Without our gardens, many bees would starve when they wake up early in the year, as they need a ready supply of open flowers, with easy access to pollen and nectar.
First bees to appear are the large queens of the buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris. You’ll likely come across them still looking a bit drowsy on sunny days when the temperature reaches 10C.
When buying or growing bedding plants from seed, choose varieties with single flowers, not flouncy doubles
Whilst you might think your garden is already going to help them, as it’s filled with colourful winter pansies and spring bedding plants and bulbs but if they have petal-packed double blooms, they are going to be more or less useless to bees, as they are often sterile.
Crocuses are one of the first Pollen sources available to bees in early to mid spring
To help them now and over the next few months consider turning a patch of grass into a wildlflower ‘meadow” with spring bulbs such as Snowdrops, Winter Aconites and Narcissus and Crocus along with wild flowers like Cowslips.
Winter Aconites, like Snowdrops, are bought ‘in the green’ and you can buy potted plants in bloom that will give your garden instant colour and provide some ‘fast food’ for bees
Add a splash of colour to flowerbeds too with swathes of Hyacinths, Cyclamen coum and Hellebores and plant masses Winter Heathers in full bloom as they are great bee food and also Wallflowers that will keep bees busy throughout the late spring months.
Make room in your spring borders for Pulmonarias and Bergenias too, as their flowers are very rich in nectar. Comfrey, Symphytum, Anchusa and Forget-me-not or Myosotis and Pasque flowers or Pulsatilla vulgarisms also have blooms that are equally full of nectar – perfect for early emerging bumblebee queens – although they flower a little later.
The Pasque flower or Pulsatilla vulgaris has unmistakable violet-purple bell shaped flowers, with golden yellow anthers, that appear throughout April-May
Throughout the winter shrubs like Fatsia japonica, winter-flowering honeysuckle or Lonicera fragrantissima and Mahonia will have proved to magnets to winter-active bumblebees and will also draw honeybees to come out of their hives to forage when temperatures rise to around or above 10 C. To keep them active for a bit longer add Cornus mas and Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis to your plant list.
Catkins are an early source of pollen. Pollen provides them with the ‘protein’ part of their diet whereas nectar provides the high energy yielding ‘carbohydrate’. Bees will collect pollen from Alder, Willow and Hazel trees that do not need to provide nectar because they are wind pollinated.
Hazel is wind pollinated so no nectar is produced but the bees work the male catkins for pollen
And re-think weeds too. Dandelions, Dead Nettles and Clover, for example are excellent bee plants, providing vital pollen early in the season. Being observant will give you a clue how to help these vulnerable insects.
The dandelion’s peak flowering time is from late March to May, when many bees and other pollinators emerge from hibernation. Each flower in fact consists of up to 100 florets, each one packed with nectar and pollen. This early, easily available source of food is a lifesaver for pollinators in spring
Bumblebees for example tend to browse from one flower to another, whereas honey bees go back and forth to the same plant systematically, so it makes sense to plant in bold drifts rather than have ‘bee plants’ dotted here and there. Planting them out in groups also makes them easier for passing bees to spot and dive in to bring your garden to life! Remember too, that bees like blue, purple and white flowers and flowers that are fragrant.
Be aware too, that bees need to drink and they also evaporate water to cool their hives, so fill a shallow container of water with pebbles or twigs for the bees to land on while drinking. Make sure to maintain the container full of fresh water to ensure that they know they can return to the same spot every day.
and to keep bees busy for the rest of the year…
Summer bee fodder is easy to provide, with such pollen-rich staples as Buddleias, Lavender, Salvias, Runner Beans and Valerian. Best of all is the tall, purple-flowered Verbena bonariensis – a must for every butterfly and bee-lover’s garden. And in autumn, they’ll feast enthusiastically on Michaelmas Daisies, Dahlias, Sedum spectabile and Heleniums.