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.

Things Fall Apart

From time to time I used to suffer from what doctors call “anxiety” – I guess a form of mild depression, which I’ve learnt how to manage over the years. I’m now feeling something rather different and rather more alarming; a sense of foreboding.

We’re in one of our favourite places – Italy – for a few days. I’m writing on a sunny terrace with glorious views of violet hills, against a soundtrack of sparrows. There are clouds of butterflies about and – later this evening – a mob of unruly swifts will close the day.

We have lost all these things at home.

We have the odd swift, the odd sparrow. A hot dry summer will be good for our beleaguered butterflies, and I can hear people saying now that they seem to have turned the corner where they are, etc. etc.. Nature friendly farmers tell me how much they’re doing for wildlife. Enthusiasts click on online campaigns. The numbers remain pretty awful though. Biodiversity has collapsed in the UK and many species numbers are still in sharp decline. The short story is that there is still no concrete strategy in place to reverse this.

I’m sure, too, that many will say that the recent weather – all over the world – is just weather, and nothing to do with global warming. In any event, people still don’t care enough about global warming to even list it in their top 10 concerns at the ballot box. As one who has canvassed with spectacularly poor results around Langport in the Somerset Levels this is something I know at first hand. The U.S. Administration, of course, doesn’t even acknowledge climate change exists.

My concern about these two things – mass extinctions and catastrophic climate change – have, to be honest, marked me out as a bit odd among my friends. Even more bizarre for them has been my trying in a practical way to do something about them in the UK over the last 10 years.

This has been very depressing. It’s not too much of a stretch to see people’s lack of reaction to the rise of populism (is this the right label?) as similar. Right wing extremists are murdering our MPs, elements of the Press are calling the senior judiciary and our Prime Minister “traitors”. Both Left and Right are polarised; it’s a type of politics familiar from the Europe of the interwar years. The current struggle in politics is not between Left and Right; it’s between the Centre and extremists. Our political class is manifestly failing us – not just in the UK, of course – and destroying public confidence in our institutions. Doubly concerning, this is coming at a terrible time to deal with the consequences of climate change, which will fuel extreme political views.

Why do I have to be an eccentric / snowflake if I am doing things about stopping climate change, mass extinctions and neo-fascists/Stalinists?

There are (some, at least!) bright, well meaning people in parliament, of different political persuasions, who need to completely refocus their agendas. We ALL have to get involved. In a hurry.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B.Yeats

The Green Economy in the UK… What’s Missing

According to Wikipedia, the green economy is one which “aims at reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities, and… aims for sustainable development without degrading the environment.” I went to a celebration of it this week, hosted by Business Green.

The Green EconomyWe’d been shortlisted for an award and I had a cracking night. The food was great and the wine flowed. Fab people and inspiring stories. Lots of enthusiastic young, and a lot of companies represented. There were 25 awards, and a short list of 136 finalists for them, ranging from large household names to small companies like us*. There was a real buzz and enthusiasm about the evening. We heard a lot about low carbon, zero emissions, renewable energy, battery storage, energy efficiency, clever building, recycling, and sustainability generally. Business Green is a good publication, and they’d taken a lot of care to host a very enjoyable event. They launched their Net Zero Now campaign on the night, which helps business and government develop net zero emission strategies.

There was, however, something missing.

It’s something which is generally missing from events like these. Given the rest of the evening it almost seems churlish to mention it, but I just have to. It’s the ecological scarcities bit of Wikipedia’s definition. Biodiversity loss didn’t get a look in.

In fairness, there was an award for Best Environmental Awareness Campaign. This did include one project which seemed to be about ecology. That meant that 2 out of the 136 finalists were directly concerned with reversing biodiversity loss – including us, who are so small we don’t really count!

This is entirely typical of the green economy in the UK. Reversing biodiversity loss just isn’t a priority; not for government, NGOs, policy wonks, business, and specialist media. Climate change and sustainability generally completely dominate their agendas. I suspect in years to come this will be as baffling to most people as it is to me now.

*no, of course we didn’t win. I was thrilled to be on a shortlist, though.

Climate Change, Hen Harriers and Bees in the Post Fact World

I had pondering time on my hands today at hospital in Bath, recovering from a minor operation. It went swimmingly, all well thank you – let’s just say it was an old bloke issue. I was very grateful to be in the hands of Mr. Courtney and not Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mystic Meg or Michael Gove. Perhaps we do need experts, after all.

Climate Change

Certainly Breitbart don’t. Scribbler James Delingpole has written regularly on climate change in this news organ. Like many things in the post truth era, he seems to see climate change as some kind of political opinion – which he doesn’t like in this instance. He is in hot water with that subversive left wing political news outlet, the Weather Channel, for misrepresenting them in his most recent article. Weather.com are furious. Looking at the video of an exasperated weather forecaster and reading their response, you’ve got to admit they have a point.

