Friday, 25 April 2014

A Healthy Diet for Bees


Bee on apple blossom




I've been very busy with my bees. Like other beekeepers, I've seen my colonies build up quickly in the mild spring and one of them (my favourite colony - the lovely, calm one that doesn't want to sting me) has been thinking about swarming.  Generally, this is a bit early in the year for swarms, but the queen has been laying so well - and the bees have expanded so much - that they now want to divide their colony.

Bee on look-out!




When I had a peek inside the hive on Easter Monday I saw that they were preparing to raise a new queen - a sure sign that they were just days away from swarming. I knew I had to act fast, otherwise half of my bees would soon be flying off into the sunset. So I've created an 'artificial swarm' i.e. divided the colony myself (and basically tricked the bees into thinking they've swarmed). I would usually reunite the colonies when they've settled down, but I think I'll keep these as two separate colonies. It gives me another hive.

Creating an area of bee-friendly shrubs (with a beehive on the left, charcoal burner on the right and nesting goose watching it all in the background!)



I've also been helping my bees by clearing areas for plants that they'll love.  The area in the photo above had become a bit overgrown and full of weeds, but I've now cleared it for bee-friendly shrubs (that should eventually crowd out the weeds).  I've recently planted Californian lilac, berberis, and chaenomeles to start with (this area won't be for entirely native plants, but all plants will have been grown in British nurseries). Because the hives will be right next to this area, the bees won't have to fly very far for their food.
Ancient woodland near to my beehives. The bees love to forage on the bluebells.


While I've been planting for my bees, I've been learning a bit about the nutritional value of their diet from some reading and a lecture I've attended recently. I find this information fascinating and I've enjoyed learning some chemistry and biology again. I gave up studying these two subjects sometime in my mid-teens when I had to choose either arts or sciences at school (I chose arts). I remember I couldn't do a biology and history/English combination together which was a bit frustrating. I really enjoyed biology.

As a beekeeper, my main interest is honeybees, but I'm learning about bumblebees and other bees, too.  For example, bumblebees are quite vulnerable to running out of food when they're out flying, apparently they can only fly for about 40 minutes on a full stomach - so it's possible to come across a bumblebee on the ground that's out of energy. When I find a bumblebee like this, I try to revive it by picking it up and placing it on a bee-friendly flower that will provide it with nectar.




I've mentioned before that when honeybees forage for food, they collect both nectar and pollen from flowers.  I'm so amazed by how these little creatures organise their colony to collect food. I've recently heard that if foraging bees come back with food that isn't right for the conditions or needs of the hive, the colony just won't accept it. This seems a bit harsh on the poor bee coming back after all that foraging, but then bees are programmed to think with a 'hive mind'.

I'm planting so many bee-friendly flowers this year, but I've learnt that the nectar-flow from them varies all the time depending, for example on the day's temperature, the amount of sunshine, humidity, wind, age and vigour of the plant (which is a good reason to keep my flowers as healthy as possible). Bee-friendly plants that flower in winter are important to help the bees into spring, but I must remember to plant them where they'll receive the maximum amount of sunshine in the short, daylight hours at this time of year.  Then they'll be of real benefit to the bees.

I haven't been surprised to learn that it's important for bees to have a varied diet, because it makes such good sense. They've evolved to forage on a range of wildflowers, so it's of concern that today they're often in areas where there are can be a limited source of food e.g. a single arable crop.

This spring, oilseed rape is growing in nearly all of the fields surrounding the smallholding 




There have been some interesting studies made on bees and single crops like sunflowers and oilseed rape (and in the US, sesame). Bees love sunflowers and oilseed rape, but sunflower pollen, in particular, hasn't been found to be particularly nutritious for them. Its protein content isn't very high.  This has to be something for beekeepers to think about in areas where they move their bees to forage on this crop in the summer (like in France).

So this is an (admittedly not very academic) skim through some of the information I've gleaned on bee nutrition. There's plenty of further reading on these subjects that I won't list, but I will just mention Emily Heath's great beekeeping blog and her recent post on nutrition here

I'd love to know which of my plants are the most nutritious for my bees, but as I can't know this, I'll do my best for them by planting a range of bee-friendly flowers on the smallholding and encouraging the spread of wildflowers. This way I hope to give the bees the variety of food they need.


