Bees Love Holly (Ilex) Flowers

Honey bee - Apis mellifera foraging on the flowers of variegated holly.Honey bee - Apis mellifera foraging on the flowers of variegated holly.

Earlier this year (in May), I took photographs of bees foraging on holly flowers.  It seemed appropriate to publish the article close to Christmas (it's December as I write), when people are giving cards adorned with pictures of holly full of berries, and putting up decorations in their homes.

Some holly species have smooth leaves.  The flowers are attractive to bees.Some holly species have smooth leaves. The flowers are attractive to bees.


Holly (Ilex) is absolutely fantastic for bees and other pollinators, and a superb addition to the bee-friendly garden - if you have the space. If you have it in your garden, you may also be lucky enough to see the holly blue butterfly.

English holly - or common holly (Ilex aquifolium) grows in the wild wooded areas where I live, and has dark green, waxy, prickly evergreen leaves, and red berries in winter.  The flowers are small and relatively inconspicuous.

However, there are many cultivated varieties of holly - smooth leaved, and some variegated, with flowers that appear to be equally attractive to bees as can be seen above. 

Which types of bees are attracted to holly flowers?

The flowers of holly are attractive to solitary, bumble and honey bees.  When I took these photographs it was a very sunny day in May, and I was mostly seeing honey bees and mason bees of various species, although I only managed to snap a picture of the red mason bee.

It's a red mason bee foraging on these holly flowers - honest!It's a red mason bee foraging on these holly flowers - honest!


Another reason I love holly (apart from the masses of flowers loved by bees), is the fact that the birds get to feast on the lovely berries during the cool winter months.  Before that, we get to enjoy seeing them on the trees and bushes.

I love the mass of flowers on holly.  Red mason bee on holly. Red mason bee on holly.I love the mass of flowers on holly.

Growing holly

If you want to grow holly in your garden, and you are keen to see berries, you'll need to ensure you have a male and female - or at least, a male specimen close by, to ensure the flowers on the female can be fertilized.  If you are buying shrubs to plant out in the garden, check the label for information about the sex of the plant before purchasing.

Also, be sure to check the ultimate height and spread of the variety you select.

Honey bee on holly flowers.Honey bee on holly flowers.

Holly prefers a fairly sunny spot or a little light shade.  They like well drained soil.

Holly, superstition, folklore and Christianity 

"Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
 Thou art not so unkind
 As man's ingratitude:
 Thy tooth is not so keen,
 Because thou art not seen,
 Although thy breath be rude.
 Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
 Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
 Then heigh-ho! the holly!
 This life is most jolly."

 ~ from ‘As You Like It’ by William Shakespeare; Act 2 Scene 7.


Many years ago in Britain, the Holly King was said to rule over half of the year lasting from the summer solstice through to the winter solstice.

It was considered bad luck to cut down a holly tree.  It was thought that the tree was protective against destruction, malevolent influences and ill-fortune.  However, it was considered acceptable to cut holly to bring it into the home, and in a sense, it could be said that pre-Victorian times, the holly was the original 'Christmas tree'. 

Like many people, I strongly associate holly with Christmas time, helped in part I'm sure by it being frequently mentioned in various Christmas carols and songs, such 'Deck the Halls'. 

The symbolic link between Christianity and holly is nicely summarised in lyrics for 'The Holly and the Ivy', an old English Christmas carol dating back at least to the fifteenth century. 

The Holly And The Ivy

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown

O, the rising of the sun,
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom,
As white as lily flow'r,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To be our dear Saviour

O, the rising of the sun,
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To do poor sinners good

O, the rising of the sun,
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
On Christmas Day in the morn

O, the rising of the sun,
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as the gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
For to redeem us all

O, the rising of the sun,
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown

O, the rising of the sun,
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.







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