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Early spring flowers for bees - Blackthorn (Sloe to you and me)

Updated: Apr 11

An often overlooked early spring flower for bees, Blackthorn is in bloom now in our hedgerows and gardens. After a cold rainy winter, I'm always pleased to see these first flowers - I'm guessing the bees are too.

Early spring flowers for bees - White blossom and black spines of blackthorn - Harry's Honey Cheltenham
The delicate blossom and wicked spines of Blackthorn - Prunus spinosa

Why do bees like blackthorn?

Blackthorn appears really early in the year. It's in flower now in mid-March - before pretty much everything in my garden except snowdrops and hellebores.

It's flowers produce nectar and pollen - just what spring bees need for energy and to make new bees! Massed together, it's many simple, single flowers are a banquet.

Honeybees, who have been hunkered down all winter, can take advantage of it. Honeybees need about 11 degrees C to fly so the weather has to be warm enough for them to get out and about.

Blackthorn blossom erupts at this time of year. Its delicate flowers appear before any leaves. Their frothiness seems at odds with all the spines that give this shrub it's Latin name - Prunus spinosa. It's a case of naughty and nice - in lots of ways.

The plants that honeybees feed on (what beekeepers call forage) is a whole topic for study. It's part of the beekeeping year we discuss on our bee keeping courses.

Honeybees are not the only visitors - short-tongued bumblebees and some mining bees like the Tawny Mining bee (Andrena fulva) also benefit.

Early spring flowers for pollinators - A tawny mining bee (Andrea fulva) - from Gilles San Martin on Flickr
Tawny mining bee - Andrena fulva - courtesy of Gilles San Martin

Unlike the super-social honeybee, the Tawny Mining bee is solitary. She nests and lives on her own.

She relies on spring shrubs like blackthorn to give her the resources she needs to raise the next generation of tawny bees. She starts to fly late in March. It's all over by June!

Other animals like blackthorn - albeit at different times of year and not for nectar/pollen.

Birds like blackthorn too

The naughty spines of blackthorn are great for birds - they keep out cats (and challenge human gardeners).

Blackthorn spreads by seeds and suckers - forming thickets in which birds can shelter and nest.

A hedge of blackthorn mixed with other prickly and fruiting shrubs (think hawthorn, holly, spindle and dog rose) can give songbirds a good choice of nest sites, cover and berries. Admittedly, this kind of wildlife hedge isn't "tidy" but I'm OK with that.

Blackthorn aka Sloe - and then there's sloe gin!

Blackthorn is related to plums and damsons. Eaten by birds (the mistle thrush, in particular) and insects, the hard little purple fruits are also collected by humans in the autumn. The fruits are incredibly bitter. They're too small and bitter to eat "raw" - but steeped over winter in gin and sugar they turn the gin a beautiful syrupy purple and enhance it's dry bite

You don't need many fruits - leave some for the creatures - to flavour a bottle of gin. Great as a winter treat or as a simple gift.

So, not just an early spring flower for bees. As I said - blackthorn: naughty and nice!

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Go to the Woodland Trust if you'd like to read more about this often overlooked shrub.


I got my information from the following sources:

  • Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland (2015), by Falk, S. - published by Bloomsbury, London

  • Plants for Bees: A Guide to the Plants that Benefit the Bees of the British Isles (2012) by W.D.J. Kirk and F.N. Howes - published by the International Bee Research Association, Cardiff

  • Gardening for Birdwatchers (2008) by M. Toms and I. and B. Wilson - published by the British Trust for Ornithology, Thetford

The picture of the little Tawny Mining bee is courtesy of Gilles San Martin on Flickr


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