Horticulturalist, beekeeper and friend of Bee Good, Mark Patterson writes about the flowers that are so important for our British bees.
In July the honey bees and their beekeeper’s attentions turn towards winter preparations. The colonies should now be at their largest and most populace (providing they haven’t swarmed!), and hopefully, they will have packed away an abundance of honey to see them through the winter and provide a harvest for their beekeepers.
As beekeepers prepare for the harvest, attention turns to controlling the varroa mite and treating their bees for this pest before winter.
In towns and cities, the late spring/early summer honey crop is reliant mainly on trees like Lime (also known as Linden trees in Europe). Limes, in particular, are highly sought after sources of honey, producing a light, sweet honey with a minty aftertaste. It’s also high in fructose sugars and low in glucose, meaning it stays liquid for a long time and resists crystallisation. This prolongs it’s shelf life and makes an attractive looking jar of honey for the sales stall.
Lime blossom is a major source of nectar at this time of year
There are 3 species of limes native to the UK: Large Leaved Lime Tilia platyphyllos, Small Leaved Lime Tilia cordata and a naturally occurring hybrid of the before mentioned two Tilia × europaea. The small-leaved Lime is prevalent throughout England, but in the south-west, it is mostly replaced by the large-leaved Lime which thrives better on the lime-rich soils. Limes begin to flower in June but in the south of the UK have mostly gone over by mid-July. In more northern reaches they may continue up until the end of the month and into the first week of August.
Limes are capable of producing copious volumes of nectar but only if the weather conditions are just right. High soil moisture content from spring rains followed by hot sultry weather is needed to trigger a good Lime flow. This year in Southern England the Lime flow has been exceptionally good with hives filling up fast with sweet lime honey.
We are fortunate in urban areas of the UK to have an abundance of lime trees growing in our parks and street sides. In London, limes represent our most significant potential for a bumper honey crop, but as mentioned earlier, this only becomes a reality when the weather conditions come together at the right time. In more northern cities where the weather is not as warm, the limes may not represent such a good promise of a honey crop because they need temperatures of 15 Celsius and above for their pollens to become fertile and it is only in such conditions that they produce nectar to entice insects to visit them.
Bramble flowers are another important source of nectar
Other plants which are important for our bees this month include Bramble, which in many southern areas has already gone to fruit but further north should now be in peak flower. Like Lime, Bramble nectar is mostly fructose that leads to a light fruity honey which seldom crystallises. Bramble is also an essential plant for many wild bees, hoverflies and bumblebees. One bee, in particular, the ‘Little Blue carpenter Bee Ceratina cyanea has a strong dependence upon Bramble. Read more about this bee on our bee of the month feature.
Around water and damp ground, Himalayan Balsam is now flowering and will continue to do so right up until late August. Balsam is loved by many Beekeepers for its flowers provide forage in bulk at a time when there is often little else around. It’s a contentious plant though, being a non-native plant and highly invasive. It’s listed under schedule 9 of the wildlife and countryside Act 1981 as illegal to plant, knowingly aid or allow to spread. The penalty if found guilty, can exceed a £5000 fine and a criminal record. So please beware of those on Internet forums advocating its spread as s plant good for bees! Far better plants suited to damp ground include Water Mint, Purple Loosestrife and Hemp Agrimony which are all loved by bees.
Other good sources of forage joining the summer flow this month include Tree of Heaven Ailanthus altissima, Indian Chestnut Aesculus indica, Chinese Privet tree Ligustrum sinense and Indian bean tree Catalpa Bignoniodes. All are abundant in urban parks and provide pollen and nectar after all our native trees have ceased flowering.
In urban areas, shrubs including Choiysia, cotoneaster, privet, philadelphus, Escalonia, Abelia, Santolina, Euonymus, Cistus, Buddleia and Hebe will continue to attract bees.
Elder is just coming to an end along with Dog Rose meaning few native shrubs continue to flower into July except for the heathers on upland moors and Gorse on heathlands. Many beekeepers at this time of year will be readying their colonies for the annual migration to the heather moors to take advantage of the late summer glut of Heather nectar.
Throughout July, our bees become more and more reliant on ground level flora for their forage. Wildflowers like Bugloss, Birds Foot Trefoil, Vetches, Knapweeds, Thistle, wild Thyme, Wild Marjoram, Scabious, Teasel and Umbellifers. Plants which many of us associate as ‘weeds’ and try our best to eradicate are often important to bees in high summer - So please if you have a garden leave some space for these plants and your local pollinators with thank you.
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