Transforming Chelsea Creek into a wild bee haven

In June we were contacted by St George’s, developers of the Chelsea Creek housing development in SW6. They wanted a bee hive located on a small site backing onto the Imperial Wharf Overground station.

We suggested that instead of a hive, we clear the site and turn it into a haven for wild bees and other pollinators and improve biodiversity.

We audited the 10m x 10m site to assess it’s current suitability. We used 7 measures:

  1. Shelter
  2. Thermoregulation (provide sunny spots where bees can warm up to fly) 
  3. Year-round nectar sources
  4. Year-round pollen sources
  5. Mating habitat
  6. Nest sites
  7. Nesting material for some bees.

The dense thicket of brambles, buddleia (over head height) and laurel bushes scored very low. We came up with a plan for how the site could meet all the above requirements.

St George’s gave us the go ahead and in July we began the clearance.

It was hard work, but after a couple of days we made headway and started piling up the green waste. I must admit I find it hard cutting down brambles and buddleia when they do provide such great bee food at certain times of the year, but there was plenty left on an adjacent site and it will soon grow back if we don’t keep it in check. And without letting more light into the site, other flowers that can provide forage in early spring and summer won’t stand a chance.

The next step was to introduce some overwintering sites for queen bumblebees and some nesting sites for solitary bees.

I piled up twigs for whatever insects may find them useful, while Brian started to construct log houses. The logs are drilled with different diameter holes from 3mm – 8mm for a variety of cavity-nesting bees. Resin bees, yellow-faced bees and scissor bees will use the smaller holes. We also installed seven bee hotels on a stand a metre off the ground placed in a sunny position. These are for mason bees and leafcutters to check into next spring and summer to lay their eggs. Brian made all the stands from recycled bits of wood, and the log house boxes are old recycled hives.

This is just the beginning. We will be creating nesting sites for bees that like to burrow into sand and those that prefer piles of bare earth. We’ll be providing aggregate that some solitary bees need to plug their nests and blue tit bird boxes that the Tree bumblebee may occupy after the chicks have fledged next year. And we’ll leave some upturned flower pots around for bumblebees that nest underground, like buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees, and some piles of grass and leaves undisturbed for carder bees.

And of course over the next few months we’ll be planting the best flowers for providing year-found forage and nesting materials.

It may not look much at the moment, but watch this space…

September

The client asked us to paint the bee hotel and log house structures in an eau de nil colour to go with the colour of the hordings around the development. They gave us the colour reference and we got a durable outside paint mixed up. In early September we painted…

We also also planted a few ‘wild flowers’ including:

  • Rosebay willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium) or Fireweed which can quickly colonise waste land, has nectar-rich purple spikes in summer and whose leaves leafcutter bees use as nesting material.
  • Dwarf comfrey (Symphystum ibericum), which provides early forage for the Hairy-footed flower bee, grows in shade and is a ‘weed’ surpresser.
  • Balm-leaved deadnettle (Lamium orvala ‘Album’), much loved by common carder bees and flowers much of the year in partial shade.

October

The only problem is that ‘nature’ has it’s own ideas and is running rampart across the site after all the rain and mild autumn. So when we returned to the site in October, the first thing we had to do was clear about 20 buddleia suckers and brambles. We want a site rich in biodiversity, in terms of plants and insects and birds, but because so much light is getting into the site since our clearance some of the ‘weeds’ are flourishing and threaten to take over and stop anything else growing.

We planted some more bee-friendly flowers and this time put stakes and string around them so when we return next time we can see if they have been swamped by other vegetation.

I’m loath to put landscaping material down to supress the so-called ‘weeds’ as some provide excellent bee food, such as dandelions. And nettles provide much-needed caterpillar food for butterflies in the spring.

We planted plug plants:

  • Big betony (Stachys hummelo) – a native perennial wildflowers with bright purple to red flowers that appear throughout the summer and into early autumn.
  • Lambs ear (Stachys byzantina) – the wool carder bees ‘carder’ the fluffy stuff from the underside of the leaves to line their nests. It likes drought. We don’t have a watering system, so a dry summer will be good for it, but winter may prove too cold and wet,
  • Winter savory (Satureja montana) – a dwarf shrubby herb that flowers in summer. Hope the soil doesn’t get too cold and wet for it to flourish.
  • Bastard balm (Melittis melissophyllum) – with a scientific name derived from the Greek for honeybees, I had to plant this to see which bees visit the pink carpet I hope it unfurls. The flower’s distinctive pink tongue acts as a landing guide to bees, directing them to the nectar deep inside. It prefers woodland, so I’ve tried to plant it in a shady spot. It’s not very common in the wild anymore.
  • Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) – a long-stalked hardy perennial, closely related to the thistle, attracts many species of butterfly, such as the Marbled White, Painted Lady and Green-veined White, as well as moths, bees and hoverflies when it flowers in summer. It prefers chalky grassland so may well struggle on London’s fertile clay soil.

And scattered Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) seeds. An easy to grow tall late-flowering perennial that attracts bees in my garden so I hope some of the seeds take in the similar soil.

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