On a typical English summers day (a bit wet) 24 of us converged on Rosybee Nurseries in south Oxfordshire to learn about their research on bee-friendly plants from proprietor – and beekeeper – Rosi Rollings. Her work covers aspects not normally considered by beekeepers and we left feeling considerably wiser than when we arrived!
We started with lunch at a local pub, giving us the opportunity to discuss the state of our colonies, the paucity of swarms this year, certain extreme conventional beekeepers’ unhelpful attitude to swarms, and Brexit (the result of the vote having just been announced).
Margaret described how ants, which had caused hived swarms to abscond from one of her hives, were effectively blocked with marigolds, tansy and a sprinkling of cinnamon – obviously you don’t want to use insecticide next to a hive – but you need to keep nearby vegetation from touching the hive or the ants use it as a bridge. (Don’t put cinnamon inside the hive, it smells strongly and will disrupt pheromone signalling.) Liz explained how she’d overscented a hive with lemongrass and a swarm had clustered below it rather than go in, until she changed the boxes for unscented ones. We also discussed whether ecofloors are useful – some of us are trying these. We then decamped to the nursery.
Rosi warmly welcomed us and made a short presentation about how the nursery was founded out of her interest in beekeeping and gardening, and after 10 years’ trying to buy a going concern, she decided to just go for it and bought a site. She now sells plants online in trays of 6 – 10 which are relatively small, having been grown just one season. Many garden centres sell plants which are much larger, which they sell for more, but Rosi’s plants will be just as big, just leave them for an extra season.
She heard of an academic project on “which kind of lavender is best for bees” and this gave her ideas about how to assess plant desirability, such as planting in 1 metre square blocks, which makes working out statistics much easier (bees per square metre), though she realised the academics had missed an important factor because they only looked at peak numbers of bees, not how long the flowering period was. She began a project to assess which plants really were best for bees, in terms of total nectar yield. This is assessed by counting bees per square metre in a test plot of plants, every day. Weather conditions are recorded and the results averaged over several years.
She began by assessing several popular lists of “plants for bees” from books and websites, and so far has evaluated about 80 plants. It almost immediately became apparent that 30% of these were ignored by bees. This is not entirely surprising as Oxfordshire has a specific climate (wet, temperate) and soil type (clay). She has friends working on similar projects in other English counties with sand and loam soils.
Rosi’s interest isn’t just in honeybees, she is concerned for solitary bees and bumblebees too, and distinguishes between these in her popularity charts. She took us to a massive bug hotel full of nooks, crannies and tubes and explained how the solitary bees that build in the tubes seem very choosy about the diameter of the holes. Sometimes hollow plant stems bought from the same source are different from batch to batch so one bug hotel is attractive, another apparently identical one is ignored – so vary your diameters if you seem to have a dud one. She also has a sand bank specifically set up for miner bees who like making burrows in it, but has had problems with nearby builders taking sand from it!
There is a bit of bee lore that sustained heavy rainfall is bad for bees because it washes nectar out of flowers, except for those few which have downward-facing flowers. Rosi pointed out there were bees feeding on flowers around us even though it had just rained, and explained it is more that certain plants give more nectar in dry conditions. This is a very wet year which favours some plants. This is why she monitors a plant for several years.
She has the space to experiment with different seed mixes and advises –
- Avoid annual seed mixes: lots of work clearing ground each year.
- Ox-eye daisy is a cheap seed for suppliers so you will find it in most mixes, but it doesn’t like to be crowded and will die out in 3-4 years as other plants establish themselves.
- DEFRA’s recommended wildflower mix for farmers to sow in field margins has to be cheap. It starts as 95% grass and in a year or so ends up as 99% grass. Good intentions, foiled by economics.
- Wildflower meadows always end up mainly grass. Obviously it’s great to have 2% wildflowers rather than 1% but sowing these is not a long term solution to the forage problem. None of her experimental meadows have been hugely attractive to bees.
Test flower plots
The test plots, which were heavily scented and alive with bees (especially bumblebees) are some way from hives – honeybees tend not to feed right next to their hives, because they defecate as they emerge from their hive and this can contaminate forage within 50 feet. Athough I have noted my bees feeding enthusiastically on wallflowers and sedum only 10 feet from my hives. so clearly experience (and maybe defecation pattern) varies.
Rosi noted that several top nectar-rich plants are all sterile man-made creations but still valued by the bees as their nectar yield has been artificially extended, even though they no longer yield pollen –
- everlasting wallflower,
- lavandula intermedia
- and an agastache .
Another common sense thing, once pointed out was that the best helenium is helenium autumnale, i.e. not one of the heavily adapted ones with huge flowers to please the human eye, but near the species plant with multiple small florets.
According to Rosi, the top 3 plants for bees in Oxfordshire are:
- sedum spectabile,
- echium vulgare,
- and candy mix knautia mascedonica (a scabious) which is especially popular with bumbles.
For the full list and more see her results on www.rosybee.com/research
A few hundred yards away Rosi has a half acre of two famous bee favourite plants:
- and phacelia
– we were all envious. The wet weather has delayed their flowering by a month though. She warned borage is a weed so be careful where you plant it.
Of her hives, she mentioned the only colony doing particularly well was a swarm she had caught. She plans to select the best few colonies and merge the ones she thinks too small to survive winter into these, then repopulate empty hives with swarms and splits next year.
We were then assigned by Rosi to bee counting, handed forms to fill in along with bumblebee ID charts and set to watch the test plot. Distinguishing between bumblebee species was a stretch for us honeybee keepers!
Many thanks to Rosi, a generous host and knowledgeable, animated speaker! Further information on her plant research and the plants themselves can be found online from the Rosybee website. (Note: this is best viewed in Chrome, Edge or Silk – it has problems with Firefox). You may also want to check out our own list of bee friendly plants, suppliers, and a couple of useful free booklets to download.
If you missed this event and wish to see Rosybee yourself, OBKA are visiting Rosybee Nurseries on Saturday 16th July.
Next meeting: Saturday 30th July at Gareth’s apiary near Burford