Guest Blogger Mark Patterson's Focus on Forage

February 13, 2016 0 Comments

This is a new area of the Bee Good blog where each month our friend Mark Patterson from Apicultural writes about the flowering plants that are vitally important to our bees and other pollinators in the UK.  Mark is a professional horticulturalist and experienced beekeeper and so is perfectly qualified to assist us here at Bee Good.



February is typically a very cold month of the year. According to the MET office the 17th February is on average the coldest day of the year, though in recent years this has not been the case. This winter has been exceptionally mild with many late summer flowers continuing to bloom well into winter and many spring flowers appearing 2-3 months early.

February Frost

A rare hard frost in February

In January the Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland conducted their annual ‘New Year’s Plant Hunt’ whereby volunteers go out on 3 hour long walks counting the number of flowering plants they encounter in bloom. In a typical year around 30-40 species can be expected to flower in January but in recent years 350-400 species have been counted.

Between 1st and 4th January 2016 a whopping 612 species were recorded in bloom blowing all previous records out of the water. A detailed account of the survey and Mark's own contribution can be found in his blog entry here.

Three quarters of plants recorded in the first week of January were late season hangers on which had survived the extremely mild autumn and winter into January. With the widespread hard frosts in late January many of these have now finally gone over, though in the southern parts of the UK some still cling on. The effects of a mild winter on these species is unclear, will they resume normal flower timings this season or will a lack of dormancy disrupt their annual growing cycle?

Plants emerging very early as a result of the mild conditions will undoubtedly have their typical growing cycle disrupted. Many early emerging plants spend much of the year as a dormant bulb or tuber – a source of stored energy and if they emerge and spend all their energy at the wrong time they can fail to reproduce as their blooms and foliage risk being damaged by late frosts. This can have a knock on effect on our pollinators. Many of our early emerging pollinators rely heavily on a small selection of highly rewarding flowers for their nutrition.

White Deadnettle - a key early plant for Bumblebees

White Deadnettle - A key source of food for Bumblebees

Early emerging Bumble bee Queens for example are heavily reliant on early emerging legumes and white deadnettle for pollens that are rich in fats and proteins which they need to rebuild their health and vitality after their long winter hibernation. Without access to high quality forage Queens may not reach breeding condition and fail to establish new colonies. Right now in my garden I am noticing Pulmonaria and Comfrey starting to bloom and I am wondering if there will be any blooms left come late March and April when the Hairy Footed Flower Bees emerge – these plants being their preferred flowers.

Hairy footed flower bee approaching a Snowflake plant

Hairy footed flower bee approaching a Snowflake plant

Scientists believe that plants are now flowering up to a week earlier each decade as a result of climate change and that some of our wild bees are beginning to emerge even earlier still leading to a mismatch of flower emergence with their pollinators.

I am far more concerned about the knock on effects of changes to the timings of the seasons and emergence of flowers on our 274 species of wild bees than I am our honey bees. Many wild bees have specific flower preferences, some specialise in just one or two plants. Our Honey Bees on the other hand are generalists and capable of adapting to a wide range of forage sources. Honey bees also have stores of honey to rely on during inclement weather and tentative beekeepers to supplementary feed them in necessary, our wild pollinators on the other hand have no such luxury should they emerge from hibernation and find their food is scarce or absent.

A change to the flowering times of plants important for the honey flow could mean beekeepers have a reduced harvest however, and following 2015’s poor harvest this would spell trouble, particularly for the nation’s bee farmers who are already struggling to recover from 2015’s cool dry spring. Urban areas are likely to fair better given the wider variety of forage sources available to honey bees. This was seen in London in 2015 which maintained average honey yields whilst much of the rest of the country fared poorly. Much of London’s honey crop in 2015 came from Tree of Heaven blooms rather than the typical Lime blossom.

Tree in Heaven flowers from Wikipedia

Tree of Heaven flowers

So what can we expect to see in bloom in February 2016?

Already in bloom in London and the South of the country are spring bulbs, Daffodil, Muscari, Snow Drop, Crocus, Squil and Anemone’s. Winter Aconite with their cheerful lemon yellow blooms have flowered very early and are already going over at a time when they should just be emerging and looking at their best. Early herbaceous plants like Primrose, Sweet Violet, Pulmonaria, Comfrey, Dandelion, Lesser Celendine, Cowslipand White Deadnettle are out in bloom in abundance. Around my garden pond in London, Marsh Marigold are blooming.

Native shrubs Blackthorn, Hawthorn (which usually blooms in May!), Hazel and Holly are blooming. Ornamental shrubs Flowering Currant, Escalonia, Cotoneaster, Ceonothusand Hebe are in bloom across much of the south of the country. These are all shrubs which should be flowering at their peak from May onwards not February.

Looking forward into March we could expect to see the first Cherry and Laurels flowering a month early alongside Apple and Pear trees. Lets hope we don’t get any late frosts which will kill off the blooms denying our bees nutritious pollen and nectar and ourselves a good fruit crop come late summer.