72 comments:

  1. What a fascinating subject this is! I enjoyed reading about it and seeing your surroundings.

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  2. Such an interesting post, I haven't got the space for bees & chickens & I'm afraid that the chickens won the vote. I love watching bumble bees in the garden & that was a useful piece of info you posted about finding a bumble bee of the ground.. I shall remember that in the future.

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    1. That is a shame about not being able to keep bees, Joanne - but chickens are such good fun to keep. I'm lucky that I get two of the best foods - fresh eggs and honey.
      I find it so relaxing watching bumblebees, they have such slow meandering flight.

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  3. A fascinating post Wendy, bees are so interesting and it's great to learn more about them from someone as knowledgeable as yourself. Your bees are very fortunate indeed to have you as a keeper, especially with all your continued efforts to make your patch even better for them !!!

    Hope the new colony is another successful and productive hive :-)

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    1. My plants will always have some competition from the oilseed rape when in it's flower. Some bees will choose other flowers, but oilseed rape is such easy forage. I would love to lure most of the bees away from it! But my flowers will be there when the rape finishes and in years when the farmer plants wheat instead. Thanks David.

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  4. Great post Wendy.
    Goodness - there is such much to learn in beekeeping isn't there - a job you can't take lightly when so much depends on their survival. I do try and grow as much variety as I can for bees in my little garden but now realise there is far more to it than meets the eye. Your photos are lovely as usual and aren't you lucky having a bluebell wood nearby. The fields round here are full of rape this year also - such a startling colour and heady scent - no wonder the bees head straight for it.

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    1. Your garden has a wonderful variety of flowers in it for bees, Elaine. But they do love the oilseed rape, there's so much of it for a start. I agree the smell of it is a bit overppowering, it's certainly drifted right over the smallholding here. It is the main crop grown locally this year - the only other crop (wheat) is several fields away.

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  5. I sat in our wild area yesterday watching bees coming and going to our cowslips and bluebells. They seem to love them and it was lovely to see the place alive with activity! xx

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    1. I love the garden alive with bees, Debbie and I could watch them for hours!

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  6. Hi Wendy, thanks for providing this very interesting information about bees! Since I am so much into growing roses I am wondering about the nutritional value of them for bees, at least of the varieties where they access to the stamens. I have a light pink variety called 'Our Lady of Guadalupe', which the bees are all over. I have three rose bushes of this one in the front yard and it is so nice to see the bees and hear their buzzing as I go by.
    Your photo of the bluebells in the woods is just incredible and I also love the first two with the bees in the apple blossoms. Wishing you a nice weekend!
    Christina

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    1. That is fascinating about the rose the bees love in your garden, Christina. I've made a note of 'Our Lady of Guadalupe'. As you'll know bees tend to prefer single flowers where they can get access to the food they need.
      The bluebells are looking stunning at the moment and of course all the apple blossom is beautiful. The young trees in our new orchard have small clusters of blossom.
      Have a lovely weekend, too!

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  7. Fascinating stuff as always Wendy and I was particularly interested to read about the nectar flow altering through the day. This would explain why sometimes the bees ignore flowers I've watched them feed on the previous day perhaps. I'm so glad your happy hive has been divided successfully- one of my friends recently lost a colony which had been doing well :-( Lots of bumbles here and a few honeys coming now the apple blossom is out.

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    1. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise to me that there is a complex situation going on between bees and flowers when it comes to the nectar flow, Nature is such a delicate balance of conditions, after all! I'm also fascinated by the fact that different flowers release pollen at different times of the day. I imagine the bees, being such intelligent little creatures, are more aware of all this than we can ever be.
      That is a shame about your friend's colony - it's always a blow to lose one. Thanks CT

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    2. Article in the local rag this week- flowers give off electric signals that tell the bees what the nectar flow is like. They change the signal when the flow alters. Fascinating stuff.

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    3. Thanks again CT - that is fascinating. There's so much to learn about the complex relationship between bees and flowers.

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  8. Such an interesting post that emphasises how important flower variety is to bees, especially if there is a monoculture crop nearby. Your hives must do so well with your careful planting and the wonderful bluebell wood so close by.

    Thanks for the tip about feeding a worn out bumble!

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    1. My aim is to plant flowers throughout the year for bees so that they always have something to forage on and I do want to counter the impact of the monoculture crop. The crop spraying worries me a lot, so if the bees can prefer my plants where I create organic conditions then that would be wonderful. I'm always so thrilled to see them bringing in other pollen when the rape is in flower.

