I'm wondering how important it is to have winter flowering plants in the garden? Will the bees benefit that much? If space is a bit limited, I might be better focusing on spring and summer, surely? Do bees visit flowers in winter? I'm in the UK, if that's relevant.
Thank you Cate, that's a good question!
I replied to Cate, and decided to re-write a pre-existing page to answer it fully for the benefit of other visitors. There are essentially two elements to this query:
The answer is 'yes'. Bees can sometimes be spotted as early as January or February, depending on the weather. On cold dry days, honey bee workers may be seen foraging for the colony. I have a whole page exploring the foraging activities of a wild honey bee colony foraging in January on a cool winter's day.
Thirsty honey bees have been observed collecting water at temperatures as low as 39°F (4°C) according to Professor Thomas D. Seeley, in The Lives of Bees1.
This is in line with my own observations, when I have seen honey bees foraging in the morning at temperatures which, according to the nearest weather station were 41°F (5°C) and reached 48°F (9°C) by 12 noon.
Aside from this, you may see newly emerged bumble bee queens.
Having established that bees do indeed forage in cool weather, it's worth considering the importance of pollen and nectar sources in the cool winter months. In the UK, in line with the query above we are really talking about January and February. Usually, bees will be tucked up in their hives or nests during November/December, and newly emerged bumble bee queens will be hibernating underground or in snug crevices.
Any bees emerging in January and February will have an urgent need to feed:
If you have a large garden, it's a 'no-brainer', you'll easily have the space to accommodate flowers.
However, if you have a small garden, you may be wondering whether it's worth it. After all, a growing colony needs more food as it becomes established and rears its young, and a colony at its peak will mean more bees gathering nectar and pollen.
However, a colony first has to get to that stage. To assess whether it would be a good idea to include a few carefully selected winter flowering plants and shrubs, I would take a look around your local area. Is there enough plant material to support early emerging bees at a crucial time of the year?
Speaking from personal experience as some-one who has a small garden, I find it's worth including a few winter shrubs and very early spring flowering plants, very carefully selected. It's a pleasure to see a cheery blooms in advance of the glories of spring.
So having established that bees do indeed forage in winter, and the importance of early pollen and nectar sources, the question remains what to plant?
Willows are another fantastic option, such as Salix caprea - Goat willow or pussy willow. Catkins provide a much needed source of pollen for bees. If Goat willow would be too large for your garden, look for varieties that will provide catkins in January/February if possible, or at least as early in the year as possible.
Among herbs, you could try rosemary. It will need a sheltered spot as it can be badly damaged in harsh weather.
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