It’s an excellent thing to grow winter-flowering plants. They not only lift the spirits, especially placed close to paths, gates and doorways, they are vital to early-flowering species of bumble bee that hibernate without any food reserves at all. First to appear are the large queens of the buff-tailed bumble bee, Bombus terrestris, usually in early January on clement days when the temperature reaches 10C.
These large bees immediately begin to search for a supply of nectar to replenish their energy levels in order to start their new colony. Your early flowers will sustain these important pollinators - hopefully helping to avert further decline.
Good early bee-pleasers include the smaller-flowered species crocus, with goblet-shaped flowers that trap warm air thereby encouraging nectar flow. ‘Cream Beauty’ and the purple and white ‘Prince Claus’ are both excellent. Cyclamen coum and the winter aconite Eranthis hyemalis will also thrive in sunny, well-drained locations.
The oriental hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus) will provide colourful saucers of flower and is far easier than the pure-white Christmas rose (Helleborus niger). Oriental hellebores prefer dappled shade in summer, so position them near or under deciduous shrubs and trees. If you have a south-facing wall, the evergreen clematis, ‘Freckles’ will produce pendent red-spotted white flowers to gaze up to. These will please you and the early-flying bees.
Find out how to create a bee-friendly garden
Other woodlanders could include a dwarf Lady’s Smock with purple flowers, Cardamine quinquifolia. This five-leaved, low-growing plant appears with the hellebores in most springs, spreading to form a mauve carpet before retreating back underground as quuickly as it came. Add an early pulmonaria and the pinkish red flowers of P. rubra are always first, although this plain-leaved plant needs lots of room. If space is tighter try the silver-leaved 'Majesté, or the violet-flowered ‘Diana Clare’. Pulmonarias are members of the Borage family and their flowers are very rich in nectar. Other members, such as comfrey (Symphytum), Anchusa and Forget-me-not (Myosotis), are equally nectar-rich - although they flower later.
Many early-spring flowering bulbs prefer a woodland setting. Opt for those with simply-shaped flowers, not the petal-packed doubles. Simple narcissi, single-flowered snowdrops and wood anemones are all perfect. Hybrid snowdrops are more vigorous than the most commonly found form (Galanthus nivalis). ‘Magnet’ is sterile and cannot set seed, but it bulks up strongly, forming good clumps quickly. The flowers of ‘Magnet’ are suspended on wiry pedicels which seem to make each flower dance. ‘S. Arnott’ is also commonly available and this tall, honey-scented snowdrop has large pearl-drop flowers that rise above neat green foliage. The greyer-leaved Galanthus elwesii prefers more sunlight, but the large bulbs produce boldly marked flowers very early in the year, usually before the others.
Snowdrops go well with the small grey-blue Scilla mischtschenkoana. This easily-grown bulb pokes its starry flowers just above the ground early on. Short miniature narcissi also tend to flower earlier and they match the scale of hellebores and scillas much better than taller varieties. ‘W.P. Milner’, an old and rugged variety, looks very like a nodding wild daffodil with its pale-yellow outers and slightly darker trumpet. For more vibrance go for ‘Jetfire’ which is a jaunty yellow daffodil with a reddish-orange trumpet. Both varieties are strong enough to push up through grass.
More early plants for bees
Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’
This non-climbing shrubby honeysuckle can flower in January, producing cream flowers packed with nectar. It is untidy in habit, but given space by a gate it is highly fragrant - flowering just as the leaves emerge.
Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica
Another evergreen clematis suitable for a south-facing wall. The greenish-white flowers lightly spotted in maroon are subtler than ‘Freckles’ and they appear later, usually in late January. These evergreen early-flowering clematis are only lightly tidied after flowering - if they need it. Do not hard prune.
Helleborus ‘Anna’s Red’
This new, rich-red hellebore has large leaves with a marbled pink metallic sheen. It took Rodney Davey of RD Plants in Devon twelve years to combine red flowers and marbled foliage. There is also a pink named ‘Penny’s Pink’. Both are excellent plants that will attract the bees.
Crocus sieberi subsp. sublimis 'Tricolor'
This is probably the earliest crocus of all, producing purple, white and yellow flowers by January. It’s often seen poking through snow.
Why can the bumble bee fly so early in the year?
Bumblebees are able to fly in cool temperatures because they are able to rev-up their flight motors chemically. This allows them to fly in cool weather, unlike the honey bee. In fact, five species of bumblebee actually thrive within the Arctic Circle.
Why are bumble bees so important?
Bumble bees pollinate our earliest crops and these include currants, broad beans, gooseberries and early fruit trees. The bumble bee has the ability to buzz pollinate flowers. It literally shakes the stubborn pollen down by buzzing enthusiastically inside the flower. Some plants (like tomatoes and other members of the solanum family) can only be pollinated in this way.
Bumblebees are much more likely to browse from one flower to another, whereas honey bees go back and forth to the same plant systematically. This ability to browse makes bumble bees excellent garden pollinators.
Britain and Ireland’s twenty-five native species of bumblebee are in decline. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a relatively new charity founded in 2006, informs us that three species have already become nationally extinct. Fifteen more have undergone major range contractions and five are now designated UKBAP (UK Biodiversity Action Plan) species in recognition of their precarious situation. Two more are scheduled for inclusion. Several species face extinction unless action is taken. For more information go to www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk
With the demise of wild flowers in the open countryside happening before our very eyes, our gardens have become vital conservation sites. We must save our bumblebees - without them our crops would fail and our plants would never set seed.
The most attractive flowers for bumblebees
Saucers - mallows, hollyhocks and most hardy geraniums
Borage family - pulmonarias, comfreys and echiums
Pincushions - scabious, knautias and cephalarias
Thistles - cardoons and globe artichokes,
Tubular bells - penstemons, foxglove, catmints
Herbs - lavenders, sages, origanums and thymes
Annuals - blue cornflower (Centuarea cynara) phacelia
Daisies - echinaceas, anthemis and asters
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