Horticulturalist, beekeeper and friend of Bee Good, Mark Patterson from ApiCultural writes about the flowers that are so important for our British bees.
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.
Despite the cold weather February is often a month when the first signs of spring start to show. The days are starting to become noticeably longer and the earliest of spring flowers may begin to bloom.
Whilst these first signs of spring are beginning to show it will still be some considerable time yet before the first proper nectar flows begin so beekeepers will have to continue to keep a close eye on their colonies stores of honey and feed their bees if necessary to ward off starvation.
During February one should expect to see the first Snow Drops beginning to bloom. These won’t provide any nectar for bees but they will offer some early pollen on mild days which colonies need as they resume brood rearing. Other valuable pollen sources making an appearance in February include:
Winter Aconite Eranthis hyemalis are beginning to appear. Their bright lemon yellow flowers are attractive to bees which will collect their pollen. They are members of the Buttercup family.
In gardens, Hellebores will be flowering offering much-needed pollen. Hellebores come in a wide variety of colours. The hybrid hellebores are particularly hardy and easy to grow as are the native stinking hellebores Helleborus foetidus which can be found in gardens and in wild areas too. I really like Helleborous orentalis.
Winter Heliotrope Petasites fragrans is a relative of our native Butterbur but flowers much earlier. It’s not a UK native and can be quite invasive when established in the wild but is a great garden plant for bees in late winter. The flowers are shaped like a toilet brush and pink in colour.
The first Daffodils Narcissus sp. Maybe beginning to bloom. Despite their attractive flowers Daffodils and other narcissus is poor forage for bees. I have never seen a Honey Bee visit them and only occasionally have I seen desperate Bumblebees alight on them. Most however flower later in the spring.
Wall Flowers Erysimum should be flowering now and will continue to do so right through till late spring. Bees will visit both the popular bedding type Wall Flowers as well as the longer-lived everlasting perennial types. The purple and orange ‘bowls’ everlasting types are particularly good for bees as they have a very long flowering period and will bloom almost continuously all year round.
Off the ground, there are several shrubs and small trees which are now flowering and these may offer rewards of nectar on warm days alongside the pollen they produce. These include:
Mahonia or Oregon Grape grows in our towns and cities in abundance and flowers throughout the winter providing nectar and pollen for bees. In southern towns and cities, Buff Tailed Bumble Bees Bombus terrestris are increasingly continue to be active throughout the winter surviving largely on this plant. Around 75% of winter flower visitations by bees are to Mahonia. The variety ‘winters sun’ is particularly attractive. Bees taking advantage of Mahonia blooms in winter have few other insects to compete with and can fair better than some colonies active in summer.
Viburnum shrubs include a number of deciduous and evergreen species which flower during the winter months. They are relatives of our native Guelder Rose Viburnum opolus. Some of the most popular Viburnums with our bees include the evergreen Viburnum tinus who’s sweetly scented cream blooms flower from November through to March and Viburnum bodnaatense whos pink flowers bloom from around Christmas to March.
Clematis. Several Clematis species are useful forage sources to bees in winter. Clematis amandii and Clematis cirhossa both have creamy white flowers and bloom in winter. Honey and winter active bumble bees will visit them for pollen.
Winter Flowering Cherry Prunus subhirtella flower from late November to February producing pale pink flowers. I’ve very rarely seen any bees on the blooms but have often seen flies on them. In the absence of better forage like Mahonia bees will visit the flowers.
Sweet Box Sarcococca confusa is a short growing evergreen shrub which produces extremely fragrant blooms (reminiscent of hyacinths) from late winter into early spring. It’s one of those plants that you almost always smell long before you see it.
Winter Heather/Heaths Erica species produce tubular blooms in shades of white to pink throughout the winter. They are coming to the end of their flowering period now but still providing forage for bees brave enough to venture out.
Winter flowering Honeysuckle. Several Honeysuckles flower during winter. Some are climbers others are shrub forming. One of the best is Lonicera fragrantissimima.
Daphne shrubs are beginning to flower now and their intense perfume-like scent will attract bees to collect their pollen.
Hazel Corylus avellana are flowering now and the long male catkins drip with pollen. On warm, days Honeybees may visit the catkins to collect pollen though the plants are wind pollinated and do not need the bees to reproduce.
Other trees which produce catkins which may start to make an appearance in February include Willows Salix sp. and Poplars Populus sp. though they are usually a little later flowering.
This attractive evergreen shrub blooms throughout the winter producing creamy white flowers sometimes tinged pink. This shrub is hardy and withstands close strimming meaning it can be maintained at a small compact shape and height for small gardens or allowed to grow much larger forming a large and imposing shrub.
Well established plants become covered in blooms from November through to early spring but February is often when they look their best. On warm days bees and early emerging butterflies will visit the flowers to sip nectar and collect pollen.
Mulch herbaceous beds. Mulching beds and borders with well rotten manure or garden compost will ensure they receive plenty of beneficial nutrients during the coming growing season, help suppress weeds and lock moisture into the soil helping plants to better cope with periods of drought.
Prune top fruits such as Apple, Pear and Medlar. These plants bloom and fruit on 2-year-old wood which needs to be taken into consideration when pruning. Correct pruning of fruit trees helps their shape and form and ensures there is plenty of healthy material to produce blooms. Stone fruits like Plum, Green Gage and Apricots should be pruned in summer as the fruit are developing. This encourages the plant to push its energies into the remaining fruit giving improved fruit form and reduces the tress of having to produce too many fruits. Stone fruits flower on the previous seasons wood.
Erect your solitary bee hotels. March is when the earliest of the tube nesting mason bees emerge. The Orchard Mason bee Osmia cornuta emerges in March and is active until late April or early May. They readily use solitary bee boxes and females will begin searching for suitable bee hotels to nest in as soon as they emerge. Erect your bee houses now so they are ready for their emergence. Osmia cornuta is one of the newer species of bee to colonise the UK and has been discovered in London and the surrounding counties for the past 2-3 years.
Start sowing your sweet peas now so that you have blooms for Leafcutter, Carpenter and bumblebees to feed on come summer time. Sweet peas are the plant most likely to attract the Violet Carpenter Bee Xylocopa violacea. This is a large black bee with violet purple wings the colour of Cadbury dairy milk chocolate foil wrappers.