Reaching for the Sky: Hollyhocks

I have been waiting for this pink hollyhock to finish flowering and for its seeds to ripen. At last it has, and I’ve cut down the old stems and taken them away to a sunny, sheltered spot where I’m hoping it will seed itself around. (I need to clear the hollyhock’s space so that it can become part of a new bog garden.)

The plant was the offspring of a series of hollyhocks that have self-sown in the area for the last few years. Originally I had planted a few seedlings bought at a community plant sale. I can’t now remember what colour the flowers were. Possibly yellow, because I do remember some very pretty double yellow flowers and it seems likely that they would eventually revert to producing plants with single flowers.

This year there was only the one plant. That’s probably a result of all the disturbance of having the fence renewed last year. But this single plant was much bigger than any of the previous hollyhocks. When I cut the stems, I measured the longest and found that it had reached a height of 10 feet. (Hollyhocks do grow tall, but are more likely to be 6 to 8 ft.) It was lucky that it hasn’t been windy enough to blow the stems over!

There’s a lot of discussion about whether hollyhocks are biennial or perennial. (They don’t flower until their second year.) The RHS says that they are short-lived perennials, so I’m happy to go with that. But I haven’t tried to move the hollyhock to a new position because they have deep tap roots and don’t like to be disturbed.

A reddish-pink hollyhock flower

If there’s time next year, I may grow some new plants from seed. I’d love to have a range of colours, including pale yellow, the really dark purples, and strong pinks like the flower above. This one sadly wasn’t in my garden, but was photographed outside a pretty cottage a few years ago. (I’ve seen a wonderful range of colours outside some of the pretty medieval cottages in the villages around here…the tall flowers and quaint cottages seem to go so well together!)

Whatever colours I might fancy in hollyhocks, the bees seemed happy with this year’s pink. This plant has attracted many bees, so that would be a good reason for keeping some of the same shade – and a good reason for growing varieties with single flowers rather than the doubles. If I manage to grow hollyhocks in a number of different colours, I must take note of which they prefer – could be an interesting little project!

Common Carder Bee: Bee I.D.

In the last few years, I’ve become fascinated by the bees and other insects that visit my garden. Sometimes I like to just sit and watch as they go about their business among the flowers. It feels very relaxing and deeply peaceful.

There are several different species of bee that use the garden. Honeybees come here frequently. There’s usually a good number of buff-tailed bumblebees too, and just occasionally, a red-tailed bumblebee. And there’s the bumblebee pictured above – the common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum).

Common carder bee
Common carder bee on Caryopteris x clandonensis

I’d noticed these bees back in spring, visiting the white deadnettle and other early flowers. They moved about too much for me to get a really good look at them, or a clear photograph that showed their markings. Recently, I saw a couple of them enjoying the freshly-opened flowers of a sedum on a sunny afternoon. It made a good opportunity to photograph them.

Having photographs of the bees made it easier to identify them by comparing them to images on websites about bees. Even then, it can be very hard to be sure about identification, because many bees look very similar.

Honeybee on Sedum
For comparison: honeybee on sedum

To make it easier to see the differences between the commonest bees in my garden, I’ve posted a couple of comparison photos. Above is the honeybee. (The western or European honeybee, Apis mellifera.)

You can see that the honeybee’s colouration is quite like that of the common carder bee. But the carder is much hairier and a stronger ginger colour. (The common carder is also a bit bigger than the honeybee.)

If you look at the tails of the two bees, you’ll notice that the tail of the common carder has hairy stripes in black and white. While the honeybee also has a stripey look to its tail, they are quite different. Here the black areas of the tail look smooth and slightly shiny, with just very short and sparse pale-coloured hairs.

Bumblebee on a blue scabious flower.
For comparison (2): Buff-tailed bumblebee (I think!)

The other comparison (above) is the very common buff-tailed bumblebee. (Which can be distinguished from the white-tailed bumblebee by that very narrow orangey stripe at the top of its tail.) It looks quite different from the common carder bee, having a mostly black thorax with an orangey-yellow stripe just below the head, and another on the abdomen, just below the waist. (Mostly hidden here by the wings.)

One of my reasons for wanting to know which bees use my garden is so that I can try to make sure I have a range of flowers to suit them.

The common carder bees have been busy at the caryopteris flowers, even though the shrub has almost finished flowering for the year. Like a lot of other bees, they’re keen on the flowers of sedums at the moment, as well as the last of the catnip flowers. (When there’s not a cat sleeping in it!)

Now I must go and read up on what other flowers they like and what sorts of habitats suit them. I’m hoping for lots more of them next year!

Common Carder Bee
Common Carder Bee – it has a hairy face!

Bees’ Needs Week 2021

The summer feels like it’s going by too quickly. (As always!) Already the flowers that I associate with late summer are starting to make an appearance. I’ve noticed the first pale pink flowers to open on my patch of Japanese anemones, and the echinacea plants (above) are now beginning to display their brightly-coloured daisies.

There are lots of flowers in the garden at the moment so there are also plenty of bees and hoverflies around. That’s very appropriate because this week has been the annual ‘Bees’ Needs Week’ in the UK. This is a campaign to encourage us to grow suitable plants for bees and pollinators and to allow areas in our gardens to be wild enough to create a habitat for them.

Bee on Cephelaria gigantea (giant scabious)

Interest in helping bees (and wildlife in general) has grown greatly in recent years, with many gardeners delighted to provide spaces for nature. Now local councils and other bodies are taking a more sympathetic stance too. They have been allowing areas of grass to remain uncut for longer and even encouraging wild patches and mini meadows in previously manicured areas.

It’s good to see the bees back again here after a couple of weeks that have been unusually wet and much cooler than normal. Certain flowers are particularly successful at attracting bees. Here it’s the various members of the scabious family that seem to always have bees and hoverflies around them.

The pale yellow flowers of the giant scabious (Cephalaria gigantea, above) are a recent addition to the garden and have proved very popular. Their impressive height makes it a little difficult for me to photograph the bees on them though! (They can get up to 8 ft. tall, but mine have still some way to go.) Scabiosa atropurpurea (below, right) is up to about 3 ft. tall, so much easier to photograph!

L: Honeybee on geranium, R: Bumblebee on scabious flower

The blue geranium pictured on the left (‘Mrs. Kendall Clark’) has finished flowering but geranium ‘Rozanne’ is ready to take over its role. However, although the bees enjoy it, there weren’t any on its flowers when I took my photographs.

I think the bees weren’t interested in the flowers of Rozanne because the lavender beside it was in full flower and more alluring. I watched lots of these buff-tailed bumblebees (below) buzzing from flower to flower, clearly intent on making the most of the nectar in the tiny flowers before they all go over. (Bumblebees have longer tongues than honeybees, which makes it easier and quicker for them to access the nectar in lavender than it is for honeybees. This means they tend to move around the flowers quite fast – so harder work for the photographer!)

Given how much the bees enjoy the lavender, I’ll plant more of it for next summer. (Angustifolia varieties are reckoned to be particularly good.) I’m very happy to be able to provide something for the bees here. It seems only fair when I enjoy going on a ‘bee-hunt’ with my camera – and of course, we need our bees!

You can read about Bees’ Needs Week and learn what you can do to help bees at these sites: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/bees-needs/ and https://deframedia.blog.gov.uk/2021/07/12/buzzing-for-bees-needs-week-2021/

Bumblebee on lavender

Buzz! Buzz! Bee-lated Celebrations!

I’m a few days late to celebrate ‘World Bee Day’, but I will anyway because I think every day should be a bee day. (It was actually this lovely bee portrait by Steve Gingold that alerted me to the significance of Thursday 20th May.)

World Bee Day was launched by the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association and has been supported by beekeepers worldwide. There’s a website for World Bee Day that tells you all about the importance of bees and the essential role they play in the production of our food.

I think we’ve all become more aware of how much we need bees and that we need to do what we can to help them. There are some good books and websites to advise on planting ideas if you have somewhere to grow flowers for nectar and pollen. It doesn’t need to be a garden, pots on a balcony or window boxes can help. And the flowers in my images below (zinnia, scabious, salvias, and a perennial sunflower) are all very easy to grow.

If you’re in the UK, Dave Goulson’s ‘Gardening for Bumblebees’ is very good, for both planting suggestions and information on the lives of bees. But if you’re in the US, you’ll probably find that ‘Pollinator Friendly Gardening’ by Rhonda Fleming Hayes is more useful. (I thought it looked very interesting and would have bought it if it had been relevant to the bees and native plants here. You do need to read something based on your own area to get the correct information for where you live.)

Websites by local wildlife trusts are also likely to tell you what flowers are good to plant in your area. For the UK, I’ve found the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has an excellent site with lots of information about gardening for bees, identifying the different bumblebee species, and the lifecycles and habitats of bumblebees. I like the site set up by the UK Wildlife Trusts too – they have a good section on bees. (I would suggest checking out your nearest wildlife trust or organisation if you live outside the UK.)

I have a lot to do still in my own garden to make it really useful to bees for as much of the year as possible. It feels like something very worthwhile that I can do to help increase the numbers of bees around. And if most gardeners plant what they can for bees, while also avoiding the use of pesticides, we will together make a big difference.

Every day should be a bee day!

Hungry Critters (1): Bees

Sometimes it feels as if there is nothing much that you can do to help the problems of the world around you. But we’re not as powerless as we may think. Small actions do make an impact, even if it’s only in our own small area.

For me, environmental issues are something that I’ve been aware of for a long time and I’m especially concerned about the challenges faced by pollinating insects.

Bumblebee on a blue scabious flower.
Scabious is a great plant for bees.

In an attempt to do what I can to help, I have been trying to increase the number of plants that are good pollen and nectar sources in my garden. It does seem to be a case of ‘plant it and they will come’, because during the last couple of years I’ve noticed a big difference in the number of bees and hoverflies in the garden.

Luckily, just like the bees, I prefer the simpler flowers to highly-bred doubles. (Think of an open bowl-shape that gives easy access to the centre of the flower for short-tongued bees, and tubular flowers like the foxglove for long-tongued bees.)

Bumblebee on a dahlia flower.
The open centre of this dahlia makes for easy access to bees.

For spring and summer, the garden has lots of good bee plants. Even in the winter there is mahonia, viburnum and ivy. But late autumn can be a bit sparse, especially after the sedums and asters have finished flowering.

So this year I’m hoping to find a bit more for my late autumn buzzy visitors. Can you imagine a better excuse for a bit of plant shopping?

This week is ‘Bees’ Needs Week’ in the UK and this year there will be online events to raise awareness of what can be done to help bees. You can read more about this and about the work of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust here: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/bees-needs/

Honeybee on sedum flowers.
Sedums are among the best autumn-flowering plants for pollinators.

Blue (and Violet and Purple) for Bees

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that blues and purples are my favourite colours in the garden.

Some of the darker flowers have a lovely velvety look – petunias and the deep purple morning glory ‘Grandpa Otts’ spring to mind. They just ask you to stroke them! And at the lighter end of the range, soft violets and lilac-blues are delicately beautiful.

So I’m delighted to read that bees share my attraction to these colours and often prefer blue and violet flowers.

Scientists studying bees’ vision have discovered that, unlike us, bees can see ultraviolet light. This allows bees to see the ultraviolet patterns that flowers use to show them where to find nectar.

(There’s even a colour named ‘bee’s purple’, which is a mixture of yellow and ultraviolet light and is visible to bees but not to us.)

Blue Olearia-1064
This blue daisy bush (Olearia) looks like an aster but flowers in spring and early summer.

A German scientific study  of bumblebees also found that (in an area where violet flowers produced the most nectar), they preferred violet over blue. This allowed the bees to collect more nectar than bees that didn’t show a preference.

Apparently the world bees see is a mixture of mostly blue, green and ultraviolet, also yellow and some orange, but no red. Red just looks like a black to bees, but bees have an excellent sense of smell, so that flowers in the red colour range can attract them by scent.

There are already a number of bee-friendly plants in blues and purples in my garden.

Cerinthe (top photo) is a marvelous plant for pollinators because it is especially rich in nectar, giving it the common name of ‘Honeywort’. (This cerinthe was photographed in a garden I was visiting in the spring. The cooler temperatures at that time gave it a much darker colouring than my own plants had in the warmth of summer.)

Flowers of Geranium 'Rozanne' with lavender.
Flowers of Geranium ‘Rozanne’ with lavender – a combination sure to attract bees!

The geranium ‘Rozanne’ is now lazily flopping into the lavender bushes beside it, creating a partnership that pleases both me and the bees. This geranium flowers over a long period, so it really earns its place in a bee-border.

Another flower that is popular with bees and that self-sows around my garden is Centaurea montana – the perennial cornflower. It also attracts butterflies and moths, which means it works well as a pollinator magnet. The unusual flower shape and the combination of blue and magenta make it a lovely garden plant.

The daisy bush (Olearia) was photographed in a garden I visited in spring. Apparently it attracts both bees and butterflies – and I’m wondering if I can find a suitable space for one in my own garden…

As you might expect, I’m looking forward to checking out what violet, purple and blue flowers are best for bees. There will, of course, be plenty of other colours too. But, hey, I’m really pleased that my buzzy little friends share my colour preferences!

Flower of Centaurea montana
Centaurea montana is a very easy-to-grow plant that attracts bees, butterflies and moths.

Bees’ Needs: Flowers!

This week has been ‘Bees’ Needs Week’ here in the UK. This is an annual campaign where a number of groups come together to increase awareness of the needs of bees and other pollinators and ways in which we can help them.

Suddenly there seems to be a lot more interest in the role of gardens in helping wild creatures, especially insects and birds, to survive.

(This week, the ‘Gardener’s World’ TV show was all about wild meadow flowers and ways that we can encourage some of the same plants into our own gardens. And the major garden shows – Chelsea and Hampton Court – have an increasing emphasis on planting for wildlife.)

In reality, the desire to help our bees and pollinators has been growing steadily over the last few years but now there is much more information about what gardeners can do. (And, I think, willingness in gardeners to do what they can to help.)

I’ll link to some of the best bee info websites that I’ve found at the bottom of this post.

A bee on a red scabious flower (Knautia macedonica).
Bees love this red scabious (Knautia macedonica).

In our garden here in Suffolk, I’ve tried to plant flowers that would be a good source of pollen and nectar over a long period. For early and late in the year, there is Mahonia and Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, but I really need to plant more early spring bulbs, especially crocuses, and flowers that will last well into autumn.

Among the most successful of the bee plants in the garden here are borage, red scabious, alliums, lavander and catmint.

At the moment there is a big patch of borage plants – they seem huge this year – and, although the flowers are almost over, the bees have been very busy here.

The red scabious  happily seeds itself all around the garden and you can usually find a few bees on its flowers. Verbena bonariensis does the same thing, cropping up all over the place and keeping not just bees, but hoverflies and butterflies happy too.

A beekeeper has caught a swarm of bees in a skep.
L: Checking that the bees are comfortably settled in their temporary home. R: Waiting for latecomers.

One year, I got a bit more than I bargained for when a swarm of bees decided to take up residence in the cherry tree in our front garden. Luckily a nearby beekeeper was happy to take them away to a nice new home. It was impressive to see how deftly he was able to shake them out of the tree into his straw skep. Once the queen and the majority of the swarm were safely settled in the skep, the rest of the bees gradually joined them by crawling in through a gap left for them. Frost fleece came in pretty handy as a way of discouraging escapees!

I hope to increase the number of bee-friendly plants in our garden and to encourage other wildlife too, probably by growing some wild plants in odd corners of the garden. The idea of having a small ‘meadow’ planting area appeals to me and may be a project for next year.

I’ll be writing more about bees and gardens soon. In the meantime, here are some helpful (UK-based) sites if you’d like more information about planting for bees:

  • The Pollinator Garden – site by Marc Carlton. This site has more information than anything else I’ve found so far. Great planting list with details of what kinds of bees the different plants attract. Comprehensive information, including how to build bee hotels, creating garden meadows etc.
  • Save Bees and Pollinators  – The Wildlife Trusts. Information about the importance of pollinators and the threats they face. Links to information about how you can use your own garden to help them.
  • RHS Plants for Pollinators  – Royal Horticultural Society. Has downloadable plant lists for garden plants, wild flowers and ‘plants of the world’.
  • The Bumblebee Conservation Trust – has lots of information about different bumblebee species and their needs. Their ‘Bee Kind’ tool allows you to find out how many bee-friendly plants are in your garden. (It’s massive and goes on for 34 pages but you can also use it to see just the best plants for bees by clicking on ‘Only Show Super Plants’ in the filter bar.)
A bee on Verbena bonariensis
Verbena bonariensis is popular with bees, butterflies and hoverflies.