Horticulturalist, beekeeper and friend of Bee Good, Mark Patterson from ApiCultural writes about the flowers that are so important for our British bees.
Bumblebee collecting pollen from a Crocus flower
March is officially the first month of spring for us in the UK, though in London it has felt spring like for several weeks now. Already the first of the spring flowers are putting on a colourful show of yellows, purples and shades of white. Snow drops are starting to go past their best having flowered in numbers since Late January. The early flowering species crocuses are currently looking at their best across most of London and the later flowering large flowered Crocus varieties are just starting to join the display too. These and other spring bulbous plants including Winter Aconite, Anenemone blanda, Squill and Muscari are valuable early sources of pollen for bees.
Honey bee on an Anemone blanda flower
Garden plants important to bees this month include the Hellebores, Pulmonaria and Wall Flowers. Both the biennial bedding Wallflowers and short lived perennial Varieties are attractive to bees but it’s the Everlasting Wall Flower Bowles Mauve that is flowering the best at present, the other will put on a fantastic show towards the end of March and into April.
Several spring flowering trees are important to bees and these include White Poplar, Cherry Plum, Willows, and Hazel. The large Hazel tree in my apiary has been flowering since January, meanwhile the local cherry plums will soon be swarming with insects on sunny days. The willow and white beam Catkins are just starting to open. One of the best small willows for gardens is Salix caprea Kilarnock which is a pussy willow type with large fluffy catkins which become covered in bright lemon yellow pollen and all manner of bees adore it. Last spring whilst cycling through Arch Bishops Park enroute to a Monthly Beekeeping meeting I passed a trio of these dwarf weeping trees which were covered in Honey Bee, Ashy Mining Bee, Painted Mining Bee and several bumble bees. These trees all have pollen with a high protein and fatty acids content valuable to bees rearing brood and for queens fattening up ready to begin laying.
Buff-tailed Bumblebee on wallflower - Bowles mauve
Shrubs flowering this month attractive to bees include Flowering Currant, Sarcoccoca, BlackThorne, Flowering Quince and Camelia. At last month’s RHS early Spring Flower Show I bought 2 new Camelia’s for my garden, a light pink one and a dark pinkie red one called ‘Adeyaka.’ Both are open single flowered varieties which flower from Late February through to Early May and are ‘self cleaning’ varieties which mean the blooms drop as soon as pollinated or if the blooms become frosted resulting in a neat looking shrub without the tainted frost damaged petals which can look unsightly.
Other flowers making an appearance include Lesser celandine, Sweet Violet (a valuable early nectar source but only on warm days), Cowslip, Primerose, White Deadnettle, Bugle, Ground Ivy and the first of the Spanish blue bells (Hyacinthoides Hispanica) who’s blue-green pollen Honey bees will collect. White Deadnettle in particular is a valuable wild plant for bumble bees and some of the longer tongued solitary bees. Its pollen is rich in protein and fats.
Buff-Tailed Bumblebee Queen on crocus flower
Speaking of wild bees, there are reports coming in from across the Country over the past month with the first sightings of spring wild bees. This year some species have begun to appear very early indeed with reports of Hairy Footed Flower Bee, Painted Mining Bee and many Bumble Bee Queens being spotted in and around the capital during the later half of February. In the last week of February I discovered 7 Buff Tailed Queens alongside a Garden Bumble Bee Queen and an Early Bumble Bee Queen foraging on Crocus blooms not far from my house. In the first week of March I’ve seen up to 13 Buff Tailed Bumble Bee queens at once, Tree Bumble Bee and the first Male Hairy Footed Flower Bees – feeding predominantly on Sweet Violet.
I’m hoping that the very cold snaps we’ve had this winter will benefit my fruit trees. Most fruiting trees perform best when they have been subjected to a good frosting over the winter. A very cold snap will kill off many pathogens and insect pests which can attack the tree and the difference in temperature triggers hormones and activates genes in the plant tissues important in the formation of flower buds. Temperatures in my garden in December and January reached lows of minus 10 Celsius so with luck this spring will be a good one for Apple, Pear and Plum blossom resulting in a bounty of nectar for bees in March through to May and a bumper fruit crop in late summer.
This time of year presents us with the last opportunity to lift and divide herbaceous perennials before they start to put on significant growth. I’ve just lifted and split my Helleniums, hardy Geraniums, Japanese Anenemones and Sedum spectable.
Plant out herbaceous perennials grown from seed or cuttings last year. Get them in the ground now so they have time to spread out their roots ahead of the coming growing season.
Less hardy plants may still require protection from fleece.
Have fleece standing by to protect the blooms of soft fruits – My Peach and Nectarine buds are starting to open – Will I get any fruit this year?
Early March is the last opportunity to prune Apples and Pears. Stone fruits such as Peach, Plum and Apricot should be pruned in late summer. When pruning apples and pear resist the urge to cut back too much growth which the tress respond to by putting on excess vigorous regrowth. Unlike plum and other stone fruits which flower on the previous year’s wood, Pip fruits require 2 year old material to develop flower/fruit buds.