March proved to be more typical of the March we are used to and to me anyway seemed cooler than our February this year. Whilst many plants began flowering far earlier than normal as a result of the unseasonably warm winter and mild January we appear to be moving back towards more typical temperatures and weather now and the majority of flowering plants seem to be appearing in mass closer to their usual flowering times than first anticipated even if a few individuals have been flowering very early.
As we move into the first week of April many of our true heralds of spring have begun to flower. Among them the pretty pink Cuckoo Flower Cardamine pratensis. This dainty little girly pink flower is a true sign that spring ‘proper’ has arrived. It’s an important nectar plant for many pollinators and the main food plant for the larva of the Orange Tip Butterfly – a species sadly in decline. This past week the cemetery near my house has become carpeted in these lovely flowers.
Deadnettle, Dandelions, Coltsfoot, Primulas, Wood Anenemones, Green Alkanet, Comfrey and Lungwort are now in full bloom and putting on spectacular shows of spring colour. The letter two in particular are popular with the Hairy Footed Flower Bee.
A male Hairy Footed Flower Bee
Another flower I’m noticing lots of small solitary bees on at the moment is Lesser Celendine. This plant is unusual in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) as it is one of the few buttercups that is attractive to bees. Most other Ranunculus have nectar which contains the toxin protoanemonin which bees cannot digest and can lead to May poisoning. Lesser Celandine however is popular with many of our early solitary bees and occasionally Honey bees. This past few weeks I have seen many of the Micro Andrena solitary bees feeding on the golden yellow flowers.
A male Micro Andrena nitida solitary bee
Also coming into bloom in many parts of the country this month are Blue Bells. In and around London the first blooms appeared over a month ago but it is now in April they are coming out en-mass and putting of brilliant displays of heavenly blue. Blue bells may be visited by Honey bees and can produce a honey crop but they are also popular with some of the longer tongued solitary bees.
Other important sources of forage this month are the willows. The catkins of willow bear copious amounts of sulphur yellow pollen. If your honey bees are returning to the hive dusted in yellow they will most likely have been visiting willow. It’s not just honey bees that visit willow. Many bumble bees and Andrena bees will also collect willow pollen. Unlike the earlier flowering Catkins of Alder and Hazel willow will also produce nectar.
A willow catkin full of fresh pollen
Other trees coming into bloom right now include Field Maple, Sycamour, Poplar and Ash (a species which scientists have recently predicted will likely become extinct within our life time due to Ash Die back disease and the invasive Emerald Bark beetle).
As we progress through April we should expect to see the first Horse Chestnut blossom. Where I am in London the leaves broke from their sticky buds during the final week of March and I shall be watching for the first flowers within the next 2-3 weeks. In more northerly areas it may be end of the month or early May before they break into bloom. Chestnut produces very distinctive dark brick red pollen which honey bees will collect with enthusiasm. Chestnuts are one of the best examples of how plants communicate with their pollinators; the individual blooms of the flower stalk or inflorescence change colour as they are fertilised to inform the bees that they need not bother to visit that particular bloom. When they come out in flower watch them and look out for the change in colour. Other trees coming into bloom will include Cherry, Plum and Apple. Hawthorn appears well advanced this year and may begin to flower in mid to late April.
Plum blossom in full bloom
One of the larger London gardens where I keep my Honey Bees includes a 34 tree fruit orchard. So far the Nectarines, Peaches and Mirabel DeNancy Plum are the only trees to have flowered. The Pears should begin to bloom shortly followed by the Apples, Victoria Plum and Green Gage. Worryingly the half dozen Crab Apples planted around the edge of the garden to cross pollinate our cultivated apples have already bloomed which begs the question what will our apples pollinate with this year? The varieties planted were supposed to flower in unison providing cross pollination and better fruit set with the heritage apple varieties which unlike many modern cultivars do not self-pollinate..
In rural areas Oil Seed Rape will be starting to come into bloom and will blanket vast areas of the countryside in swathes of yellow well into mid-May. Rape is one of the most frequently grown crops in the UK and the source of much of our vegetable oil for cooking as well as oil for cosmetics and biofuel. Beekeepers either love it or hate it for it can produce an abundance of honey but the grainy texture and trend to crystallise rock hard in the comb are a drawbacks.
Please spare those Daisies as they are important food for smaller bees
From now on weeding will by necessity become a regular chore in the garden. For the past 3 weeks I have been meticulously pulling out the seedlings of Germander Speedwell, The first shoots of Bindweed and Common Cleavers which every year threaten to take over my garden. Keeping them in check requires constant attention. Like many weeding is a garden chore I like the least. If only it could all be about planting flowers...