I was momentarily taken aback to hear a bee fizz past my right ear the other day, while out in the garden clearing up a few leaves. It was pretty cold, the kind of day you wish gardening gloves came with fleece lining as standard. Of course I shouldn’t have been surprised. According to the Woodland Trust, some 250 species of bee are resident here in UK. Some seek refuge in the colder months, overwintering until spring when they emerge, hungry and in search of early-season nectar. For others (the mason bee, for example), winter is the time of pupation from eggs laid in autumn. Bumbles die over the winter, just the queens surviving by gorging on pollen and nectar gathered by their workers, then hibernating underground alone. Most honeybees, however, survive the colder months, working throughout winter, huddling together to keep their colonies warm and venturing out in search of nectar on warmer days.
So which plants keep our precious bees alive by providing nectar over the winter season?
Aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are magnets for bees. The open yellow flowers with their pretty ruffs of green are most at home in a woodland setting, planted under the canopy of deciduous trees and shrubs, where they create a golden mat of groundcover. Most importantly the flowers begin to open in January.
Snowdrops are another great food source for overwintering bees and honeybees heading out into the winter sun. Galanthus elwesii has large single white early flowers boldly etched in dark green, which are a real draw for bees. November still isn’t too late to plant snowdrop bulbs.
The gorgeous saucer-like flowers of oriental hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus) are a vital nectar source in the winter months, too, their open flowers making it easy for bees to reach the goods. Plant them under the dappled shade of deciduous trees or shrubs (maybe under a winter-flowering honeysuckle – see below – for a double whammy of bee-pleasing planting).
Winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’) is a rather messy affair for most of the year. It’s a deciduous shrub with branches that seem to abide by none of the usual columnar, domed, rounded or spreading habits of most of its kin. But all is forgiven come January, when it explodes with a mass of creamy white nectar-rich flowers that drip with fresh lily-of-the-valley perfume. One of my favourite winter pastimes is to stand under mine with a mug of coffee listening to the bees thrumming their way happily from flower to flower and breathing in that heady scent.
Sarcococcca is another essential for winter pollen, with the added advantage of a rather more pleasing shape. It’s a gently domed shrub with small, glossy evergreen leaves, strung in winter with tiny tubular white flowers with a heavenly fragrance. It’s well worth planting for your own pleasure alone.
For a spot in shade or semi-shade, a mahonia will do the business, many varieties bursting into vivid yellow flower in November and carrying on until February or March. Add glossy evergreen leaves and great architectural shape to the mix and mahonia earns itself a spot in pretty much every garden.
There are also winter-flowering climbers to add your wish list of nectar plants for bees – Clematis cirrhosa varieties, for example. ‘Wisley Cream’ or ‘Freckles’, with its pink-mottled white petals and evergreen leaves, are good choices too. ‘Freckles’ flowers from November to February, the ideal period to catch early queen bees emerging. Autumn is the best time to plant one of these bee-friendly climbers in a south-facing spot.
Finally, that long-time favourite for window boxes and winter planters: heather. The winter-flowering varieties, such as Erica x darleyensis, will flower from November to February. If you can, be generous and create a mini Yorkshire moor in your garden, planting bold drifts on a sunny bank, where the bees will find welcome sustenance on warmer days.
So - if you’re in the market for a little autumn and winter planting, give a little thought to winter nectar. The bees will thank you for it.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer