Book review – The Beekeeper: Rescuing the stolen women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail

The beekeeper by Dunya Mikhail - book coverThe Beekeeper by Dunya Mikhail – available on Amazon (or your local independent bookshop)

I discovered this book while browsing my local library’s catalogue for beekeeping books. Yet it is not a book about beekeeping at all.

Instead Dunya Mikhail tells us about the ongoing work of Abdullah, a beekeeper who courageously uses his business contacts to save Yazidi women of Iraq who have been stolen by Daesh (Isis). He says:

“With the money I made selling honey in Iraq and Syria I was able to help save women captives. […] I cultivated a hive of transporters and smugglers from both sexes to help save our queens, the ones Daeshis call sabaya, sex slaves. We worked like in a beehive, with extreme care and well-planned initiatives.”

With Abdullah’s help, Mikhail – who is an Iraqi poet and academic now living in the US – has gathered together first-person accounts from Yazidi men and women of their experiences with Isis.

Warning: this is a non-fiction book which contains many heartbreaking narratives, so please do not read any further on in this post if you do not feel emotionally up to hearing about the events which have occurred.

The stories the Yazidi recount within the book follow a similar pattern. They flee Isis troops, who pursue them across the country. They leave their homes in a hurried panic, leaving behind their animals and possessions, abandoning everything they ever knew and had worked for. Families with small children and pregnant women flee on foot or donkey across high mountaintops or countryside terrain, where they are inevitably overtaken.

Once captured, the men, women and elderly are separated. Elderly people are thrown into a pit, along with any small children that refuse to leave their grandparents. There they are buried alive. Younger men are lined up in rows and shot in trenches or buses. Not shot in the head, but multiple places across the body, and then left to die, lying on top of each other bleeding to death.

The young women and small children that are left suffer possibly the worst fate. Now grieving, since they have lost all their male or elderly family members in a matter of minutes, they are taken off to be sold at market to the highest bidders. Once sold, the women and children will spend long, gruelling days doing housework or making rockets for their new owners. If their work is not considered good enough, they are savagely beaten. They may or may not receive food; if they do it is only rice. At night, the women – and girls as young as ten too – are raped, sometimes by multiple men. Even being heavily pregnant or just having given birth does not spare them this torture.

Abdullah the beekeeper is one of their few chances of escape. The odds are against them, as their phones are taken away by Isis, they often don’t speak fluent Arabic and they may only have the non-Islamic clothes they were wearing when captured. If they do manage to slip out or break down a door, suspicious eyes watch them and may report them as fugitives. Asking to use a phone in a local business is risky as the owner may demand money or simply turn them in. If, somehow, they manage to get through to a relative or friend who is still alive, who can then contact someone like Abdullah, they may have some hope of making it out. Alternatively many of Abdullah’s rescues are arranged in advance after he manages to identify where a captured woman is living.

There are some photos in the books of those who made it – and those who didn’t. One of the hardest to see was that of three little boys wrapped in sheets. Their mother, Maha, had escaped along with her twelve year old daughter – who helped her carry her three sons, aged three months, eighteen months and three years. She stopped to ask a shopkeeper for directions to a bus station, but her poor Arabic made the shopkeeper suspicious and he reported her. Her ‘owner’, an Isis hospital director, took them back home and poisoned the three little boys, who died in agony as he beat their mother and sister “with all his strength”.  The tiny bodies of the dead boys were wrapped in sheets and thrown out in the garden – the photo shows only their still little faces emerging from their shrouds, finally at peace. A neighbour who witnessed Maha transfixed next to their bodies finally helped her and her daughter escape – but she cried to Abdullah, “What good is it that I survived? I wish I had died there with them. I wish they had buried me in that garden.” 

What can any of us do to help the survivors who have lost so much?  One option might be giving to a charity like War Child, which is running a Yazidi appeal, or Doctors without Borders, which provides medical aid to communities around the world, including Iraq.
And reading the book and/or recommending it to others helps spread the word, so that these stories are shared.

