Horticulturalist, beekeeper and friend of Bee Good, Mark Patterson writes about the early Summer flowers that are so important for our British bees.
June is a month of the year which brings uncertainty for many a beekeeper, for those in rural areas in particular. June is the beginning of the summer season when the spring flowering plants and trees shed their blooms having been pollinated and now begin to form seeds but the main flow of summer flowering blooms has yet to begin. Beekeepers refer to this period of change as the June Gap.
At this time of year, Honey bee colonies are approaching their peak in worker population in readiness for the summer flow, Queens are laying at a prolific rate and colonies have many larvae to feed. A reduction in incoming nectar and pollen as the spring flowers cease but the summer flowers are yet to peak can leave large colonies struggling to feed themselves or produce surplus honey for the beekeeper.
The June Gap is often felt the most in rural areas dominated by intensive agriculture. The plentiful hawthorn blooms of hedgerows, hedgerow trees and gluts of autumn-sown Oil Seed Rape are largely over throughout most of the British Ilse’s by June but the summer wildflowers are not yet out and the Heather bloom is still many weeks away.
In urban areas, the June Gap is rarely felt because our towns and cities contain an abundance of exotic plants which bloom throughout June filling the gap in forage availability.
In urban parks and gardens, Privet hedges are coming into bloom. Beekeepers loath Privet because its nectar produces a bitter tasting honey that is unpalatable to most. However Privet can help see them through the brief June Dearth. Other garden shrubs important as sources of nectar in urban areas include Hebe, Choiysia, Pyracantha and Cotoneaster – all are popular with bees and are widely planted in urban car parks, and amenity areas around housing developments. Shrubs like Ceonothus provide an abundance of yellow pollen and include several varieties which flower throughout June.
Urban areas contain many exotic trees which flower after our native species have ceased flowering. These include Sweet Chestnut, Pseudo Acacia, and Tree of Heaven alongside native Limes. In urban areas, with milder microclimates, our native Limes will flower much earlier than in rural areas or the north of the country where July is their usual season. The same is also true of Bramble which in towns and cities grows in abundance along railway sidings and brownfield land.
Our urban gardens also contain many blooming annuals and perennials at this time of year. Right now in my garden Nepeta, Geraniums, Campanulas, Thymes, Salvias like Sage and Salvia ‘Hot lips’, Valerian, Perennial Corn Flower, Fox Gloves, Wallflowers, Osteospermums and Giant echiums are in bloom attracting large numbers of bees. As June progresses Lavender, Echinops, Escalonia and Teucrium will come into flower, also popular with bees. Oriental Poppy offers a protein-rich supply of Pollen. Catmints, Stachys and Lemon Balm will feed solitary bees like leafcutter, Wool Carder and Mason Bees. Everlasting sweet pea is also a very attractive plant this month.
Another advantage to beekeepers in urban areas includes the widespread planting of Prunus (Cherry and Cherry Laurel) species. These shrubs and small trees have now ceased flowering but they produce leaves with extrafloral nectaries at their base and in some species smaller outlets along the serrated leaf edge. When moisture levels in the soil combine with warm sunny weather these plants may produce more sugars through photosynthesis than they require so they exude the surplus sugars through these extrafloral nectary’s. In times of Dearth bees along with ants and wasps, will visit these plants to collect the sugary substance excreted from these extrafloral outlets.
Away from urban centres, there are a number of plants common in rural areas which also produce extrafloral nectary’s which will be visited by bees. These include Bracken. Bees will also take advantage of the sticky secretions produced by Aphids as they suck the sap of broadleaf trees. These alternative sources of forage can make life a little easier for our honey bees during the June gap.
We can all do our bit to help the bees and other pollinators during the brief June dearth by ensuring our parks and gardens are well stocked with appropriate plants.
Deadhead fading blooms to encourage plants to continue flowering for longer, therefore, feeding the bees.
Remove suckering shoots from fruit trees, this will encourage them to put energy into the fruits on the tree.
At this time of year weeds like Bindweed can get out of hand. Keep them in check by pulling them up. You can try giving them bamboo canes to grow up and when they reach a few feet tall then cut them down. This weakens them and prevents them from smothering your garden plants without the use of pesticides.
June is when Rose Chaffers will be flying. These are large emerald green beetles whose larva feed on decomposing material in compost heaps. Attract them into your garden by planting open type roses for the adults to nectar on and maintaining an open compost heap for them to lay their eggs in. The large white grubs will consume all the tough vegetable matter in the compost heap turning it into lovely compost you can feed your plants with.
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