Driven Grouse Shooting

Hen Harrier on moor
Hen Harrier (Image: RSPB)

On a much smaller scale there is a similar conflation of entrenched political views and “scientific facts” going on in the conservation world about driven grouse shooting. Unsurprisingly the Left hate it and the Right love it. I’m no expert (!), but there is good evidence that raptors are puzzlingly absent from grouse moors, including rare species like Hen Harriers. In some quarters this has just been denied point blank. Keepers are shooting a lot of Mountain Hares, and there’s little doubt that grouse moors contribute to flooding.

There was an article on this by Matt Ridley in The Spectator which included some apparently spurious statistics to support his view. He claims that these moorlands are better at retaining water than forests. Better than spruce plantations possibly, but generally no, this is complete nonsense. The government itself has recently acknowledged this by announcing a £15 million tree planting programme as part of its flood prevention strategy.

The whole issue has fallen victim to shouty Delingpole style politics. If Matt Ridley sees an insidious left wing plot, then George Monbiot sees it as an example of the establishment elite trampling the people. It turns out Paul Dacre (Daily Mail editor) owns a grouse moor. Chris Packham is unhappy with the shooters and the shooters are certainly unhappy with Chris Packham, who they think is a metro luvvie who doesn’t understand country pursuits. And so it goes on.

It is more important than ever for experts and proper journalists to be precise and informative about conservation and environmental issues. They must also avoid confirmation bias. The rest of us to have to amplify good information via social media.

Different Bees Please

To take a small but nonetheless annoying example, I would say the MAJORITY of articles I read about bees on Facebook confuse honeybees with solitary bees and bumblebees. They’re often also illustrated with a photo of a hoverfly. People are interested in bees and want to do the right thing for them, but end up confused. They sign petitions purporting to be about all bees which are actually about honeybees. They share helpful Facebook posts about feeding dying bumblebee workers in autumn and funny cartoons about how good bees are and how bad wasps are. People spend hours making bumblebee nesters – which don’t work – rather than solitary bee nesters – which do. We should be following the Bee experts.

Somerset Flooding (Again)

Flooding The flooding in the Somerset Levels is a serious issue which won’t go away. I was writing about it this time last year. Even if you don’t believe in global warming, there’s not much denying the weather is changing. We are getting more rain here and it’s falling quicker. The rainfall in December and January has been unprecedented. This is not just one village that’s under water, and it’s not just under water for a few days. There are A roads in the Levels which were under water for months in 2013. Farmland is becoming permanently unusable. Sticking some pumps in or ringing the Marines isn’t going to help. Nor is Owen Paterson. What is needed is the formulation and delivery of a long term strategic plan, not knee jerk populism.

The local MP blames the floods on not dredging the Parrett and the Tone. The Environment Agency blames government cutbacks and conservationists. George Monbiot blames the hill farmers. Meanwhile, in completely unconnected news, Owen Paterson announces a 41% cut in the budget for domestic initiatives to deal with climate change, with no apparent irony.

Somerset flooding didn’t used to be the stuff of headlines – it’s why the county is called Somerset. It’s why Alfred the Great hung out here and why archaeologists get excited about Bronze Age finds like the Sweet Track. Glastonbury Tor used to be an island in a sea of salt water for much of the year. “Used to be”. Most of the Levels were subject to extensive drainage and dredging schemes and stopped flooding many years ago, to the extent that Environment Agency described last year’s floods as a “once in a 100 year event”. It clearly wasn’t. In any case, they can’t afford to say anything different.*

Changing weather patterns mean we have a simple choice to make; do we want to keep the Levels inhabited or not? Either way, we need to have a long term plan and the money to action it, and now. Start thinking about managing areas for wildlife and paying compensation to their previous owners, and/or using more natural and cost-effective flood prevention measures like catchment restoration.

There are plenty of other environmental issues which also need decisive, well informed action before they cost us as much as RBS. Land use, large infrastructure projects (Heathrow, HS2), renewable power, the marine environment, freshwater quality, high intensity farming, etc. etc. Our political elite – of all parties – seems completely ill-equipped to deal with these difficult but vitally important issues. Successive administrations procrastinate, cave in to populist opinion or aggressive commercial lobbying, or just reverse earlier policy initiatives.

While everyone continues to dither, thank goodness we live half way up a hill at the other end of the county.

*Middlezoy is not Holland Park. There’s no way that the good people of W8 would have been sloshing about in their waders for 6 months. It’s all very well saying that if you live on a flood plain you’ve got it coming to you; does that apply to anyone living in the Thames basin behind the flood barrier? As things stand The Environment Agency – and we as a country – just don’t have the resources to be anything other than be hugely selective about who or what they save from extreme weather. This is wildly divisive and will be more and more so.