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.

Cherry Plum, Prunus cerasifera

The cherry plum Prunus cerasifera is one of my favourite “native”* British trees. It was originally recommended to me by a local beekeeper as the easiest and most reliable tree to provide early forage for honeybees. He was right; the new cherry plum in the garden here started flowering at the beginning of March this year, and I have known them to flower from early February. What a lovely harbinger of spring!

cherry plum and honeybeeTheir blossom is attractive enough for them to be mistaken for native or ornamental cherries, although to my mind the cherry plum is more like Blackthorn, another Prunus. The flowers look similar, it’s as good a plant to lay in a hedge and has the odd spike to keep you wary of it. Although cherry plums are self fertile, the yellow or red cherry like fruit doesn’t appear reliably. It is said to make good wine, chutney or jam – i.e. it’s bitter! The birds seem to like it though, to add to the plant’s virtues.

They are very vigorous and disease free trees, and seemingly tolerant of most conditions. I guess this is what makes Myrobalan (a synonym for cherry plum) such a good rootstock for domestic plum trees. Don’t get confused by the tropical Terminalia chebula, by the way, also – bafflingly – known as Black Myrobalan. The trees are neat and small, forming nicely shaped round heads up to around 8m, with healthy looking glossy foliage. They’re tough as old boots and make excellent fast growing windbreaks. We planted some around our old orchard, which was a great success. In the garden of our new house they’re doing equally well, to the delight of my honeybees.

You often see the pink flowering cultivars in gardens, most probably P. cerasifera ‘Nigra’, which has lovely dark purple foliage.

* it was introduced from south eastern Europe long ago, but now naturalised across the UK.