Will Your Winter Border be ‘The Bees' Knees?’

As I write, now is the time that people are leafing their way through flower bulb and plant catalogues, or they are just about starting to plant them in the garden, with visions of winter and early spring colour cheering up their flower borders.

Do bees visit flowers in winter?

Certainly, as winter is drawing to a close, I have seen bees foraging on very cold, dry winter days, probably tempted by sunshine - and of course, the need to feed.

There is a common misconception that honey bees emerge later in the year, with only bumble bee queens being the first to emerge.  This is not correct in my experience, nor is it correct according to authors such as Wilson and Messenger Carrill, authors of 'Bees In Your Backyard'.  

They point out that honey bees are crucial for pollination of almond crops when the weather is still too cool to entice bumble bees out of their nests.

In my experience, it depends on the honey bee species.  Last year I visited a renowned botanical garden on a very cold, February day.  I'm a very regular visitor to the garden, since it's beautiful, is only 30 minutes away, and I purchased a card providing me with free entry for a year (so I'm going to make use of it!). 

The only pollinators to be seen anywhere were worker honey bees from a wild nest in a tree in a different section of the garden.  Each time I visit the garden, I check up on the wild nest - it's doing very well.  The species appear to be the European Dark Bee - also known as the British dark bee, Apis mellifera mellifera.

I have to admit, however, that on site there are also 2 managed honey bee hives, and I believe the bees kept in them are an Italian strain.  I did not see any of these bees out foraging.  It is said that the more recently imported honey bee strains from Italy are not so robust and well adapted to cope with the cooler climate as the native dark honey bee.  From my observations, this would appear to be correct. 

I'm a very regular visitor to the garden, and didn't see bumble bee queens about until about a month later.

Selecting Winter Plants For Bees

When selecting bulbs, choose those with single petals – the old fashioned kind, rather than the very frilly, highly cultivated, double-petal varieties. Simple daffodils and crocuses are wonderful for bees, as are snowdrops. Take a look at this list of Flower Bulbs For Bees.

And what about other plants for bees? If you can add in lungwort (Pulmonaria), pussy willow, rosemary, winter heathers, mahonia, flowering currant, then you’ll help provide bees with a well needed feast. If we all play our part, collectively we could provide feeding stations for bees across the country!

I have often looked down the road in which I live. Certainly, I have made it my mission to be an organic gardener with plenty of plants to attract bees and other pollinators – as have some of my neighbours. It would be even more wonderful if each householder would have at least a pot of bee-friendly winter plants.

Nowadays, in some countries, potting compost, and sadly, some ready-prepared planters, are laced with neonicotinoid pesticides.

For this reason, I would rather make up my own planters, steering away from any compost containing vine weevil killers or any other pesticide products.

The Invertebrates Conservation charity, Buglife produced a report about the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides back in 2009, and it is endorsed by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and some other environmental organisations. It outlines a number of weaknesses in the regulatory system that grants marketing authorisations to pesticides.

If you'd like more information on how to help the bees, take a look at these top 10 tips for a start, and please share them with others.

Also, take a look at another article on this site: Help The Bees - By Bee-ing The Change You Wish To See In The World.

If you'd like to read more about bumblebees, go to the main links page about Bumblebees.

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