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  9. Very interesting Wendy. I love to hear about your bees and all these things that I'd never thought about like nutritional value. I love to have bees around me and enjoy the sound of them so much when I'm gardening or walking along the coastal path. They love the crab apple blossom at the moment.

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    1. The bees are loving the crab apple here, too. I've seen crab apple tree blossom smothered in bees. It makes me think I ought to plant another one just for them - although the birds will also love the apples over winter, of course.
      I don't think a perfect spring/summer day is complete without the hum of bees in the background!

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  10. You are so very knowledgeable about bees and yet there is still so much you can learn too - absolutely fascinating post and lovely photos. Thank you for sharing all this wonderful information:)

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  11. This bee post is just fascinating for me and I think you gathered already a lot of information which is also of interest for us. The fields of oilseed rape are so very beautiful now and nothing can match an English bluebell wood. The picture of the nesting goose, the beehive and charcoal burner is very special, I like that.

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    1. Thanks Janneke. I must remember to take a photo of the new area I've created for shrubs when they are mature plants. I can have a 'before' and 'after' photo then.
      I haven't been to the bluebell wood for a few days, I think the flowers are probably starting to fade now - such a shame.

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  12. A really interesting post, I love bees and it's great reading more about them. I've found that they love raspberries in my garden - and then I get lots of fruit as well. Something for everyone!

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    1. Yes - they do love the blossom on fruit bushes and I agree that we all win by that! I know raspberry is a particular favourite. I've plans to plant some bushes here. I planted some blackcurrant bushes in the autumn and want to develop this area more for fruit.

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  13. I don't think I've ever seen as many bumble bees around as this year, but only one honey bee so far. Everything I've planted in the terraces so far this year has been bee friendly and it seems to be paying off. Unfortunately they are finding their way into an outbuilding and then get trapped in there. I've managed to rescue a few but not all.
    Your nesting goose looks very content there under the shade of the tree. :)

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    1. That is good news about the bumblebees where you are, Jessica. I hope you get more honeybees over the summer. I keep rescuing bumblebees from the barn - I think must be attracted to the scent of the beekeeping stuff I have there.
      Harriet the goose does love that spot for a nest, although I noticed today she's just created a new nest in the goose house so it's all change again!

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  14. That is uninteresting what you say about bumble bees running out of energy Wendy. I am sure I have seen Bumbles on the ground like that.

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    1. I hope you mean interesting, Roy!! I've sometimes seen exhausted bumblebees before me on a path I'm walking along, they can seem to get into a precarious state.

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  15. Thanks Wendy, very interesting , have just started planting up the garden and have been making sure the plants I chose are good for Bees and Butterflies.Our park has stopped cutting all the grass in some areas, just walk ways, this means there are lots of Dandelions for the bees then later on the wild flowers start to grow through, every little helps.

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    1. Bees and butterflies love dandelions and I'm so pleased to hear that they're not all being mown down in your local park. I can always tell when the honeybees are bringing in dandelion pollen - it's so distinctive in their pollen baskets. They bring in lots!

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  16. Wonderful piece, so informative and fascinating.

    Whilst I do not keep bees there are hives not too far from my home. A shrub I often see them on in winter is Mahonia charity. This can be planted in shade or sun.
    A summer perennial that is a native that bees and butterflies enjoy is Purple Loosestrife. It is a tad invasive which does not bother me but it can be pulled easily as a seedling. I find in the summer the blooms are full of honey bees, bumbles and butterflies.

    Another good tip for bumbles....I often find them struggling, like you a pick them up and try to revive them. I keep a pot of honey in the shed, a tiny amount of this on paper towel soon picks them up. Long live the honey bee :)

    Love the first shot of bee on blossom.......beautiful.

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    1. Thanks Cheryl. It's so interesting to hear about what the bees like where you are. Mahonia is a great source of winter food when there isn't much else out for them. I think it has to be one of their key sources of food early in the year.
      I don't have any purple loosestrife on my smallholding. I did plant some one year when I was creating a bog area, but this dried up a couple of years later in a drought summer and I lost all the bog flowers. It's now full of self-sown birds foot trefoil (so I'm not too unhappy) but I still miss the bog flowers.
      That is a great tip about keeping some honey handy!

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  17. What an interesting post, so much for us to learn about bees. From January onwards we have flowers for any bee that comes out on a relatively warm day. At the moment the garden is buzzing with bees, pulmonaria seems to be the favourite flower at the moment. I'm so glad you managed to hang onto your bees, I hope they stay with you.

