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.


How bee-friendly is your garden?

Here are some easy steps to check how many bees come to visit and to assess your garden:

1, Once some flowers have started blooming in your garden, pick a warm sunny day when its not too windy, (bees prefer days when its above 10 degrees and calm)

2, Walk around your flowering areas slowly and look and listen

3, Try to avoid any sudden movements that will scare them away and avoid casting shadow on the flowers

o   you are looking to see which plants seem to attracting bees but - and maybe this is more important -  also look for which plants or areas of your garden are not attracting bees

o   look carefully because some bees are quite small and may look more like hoverflies.

Good bee plants should attract more than one bee at a time (unless it is a very small plant). So now you can assess the following:

Overall what proportion of your flower beds have any plants attracting bees? Are there some plants you should replace with something better?

Do you have areas where there is not much flower or the flowers dont last very long?: long flowering plants give more value to you and the bees

Is your planting scheme in bold blocks or do you only have lots of single plants? ; it may be you have the right plants but a single plant may not be energy efficient for the bees to fly to

Are your flowers in sun? ; most bees will only forage in sun although bumblebees will tolerate light shade as they are fluffy enough to keep warm

Based on the answers to these questions you can now decide what to change or just sit back and enjoy all that glorious buzzing.

Knautia macedonica - stunning scabious

Standard dark red form of knautia macedonica with buff-tail bumblebee - face planted

Standard dark red form of knautia macedonica with buff-tail bumblebee - face planted

Our knautias have been if full flower for about 3 weeks and bring a really welcome shot of colour to what has so far been a drab June.

The standard version of this plant has the dark red blooms but we have some of the 'melton pastel' version mixed in that includes several shades of pink too. Knautia flowers can rise to 150cm high and will lean outwards giving a big area of colour; our square meter of planting at ground level becomes about 3 square meters at bloom height. I recommend a bit of support to keep them from flopping on top of other plants.

They attract all bumblebees; yesterday I counted 6 different species at the same time on our patch and an average of 12 bees. This display will last about 6 to 8 weeks - longer if you trim of any stems that have finished flowering an encourage more to grow.

'Early' bumblebee on a lighter form

'Early' bumblebee on a lighter form

Wool carder bees - territorial behaviour

Wool carder male on betony

Wool carder male on betony

This fascinating species of bee (Anthidium manicatum) have very distinct behavior and there are some plants worth growing specifically to attract them.

The males find a patch of plants they particularly like - normally because they expect it will be popular with the females - and set about patrolling this patch as their territory. They can be seen darting about and chasing off other bees that might dare to come along. They will even take on bumblebees that are double thier size. The females are allowed in to forage in return for a chance to mate.

In addition to the normal foraging for nectar and pollen the females also collect hairs (cards) from certain plants that they use to line their egg cells. These plants include stachys byzantina (lambs ears) and hairy verbascums (mulleins).

At rosybee this summer I have been watching wool carder bees fighting over a patch of stachys officianalis (betony) and only occasionally on the stachys byzantina. The former, as far as I can tell, is not hairy and so I guess they are simply defending a prime nectar source. 

They move so fast that photography is difficult but I did manage to catch the above picture. One of the other distinctive aspects of their behavior is that they are able to hover which is really unusual in bees and can help identification if they dont stop long enough to see them close-up.

bumblebee on stachys byzantina (lambs ears)

bumblebee on stachys byzantina (lambs ears)

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


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

New additions to stock for late summer


We have now added echinacea and veronicastrum to our range of stock to add even more choice for the bees as well as colour to your gardens. We also sell many other plants that are ideal for sustaining flowering through the late summer, which in many areas is have less natural nectar resources than the traditional 'june gap'.

Update on our wildflower seed trial


I was very disparaging about trying to get a nice looking meadow effect from seeds last year and, our initial experience was all about weeds. Now we are in June and the area we planted (about 500 square meters) actually now looks stunning although not rich in variety or bees. We still have lots of dock, thistles and creeping buttercup which were such features of its original really wild look but the oxeye daisy is in full bloom and visually dominant.  We did have some pink campion but that is now finished and if I look amongst the daisy and grass I can see a few other things coming through but not much.

However, its objective is to support pollinating insects and on that score the oxeye daisy is clearly a hit with a wide variety of hover flies but with only an occasional solitary bee.  I did manage to catch this shot of a leafcutter bee on one.

Plants for bees - nepeta


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'.

Our product: a box of bee-friendly plants


At rosybee, we grow and sell plants for bees; that is what we are all about. We grow the plants in trays of 10 large plugs at great value prices. This is designed to encourage our customers to plant a nice big block of the same plants which is how the bees like it. Here is what our product looks like all packed up and ready to courier.  The plug plants are all bursting with health and ready to get into the ground.  The packaging is specially designed to hold the trays of plants snuggly, prevent any crushing and ensure they arrive in perfect condition.

April and May are the best times for planting; even though most of the plants are hardy and a robust size, they will grow away better if the soil has had a chance to warm up.

Oriental Poppy flowers - black pollen for bees


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


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


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.

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.

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.

