When it doesn’t rain, plant thistles…

Everyone has been talking recently about how dry it is down here in SE England. A hosepipe ban is due to start soon, London’s first for six years. Dry is and isn’t good for bees. Rain stops them flying (honey bees, anyway – I’ve seen furry bumbles busy foraging in heavy drizzle), but rain also helps plants produce nectar.

(A very happy man juggling bees in the rain, from the Bee Bright website)

So we need the rain, and I kept trying to feel grateful for it as it finally pounded down at the apiary today. But it did stop us shook-swarming – we’re going to try next weekend instead. That might be just as well, because that has given Emma and me time to make up frames in the privacy of our own homes, without an audience of bearded beekeepers snorting with laughter at our hammering skills.

Boots for beekeepers to wear in the rain. I found loads of bee boots at thefind.com/apparel/info-bee-rain-boots!

I asked Pat for advice on whether frames of foundation we’ve had since last summer would be ok for the shook-swarm. The National Bee Unit’s shook-swarm fact sheet says “Make sure that your foundation is ‘fresh’. Old foundation becomes hard and brittle so bees tend to chew it into holes. It can be restored by carefully warming it, which releases oils making it usable again.” I’ve heard before that heating these old foundation sheets with a hairdryer can restore them, but Pat advised doing this had caused them to buckle and bend for him. Instead he advises dipping them in warm water, after which they take about a day to dry out. Beeswax melts at 64C (147F) so the water must be colder than that – think Pat suggested 40C was best which is just slightly above normal hive temperature.

For this “dry” weather, Thames Water has given advice that Mediterranean drought-resistant shrubs and thistles should be planted. Plants that love arid conditions include sea holly, globe thistle and lavender. The great news is that these type of flowers happen to be favourites with bees!

Sea holly

The BBC’s gardening section says: “This attractive sea holly forms clumps of evergreen, soft, deep green heart-shaped leaves. In early summer, the thin wirey stems emerge, set with spiny leaves. The branched stems carry a profusion of small, sea holly flowers in bright, steely blue. This plant prefers full sun and well-drained soil.”

Pic from the Paghat’s Garden blog

Pic from Wikipedia, author Lee Kindness

Globe thistle

From the BBC website: “The prickly, grey-green leaves and powder-blue pompon flowers of this variety of globe thistle make it a striking architectural plant for the back of a summer border. It also works well planted in drifts in a wild garden. The flowers attract large numbers of bees, butterflies and other insects, and can be dried for winter decoration if cut while immature. Lift and divide overcrowded groups in autumn or spring.”

Bees visiting a globe thistle, photo credit Dennis Hinkamp

When it comes to bee flowers, it’s all about the blues.

EDIT: The RSPB blog has done a great post on conserving water with photos of a drought-resistant garden: ‘Water: it’s liquid gold.‘ They suggest catmints and sages (the bees will also love those mints).

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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8 Responses to When it doesn’t rain, plant thistles…

  1. hencorner says:

    Hi Emily,

    It was lovely to meet you at last today…

    And your cake was delicious!

    Thanks, see you soon x


  2. beatingthebounds says:

    Sea Holly is lovely plant, we have a little patch in our garden. (Although they look even better amongst sand dunes where they belong.)


  3. Emily Heath says:

    Ah well done for having some sea holly! Their vibrant blue must look spectacular rising up from the dunes.


  4. willowbatel says:

    Lucky you! We’ve had rain and snow for the last couple weeks here in Western Washington. We had snow in the rain today, and its supposed to begin officially snowing tomorrow. Which is odd, because spring break begins Tuesday for me. I wish this weather would just decide what it’s doing and be done!


  5. I love the photo of the bumble bee on blue thistle – bee-autiful! 🙂


  6. Yay for thistles! And bees!


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