Feeding the bees in winter

This month we have a guest article written by Peter Lawrence, a BBCT member and keen gardener. Here Peter gives us a run-down of his best plants for bumblebees in winter. As Peter points out, bumblebees are becoming increasingly active in the winter months when they would normally be hibernating. If you spot a bumblebee this winter, you can report it to BWARS for their special survey on winter-active bumblebees.

‘I don’t know about you but every time I see a bumblebee my morale takes a little leap upwards before it starts to sink again. They are wonderful beasts.

We have a large garden and I try to have nectar-bearing flowers all the year round, so I thought some of you might help with ideas for flowers that they evidently like, particularly for the winter months. I know they are supposed to be underground in the winter, but the winters are getting shorter and I see bumblebees every month of the year in my garden near Cambridge on alkaline soil.

One group of plants that can flower from summer and well into autumn are the calaminths, Calamintha. They will provide food for the new queens before they go into hibernation.

But as we move into autumn, November can be a tricky month for flowering plants. The ivy is still flowering in some places well into late November, and that can be a great source of pollen and nectar. Indeed the Ivy Mining Bee Colletes hederae relies on the food from ivy flowers. This species is a recent arrival to England and we have them in our garden into November.

There are also autumn crocusses Colchicum autumnale, and plenty of flowers on the wonderfully-scented Viburnum x bodnantense, but I don’t see the bees appreciating it so much. We have some Sternbergia which would have golden yellow, goblet-shaped flowers if it weren’t for the pheasants which eat them! This November some of the Salvia are in a sheltered site and still undamaged by the frosts so they provided nectar for some busy late queens, particularly the Tree bumblebee Bombus hypnorum and Buff-tailed bumblebee Bombus terrestris.

I have to admit we don’t have much on offer in December. Between cold snaps there are fresh flowers on the Autumn-flowering Cherry Prunus x subhirtella ‘autumnalis’ and still some few late autumn crocus and that’s about it. November and December do present problems for any bees that are still about, so if anyone has good ideas please tell us.

January is a most difficult month but the Autumn-flowering cherry should still be in flower, and the Christmas rose Helleborus niger should begin to bloom too.  If it’s at all mild the really essential Winter Honeysuckle Lonicera x purpusii will provide fresh flowers and nectar for all manner of bees well into the spring. In sheltered parts of the garden the first Crocusses, Snowdrops and Aconites may be flowering and the bees like these, as well as Iris unguicularis.

In February the various Mahonias are favoured, and they sometimes flower in February. After the Winter Honeysuckle, the most important of all winter-spring flowerers for the bumbles is Helleborus foetidus. This wild hellebore is preferred over the Helleborus orientalis, although they like those also.  Every garden should have as many Hellebores (pictured right) as possible; they grow in shade and all the bees, including the Hairy-footed flower bee, Anthophora plumipes, the mason bees and the queen bumbles go for it. They usually start to flower in March and various cultivars will keep going well through the spring and early summer.

In March there are now plenty of flowers, the bees continue to visit the Lonicera and the Hellebores while the plum blossom may be starting. Norway maple may come into flower this month, and can be very attractive to the first queen bees to emerge from hibernation.’

To find out more about how to make your garden better for bumblebees, visit our gardening page.

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