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    1. I hope I don't lose any bees to swarms, Pauline. I do wonder with the bees being so ready to swarm so early in the season that they might want to do it again later in the summer, too. They will have plenty of time to build up the colony again.
      I'm glad to hear your own garden is buzzing with bees. Pulmonaria is a real favourite with bees, isn't it? I planted a some more here, too, a few weeks ago

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  18. Great post Wendy, I hope you'll get two calm friendly hives from your activities. I had the same problem, being forced to choose between arts and sciences. I wanted to carry on with history but couldn't and still do physics, chemistry and biology. So frustrating. I'm sure your Bess will be delighted with the varied diet you are providing.

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    1. I'm interested that you had the same dilemma at school, Janet. I always wish I could have studied biology further as I've always had such an interest in the natural world. I would love to know more about ecology, botany... I do feel like I'm always catching up!
      I hope my calm queen produces calm off-spring. She should do - but there is always the unknown factor of the males she mates with. They could have grumpy genes!

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  19. What a wonderful informative post Wendy with some lovely photos. I do so enjoy reading about your bees and hope the new colony does well and is productive :)

    We've been watching a programme on BBC 4 on Monday evenings - The Wonder of Bees with Martha Kearney which I've found fascinating.

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    1. Thanks Caroline. I'm watching the programme as well - I'm really enjoying it. I thought the bit about tasting the different honey was very interesting and I wish my bees had access to a large, wildflower meadow, too instead of oilseed rape! I think I would have done something about the bad tempered bees, though. They did look very grumpy!

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  20. This is so interesting. I am fascinated by bees although I don't keep bees I know what an important role they play. I noticed the gorgeous photograph of the rapeseed oil crop and as beautiful as it is it does rather worry me and maybe you can put my mind at rest. Where I live I am surrounded by arable land and a lot of crops are made up of the rapeseed but I noticed that when first planted the seed is of the blue type which I believe is pre-treated with pesticide. What concerns me as the bee goes from rapeseed flower to rapeseed flower working its wonderful magic does it become affected by the pesticide within the plant. I often see dead bees around and have wondered whether they are been slowly poisoned by this type of rapeseed crop planting. On a lighter note I have spotted tired bees and like yourself have picked them up and given them a source of nectar to help them on their way.
    Wishing you all the best with your bee keeping, you are so knowledgeable and with the care that you provide for your bees and wonderful plants I am sure they will continue to flourish beautifully.
    Best Wishes, Jane xxx

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    1. Hello Jane and thanks for your comment. I am certainly worried about pesticides on crops such as oilseed rape. I've been told that if I see lots of dead bees outside my hive to have them tested for pesticide poisoning - it could be a likely cause. Ideally farmers should spray early in the morning or late in the evening when the bees aren't flying but of course they argue that they have such large fields now they have to use all day to spray them all.
      But I'm pleased that the EU has suspended the use of some of the more toxic pesticides used on crops such as oilseed rape. This is the first year for this - so it should make a difference. The long term answer is to prioritise protecting bees of course - and it needs to start at Govt level.
      I'm glad you've managed to revive some bees where you are. I hope I can provide a haven for them here, especially when there isn't much for them in the surrounding fields.

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  21. I always enjoy learning more about bees with you. We have noticed there seems to be many more bees in our garden this spring. Sarah x

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    1. I'm glad you have more bees in your garden, Sarah. I hope that this is a good year for them - they had such a good summer last year and the winter was mild as well - so the colonies have built up quickly. It did mean that they were very hungry in the spring when they had used up their own stores (because there were so many of them in the hive), but good spring weather has meant that they have been able to be out flying early.
      Another warm, sunny summer will be very good news!

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  22. Wow, there is so much you need to know when keeping bees isn't there? When you talk about bee nutrition it makes perfect sense, yet I hadn't thought of it before. It must be fascinating keeping bees and dividing colonies! I wish I had a video of the process to watch. I have often thought of keeping bees but it is a huge responsibility....as you are teaching me!
    How interesting about the bumble bee, I often come across them on the ground to and put them on nectar rich flowers....sometimes I dilute honey on a spoon in early spring. I did love that pic of the bee on look out! Who would have thought it eh? A wonderful read!xxx

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    1. This is the time of year when beekeepers have to watch their colonies closely. It's very easy to lose the bees in a swarm because they can be crafty about it. The queen may have flown off early on before the beekeeper realises what the bees are up to! I've watched my bees swarming out of a hive before now, it is an amazing sight to see thousands disappear in a cloud but it's also depressing - because they've gone!!
      That is great that you've helped so many bees with a honey boost. I hate to think of them just worn out and unable to go any further. Thanks Dina.

