We occasionally have guest contributors to our blog - This article has been written by Julien de Bosdari, the owner of Ashridge Trees
While we all associate that lazy hum of bees with hot summer days there are species of bees that are active and hungry throughout the year; the buff-tailed bumble bee (no less) is one such. With twenty-four species of bumblebee (of which only twelve are commonly seen) and 260 of solitary bee, each with their own little variations in habit and habitat it is crucial to be as diversified in your portfolio of plants as in your finances, if you are to encourage the riches that these essential pollinators bring to your garden.
All bees need carb rich nectar for energy and pollen for its essential oils and protein. Flowers that produce nectar and pollen are less abundant in winter and autumn or can be non-existent unless you take action. Early autumn is now almost an extended summer and this with new varieties and frosts arriving ever later results in longer flowering rodperiods - just ponder on all of those dahlias! - so early autumn is less concerning.
Notwithstanding this, flowers with a single circle of petals allow much greater access to the vital pollen and nectar than complicated, intricate double flowers: think Bishop of Llandaff, not Pom-Pom! Other bee-tastic flowers that last late into autumn are cosmos and wallflowers. Grow them in large blocks so that bees don't have to travel too far to find their next fix. And, beware of flowers with long tubes, a frustratingly tantalising experience for short-tongued bees...
Some trees are winter essentials because of their pollen. Willows are brilliant: male catkins produce copious amounts of yellow pollen which is catnip to bees. While willows can be very large, if you coppice them yearly you will benefit from fat catkins and brightly coloured stems to enliven a winter landscape in even a small garden – violet, scarlet or purple willow would fit the bill.
A little later in the year, willow flowers have a very faint smell that will be attractive to bees newly out of hibernation. Hazels are wind pollinated, and so the grains are designed to repel each other. This makes it heavy going for bees but they can collect small loads for short distances and so should still be included in a bee friendly garden.
On sunny winter days, a hibernating bee will bestir itself to go a-foraging. It cannot go far so we can help by providing nest sites close to winter food sources: tussocky grass, slightly untidy bases to a hedge, rodent holes, hollows in trees are all prime locations. Required close by, and high up on the list of nectar-rich winter flowers are bulbs like snowdrops, aconites and crocus. Snowdrops and hellebores together look marvellous and offer your bees a two-course meal.
Remembrance Crocus flowers - Great for bees in early spring
Or plant up a pot of crocus bulbs and know that you are providing a food bank for underfed bees - how easy is that? Winter is also a good time to plant apple, cherry, willow, pear, plum and blackthorn trees which will make excellent nesting sites for some solitary bees because the bees 'know' they are going to benefit from nutritious blossom first thing in spring.
Add in the striking yellow flowers of Mahonia or winter flowering honeysuckles and you have a feast until the blossom arrives. Mahonia's prickles make it a great barrier hedge and its autumn colour is second to none. Other options include the charming flowers of Viburnum tinus Eve Price or the intriguing markings of Clematis cirrhosa Freckles. But perhaps the most important and latest winter nectar source is common ivy, especially for honey bees.
In autumn many plants were traditionally cut down to 'tidy the borders', including herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme and chives. Resist this temptation until the flowers really are spent to prolong the autumn bounty. Bees love all types of lavender; prune its flowers back as late as you can but before the stems become woody. Gardeners note: remember the rule of 888. Cut your lavender hedge back to 8 inches tall by 8 inches across at the end of the eighth month (August).
Honeybee feeding from a Wild Rose
Living boundaries are perhaps the greatest value to wildlife, and to bees too. That means hedges full of dogwood and spindle, blackthorn and maple. Growing ramblers like wild rose, honeysuckle, ivy and brambles through the hedge will provide nesting sites and blossom at the end of winter.
Bees drink dew from leaves - does anyone remember Thumbelina? - But a small dish of water with pebbles in it to stop bees drowning is a must. Be inventive with coppiced stakes and create vertical structures to train climbers like honeysuckle and clematis for the summer and for ivy in the winter.
Solitary bee hotel with lots of occupantsMany important species of solitary bees nest in small holes: drill some into logs of wood and leave them by a sunny wall or buy a bee hotel. Let your lawns grow long in autumn and leave them over winter. Cherish wildflowers like Ragged Robin and Ransoms in spring because these early flowers provide a lifeline to bees before the plenty of summer. All of these measures are practical and possible and will encourage your bees and other pollinators to thrive over winter.
Julien de Bosdari is the owner of Ashridge Trees, a mail order plant nursery founded in 1949. They provide a range of hedging, plants, trees and bulbs among others.
Julien and his staff from Ashridge Trees