Things we can do to help winter bees
During the summer months when our gardens are full of blooming bee-friendly flowers, warm sun and buzzing insects it's relatively easy to play our part in looking after our bees and other pollinators. The winter months however can be a tough time for bees.
While climate change may be a hot topic of debate in some circles, just from my own experience it's clear that the winter months in Britain have been warmer than they were just a couple of decades ago. I can't remember the last time my local pond was frozen over thick enough to walk on but as a child this was a fairly regular occurrence most winters. This isn't good news for bees.
The temperature outside is a signal to bees that spring has sprung and if they venture out to find that our spring flowers are a month or two away from blooming then it could spell disaster for them. Honeybees will start buzzing around once the temperature reaches around 12 degrees, bumblebees will even venture out when it's even colder than that. Bees need nectar and pollen and if they can't find it then they will find themselves without food. This is extra worrisome if they have developing larvae in the hive, as they will go without food too. The various common bee species in Britain have different ways to survive during winter and in this blog we'll give you some ideas for several ways we can help them.
Planting to help bees in late winter
The best way to help bees in winter is to plant flowers and trees which will flower in February and March, if we have a particularly warm month then this will ensure that nearby bees will be able to find nectar.
If you have space for hedges then Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is a fantastic hedge plant for bees. It's traditionally known to flower in early spring but due to the warmer winters, especially in the south of England, many of the blackthorn hedges are now showing flowers before mid-February.
There are multiple different fruit trees that can flower several weeks before it's officially spring if it's warm enough. Cherry, plum and apple trees are all good choices for a large garden and can provide an excellent early source of nectar for many species including honeybees. You could also try almond trees which bees love, they have a beautiful pink blossom that you will love too! If you have a large garden it's certainly possible to grow nectar-rich trees and plants all year round, but if you don't have that much land there are other options to make use of smaller spaces.
A Mahonia species known as 'Winter Sun' is a brilliant shrub that's great to plant in borders and rockery. It's an evergreen and will produce striking, bright yellow clusters of flowers during winter. It will add all year round interest to your garden and provide some much needed nectar and pollen when there is little else in bloom. The plants are quite easy to find in larger garden centres or online suppliers and are sold potted for around £8 a plant. It's a medium sized shrub, very hardy and doesn't require a lot of special care, it's happy to be planted in full sun or more shady areas.
Our early-flowering Crocus have started flowering already and we've already seen some interest from the occasional bee. There's two varieties we highly recommend, the Dutch Crocus (Crocus vernus) and the Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus). Both produce a lot of lovely yellow pollen and are a fantastic plant for a number of bee species.
Another very important winter flower is the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) as it can bloom as early as January. These are lovely white flowers and are quite inexpensive, our local garden centre was selling these at £10 for 5 plants. They are a really great choice for many as they are more than happy in pots and containers, so if you don't have a garden you could put these in pots outside your back door or even on an apartment balcony.
Others things we can do around the garden to help bees
It's always best to avoid digging your garden during the winter, or doing anything too much if you can help it. If you have tried to create a bee friendly habitat over the autumn you don't want to disturb that habitat or the bees that might be sheltering in it.
During the late winter it's tempting to get outside and start clearing dead stems around the garden, but they could have solitary bee nests in them or other overwintering insects. It's far better to just leave them for now and have a good spring clean in a month or so.
Piles of dead leaves will often be providing shelter for bees and other insects too, it's going to best to leave these undisturbed also. It won't be long before winter is over and it's far nicer to be out doing these kind of jobs in the early spring sun than it is while it is cold and wet!
If you have moved your bee hotel for the winter, as we suggested in this blog back in October, then it might be time to think about moving it back out - once your early-flowering plants are starting to bloom of course.
If you find a bee on the ground that looks like it's in trouble and there are no flowering plants yet to move it to then you might want to make an emergency intervention with a reviving sugar solution. It didn't use to be common to see bees around this time of year but we've seen a number of queen bumblebees over the winter on particularly warm days. Unfortunately one appeared to be in some serious difficulty. After feeding her the solution she had enough energy to go on her way, hopefully to a hibernation place or to start a new nest. It really must be a shock when they feel the warmth of the sun and emerge so early to find such a baron landscape and lack of nectar-rich flowers to collect from.
We hope this blog has given you some planting and gardening ideas for the winter. It won't be long until spring and the whole seasonal cycle will start again. It's an exciting time of year for bee-keepers and gardeners alike. If you have some of our free bee saving seeds it's almost time to start planning for planting those too!