Bee Forage Facts

When Bees Most Need Pollen and Nectar

There are specific times of the year when the bees are particularly struggling to find the forage plants they need and it is important that we try to provide what we can for them during these times. Here is a brief guide:

Early in the year, from the end of February bees need to find plenty of good quality pollen and nectar This enables the colony to bring pollen into the hive which actually and directly stimulates the queen to lay eggs; the amount of pollen brought in is directly related to the number of eggs she lays – more pollen, more eggs. It is also believed that while bees struggle to find this vital pollen early in the year, the queen will delay egg-laying and this will adversely affect the size of colony later in the season, therefore limiting their future ability to gather enough nectar to produce greater stores of honey. But they also need nectar early in the year for energy (to fuel their pollen-gathering). Here is a list of plants starting with some that flower as late as December, and as early as January. Some of these are normally February flowering, but increasingly we are seeing these earlier in the South of UK It is good to bear in mind that all bees could be flying and looking for forage on potentially any day during winter if the temperature at their hive entrance rises to 10 degrees C or above:

Here is a small selection of valuable pollen-producing bee plants for this early time of year:

• Alnus glutinos a (Alder) produces only pollen. Sadly now lacking in the wild.

• Chaenomeles japonica and speciosa (Quince, and single-flowered cultivars, also have edible fruit).

• Corylus avellana, C.maxima (Hazels). Grows wild in hedges, flowers well when left untrimmed every other year.

• Crocus chrysanthus Crocus species with many cultivars – Nectar & Pollen from Mid Jan to late March.

• Eranthus hyemalis (Winter Aconite) – ideal companion for snowdrops and crocuses, and excellent in the wild garden – Nectar and Pollen.

• Eranthus cilicicus Similar to hyemalis, though less invasive – Nectar & Pollen.

• Erysimum cheiri (syn Cheiranthus cheiri) – Wallflower. The wild form can flower any time of the year. They have several flushes in a season. Ideal rockery plant.

• Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrop) – Nectar & Pollen in Jan, Feb, March and April.

• Hedera helix (Common Ivy) – though will not flower for perhaps fifteen years, so it is pointless to plant this in your garden. Bees will find it in the wild (what’s left of the wild)!

• Helleborus niger (Christmas Rose) and H. foetidus, H. argutifolius – Nectar & Pollen from December.

• Lamium purpureum (Wild Deadnettle) – Nectar & Pollen in semi-shade. Can flower February or earlier. Is also a major bumblebee flower. They bore a hole for easier access to nectar, and honeybees can take advantage of this. Grows wild anywhere and should be left by gardeners.

• Mahonia japonica (Mahonia) – Nectar & Pollen Jan to March. Prolific producer! Can flower in shady places, large and spiky but flowers all winter into spring).

• Prunus myrobalan syn. P. cerasifera (Cherry Plum) – Rosaceae. Produces Pollen and Nectar for many types of bees, including Honeybees. Flowers March-April.

• Salix caprea (Goat Willow) and other salix spp. –- Nectar & Pollen Feb-March. Grows wild in abundance where there are uncut hedges.

• Sarcococca hookeriana (a Winter Box) – Pollen and Nectar between November – December.

• Ulex europaeus (Common Gorse) – (do not buy cultivars with double blooms) – Nectar & Pollen, on almost every day of the year! Grows wild on moorland.

• Viburnum foetens (fragrant flowers from mid winter to early spring)

• Virburnum tinus (Laurustinus) – Pollen and Nectar, November – May.

The ‘June-Gap’ is a time of dearth of flowering plants between spring flowering plants and summer flowering plants, yet the colony is almost at a peak in numbers so actually need even more pollen and nectar. Here are some excellent bee plants for this time of dearth:

• Allium schoenoprasum (Chives) mauve flowers June-July, and we can enjoy the leaves.

• Borago officinalis (Borage) an annual, abundant in nectar.

• Cornfield Annual Wildflowers (Cornflower, Common Knapweed, Corn Marigold, Wild Poppy, Corn Cockle, Corn Chamomile), depending on when these are sown, but most will peak in June. A mix of pollen and nectar.

• Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn) Produces Pollen and Nectar, which is very good in some years depending on adequate rainfall. Flowers May, June.

• Cytissus scoparius (Broom) Produces Nectar and Pollen in profusion for all Bees especially Honeybees. Flowers May, June.

• Elaeagnus angustifolia (Wild Olive) June flowering, nitrogen fixing tree to companion plant in orchards.

• Leptospermum scoparium (Manuka) its first flush is in June, and often again in December.

• Phacelia tanacetifolia (Phacelia, Green manure) but do let it flower at least until the end of June before incorporating.

• Raspberry June flowering, several good cultivars, abundant in nectar.

• Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion) the humble weed, – please learn to love it!

• Verbascum spp., (Verbascum)Tall yellow biennial producing copious amounts of pollen which bees love.

• Viburnum opulus (Cramp Bark) our native hedgerow tree, too often cut back unable to flower, so make sure every other year it is left uncut.

Summer months are times bee colony numbers are very high. Therefore bees do need to find copious amount of forage throughout the rest of the summer. It has been shown by research done by Professor Francis Ratnieks, a leading UK apiculturist, that July and August are the months in which bees are struggling to find nectar – and so we should all be looking for garden plants that are prolific nectar producers in the summer, such as:

• Agastache foeniculum (Anise Hyssop) is a top nectar producing plant.

• Borago officinalis (Borage) a top nectar and pollen producing annual.

• Lavandula angustifolia (English Lavender) a major honey plant, also its essential oil may contribute towards reducing Varroa destructor mites in honeybee colonies.

• Origanum vulgare (Wild oregano or Marjoram) or the sub-species hirtum-Greek Oregano.

• Echium vulgare (Viper’s Bugloss) a top native nectar producing biennial.

• Hebe elliptica (Hebe) New Zealand’s most popular Hebe with the bees, hence our name for it Bee Hebe.

• Leonurus cardiaca (Motherwort) – this is probably our top native nectar producing plant.

• Solidago virgaurea (Woundwort-Goldenrod) our Europe-native one, masses of pollen and nectar!

• Tilia cordata (Lime Tree) our native small-leaved species of which we need more in the UK. Flowers July and August.

• Valeriana officinalis (Valerian) An excellent native plant, really makes the bees placid with its hypnotic fragrance, as it does us with its traditional herbal remedy.

Autumn-flowering plants are equally important, as it enables bees to build up fat and protein reserves to survive winter. Here are some excellent plants to help them build up these vital reserves:

• Agastache foeniculum (Anise Hyssop) a wonder bee plant; one acre of this is said to support 100 hives, flowering July-September.

• Allium schoenoprasum (Chives) Produces Pollen and Nectar for a wide range of bees including Honeybees. Flowers July, August, September, October.

• Arbutus unedo (Strawberry Tree) Produces Pollen and Nectar for bees. Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) can develop huge autumn populations solely on the pollen of this species. Nectar is consumed by many bees including Honeybees. Flowers September-November.

• Borago officinalis (Borage or Starflower) Produces Pollen and Nectar prolifically for bees. Flowers June, July, August, September, October.

• Calluna vulgaris (Heather/Ling Heather) Produces Nectar and Pollen for Honeybees, Bumblebees and many solitary bees which build their nests in areas of Heather. Flowers July, August, September, October, November.

• Cynara scolymus (Artichoke, Globe ‘Imperial Star’) Produces Nectar and Pollen for Bees, including Honeybees and butterflies. Flowers August, September.

• Echium vulgare (Viper’s Bugloss) Produces Pollen and Nectar in abundance for many Bumblebees and Honeybees, Butterflies, flies. Flowering months: July, August, September, October.

• Lavandula angustifolia (English Lavender) flowers July-September, also its essential oil may contribute towards reducing Varroa destructor mites in honeybee colonies.

• Leonurus Cardiac (Motherwort) Produces Pollen and Nectar in abundance for many types of bees, especially attractive to Honeybees. Flowers July, August, September.

• Nepeta cataria (Catmint) Produces Pollen and Nectar for many types of bees but particularly attractive to Honeybees. Flowers July-November.

• Solidago vigaurea (Golden rod) a top bee plant abundant in Nectar and Pollen.