Plants For Bees In Late Winter

Climate change means that bees are struggling in late winter. Honeybees and bumblebee queens are out and about in the second half of February as I write, with the temperature getting up to the mid teens in Somerset. Honeybees will fly above 12 degrees, bumblebees in colder weather. The earliest solitary bees, like the gorgeous Hairy-footed flower bee* (Anthophora plumipes), are around too. And this is problematic. Bees need nectar (for sugars and water) and pollen (for protein). Particularly early in the season they need to collect this food for their developing larvae. But where can they find it? They’re in real danger of starving. Winter bee plants are essential – and let’s not forget for overwintering butterflies too.

Peacock Butterfly on Blackthorn

Blackthorn, traditionally the saviour of country beekeepers, is days away from flowering here. Most willows are in bud. There just aren’t many native flowers out. It’s a really critical time, particularly for bumblebee queens. This is a new phenomenon. The good guides, like Plants For Bees, aren’t confident about which plants work for all these bees in mid-February, because in the past it has been too early for them. The only bees you tended to see on the odd warm February day were honeybees out on a quick cleansing flight.

So how can you help? Here are five plant ideas for your garden.

Mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun)

You can plant several really good flowers and trees which aren’t just flowering now – some have already been out for weeks. Mahonia falls into this category. It’s an excellent winter bee plant, particularly a variety like ‘Winter Sun’. Bombus terrestris, the buff-tailed bumblebee, now seems to have two generations in a year in some parts of the south, and this is a particularly important plant for it.

Crocuses

Crocus tommasinianus
Honeybee and crocus

The crocuses have been out for week or so, in contrast. They might not flower long, but – boy – they seem to be an excellent plant for a range of bees. They produce prolific amounts of yellow/orange pollen, and are also popular with hoverflies. Go for Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus) or Dutch crocus (Crocus vernus).

Hellebore (Helleborus niger)

Bumblebee queen and hellebore
Bombus terrestris queen and hellebore


Our hellebores have been flowering for weeks. Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, is the first in flower. They have whitish pollen which doesn’t seem to be produced in vast quantities, but is invaluable at this time of year. Good winter bee plants.

Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera)

Honeybee and Cherry plum

We also have a couple of small trees which are highly decorative and early in blossom. The very first is Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), which is easily confused with Blackthorn as it’s often found in hedges and its flowers are similar. It’s not as spiny, however; the young growth is green, the flowers have stalks, and it flowers earlier. Cherry plum is in my top 10 of under-rated native plants (it was introduced here ages ago and is now fully naturalised). It’s tough – often used as a windbreak – and has this very early flowering period. It’s a good hedge plant and sometimes produces fruit which the birds like.

Almond (Prunus dulcis)

Almond blossom
Almond blossom

Cherry plum is regularly in flower in mid-February, and just beats our Almond trees(Prunus dulcis). It will have to get hotter yet for us to have nuts, but the fabulous delicate and early pink blossom is reason enough to grow them. Honeybees pollinate almond orchards in California (where they’re treated scandalously). Here they seem to like them too.

*If you’re a fan you should plant pulmonaria.

Nuts!

We taught the children the seventies hazel nuts jingle on a trip to Alba in Piedmont, home of Nutella, when we drove through mile after mile of Hazel plantations. I leave our wild hazel nuts in the hedgerows here to the mice and squirrels*, but try to have our cobnuts – their cultivated cousins – ourselves. They feature in our new mixed orchard scheme at Habitat Aid’s HQ, which was apparently a not uncommon feature of traditional Kentish orchards too; apple trees and smaller cobnut bushes make a very happy combination. We’re also including filberts, which are Corylus maxima rather than avellana, but their nuts are similar to cobs. They can be decorative too; we had a Red Filbert in our last place which looked lovely.

We’ve also – unsurprisingly – popped in a couple of English Walnuts (Juglans regia), which do well hereabouts. I was puzzled there weren’t more mature trees about until I heard about the local sawmill, which used to send a rep around the area offering cash for people’s trees. Yikes. You can get many grafted varieties, but I gather they’re tricky to graft unless you’re a specialist, so we stick with the Black and English Walnuts. There’s the most beautiful Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) nearby in the Bishop’s Palace garden at Wells, but this more ornamental cousin wouldn’t like the clay here.

We have gone for a grafted Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) though, ‘Marron de Lyon’, which will give us a big single nut in every case – or more correctly, cupule (great Scrabble word, fantastic if pluralized). Mrs. Mann’s eyes lit up at the prospect; roasted on their own, used in stuffing, added to casseroles, etc. etc. – check out the chestnut recipes on the BBC website. It was probably the Romans who introduced Sweet Chestnuts to Britain, and they’re still celebrated in that part of the world. We wandered up to a hill top hamlet one autumnal evening on another Italian holiday and into a Marron festival. This was close to Perugia, where the hillsides were full of chestnuts and there were stalls groaning with all things chestnut. We came back laden with gorgeous dark Sweet Chestnut honey, which you’d be struggling to make here as you only get a decent nectar flow off the trees if it’s rather warmer than a typical South Somerset summer – you can’t have everything.

I did think an Almond (Prunus dulcis) would be good for my bees though, as they flower so early. Beautiful trees too, as many nut trees are, though I’m not expecting a massive crop of almonds for next Christmas.

*This is pragmatism rather than generosity; I’m no friend of the grey squirrel

More Bee Plants

At the Beekeepers’ Spring Convention I toddled along to a lecture by Andy Willis on bee plants. It was interesting fare. You hear so much advice on bee plants which is either misleading or wrong that it was refreshing to hear from someone who has made this a lifetime’s work, and who bases his views on personal observation. Many “good” forage plants will only produce a decent flow of nectar in specific circumstances, so he emphasised the need for diversity. I hadn’t also fully appreciated that honeybees value flowers like Field Poppies (Papaver rhoeas) for their pollen, but not for their nectar. He ran through the year, providing a list of plants to provide continuous sources of pollen and nectar, which is one of the things we’re hot on too.
Some of his ideas included:
January: Winter Cherry (Prunus x subhirtella)
March: Winter flowering Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), Almonds (Prunus dulcis), Apricots (Prunus armeniaca)
June: Acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia)
July: Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)
September: Golden Rod (Solidago spp.)
October: Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica)
December: False castor oil plant (Fatsia japonica)
We’ve got the trees for sale now in our “trees for bees” section on the website.