Look up during lockdown

Our hives among flowers

This picture shows how we tend to think of hives – among flowers, because we humans tend to notice flowers at our level, and some colours ‘pop’ more to our eyes.

However, if you look up in Spring you can see lots of trees in blossom, and not just fruit trees – and the amount of nectar they produce can dwarf that from garden flowers.

Typically it is white blossom, and this doesn’t seem so noticeable to me, perhaps because it is up there with that bright sky thing.

View from a hive: click to enlarge

Here’s the view from the same hives and, to a bee, those colourful things in front of the hive are relatively insignificant. In human terms it is “would you prefer a jelly bean or twelve Mars Bars?” What would be more interesting here are the lilac, apple and rowan blossom.

Interestingly, that wisteria isn’t too useful to honeybees, their tongues aren’t long enough to harvest it easily – it’s more a butterfly & bumblebee resource. The apple is beginning to lose its blossom so again the big tree, the rowan, is the dominant nectar source here. But its small, high-up white flowers are easy for our eyes to miss in this colourful view.

Horse chestnut nearby – click to enlarge

To a bee a tree can be ‘an acre in the sky’ and while you may not think of trees as food, they definitely are to insects. Here’s a picture of a horse chestnut tree about 100 meters from the hives. Again, the blossom isn’t that evident… but click on the image to enlarge it and you see it is covered in “candles” of flowers.

Soon the enormous lime (linden) tree in our neighbour’s garden will bloom, and hum loudly with many species. Limes are one of the most important food sources for bees here, but it’s so high I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen its flowers.

Another example of oft-ignored food sources is holly. This is a male holly (no berries) but it is a full sized tree next to our house. At this time of year it is covered with small white flowers but again, they are generally above head height and fairly inconspicuous to our eyes. Listen to the humming when it is in sun though!

At the end of summer ivy will be the last significant nectar source – its flowers resemble the holly ones here – and it is absolutely covered in famished pollinators. Not a plant we consider ornamental, but vital for insects – and, later, the berries for birds.

This swarm came from the cavity above the door behind it.

The other thing Up There, of course, is all those feral bee colonies in the eaves of houses, and occasional tree. A typical comment from a householder when you pick up swarms is “I never knew I had bees in my chimney”. Next time you are wandering around in a quiet area, listen for humming and look up. There’s a whole ecosystem up in that canopy.

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3 Responses to Look up during lockdown

  1. Hello Paul,
    I completely agree with these comments about trees as a primary honeybee resource for much of the year. I’ve spent years developing a garden with “insect friendly flowers” and insect diversity has increased dramatically over this time. But very recent experience with honeybees on site confirms your point – for much of the year from mid spring to late summer, there aren’t huge numbers of honeybees visiting the garden – we live in a very unspoiled upland (800 feet), high rainfall area with many hypermature trees and hedgerows. The nearby National Botanic Garden of Wales pollen-in-honey sampling research confirms that for most of the year, most pollen and nectar comes into their hives ( with a vast potential range of flowering plants close by) from a range of typical native hedgerow and tree sources.
    The exception to this rule is definitely late winter, early spring and late autumn, when I’ve found a range of (often non native) shrubs, bulbs and perennials can provide any bees willing to forage with invaluable pollen and nectar which is simply otherwise unavailable from our native flora.
    With climate change altering winter weather patterns I’m sure that such food resources can give bees much needed assistance – I’ve been surprised by how often this winter on days with significant wind chill, and temperatures in the very low single digits, our bees, kept in a non intervention hive, will visit flowers in January and February, if they’re located close enough to base, and there are enough of the particular flowers to create a workable resource. Particular favourites early on being Daphne bholua, Helleborus orientalis, certain forms of Skimmia and Pieris, Snowdrops, Crocus tommasinianus, and later Chionodoxa and Scilla bithynica. At the end of the season, some later flowering Hydrangeas, particularly the aspera group, can provide invaluable forage and useful pollen heading into winter.
    I only found your site recently and very much enjoy your informed articles, thank you,
    Best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lindylou says:

    Once again thank you Oxford for such informative bee guardian forage


  3. Emily Scott says:

    Unfortunately I’m very aware I have bees in my chimney, another swarm has just moved in! (Not from my bees). It’s good to know Holly is a bee friendly flower, it’s my daughter’s name.


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