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A winter larder for bees

Posted by Miranda Hodgson on 10 Nov 2009 at 10:33 PM

The days are shortening so rapidly now, darkness seeping into the sky a little earlier each day. Only two weeks ago, the air still felt warm and it seemed that autumn could last for many weeks to come, but now, with the arrival of the short days, it truly feels that the first days of winter are with us.


Look around your garden, though, and you’ll see that whilst many summer flowering perennial plants in the garden are going dormant, or have already retreated below ground, there are still a surprising number of bees and flies about, and even a few butterflies on sunny days. Walk about your garden on a sunny winter’s day and you shouldn’t be surprised to hear the buzzing of a bumblebee or to see the shiny body of a honey bee as it sits warming itself in the winter sun.

In recent years, more bees are staying awake during the winter months, perhaps because they have interbred with non-hibernating European bees. No one is quite sure yet why they aren’t hibernating, but whatever the reason is, if they are flying about in winter they will need something to eat if they are to live until spring. What can we do to help?

There are a number of plants that will flower all winter long in your garden and these will help to sustain wakeful bees and other nectar-seeking insects that wake up during warm periods and go looking for a meal. 


Plants that flower in winter often have a strong scent in order to attract the insects that seek them out and this scent is generally attractive to us as well, being sweetly uplifting during the darkest and coldest months. Putting in a selection of winter flowering plants will help to feed bees over winter and will in turn mean that the plants which produce berries are pollinated, meaning more food for the wildlife that eat them, such as birds and field mice.  My two favourite shrubs for attracting winter-flying bees are Sarcococca confusa and Mahonia x media. For small spaces and containers, winter flowering pansies and heathers, Cyclamen coum, snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) will all provide food for bees as well as brightening your garden.


sue1002 said:

Congratulations on your first RHS blog Miranda.  We still have some bees about in the garden here - a huge bumble bee was hovvering around the Cyclamen in one of the window boxes yesterday and a much smaller bee was sucking the dew off an apple on the tree this morning.

on 11 Nov 2009 at 02:38 PM

EvaInNL said:

Lovely blog! Never really thought about winter bees and where they got their food from, shall do so from now on..

on 11 Nov 2009 at 02:48 PM

richardpeeej said:

I found this blog fascinating Miranda as I did not know about the European Bees not hibernating-(we saw a wasp flying around the garden and thought it was a bit unusual-may be a sign of warmer autumns/winters?).I bought some wild bird seed and a feeder when we were out shopping today but never gave a thought about bees as I thought they weren't around. Your suggestions about fragrant plants that attract and feed bees sounds a good tip for winter colour and a help to pollenating insects at this time of year. I say "if we look after them when times are hard then they will come back and help us when we need them for pollenating our fruit and veg next season". :-) Richard  

on 11 Nov 2009 at 02:52 PM

miranda said:

Gosh, I've got comments! Thanks everyone! So glad you liked it and that you found it interesting. I think birds are the subject for next time.

on 11 Nov 2009 at 04:24 PM

johnhodgson said:

So interesting!   I had often wondered why some plants produce flowers to attract insects in the depths of winter when there aren't any about,   Now I see I should have looked harder!   Thanks Miranda.

on 11 Nov 2009 at 05:44 PM

BB said:

Congratulations Miranda. Very interesting and beautifully written.

on 12 Nov 2009 at 11:05 AM

miranda said:

Thank you BB and John (aka my lovely dad!). No excuses now, you know - you'll have to get out and do some planting!

on 12 Nov 2009 at 11:15 AM

pushkin said:

Such an interesting article, thank you Miranda.  I have told Spiny and beeman about this article.  I'm sure they'll be fascinated, as I am.

on 12 Nov 2009 at 07:34 PM

pushkin said:

Fascinating and informative article.  Thank you very much Miranda.

on 12 Nov 2009 at 07:35 PM

Miranda Hodgson said:

Hello pushkin! Lovely to see you, thanks for coming by! I wonder what beeman will have to say?

on 13 Nov 2009 at 10:51 AM

Foxnfirefly said:

I read your piece today and enjoyed it very much!  You are a talented writer and photographer!  Keep up the good work, Miranda!!

on 16 Nov 2009 at 04:36 AM

Miranda Hodgson said:

Thanks, Foxnfirefly! It's good to see you posting again, by the way.

on 16 Nov 2009 at 05:05 PM

valerie said:

Hi there Miranda.Just found your really interesting piece. I am am having an exhibition of British Bees in London (paintings) in June and I blog about it all as I go, so love to find interesting info. I did not know that the interbreeding was causing the bees to stop hibernating. And I guess this hard winter will have  affected them quite badly.(I am currently in the USA in Florida where we have had a dreadfully cold wet winter) but I see on BWARS that there are quite a few bumblebees around now. Lovely to find you.


on 19 Mar 2010 at 11:42 PM

Miranda Hodgson said:

Thanks, Valerie. I don't know if that is the actual cause of bees not hibernating, or if it's the milder winters we've had, but it's certainly a possibility. I have seen quite a few bees about already this year and it will be interesting to see how they fare this year.

I had a look at your blog and think your paintings and drawings are absolutely delightful. It was a real pleasure to look at them. You have a beautiful talent there.

on 20 Mar 2010 at 11:19 AM