Winter does not seem a good time to be talking about flowers and bees:  our honey bees spend much of their time hunkered down in their cluster and the wild bees are either hidden away in their nests or hibernating.  On warmer days, when the sun shines, however, our bees will come out and fly round close to their hives, mainly on cleansing flights.  At this time they really appreciate some flowers to sip nectar from and it gives us a great deal of pleasure to see them.

During the depths of Winter a cheery sight is Mahonia x media, a useful, very tough, shrub covered in large spiky evergreen leaves and carrying clumps of long racemes of bright yellow flowers.  Different varieties flower at slightly different times, starting in late November and carrying on until the early Spring.  They are very attractive to bees, and also scented. Mahonia can get quite large but another much smaller shrub is the Winter Box (Sarcococca humilis).  This has very inconspicuous white flowers with an intense scent.  They are out right in the middle of Winter and it is a good idea to plant it near a door where the scent can be appreciated.  Ours grows in a fairly large container and seems quite happy.  I have seen numbers of bees on it on Christmas Day.  There are other species but they are all similar.

                                                                                                         Mahonia x media  A ray of sunshine in Winter

Viburnum Bodnantense
Dawn is worth growing for its wonderful scent but I have never seen many bees on its pretty white and pink flowers, despite growing it next to my hives.

Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, the Winter-flowering cherry, is a lovely tree which carries a few flowers over most of the Winter period.  I have never grown it but enjoy seeing it in other peoples’ gardens.

As we move into January and February, the available flowers increase.  Daphne mezereum is a lovely little shrub but I have never had any success with it.  I suspect that is me rather than the shrub.  The earliest of the Salix tribe is S. aegyptica, which flowers in January and is joined, a little later by S. caprea.  Both these species, although brilliant bee trees, are much too big for most gardens.  As I said, in my Spring edition of this blog, all the Salix species are good for bees but make sure you buy a male one as the female trees do not, obviously, produce pollen

                                                                                                       Winter aconites need little attention and will spread if left alone

Bulbs come into their own and the earliest are the snowdrops (Galanthus spp ) with the lovely Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis.   I did not fare well with this in acid heavy soil so I am hoping that my current light alkaline soil will suit it.  Both of these plants are best planted ‘in the green’, when they establish much better than if an attempt is made to plant them when they are dry and dormant.  As with all bulbs (although Winter Aconite is a tuber) do not be tempted to tidy them up, just leave them to die down naturally. Both of these will multiply if left to their own devices, producing carpets of flowers and the snowdrops naturalise well in grass.  Another plant that is in flower very early is Helleborus niger.  This plant is called the Christmas Rose and is beautiful although, in my experience, not easy to grow, but another, which always does very well,  is H foetidus, the Stinking Hellebore.  Do not be put off by the name!  It is not such an attractive plant as some of the later Hellebores but it is evergreen, tough as old boots and has masses of green flowers which are very attractive to bees.  It is said to flower from February onwards, but mine often flower throughout much of the Winter and the first buds can open at the end of November.

                                                                                                      Snowdrops naturalise if allowed to die down naturally after flowering

No Winter garden is complete without some of the Winter flowering heaths.  Erica x darleyensis and E. carnea (syn. E. herbacea) are both lime tolerant (unlike other heaths and heathers) and can provide welcome food, both nectar and pollen through the Winter and into the Spring.  They make lovely displays, often interplanted with dwarf conifers and can be relied on to give those early queen bumblebees, which often appear in February, an early boost.

                                                                                            Erica spp. Winter-flowering heaths are a very useful source
                                                                                                                    of food for honey bee colonies and early bumblebees

Although our individual gardens may seem insignificant remember that, together they cover a huge area and anything which benefits bees, and other nectar- and pollen-feeding insects, often at a time when other flowers in the wider landscape are not available, is good.  When planting specifically for honey bees remember that pollen is very critical to their whole existence and is in high demand in the early Spring, when the colonies are building rapidly for the Summer, and in the late Summer/Autumn when bees are building up their fat bodies to enable them to survive over the Winter period.  So this current article is particularly pertinent.

Whatever kind of garden you have, and whatever you plant in it, make sure that you enjoy it and the bees that visit it.

Photos:  Celia Davis

Author Biography for Celia Davis

Celia has had a life-long interest in insects but her life changed completely in 1980, when she became a beekeeper.   Since then bees have become a passion.

She has held many posts in her Association and has been associated with beekeeping education at all levels for many years, locally and nationally.  She holds a degree in Agriculture and was awarded a National Diploma in Beekeeping in 1994, writes and lectures widely on bees, beekeeping and other insects, and plants for insects.  She has had 2 books published.  She began gardening with her Grandad when she was a child and has an enduring fascination in plants, both wild and cultivated.  Until 3 years ago she and her husband tended a large garden in Berkswell, growing much of their own fruit and vegetables, and opening the garden for charity for many years.