Early flowers for bees

Snowdrops Katrina Martin / 2020VISION

Emerging bees need plenty of food after hibernation.

We think of bees in the spring and summer when numbers peak as the many workers swell the population, they are out and about foraging and collecting as much nectar and pollen as possible whilst pollinating our crops in the process. But this would not be possible without the existence of early flowers for the queens of many species of bee to feed on as they emerge from hibernation. There are 25 species of bumblebee in the UK along with 250 species of solitary bee and one species of honeybee which, thanks to their honey making skills can survive over our winters yet the majority of bumblebees cannot as they do not make honey in the same way. Only the queen bumblebee will hibernate, normally in soil where she can survive temperatures as low as -19°! Queen bumblebees are capable of vibrating their flight muscles to warm them up enough to fly in cold weather so it is not uncommon so see them early in the season. They need to feed up as much as possible before setting up their chosen nest site to begin their colony, a queen bumblebee will not see any summer flowers as she will stay in the nest for the rest of her life whilst her daughters venture out! Here final task at the end of the summer is to produce sons and a daughter queen for a new generation.

As a basic rule of thumb, bees need simple flowers so that they can get to the nectar easily. Although tongue length varies from species to species, keeping it simple helps as many different species as possible. Here are a few vital blooms; keep an eye out for them on winter walks or perhaps you could encourage them in your garden to give bees an extra helping hand.

Awoken queen Jo Hands 2016

A queen newly emerged from hibernation searching for food and a nesting site. Jo Hands 2016

Towards the end of January you may have seen snowdrops or Galanthus nivalis appearing and flowering into March. This sign of spring approaching lifts our spirts but it is vital for bumblebees and honeybees that may be emerging early on sunny winter days, in need of a good feed after hibernation. Snowdrops are on the listed as Near Threatened on the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. If you are lucky enough to have snowdrops in your garden you can help them increase. They spread by seed and they expand by 3cm in all directions each year. Help them spread more quickly by digging them up once they have finished flowering and replanting them 30cm apart. Remember they do like darker, damp conditions which is why they do so well in hidden valleys. They are often associated with Candlemas the feat of the Virgin Mary, celebrated in early February and therefore a sign of purity.

Snowdrops Katrina Martin / 2020VISION

Snowdrops Katrina Martin / 2020VISION

Hellebores or Helleborus are also known as Christmas roses but they are not related to roses; they are part of the buttercup family. They have a long flowering period from mid-winter to spring and are long lived garden perennial plants that thrive in shade. There are many varieties so make sure you opt for a single flower variety as the double flower varieties often have some of their nectar containing parts turned into petals meaning less food for bees and reduced access.

Primrose or Primula vulgaris is one of the first woodland blooms that also flourishes in grasslands and hedgerows as well as gardens from as early as December in mild winters, through to May. Its highly fitting common name comes from the Latin ‘prima rosa’ meaning ‘first rose’ and they are thought to symbolise eternal love. This hardy little plant is a valuable source of nectar for bees and butterflies such as brimstone and small tortoiseshell. So show wildlife some love and encourage them in your garden!

Primrose at Brandon Marsh Jo Hands

Primrose at Brandon Marsh Jo Hands

Crocuses are a certain sign that spring is about to leap into action! Spring flowering crocuses are triggered into flowering as the sun warms the soil. They like sunny open positions and are happy to grow in grass so if you have them in your lawn avoid mowing until they have finished flowering! Many different species of bee love crocuses and bumblebees have been known to shelter in them as their flowers close overnight. This process of closing is known as nyctinasty.

Crocus at Brandon Marsh Jo Hands

Crocus at Brandon Marsh Jo Hands

Heathers are much loved by many species of bee and are a great way to add colour to a garden. Heathers are low maintenance, small, evergreens that are easy to grow; they can even be planted out in pots or window boxes if you are short of space. All heathers have a long flowering period but winter flowering varieties of heather are a good option to help fill the winter flower gap to create a continual period of flowers in your garden.

The humble common dandelion or Taraxacum officinale is probably the most recognisable flower as blowing the seed ‘clocks’ is a favourite childhood game. Frequently regarded as a weed, they are in fact vital for bumblebees as well as other bees and butterflies, as a good source of nectar and pollen, and with a flowering period from January to December they must be on this list! Incredibly widespread they will grow in all kinds of grassland; roadside verges, playing fields, pastures, traditional meadows…They do flourish in lawns but to really enhance them mow less frequently and release your inner child and have some fun blowing their seed ‘clocks’ to help disperse their seeds.

Dandelion Clock Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

Dandelion Clock Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

Willows, yes they don’t have flowers as such but their male catkins are an excellent source of pollen, full of nutritious protein and both male and female catkins carry sugary nectar. Willow is wonderful for wildlife but humans have been using it for centuries from medicine to baskets and ornaments to biofuel. The thin whips make great kindling when they have been dried for just a few months. There are many easy to grow varieties and can be small or large scale, from a single specimen to a hedge or copse. But a word of warning: willow roots will vigorously seek moisture so do not plant near pipes, buildings or similar structures!

Pussy willow Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

Close-up of pussy willow catkin (Salix caprea) Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

If you are planning to do more in your garden to help bees, it is also important to remember that bees (and other insects) need nectar and pollen through to late autumn and so a variety of plants is key. The queen bumblebee for the following year is produced and will leave the nest in late summer/autumn needing to feed up before finding a hibernation site. There are even some species of bee such as the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) that are active in winter. Many species of solitary bee also emerge in mild spells in winter and can become very active early in mild springs. Find out more about how you can help bees and other wildlife by making a few changes to your garden all year round at: www.wildlifetrusts.org/gardening where you can also download a full guide to helping bees.