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Growing my bees

Not bigger bees, but more colonies! I have doubled the amount of hives I have – not too difficult when you only have one to start with.

New hives being put back together

I’ve purchased a colony (the one on the right in the photo above) from a very reasonably priced local source.  This gives me options if one colony goes queenless at some point.

The colony on the left is the swarm I took from Drew’s parents’ tree. They have been moved from a six frame poly nuc into a new National hive I’ve purchased from a Cornish supplier, Heather Bell Honey Bees. The hive cost £134 ready assembled, which is a good price. I just had to paint it with a special low volatile organic compounds (VOC) paint as the wood isn’t cedar – I chose a cheery yellow colour.

New hives

Here’s the hives all closed up and secured with ratchet straps – there are badgers in Drew’s parents garden. I left the nucleus propped up against the hive for a while so that the last few bees would leave and walk up into the entrance.

Back at home, I have been enjoying July’s balmy weather and the arrival of solitary bees in the garden. I had thought my Stachys byzantina (Lambs ears) purchased from Rosybee -plants for bees were a bust at attracting bees. How wrong I was! The wool carder bees I was hoping for haven’t arrived, but what I believe is a species of Anthophora (flower bees) has.

Solitary bee Anthophora on Lambs ear

A whizzy, high pitched little bee has been visiting the Lambs ear. It zooms up and down between the flowers, hovering hummingbird-like for a second before its long tongue darts in. When you get a momentary look at the tiny face – before it disappears again into a flower – the eyes are pale green.

I’ve been told by @apiculturalLdn and @rosybeeplants on Twitter that it may be Anthophora furcata, Anthophora bimaculata or Anthophora quadrimaculata. You can see a little video I made of it in action – Anthophora flower bee. Check out that tongue!

I am very pleased with the Lambs ear plants. Their silvery, elegant leaves feel so soft and velvety – perfect when you have a toddler running about. Lambs ears never seem to be plagued by aphids and need no watering as the furry leaves are so efficient at collecting rain droplets. And they are said to be good for soothing bee stings too!

In the recent unusually hot July evenings I have been enjoying pottering about in the garden, watching the local creatures – our fish nibbling at the pond surface, cooing wood pigeons, fledging thrushes being fed by their parents, the neighbours’ cat rolling in our catmint. And most of all the buzzing bees, going busily about their business. I think the plant below might be purple loosestrife and the cuddly gingery bee is a Common carder bee.

Common carder bee

Is there any greater pleasure than sitting out at 9pm reading about bees, no need for a coat, a mini magnum in your hand, while solitary and bumble bees patrol your Lambs ear?  Surely not.

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Tips learnt from Bee Health Day 2018

This weekend I went to Bee Health Day 2018, a day with local Cornish and Devon Bee inspectors learning about various diseases and pests. Accompanied by tea and pasties, so that you knew you were in Cornwall.

We had four sessions – one on the Asian hornet, one on varroa, a practical apiary visit and one looking at real-life frames containing various nasty brood diseases. I know you’re all jealous.

The main husbandry point emphasised during the day was… Change your comb

We were reminded that the reason brood comb turns increasingly brown to black over the years is that it contains poo. Not adult bee poo, but larva poo. They have nowhere else to go, so they poo in the comb. And any diseases the larvae or adults might have stay in the comb too – nosema, EFB, AFB, it will all stay in there. In the wild bee colonies would naturally die out after something like 4-5 years, wax moths would move in, and the old comb would be consumed by the moths. It’s not natural or hygienic to keep on using brood combs indefinitely.

To prevent cross-contamination from old combs, combs should be changed all at once through a Bailey comb-change, artificial swarm or shook-swarm method, rather than just replacing one or two a year.

Asian hornets

During the Asian hornet session we were given the tip to get a fishing net. If you think you have an Asian hornet visiting your hives, scoop it over the top, bring it down to the ground and carefully get it into a box and then your freezer. If you can’t catch one, get a photo. Stamping on one will temporarily stun it but not kill it – they are tough little buggers.

Asian hornet nest entrance

Asian hornet nest entrance, photo by Jean Haxaire, 2018. Courtesy The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Crown Copyright

It is likely to be September when a nest is next discovered in this country, as that is when most previous sightings have occurred. They’re also more likely to be seen around your hives on a wet day, when there are fewer flying insects so the hornets turn to honey bees as a reliable source of food.

If you spot a hornet or hornet nest which you suspect may be the Asian hornet, then notify the Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS) immediately using their online monitoring form. NNSS Identification sheets for the Asian hornet are available. Our harmless native hornet looks like a larger version of a yellow wasp, whereas the Asian hornet is mostly black apart from a yellow band flashed across their fourth abdominal segment, complemented by yellow legs and a bright orange face. In flight they look like black cigars.

The bee inspectors did not sound optimistic that we can hold back the hornets forever. The hornets have no natural predators in France, so have rapidly grown in numbers there. They are bad news not just for honey bees but for all sorts of native insects.

Varroa

Rather than using the same treatments year after year (something I’m guilty of! I’m an Apiguard fan) rotate your treatments regularly to avoid mites developing resistance to any one treatment. There are some relatively new ones on the market at the moment (see the Beebase Managing Varroa leaflet for a list).

A mix of husbandry methods  – for example drone brood removal, artificial swarm, shook swarm, comb trapping – and chemical methods can be used. MAQs is one of the few which can safely be used when honey is still on the hive, but its instructions must be followed to the letter as it is powerful stuff. We were told Apitraz is popular with commercial bee farmers in this country.

Practical apiary visit

My favourite part of the day, as we got to get off our bums and play about with bees. We used a local Association apiary, which the Bee Inspectors found disappointingly lacking in any diseases. They couldn’t even find any varroa to show us, not even after raking through the drone brood!

The bees were ‘teasy‘ as someone said, as it was a wet day and they’d been opened up twice already by the time our group went to see them. Despite this I enjoyed seeing the Bee Inspector go through the hive, we found a queen cell and he told us how he would deal with it (spoiler – not by automatically destroying any queen cell you find!) and explained a good method of doing an artificial swarm and culling some varroa while you’re at it.

I asked the inspector how having foundationless frames might affect varroa levels, as when they are left to their own devices to make comb, the bees will make more drones than they would in a hive filled with standard worker brood size foundation. As varroa mites prefer reproducing in drone brood, would the extra drones mean extra varroa, or counter-intituively might the extra drones be beneficial because the varroa could go into the many drone cells around and leave more of the worker larvae alone? The inspector said it was a good question but he didn’t know the answer. Does anyone have an opinion on that?

Bee Health Day 2018 apiary visit

The hive we inspected for the practical session. Three supers high.

Comb diseases

Before going into the room containing samples of American Foul Brood (AFB), European Foul Brood (EFB), chalk brood, sacbrood and various hive pests we were handed plastic aprons and gloves. We had to leave any bags and coats outside the room. Inside we were given a little paper quiz to try and identify what was in each frame, which was a clever way of getting us really looking.

Earlier in the day we were warned to isolate any swarms we catch and monitor them for signs of EFB. Avoid feeding the swarm for at least 24 hours, so that any contaminated  honey in their stomachs will be used to produce wax and there is some chance the EFB may be ‘sealed in’ to the comb rather than the honey being stored for food.

We were also told that the main culprit for spreading AFB and EFB is us – the beekeeper. Visiting other beekeepers, buying bees, moving bees about – it all has potential to spread disease. Wash your bee suit regularly and use disposable gloves, not leather gloves. Hive tools should be cleaned using a washing soda solution.

It was good to see the samples and smell the foul brood frames close up, as the last time I’ve ever seen foul brood was on a similar bee health day. Some people thought they smelt…well, foul, whereas to me they just smelt a bit musty.

It was a good day – nice to be around ‘bee people’!

