongst the native weeds and grass.  It has faired well with this treatment and represents just over half of the vegetation in the plot.

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.

Bee plants - the trial plot in May

What a change! To look at the bee-plot now you would never know it had only be planted last September.  I did pack the plants in closer than I would normally recommend but it is now almost completely filled out. The succession of flowering is also going well with the Oriental Poppies and the Geranium Pratense picking up from the Doronicum and Erysimum.

The self-seeding section also appears to be working with the Borage beginning to power up through the Mysotis as it is ending its month of flowering.

This May has been a good few weeks ahead of normal so I am anticipating the 'June Gap' might be early too.  In the general area, the rape is over as are the Hawthorn and most of the flowering trees.

The Elder is approaching full bloom right now but after that comes the tricky time for bee nutrition and so I am hoping the bee-plot will pass the test supplying pollen and nectar in the gap.

Look out for Junes update for find out if it does!

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.