Do Bees Visit Flowers In Winter?


Question:

Hi
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.

Cate, UK.



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:

  • whether or not bees visit flowers in winter;
  • if space is very limited, is it worth including winter flowering shrubs and plants, or is it better to provide food for bees in the spring and summer?

Do bees visit flowers in winter?  - Bees in January And February

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

honey bee on foraging on white heather - winter flowering shrubHoney bee worker foraging on winter heather in my small garden.

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.

buff tailed bumble bee queen foraging on a winter-flowering camelia.  The open, pink flower has many anthers laden with pollen, an important source of protein and fat for bees.Buff-tailed bumble bee queen foraging on a winter-flowering camelia

Why Winter Flowering Plants Matter For Bees

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: 

  • In the case of honey bees, they will need to replenish food stores for the colony.
  • In the case of bumble bee queens, they will need to replenish their energy and fat reserves to help sustain them whilst they seek a suitable nest site to lay eggs and rear their colonies.  Upon finding such a site, they will need to collect food for rearing larvae.


Is It Worth Including Winter Flowers?

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.

Selecting Winter Plants For Bees

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?  

Suggestions for small gardens

  • Definitely consider winter flowering shrubs, and in particular, compact plants such as winter flowering heathers and azaleas.  Shrubs provide efficient foraging opportunities for bees, since there are many flowers in a confined space.
  • Crocuses and snowdrops.  These flowers can easily be planted into a small lawn and are very pretty.  Alternatively, they can easily be planted into pots.
  • Hellebores - go for the lovely open-flowered, single-petalled variety, such as Helleborus foetidus.
  • Winter flowering clematis is worth a try, although in my experience it can be vigorous, but may be useful to you if you have a wall against which you can support it.  It's an evergreen, with lovely dark green leaves.  
  • Pulmonaria blooms in early spring, and a gift for bumble bees and hairy footed flower bees.
  • Daffodils native to your region are helpful to bumble bees.  If you are in the UK, go for the native wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus.

If you have more space.....

Please take a look at my page about winter flowering shrubs.  If you plenty of space, you could consider some of the larger trees and shrubs, such as Daphne bholua among others.

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.

Rosemary - a winter flowering herbRosemary

Resources

1. Thomas D. Seeley, The Lives Of Bees




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