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How I came to have bees again

This weekend I was still beeless, as there has been an outbreak of American Foul Brood (AFB) in my supplier’s area and movement of bees and hives has been suspended. “Let me know if any swarms come your way”, I said to my in-laws on Sunday.

On Monday evening, just before I started putting Tommy to bed, I got an unexpected call from Tom, my father-in-law. “We have a swarm!” he said. Can you believe it? The bees came to us.

Carol, my mother-in-law, kindly babysat Tommy while Tom and I went to collect the swarm. The bees had been kind on me and conveniently landed on a low-down apple tree branch, about six feet up. Even a shortie like me could reach them with a stepladder. My sister-in-law, Oni, and brother-in-law, Alan, were also on hand. As Oni is a similar size to me she got my spare bee suit and assisted me with the swarm collection. Al happens to be a multi-award winning documentary-style wedding photographer (alanlawphotography.co.uk and thisisreportage.com), so he came in handy to take photos! A joint family effort.

I was excited but also a little nervous as I’ve never collected a swarm before. I’ve read lots about it, and heard talks about it, but that’s not quite the same is it? My plan was to collect them straight into my spare hive, as I didn’t have a nuc or skep ready. This made it a two-person job, as you can’t hold up a National hive with one hand. Although she has never done beekeeping before, Oni was very brave and held the hive steady for me under the swarm.

The swarm was hanging just above me in the evening light, settled down for the night. Away from home, on an adventure, with just each other in the world. They buzzed lightly and contentedly, a few circling the swarm but most clinging together in a perfect mass. Balancing on the stepladder, I counted ‘One, two, three!’ and proceeded to shake the apple tree branch.

Nothing happened. I shook it more vigorously, again and again. The swarm swayed, but held firm together. It would take more than my shaking to shift them. I had read in my books that you could try holding the skep or nuc box above them, as bees like to enter dark cavities. But I imagined that might take some time, the hive was heavy, and it was already gone 8pm. I decided I would need to move the bees in myself.

I stuck my hand into the swarm. Trying my best to be gentle, I used my hand to shake them loose into the hive box Oni was holding up for me. They were soft, warm, and miraculously put up with me doing this. Swarms fill up on honey before they leave, so as long as they still have plenty of honey in their stomachs they are usually good-tempered. Once I had a fair number in, I got Oni to put the box down on the ground.

The swarm in the hive

The colony stayed in the hive, lifted their abdomens and started to fan their wings, which told me that the queen was with them. Raising their abdomen exposes their Nasonov gland, releasing the attractive Nasonov pheromone to draw the rest of the swarm home. “Here we are!” the pheromone says. Meanwhile I used a empty feeder to scoop up more and more of the bees from the branch. Eventually only a hard-core group of irritable bees remained up on the tree, their indignant buzzing indicating their displeasure at their queen suddenly going missing. They clung desperately to the branch, which must have smelled like home to them, having being scented by their queen and fellow bees.

It was growing dark, so we positioned the hive in a corner of Tom and Carol’s garden and Tom dropped me back home. Today Tom collected the last few stubborn stragglers from the tree and put them in the hive with their sisters. I hope they are happy in their new home, and that all my readers have swarms coming their way too – if you want them, that is.

Oni in a bee suit, photo by Alan Law

Oni in a bee suit, photo by Alan Law

 

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An apiary visit, bait hive set up, garden developments and bee rescuing adventures

Sunday was an absolutely glorious summer’s day in Cornwall, one of the first we’ve had this year. What do you do when it’s beautiful out and you’re a short distance from some of the finest beaches in the country? It’s a no-brainer: you put on a sweaty beesuit and go look inside some beehives.

West Cornwall Beekeeping Association apiary visit – Kate Bowyer’s apiary

The WCBA runs these visits to give members a chance to find out how fellow members organise their apiaries, see their bees, and ask questions. The first apiary visit of this year was to see Kate’s hives. I won’t give away their exact location, but Kate keeps them in an enclosed field in a village about half an hour’s drive from Truro.

It was nice to meet up with local beekeepers. We had a couple of retired semi-professional beekeepers amongst us, one of whom was a ex-bee inspector. It was interesting to hear about their experiences as commercial beekeeping is so different to having a couple of hives at the bottom of the garden.

Hive inspection Kate Bowyer

Kate’s hives were mostly thriving, with only one which was struggling with some chalk brood. There was some discussion about whether to try to feed and nurture it or leave the colony to dwindle out.

You could tell that Kate inspects regularly as all the equipment came apart quickly and cleanly as she went through her hives. The bees were all good tempered and put up with a crowd of onlookers getting in their way as they zoomed back and forth bringing nectar home. She was going to demonstrate a Bailey comb change but the queen proved too elusive.

Ever seen this slightly unusual hive stand? Previously NHS equipment!

Nucleus hive Kate Bowyer

Drew and Tommy came to pick me up and we enjoyed some delicious home-made cake and biscuits which Kate provided along with a cup of tea. I spoke with a entertaining gentleman who has been keeping bees for fifty years and previously kept a herd of pygmy goats. Tommy was very pleased to be so well fed and called out “Bye cake” when we left!

Bait hive and garden developments

The nucleus hive I have on order is still not ready, so meanwhile I’ve set up this bee hive in our back garden. Well, more accurately Drew set it up, as he nailed the hive and hive stand together (the hive stand is his own design). I’ve turned the entrance facing south, put an entrance reducer in as bees prefer small entrances and have added some lemongrass oil infused cotton wool balls. I don’t have an old brood comb though, which would be ideal to attract a swarm.

Bait hive

Drew and I are both loving spending time in the garden now that spring is here. I’ve bought some plants from Rosybee plants as they specialise in providing bee-friendly plants that are grown in an environmentally friendly way, without pesticides.

Below you can see a row of Stachys byzantina – Lambs’ ears, which is a silvery, softly haired plant especially attractive to wool carder bees, which use it as a mating site. They use the hairs from soft plants like Lambs’ ears to line their nests – see Plant lambs’ ears and keep wool carder bees happy (Guardian, 2016). Very usefully it also happens to soothe bee stings! I’ve also added catmint, foxgloves and echinops ‘star frost’. Our garden is fairly sunny but the clay soil combined with high rain fall here may be a challenge, even more of a challenge may be that Drew and I know nothing about gardening!

Lambs ear

Bee saving adventures

The barista at my local coffee shop took it in her stride when I turned up with an exhausted female hairy footed flower bee in my hands. I’d found the little bee sitting on the ground while walking through a car park. I requested a sugar sachet and water and settled down on a sofa to give her a feed. At that moment she decided to take off and flew towards the door! Luckily Drew was able to reach her and let her out, otherwise I would have felt very guilty.

Guess what though… I am not the only bee loon in Truro! Yes, really! Just ahead of me as I walked to pick Tommy up from nursery was a woman on the other side of the road, half walking/half running hastily down the hill. She abruptly stopped, pulled a tissue out of her bag, and picked up a small black object from the road which she cradled in her hands as she walked on. ‘Could it be…?’ I thought to myself. ‘Does anyone else pick up bees…?’

The woman crossed over to my side of the road and stopped at a bright patch of flowers along the verge. She carefully moved what I could now see was a bumble bee onto the flowers. And on she went, walking away speedily, in a hurry to get somewhere fast. In such a hurry, and yet she took the time to care for a little bee.

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Rotten: Lawyers, Guns and Honey

I was alerted to this new documentary on Netflix all the way back in January by Ron Miksha, who writes the fantastic Bad Beekeeping Blog, here’s his post on it – Rotten: Lawyers, Guns  & Honey.

Well, I finally got round to watching it! If you follow bee news, a lot of the Lawyers, Guns & Honey episode probably won’t be new to you, but it’s a fascinating insight into the behind the scenes work of testing honey and protecting consumers from the ever-persistent honey scammers. For those of you who don’t have Netflix, here’s my notes on the episode.

