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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.

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: mallows or malvas

Most members of the malva family are great for bees; they have that classic open flower shape that lets the bees get into it and reach the nectaries at the base of the petals.  This family (malvaecae) includes malvas moschata and sylvestris, which are both native to the UK, but also laveteras and hollyhocks. Another cousin is the 'marsh mallow', althaea officianalis that has a starchy root from which the original marshmallow confectionar was apparently produced. Most flower from the end of June through to August with the malvas first and the hollyhocks and lavateras a bit later.

The bees are mainly after the nectar but on the way to getting it they often get covered in a generous dose of white pollen too, and so take that with them to the next flower.   I find that moschata and hollyhocks seem to be the most attractive to both quantity and variety of bees.

This picture shows a honeybee getting a pollen bath on malva moschata which we sell because we find it to be one of the best.

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.

Fruit blossom - beautiful and great for bees

The trees are definitely flowering a little early and in very quick succession;Last week (end March) some of the plums flowered, this week the pears are in full bloom as are some of the 'crab apples' and our bramleys blossom is plumping up and looks ready to flower next week.

This bee was caught by our neighbour on their Malus which is one big white ball right now.

This means a continuous supply of very large volumes of both nectar and pollen. Because they flower over an area of both height and width, a fully grown fruit tree will provide as much of both foods as up to 10 times the acreage of ground-grown flowering plants. So this makes them a very space efficient way of providing bee-food.

The pollen comes in quite a wide variety of colours and the brood cells inside our bee hives are beginning to resemble a colourful patchwork quilt. You can just about see the purple pollen in this pear.

The only down-side is that they will be over all too soon. Still, beautiful while they last.

Tulips a blaze of colour with dark brown pollen

This year several plants seem to be flowering slightly ahead of schedule. In my garden (South Oxfordshire) we have had dry and hot weather for the last two weeks.

Suddenly all the tulips have come into flower at one time where normally a few open each day over a few weeks.

Right now the bees have a lot of choice as the hedgerows are still flowering, the fruit trees have started and the rape fields are just beginning to turn yellow. But still, quite a few of our bees had found this colourful display.

The pollen is mostly dark brown - almost black - and the bees were carrying such heavy loads that it was making their back legs dangle down with the weight.I was surprised they could even fly but they managed although I saw some who looked a bit wobbly. In this picture you can just see the black bulges on her legs hung low under her body.

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.

Bees collecting pollen to feed the brood

We haven't dared open the hive up to check them, but judging by the amount of pollen they are collecting, this lot must be building up a lot of brood. Today we observed 3 slightly different shades of yellow pollen and one very pale buff/cream. The main quantity is a day-glow bright yellow which I think must be from willow cat-kins where we have heard them buzzing.

Anyway - check out the video and seen them whizzing in and out of the hive.

Hellebores: good pollen for emerging bees

This week has been brilliantly mild for February and the hellebores in the garden have burst into flower.  The bees are now travelling across from their field and loving the great loads of pollen the hellebores provide.  I stood and watched for quite a while yesterday and the bees seem to spend over a minute in each flower and come out covered in pollen. I would not normally advocate hellebores for bees as they are non-native but in the right soils (heavy) they are very hardy and would probably stand harsher conditions than the cosiness of a well tended garden. So I might have to rethink my priorities and consider how these would work in a field-based bee plot.

Anyway, I am glad of the boost they give both garden and bees right now.The flowers can have up to 60 stamens which unfurl a few each day and ripen with pollen.  The flower will continue to mature over several weeks offering really good value for the bees.