As each day gets longer, even though there's snow on the ground, the year has turned. Spring is on the way and nature's getting busy!
For lots of us, this is a weird time of year. Christmas has gone and there's only cold and darkness ahead. This year, that feeling seems particularly strong. But, the winter solstice is behind us so in reality - it's only getting better. Longer days mean that chattering birds are starting to sing. They're pairing up and before long, they'll be building nests. Things are changing for our honeybees too. Although it's still too cold for most species of bee to be out, honeybee are different.
It might be cold and snowy but January and February aren't quite as bleak as they seem - the flowers are coming!
Honeybees are active in their hive all year round. Last summer the hive worked to gather nectar and make honey - their energy store for the 6 months of the year when there are no flowers. As flowers disappeared, the honeybee queen laid fewer and fewer eggs. By the autumn, the numbers of bees in the hive had dropped from about 60,000 to around 10,000. These 10,000 are winter bees. They keep the hive ticking over - using the stored honey to generate heat so they and their queen can survive the winter months. They venture outside only rarely as its just too cold. The queen will lay few if any eggs. The bees are in lockdown.
As spring comes, there are more and more warm days. Above about 8-10 degrees the bees are able to survive outside and so they'll start to fly. They are not looking for nectar though - they don't need it because they have their honey stores. Sometimes they'll be out looking for water but, if they find flowers, they're also looking for pollen. Pollen is a bee's "meat and two veg". The winter bees don't need it for themselves - they need it to make new bees. They might have stored some pollen in the hive but it doesn't keep very well and fresh pollen is much better. They'll feed it to the queen and she will start to lay. As these spring bees grow, the winter bees will feed them pollen too. More spring flowers = more spring bees.
Eventually, the winter bees will be replaced entirely by the spring bees. The spring bees are physically different. They are better able to gather pollen/nectar and to raise new bees. By mid-May there might be as many as 20,000 bees in the hive and the hive will be getting bigger every day - gearing up for the summer season's nectar gathering.
So, if the weather is warm enough and flowers are out, the winter bees may well find them. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are an early spring classic. They are a good source of pollen, which is bright orange, and a little nectar. When collecting pollen, the honeybee pushes its head, front and middle legs into the flower. It clings to the petal with its hind legs and brushes the flowers anthers with the front legs - sweeping the pollen into the pollen baskets on its hind legs. They flower early, too early for bumblebees.
Hellebores are another good source of early pollen for honeybees. Depending on the species they flower from December to March. The first is the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) - guess when? But although this looks lovely in the garden centre, it's a real victim to black leaf spot - unless you're happy to spray lots of fungicide, I'd give it a miss. Much better is the Lenten rose (Helleborus orentalis) and its many hybrids. These come in a beautiful range of colours and markings. They're OK if you don't spray (but not immune!). They'll flower from February onwards. On fine days they buzz with honeybees.
Helleborus orientalis isn't native, as you can guess. We have 2 native hellebores. The green hellebore (Helleborus viridis) and the stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus). They are wild plants and so have an understated beauty but from a gardening point of view, their green flowers are a bit too retiring. They also have long stems and so are prone to flop. For most gardens I'd suggest the Lenten rose and its hybrids - they look good and are pretty maintenance free. If you are thinking of a wildlife garden and have space/woodland edge, check out the natives. The books say the hellebores are helpful to bumblebees - I think this probably relates to the natives as they flower late enough to catch the bumbles.
WHY AVOID THE DOUBLE?
Snowdrops and hellebores are beautiful garden plants. Both come in single and double varieties. The doubles often have ruffs of extra petals or other "complications". They can look amazing - but from a bee perspective, they score 0 points. The ruffs on hellebore flowers have been produced by plant breeders who have co-opted "useful" parts of the flower to make extra petals. These look lovely to us but the flowers have become useless to the bees. Similarly, complicated snowdrops have lost their useful parts or are simply too difficult for the bees to get into. If you want to help bees, in both cases, go for simple open flowers with one ring of petals.