Honey frame before uncapping

Honey crime

Lawyers, Guns & Honey is all about how the lure of quick cash has spawned an undercover world of honey crime, with suppliers passing off honey diluted with sugar syrup or tainted with antibiotics as the real deal. To combat this honey testers must compete in an ongoing arms race of ever-more ingenious tests, which the honey fraudsters somehow keep finding a way to combat.

We heard that the amount of honey bee colonies make keeps dropping, yet honey consumption is soaring as people become more interested in natural products (sources weren’t given for these stats, so they may be US only figures). There are middle-men honey packers who make a living from buying in large quantities of honey and blending honeys together in huge vats, to make an end product which is easier for food manufacturers to use.

A testing arms-race

The US government has put extra import taxes on honey imported from China, to try to even the playing field for American beekeepers. But this is easily circumvented by importers who put a different label on the Chinese honey and route it through a third-party country like India, Malaysia or Russia on the way to the US. Government testing is rare – most testing is done by packers and testers to protect their business against food fraud.  However – perhaps surprisingly – this testing is not required by US law.

Germany is the second biggest importer of honey (‘honig’) after the US, with honey being part of a traditional German breakfast. Gudrun Beckh, Services Managing Director at the German lab testing company Quality Services International, explained to us how the firm tests each sample by both taste and smell before putting it under the microscope. Taste and smell indicate authenticity, while pollen analysis is used to determine geographical origin. But of course, pollen can be filtered out.

A new method has been developed which is much harder to beat – for now. Using ‘Nuclear Magnetic Resonance’ (NMK) techniques, scientists can measure the magnetic fields of individual atoms to create a molecular fingerprint. This is checked against a database of honeys from around the world. For the moment this is an effective tool.

Catching the honey fraudsters

In 2008 employees of the international trade company Alfred L.Wolff were convicted in the largest food fraud case in US history – nicknamed honeygate. Large quantities of ‘Russian’ honey were being imported by Wolff, but when tested they were identified as Chinese honey samples. Federal agents seized documents, shipping records and samples of honey.

One particular purchase order, no 995, proved instrumental in establishing the guilt of National sales manager Stefanie Gisselbach. Just as Gisselbach was at the airport waiting for a flight back home to Germany, where it would have been difficult to extradite her from, agents found the vital evidence they needed. Email trails showed that the honey purchased in order 995 contained chloramphenicol, a powerful antibiotic fed to bees to keep them healthy – illegal in the US because the resulting honey can be fatal to humans who consume it. When Gisselbach discovered this, she followed instructions from head office to sell it on at a fire sale price.

Faced with the evidence, Gisselbach agreed to cooperate and eventually 27 individuals/companies were charged; nine defendants pleaded guilty while ten defendants are currently fugitives living in countries outside the US. Indeed Gisselbach, who was fairly new in her role, was probably only continuing with procedures to cover up fraudulently relabelled Chinese honey which were systematic before she arrived in post. You can read more about this in an Open Magazine article, Honey Laundering by Sabrina Buckwalter.

How this affects US bees and beekeepers

The value of beekeeping is already in question for commercial beekeepers. There are now over a million acres of almond orchards in California. Trends in healthy eating are driving consumers towards using almond milk and almond flour. Due to competition from cheap imports, most US beekeepers would struggle to make a profit from producing honey alone – so they turn to commercial pollination of crops like almonds.

Predictably, acres and acres of just one plant species isn’t great for bees. Every year most of the honey bee pollinating power in the US is brought to one concentrated area. All the bees from different operations mixing together, plus the chemicals and fungicides sprayed on the orchards, is not a healthy mix.  The beekeepers have to supplement their feed with sugar syrup because the almond trees produce more pollen than nectar. The bees are burning more calories pollinating the trees than they’re bringing in.

The money at stake and the difficulties in keeping healthy colonies tempts a few to the dark side. Thousands of bee hives have been stolen from sites in the California valley, with evidence pointing to professional beekeepers being the culprits.

