In cold winter weather most bees are at their least active, but it is important to plant flowers that they can use for food. Honey bee numbers reduce and the remaining colony relies on its stores of honey to see it through. Meanwhile in the majority of cases the colonies of bumblebees die altogether leaving on the queens to overwinter in their nests. Having mated with males in the autumn, the queen rely on their fat reserves and a cool, dry nest to survive and only emerge when the weather is warm enough in early spring to start a new colony by laying eggs in a new nest.
For most types of solitary bee it’s a different story again with only the eggs survive in nests of sealed chambers. The eggs hatch into larvae which emerge as bees in the early spring – again when the weather is warm enough. There are some species that overwinter as adults and these can emerge during mild spells of weather throughout the winter to feed on whatever nectar and pollen they can find.
Why do bees need food in winter
But as our climate changes, the habits of our bees do too. In mild winters, honeybees can emerge from the hive to go in search of food. But if there is none readily available such activity relies on food reserves of honey. If too much of this is used in the winter, there is less available to feed the developing larvae or ‘brood’ and the colony can be weakened – sometimes more so than in a harsher winter when the bees remain torpid (less active).
In some cases – particularly in mild, city locations – the queens of some species of bumblebees are now laying eggs in new nests in October and November, with workers remaining active to feed on whatever nectar and pollen they can find. This produces can produce a new generation of queens and males in February meaning that food demand can rise drastically. And an increasing range of solitary bees also seem able to remain active over the winter too.
What are the best bee plants for early spring
So now it is more important than ever for gardeners to plants a diverse range of hardy, nectar- and pollen-rich plants that flower in winter and early spring, to provide for the needs of our bees and other early-emerging insects. These floral food sources are crucial for bees to top up their energy reserves and help them stay active.
The flowers of ivy are particularly useful in the depths of winter, but here are 9 of my late-winter and early-spring favourites that are in bloom when the bees need them. They all have easily accessible single flowers and good supplies of nectar and pollen. Which ones have you planted?
And here’s a honey bee on Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ during mild weather in February taking advantage of flowers full of nectar and pollen