Written by Caroline, posted on her behalf
Summary of a talk given by Rosi Rollings, proprietor of Rosybee Nursery.
Oxfordshire Beekeeping Association invited the local Natural Beeks to attend this talk, which took place in The Coachhouse, Quarry Road, Headington, on 13th November 2015. Rosi has a plant nursery, Rosybee Nursery, on 6 acres near Wantage. She has hives and does research on plants that bees may, or more often may not favour. Every year she sows one acre in rotation with phacelia and borage as a bee sanctuary.
Rosi’s background is in financial management but her mother was a keen gardener. When Rosi moved to a house with a large garden, her own interest blossomed. She started growing plants to sell in aid of her local gardening club. When this reached about 1000 plants a year, Rosi realised she had potential for a business. Picking up on media items about the loss of bee habitat, she decided her unique selling point would be to research, grow and sell bee-friendly plants. Her methodology was devised by experts at the University of Sussex.
Rosi’s research concentrates on three areas:
- testing plants that are marketed as being bee-friendly by growing them from seed;
- testing annuals that garden centres, and indeed supermarkets sell as attractive to bees;
- noting the species of bees that visit the different plants. testing annuals that garden centres, and indeed supermarkets sell as attractive to bees.
Before she described her research in detail, Rosi pointed out that the commonly held idea that bees can be saved by planting meadows with grass mixes containing native wild flowers is not going to succeed. Firstly, there is acute pressure on land to grow food for the world’s expanding population. Secondly, the grass mixtures commonly marketed and sold as wild flower meadows usually contain 2% or less of flower seed. DEFRA’s recommended mix contains only 1%, not nearly enough for bees. Thirdly, the mixtures tend to contain seeds of the cheaper, easy-to-gather wild flowers, like ox eye daisy, which is not attractive to bees. Rosi has planted a number of blocks of commonly available grass seed mix and noted the results, both in species of flowers and in bee visits. None of them proved to be satisfactory, though they may look pretty to humans and give grazing animals a more varied diet than plain grass.
In order to test the flowers bees favour, Rosi grows plants from seed and plants them in metre square blocks in full sun, She then weeds until the plants are large enough to produce abundant blooms. Once they are flowering, she counts the number of bees visiting and notes the weather at regular intervals during each research day. She has now compiled three years of data and aims to gather five years, so that weather conditions will average out. We all know that each British summer is exceptional! At the same time, she identifies the species of visiting bees, using a newly published field guide, The field guide to the bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk, published by Bloomsbury. Already, interesting patterns are emerging. The useful plants can be divided into two kinds, those that are rich in nectar with short flowering seasons, which bees will mob, and those that remain in flower for up to 20 weeks such as perennial wallflowers,the Erysimums. These may only get a few bees visiting at any one time but are reliable background providers
Testing the flowering plants commonly sold as bee attractors is easier research because Rosi buys ready grown plants that are sold as bee attractors and counts the bees that visit them. So far, she has not found any that live up to marketing descriptions. In passing, Rosi pointed out that it is short sighted to imagine bees can be saved by planting only plants native to Britain. Most of the best native plants for bees do not come into flower early enough to be useful when bees become active in spring. In fact, honey bees appear to spend the earlier part of the season in trees and oil seed rape, only moving into gardens from July onwards. , where they especially favour Helenium autumnale, Sedum spectabile, sometimes called Iceplant and Eringium maritimum, Sea Holly. It is counter-productive to make artificial distinctions between native flowers and imports or indeed between flowers and weeds. A high scorer in Rosi’s trials is Viper’s Bugloss, Lycopsis arvensis, a native biennial wild flower, which is never sold commercially and is found in the wild on sand dunes, fields and waste places.
Bees of all species and sizes from bumble bees down to solitary bees only 3 millimetres long perform 80% of pollination useful to humans. Hover flies and other insects do the rest. It appears to be a coincidence that many flowers bees favour, such as sea holly, borage, phacelia and vipers bugloss are blue. Bees see a different part of the spectrum to humans. The shape of flowers is however significant, as honey bees cannot feed from honeysuckle because their tongues cannot reach the nectar. The only way round this is for a bee to bite a hole near the base of the flower head.
Rosi regularly posts her research online at www.rosybee.com where you can read advice about which plants you can grow to provide a favourable habitat for bees and indeed buy plants by mail order. Having attended this talk, I hope to be more discriminating in future when I choose plants.