The poet of the episode

Special mention should go to Norberto Garcia, the eloquent President of the International Honey Exporters Organisation, who came out with some lovely quotes, telling us there’s an “unstoppable depth to the bees, there’s so much detail to what they do” and “There’s some romances about bees. Romances are not so easily explained”. 

Anyone who has kept bees will know what he means – despite all the times you’re hot, sweaty and have angry bees pinging off your veil, there’s something about bees that gets to your heart. Let’s support local producers who we know look after their bees well and create good quality honey. Look at the label when you buy a honey; if it seems very cheap, you might want to ask yourself why.

Frame of honey

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Growing wildflowers – notes from a talk by Elly Phillips, MeadowSweet Consultancy

A couple of weeks ago I had a rare mid-week evening trip out. Colours Cafe, a local Truro cafe which holds regular events inspired by nature, wellbeing and good food, was hosting a talk on growing wildflower meadows by a local gardener and meadow consultant called Elly Phillips.

The talk was fascinating though sadly I was the only audience member there! Perhaps because not many people in Truro (myself included) have space to grow a wildflower meadow; however Elly’s tips are suitable for borders or small pots of wildflowers too. Since her talk I’ve sown the seeds she gave me, but unfortunately we’ve had a surprise second snow fall since then, so I’m not sure whether they’ll have survived that.

Elly Phillips, Meadowsweet seeds

Flower seeds given to me by Elly and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust Buzz Club.

The importance of poor soil

Wildflowers like poor nutrient soil. If the ground has been fertilised in the past and now has grass growing there, then cutting and removing the grass is a good way to remove nutrients from it. You can also plant brassica vegetables like Brussel sprouts, cabbages or broccoli to deplete the soil, as they will suck up all the nutrients as they grow.

Know your soil

Have a look at local verges around you to see what’s growing naturally. Feel your soil to test whether it feels sticky and clumpy like clay or is more fine and sandy. This will help you assess what plants will appreciate your particular soil. You can also get acidity kits to test your soil’s pH levels. If you really want to take it seriously, the RHS has a soil analysis service which currently costs £30.

If you see slate rocks in your soil, that is a clue that your soil is likely to contain clay. If you see granite, that is a clue that your soil is likely to contain peat.

Some wildflowers, like Birds foot trefoil and yarrow, are forgiving of most soils.

What, where and when…

Snowdrops can be planted in spring – buy ‘in the green’ when bulbs are fresh. Crocuses can be planted in autumn. Garden centres tend to put cornflower and poppy seeds in wildflower mixes – these look very pretty but are only suitable for annually agitated soil, otherwise they won’t return the next year.

Elly recommends buying seeds and plants from specialist wildflower suppliers rather than garden centres, as they will supply good quality native seeds. Research by Dr Dave Goulson has also shown that many garden centres use pesticides, so by buying their plants you may actually be harming local pollinators – see his June 2017 blog post, Pesticides in ‘Bee-Friendly’ Flowers.

To yellow rattle or not yellow rattle

Apparently this is a common debate when planting a wildflower meadow. Yellow rattle is semi-parasitic and helps to suppress some grasses. It’s an annual, so the seeds need to drop or be harvested before sowing back. You need around 1.5 grams per square metre.

How to sow

You need minimum 50% bare earth to sow into.  Scatter the seeds on top of the bare earth. It’s worth putting sand or sawdust into your seed mix so that you can see where you’ve sowed and also because it helps distribute the seeds.

Trample or press the ground down lightly after sowing to stop the seeds blowing away – but seeds don’t survive in compacted ground, so don’t pack the soil down too hard.

Autumn is the best time to sow, as then flowers have time to get a head start, but spring works too.

Aftercare

Year 1 – cut regularly through summer
Year 2 – cut at the end of summer

Note: if you have sown annuals don’t cut between April to July, to allow them to flower.

You must remove the cuttings! Otherwise they will release nutrients back into the soil, which is bad for wildflowers.

Links

Here’s some seed suppliers/wildflower experts which Elly recommended:

Bumblebee on borage

Bumblebee on borage – one of the best flowers you can grow for bees

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