June has been a difficult month this season with some Beekeepers reporting it’s been their worst June in a decade. Long spells of torrential rain has held the bees prisoner within their hives for days at a time forcing them to consume honey stores gained in May. Many Beekeepers have had to feed this June to stave off starvation.
Weaker colonies including splits with limited stores are most at risk of starvation. Sadly not all Beekeepers recognize starvation when it's staring back at them. Remain vigilant and check stores weekly especially if the weather is wet, feed if necessary.
Fortunately for myself my own bees were able to put away a super or 2 during May so I have not had to feed but it does mean I have lost much of my spring honey harvest.
As we pass from June into July all our hopes for a decent harvest now rely upon the lime trees. Limes are now starting to bloom. 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 common throughout England but in the south west it is largely replaced by the large leaved lime which thrives better in the lime rich soils.
Lime Tree Blossoms - A vital source of nectar for bees
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 very warm sultry weather is needed to trigger a good Lime flow.
Lime honey is highly sought after as it has a minty aftertaste and tangy tone to it. It's also high in fructose sugars and low in glucose meaning it stays liquid for a long time and resists crystallization prolonging it's shelf life and makes an attractive looking jar of honey for the sales stall.
We are fortunate in urban areas to have an abundance of lime trees growing in our parks and street sides. In London limes represent our biggest 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. With all the heavy rain in June there's the potential for a fantastic lime flow this season as long as the weather remains hot and sunny. During a strong lime flow a healthy colony of honey bees can fill a super in a matter of days so it’s important you have spare boxes at the ready.
Other plants which are important for our bees this month include bramble which should now be in peak flower. Like lime nectar bramble is mostly fructose which leads to a light fruity honey which seldom crystallizes.
Himilayan Balsam Flowers - Irresistible to hungry bees
Around water and damp ground Himilayan 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, knowing aid or allow to spread. The penalty if found guilty can exceed a £5000 fine and a criminal record. So please beware of those Beekeepers 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 and Hebe will continue to attract bees.
In rural areas Elder is just coming to an end and the only shrubs apart from Bramble and Dog Rose flowering in profusion this month will be Gorse. Gorse blooms perpetually all year round but peaks in summer when the shrubs become engulfed in lemon yellow flowers which give off a strong coconut scent. There's a saying about Gorse "Kissing’s out of fashion when Gorse is out of bloom."
Bee feeding from Bird's foot trefoil flowers
As July progresses 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 plants important to bees in high summer – among them Ragwort.
July and August are the months of the year when most Beekeepers remove their honey harvest but it is also the time of year when our honey bees are flying the furthest to find profitable flower patches. Research undertaken at Sussex University has shown that During July and August Honey Bees are regularly flying as far as 12 km away to forage and their decoded waggle dances indicated that the bees were making a bee line for nearby towns and villages where they can find abundant blooms in our domestic gardens.
We can all help make life a little easier for the bees in late summer by making better plant selections in our gardens. You can find planting suggestions on my website www.apicultural.co.uk along with some good suggestions for plants suitable for balconies and window boxes.