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.

5 Top Plants for Bees

My top plants for bees! Interflora kindly asked me to write a guest blog on the best plants for bees (below). This was part of their campaign promoting bee awareness. I’ve described my top 5 bee plants along the lines of a kind of botanical Desert Island Discs. They’re all easy to grow and good for a variety of bees – honey bees, bumbles and solitaries – although I was asked to write with honey bees in mind in particular. I’m not sure which one I would take with me if all the others were washed away… What would your top 5 be? If you want an authoritative guide rather than this very brief introduction, I’d recommend Kirk & Howes, Plants for Bees. It’s fascinating.

As the countryside becomes more and more of a green desert, gardeners have an increasingly important role to play to help bees. Urban bees tend to be healthier than their country cousins. We think that’s because they have a more diverse diet and less exposure to chemicals. Gardens can be real oases for them, replicating rich natural habitats. So what can gardeners do to help ?

One of the most critical things for all pollinators is access to food sources for as long as possible throughout the year. This is true for honeybees, which need varying amounts of nectar and pollen depending on what’s going on in the hive. I’ve picked my top 5 honey bee plants for all year round forage in the garden, which will help other pollinators too. Diversity is a key requirement for bee health too, so I’m not suggesting you stop with these 5! And do have a look at some TREES as well…

Other helpful general tips are simple. Don’t buy “double flowers”; pollinators find it very difficult or impossible to find their nectar. Don’t buy plants which have been treated with a neonicotinoid – these are systemic pesticides which will seriously affect any pollinator feeding off them. Ask your garden centre. Don’t use pesticides in the garden either, if you can possibly avoid it; your garden should be a haven of organic tranquillity!

Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust reckon that Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) is perhaps the ultimate bumblebee plant – and it’s not bad for honeybees either. Native plants aren’t grown enough in gardens. This is a classic example of one which looks really good in a border, especially when grown in groups. By definition, our native flora is good for our native fauna. Like the wild Foxglove, Viper’s Bugloss is a biennial with loads of nectar, but it flowers endlessly, from June to September. It does well in the sun in dry, well drained, even sandy soils. In the wild it’s distributed throughout England, and it deserves a place in everyone’s garden as well.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

One of the reasons Bugloss is such a good plant is that it flowers during a midsummer gap. There is surprisingly little forage about and honey bee colonies are at their biggest and hungriest. Look around in June/July and you’ll be surprised how little colour you see in gardens or countryside. Professor Francis Ratnieks, one of our leading honey bee scientists, is very keen on helping colonies through this period. Ask Francis for the best plant for gardeners to grow for honey bees and he will tell you without hesitation that it’s lavender. Why? Lavenders are certainly rich in nectar, but the most important thing about them is that they flower through the gap. Research suggests that the larger lavender cultivars are the best for bees. You can find varieties from fragrant white to luscious dark purple. Look for the hardier and less picky Lavandula angustifolia or Lavandin x intermedia cultivars for individual plants or to make a lovely hedge.

Sedum (Sedum spectabile)

As honey bees’ colonies decline from mid-summer, bees work even harder to bring in food to store for the winter months. Among native plants ivy is the best late nectar plant, but you can do really well for bees and butterflies with Sedum spectabile, which flowers from September. Sedums are forgiving, easy plants to grow and look lovely in groups at the front of a border. Their flowers are easily accessible for honey bees, with their relatively short tongues. You’ll also find them popular with butterflies and young queen bumblebees, fattening themselves up to over-winter.

Mahonia

Oregon Grape

Things can get really tough for bees in the winter months, and not because of the cold; it’s warmer winters which can be problematic for them. Why? On warm winter days honey bees will fly, and without available forage they use up their honey stores too quickly and starve. Active bumblebee queens will also die, as they use up their fat reserves. Gardeners can do their bit to help by providing winter nectar to help see them through. There are several very attractive and fragrant varieties of Mahonia which flower in the dead of winter – as opposed to early spring. They do the trick very nicely, and will site comfortably in a shadier spot. They have healthy looking, glossy foliage when not in flower, and their berries are good for the birds. Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ is one of my favourites.

Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus)

Once spring is springing the honeybee colony starts building up again. At the beginning of its cycle it needs pollen to feed its new brood, which can initially be in short supply. A great source for it at this time of year is crocuses; you can see the bees flying back to the hive with their distinctive orange pollen from February. Crocuses are pretty, easy plants to grow, and will naturalize easily in your lawn. Go for varieties of Early Crocus, Crocus tommasinianus, which are easy to find and cheap. The bulbs should be planted in autumn.