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  23. Now I know why I sometimes come across a bee just keeping very still on the gravel path. It needs a snack! From now on I will give them access to some scrum my flowers to nom on !

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    1. Yes, it is a bee in need of food, Jane! I'm sure they'll find plenty to feed on in your lovely garden.

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  24. I really must look out for some sweet cicely.
    visit my blod
    http://bioskop-bagus.blogspot.com/

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  25. Hi there, just catching up! Very interesting to read abut your bee keeping adventures, I had no idea about most if this! Hope that you have a good week. xx

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    1. Thanks Amy. Have a good week too!

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  26. Very interesting! I am not a beekeeper but am interested in keeping the bees in my garden healthy.

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  27. I found this fascinating . Last year the farm had very few honey bees which was a bit worrisome but we had oodles of bumblebees. The cranberry bogs have hives set on them in June for a short time so that pollination of the cranberry occurs then the bee keeper takes the hives away . Usually even after the hives leave we have wild honey bees but last years very very few.

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    1. Thanks Willow. That is interesting about bees on the cranberry. I hope you have so many more honeybees this year.

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  28. Dear Wendy - I am rather late in the day reaching your really interesting post. I am just hovering on the edges of bee knowledge, so I always love to read a more in depth post from you. Whilst we were in Greece we tasted a dozen different flavours of honey at a co-operative. The ones I most enjoyed came from Thyme and curiously sweet chestnut.

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Rosemary. As you know I love to hear about the different types of honey and so I'm very interested that you found thyme and sweet chestnut the better tasting ones. I can imagine that thyme would have a distinct taste, but I had never thought of sweet chestnut honey. I'd be particularly keen to try that one day.

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  29. I just found your lovely blog. What an interesting post. I used to keep bees and it is fascinating watching them. Oil seed rape was always the main source of honey as I live in Suffolk.. How much nicer the herb rich honey tastes from the south of France. And have you tried lavender honey? It is wonderful. Now, sadly I no longer have bees but I do try to grow plants for honey bees but alas the numbers have diminished over the years. There are still plenty of bumble bees about though.

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    1. Hello Chloris and thanks for your comment. How interesting that you used to keep bees as well. Oilseed rape is definitely a major factor in beekeeping for those of us living in the east of England. It must mean that the bees build up so quickly at this time of year but then they find the crop is suddenly not available. I haven't tried lavender honey, but like the herb honey - is sounds lovely!

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  30. I think a variety of plants is the key for bees, other pollinators and beneficial insects. We have a lot of bluebells but I didn't notice our solitary bees being particularly interested in them. I plan to keep observing to build up my knowledge of what works.

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    1. Like you I'm always watching what the bees like best, although at the moment I know it's the oilseed rape. The fields are humming with pollinators. I know I can't change that but I think that having a variety of flowers here when the oilseed rape finishes is going to be so important. I don't want my bees to suffer in the 'June Gap' i.e. a time between the spring flowers/oilseed rape and the summer flowers when there can be a shortage of pollen.

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  31. Hi Wendy,

    I'm trying to find your beech leaf liqueur recipe- can you point me in the right direction please? CT x

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    1. Hello CT
      With pleasure. the link is - http://bit.ly/1a5CV2R (from last July) I'll be picking some beech leaves for this in the next few days too! x

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    2. Sorry, I'm not sure why the link isn't working. If it doesn't work again pl look under my July posts from last year - it'll be the first one.x

      http://bit.ly/1a5CV2R



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  32. Hello Wendy! Thank you for your visit today. I love your posts about bees. There is a big, ugly shrub next to my front porch that I dislike but the bees love it and I talking crazy love here. Your posts have kept me from pulling it out because I'd like to keep the bees happy around here. I do wonder where these bees come from and of all the yards around here, it is amazing they can find this one bush. Hope you are well - Stacy

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    1. Thanks Stacy. I'm glad to hear the bees love the shrub - even though you don't! They must have been communicating to each other in the hive that there it was an ideal food source. Because they've been spreading the word you've had so many visitors there!
      hope you're well too.

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  33. I have really grown to love and appreciate bees over the years. They are so vital! I loved this post Wendy :)

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Thank you for taking the time to leave any comments. I do love to read them.