Shade plants for bees

I get quite a few queries asking about plants for bees that are good in shade so I thought I would document my response. The straight answer is the most bees prefer to forage in sun. Honeybees in particular do not like cool temperatures; they keep the inside of their hive at a minimum of 20 degrees and at 34 degrees when they have brood developing. Therefore they rely on direct sunlight to keep them warm enough to survive while out of the hive. The larger, fluffier bumblebees have more tolerance for shade.

The other factor to consider with shade plants is that many of them are woodland plants in their natural habitat and have evolved to flower in early spring before the tree canopy opens. This is not a time of year when many bees are out flying as the temperatures are too low.

So, all in all, shady parts of your garden are never going to be a great resource of bees but you will get a few on nice warm days. The best plants I suggest for these areas are:

Hellebores - Flowers Feb/Mar orientalis is good but you must stick to single-flowered types as the frills block access to the pollen

Pulmonaria- Woodland species with early pollen for bees, flowering in March/April

Early bulbs such as crocus, wood anemony,

Geraniums - Mostly May/June flowering; pratense is the native hedgerow and sylvaticum is the native woodland species. The macrorrhyzum types are also good in shade.

Foxgloves - biennial flowering in June - the native variety (avoid new posh varieties that are beautiful but seem less bee-attractive) are great for bumblebees

If you have some sunny areas that can take a few more plants, even better!

Dont do too much weeding!

In winter time almost all perennials look terrible; they carry last years now dead leaves, flop on top of each other and then get covered with tree leaves to give the overall impression of grey/brown mess.  Tidy gardeners may have gone round at the end of Autumn cutting back old growth and clearing the debris into the compost bin. Others may leave this job till spring, which provides more cover for insects and small rodents but does mean you have to live with a mess.  I tend to be in the latter camp but mainly so that I don't accidentally destroy all the self-seeded little wonders that are the plants natural renewal process. A few of the plants I sell are either annuals, biennials or short-lived perennials which rely on setting seed to replace the old plants. These include the cheiranthus (wild wallflower) - pictured above -  echium vulgare and borage. All fabulous bee-plants in their way so you do not want too loose them in the tidying process.

The cheiranthus produces many small seedlings at the base of the old woody plant, so they are quite easy to find if you leave the woody stalk in as a marker. They are dark green glossy stars and just need to be slightly thinned to 10cm (3inches) apart to encourage nice bushy plants.IMG_0280

The echiums (pictured left) look terrible after their first year and you could be forgiven to thinking they were some terrible thistly weed so I provide this picture to aid their identification if you have forgotten what you planted. Have faith and by summer they will transform into blue spires that provide nectar all day long.

Similarly, borage (below)can also be mistaken for a weed in winter. It sets seed very reliably but by mid winter the leave may well have become a bit tatty; see this picture from my garden where I think the rabbits have been helping themselves to the tasty leaves.  You may remember where you had the borage planted, and the seedlings will be within 30 cm of the where the parent plant was but that may now have rotted completely away. If you are likely to have trouble remembering you might want to find the seedlings in October and lable them if there is a risk your hoe will get them.


Propogation for next season

We raise much of the rosybee stock from seed and then supplement this by buying in cuttings and some additional plugs for varieties that we don't yet propagate ourselves.  The germination takes place in the greenhouse next to our house as its much easier to control the temperatures here. This picture shows the hot bench all covered with cell trays containing chieranthus, malvas, scabious, geraniums and oxeye daisy. The propagation process starts in September and we continue to germinate seeds through to November for any species that will take 6 months to grow big enough to sell.  Then we we sow the quick growing ones, such as any annuals, end of February and through March which a bit of light and heat to get them going.

Bee plants for Denman College (WI HQ)

Rosybee is located in south Oxfordshire and not far from Denman College which is the head office  and training college of the Womens Institure.  The WI have been great supporters of the 'bee cause' since they launched thier 'SoS for Bees' campaign at thier 2009 AGM. Based on this I thought it would make sense to and see if we could share ideas. Its been a very busy year but in October I finally managed to find time to contact their head gardener, John Towler, to offer some of my seasons-end stock.  John is a real enthusiast about wildlife gardening and maintains Denmans garden with an inspired balance of providing masses of colour for the many visitors and sensitivity to a birds, beasts and insects. They even have a few bee hives tucked in under a group of fruit trees.

I was very kindly given a tour of the 14 acre garden; the long border is a joy for bee-lovers and I began to feel that my extra plants resembled the proverbial 'coals to Newcastle' but John is on a tight budget so I think my extra stock will find a good home.

John is particularly proud of his herb garden that has a sunny spot with tall hedging protecting it from the north to create a really sheltered corner. It comprises a set of lavender edged beds brimming with mature herbs that John has allowed to flower for pollen rather than keep tidy for the kitchen.

I have agreed to keep in touch with John and supply plants when I can as its such a wonderful

Based on this visit I have been inspired to work out a 'bee-friendly garden audit' that will allow me (or anyone else interested) to objectively assess to what extent a garden provides all round support for our buzzy friends. I am still working on the details but so far I think that Denman College will score a whapping 9 out of 10.


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: