In praise of phacelia: ‘Friend-of-the-bees’

Here are two bees, enjoying some phacelia:

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We’re huge fans of this delightful, fronded bee-booster, and we’re certainly not the only ones. Here’s a quick round-up of phacelia praise from the web…

On the blog Wayward Spark, phacelia flowers are described as:

“…a great nectar source for honey bees both because they often bloom after other major nectar sources and because they offer healthy nectar and pollen diversity.”

According to Rosybee, a company that sells bee-friendly plants, phacelia is “a great one for bees and so easy to grow in really rough ground” – which makes it great for urban planting. We’ve just bought some end-of-season bargains from Rosybee so that we can get ahead of the game for the 2014 bee-season. Rosybee conducted growing trials with phacelia, and concluded:

“My observations are that the bees of all types love it and this is a fabulous ‘June gap’ filler. However, being an annual, you do need to sow it in freshly prepared ground every year.”

A small price to pay for such a gorgeous bee-feeder!

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Mark Diacono effuses about phacelia in the Daily Telegraph:

To enjoy phacelia in all its glory, stand completely immobile next to a patch of it. If you are entirely still and perfectly quiet a fabulous world reveals, starting with a peculiarly loud, deep hum like an approaching Lancaster. It seems impossible to have missed it when walking past. The hum belongs to the bees and other winged insects busying themselves in the flowers. Hoverflies, lacewings and numerous bee species couldn’t be more at home. On a summer’s day don’t be surprised to see 50 or more honey bees to every square metre. They come in such profusion that you can’t help but wonder where they’d be if the phacelia wasn’t there.

Meanwhile, over on Twitter, @helpthebees puts phacelia at the very top of its bee-friendly list:

Plants for #bees: phacelia, borage, alliums, lavendar, rosemary, ivy, crocus, bluebell, lupin, foxglove, thyme, sedum, sain foin, cornflower

Finally, a word from the blog ‘Urban Pollinators‘:

The flowers produce lots of nectar and will attract countless honeybees, bumblebees and other pollinators (the German name for this plant is quite aptly Friend-of-the-bees or Bee-feast). It is amazing to see how many bees are actually visiting on a sunny day; I often counted up to 30 bees per 1m2 at a time.

You can’t argue with numbers like that.

From scuzz to buzz

A smaller, light pink variety of lavender, attended by a smaller bee:

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Planting a variety of lavender (and not just the usual Munstead) has been one of our aims. So that we have a range of flowering seasons, from early to late. That said, we’ve planted a fair bit of Munstead!

But whatever the variety, the gentle buzz of happy bees on delicate lavender makes a charming change from dirt and bare soil. The point has been to change our environment from useless, empty, dirty corners into points of flowery intensity beloved by bees. Earlier in the year, the lavender didn’t look like much:

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But it’s starting to win the battle.

White Lavender: everyone’s favourite

The small white lavender plants we bought from Norfolk Lavender have blossomed into considerable bushes, bursting with bright white flower spikes. They’ve been covered in bees all season, perhaps attracting more than any other lavender. And it’s not just the bees that love them:

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At the top of this photo, there’s a passing bee. And having a break from cabbages, a Cabbage White butterfly. A bit of nectar for pudding after a feast of greens.

The white lavender is also unbelievably stylish; a whole field of the white prongs must look incredible – but even in small clumps it’s impressive, and makes a nice break from the purple.

The Joy of Fuchsias

There’s no place a bee would rather be, it turns out, then up the barrel of a fuchsia on Chilton Street (E2):

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The bees seem to be big fans (as are we) of fuchsias, and every fuchsia bush in the neighbourhood is buzzing, but it seems that sometimes bees treat fuchsias a little unfairly. Sometimes they go in for a bit of “nectar robbery”, as bumble bee expert Nicholas Charlton of the University of Bristol explains:

Some species of bees have learnt to steal nectar from flowers without pollinating them. To do this, the bee will make a hole in the flower near to the source of the nectar. This makes it possible for bees with short tongues to reach nectar in long flowers which would normally be too deep to reach. The bee will then use the hole to extract the sugary reward without going near the stigmas and stamens. This behaviour is described as nectar robbery.

It looks like this bee, at least, is playing fair, and pollinating away – as the fuchsia hoped it would.

And the winner is…

A clear favourite for the smaller bees has emerged:

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In the gardens of St Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green, the bees were swarming around the strange succulent-encased flowers, with their red stamens. The flower heads pronged up on dark shoots from a couple of large cactus-leafed plants in the churchyard. The bees were literally queuing to get in at the flowers:

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Here’s a wider shot of the plants:

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Caught in the crossfire

Sadly, some of our Lacy phacelia on Goldman Close (E2) got sprayed with weedkiller:

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The problem with spraying at this time of year is that, in many cases, what’s getting sprayed are FLOWERS. It’s like going round to a bee’s apartment, opening its fridge, and spraying it with weedkiller. The flowers don’t die immediately; they sit about, soaked in weedkiller, while they slowly crumple away. In the meantime, they’re still getting visited by insects. This can’t possibly be healthy for them. Never mind how healthy it is for the humans who live in the area…

Obviously some of the plants and flowers being sprayed are regarded as weeds, perhaps they’re growing in the wrong place. But a bee doesn’t make that kind of distinction.

 

Rare glimpse of some smaller bees

We’ve seen quite a few bumble bees at work over the last few days, but precious few smaller bees: really just one or two. Their absence this summer has been really noticeable. Here’s one, enjoying the mustard flowers from the seedballs:

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And here’s a medium-sized bee, getting busy with some Oxalis debilis flowers that gardeners hate (they’re vicious spreaders, apparently) but bees love.

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Another dose of chemicals…

The weedkillers have been out and about again, leaving their sickly blue-green residue:

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According to Tower Hamlets official ‘Policy on the use of pesticides‘:

“specialist trained contractors are employed to control weeds in selected situations. There is no blanket application of spray. Individual weeds are sprayed on their leaves with a contact herbicide that moves through the plant to kill it.”

But what about insects that land on it? Plenty of these “weeds”, at this time of year, are being used by the bees as a food source. Imagine someone had opened your fridge and sprayed it with herbicide. How would you be feeling after a few herbicidal snacks?

And it may not be “blanket” spraying, but the residue is everywhere.

This use of chemicals can’t be irrelevant to the collapse of been numbers. And what about the health of people living and breathing around the sprayed zones? Whatever happened to a hoe and a bit of elbow work? A bit of man-hour money probably gets saved, but at what cost to the health of humans and bees (not to mention other insects, pollinators, worms…)

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The season of the lavender

The lavender is just getting into its stride. Flower stalks firing skywards from every clump; and as the flowers open, in come the bees.

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This particular clump is displaying a charming and subtle shade of pinky-blue:

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We’ve got whites coming, some taller varieties, and lots of deeper blues and purples. All in all, the lavender is doing a remarkable job of cheering up some particularly dull corners…

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The aesthetic problem of bare, dull brickwork – great unbroken expanses of it in places – is something that desperately needs addressing around Tower Hamlets. After all, it’s not just the bees that enjoy bursts of pink and purple.

 

Return of the ceanothus

We noted a while ago that a few of our ailing ceanothus plantings were recovering. We can now report that a few of the most utterly dead-looking specimens are showing signs of life…

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Just as well we didn’t grub them out. It’ll take a few months before we know exactly what’s survived, but the signs are good.

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Of course, these ones recovering from shock haven’t flowered this year, but with any luck – if they pull through – they’ll do some flowering next year as they get settled.