Pussy Willow, Kilmarnock Willow (Salix caprea)
Willows range from small shrubs to large trees and are an important group providing nectar and pollen for bees. Depending on the variety and favourable weather, nectar and pollen can be available over a few weeks. The most common willow which grows along hedgerows, copses, railway embankments and woods is the Goat Willow. They are not fussy on soil conditions and are easy to grow with the most popular form being the Kilmarnock Willow (Salix caprea pendula) which can be found in garden centres at this time of year. Salix aegyptica is another variety which can flower as early as January and can provide a good source of forage if weather permits. In March pollen is essential for providing the bees with the protein to rear new young bees for the start of the season.
Willow can easily propagated with pencil thickness hardwood cuttings 8-10” long taken at the end of the year and planted close together in a slit trench to two thirds the depth of the stem. When rooted they can be lifted and planted where required.
Winter Heather (Erica carnea, Erica x darleyensis)
This is probably my favourite plant as it is reliably in flower from as early as late December to early May. Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis will grow quite happily in alkaline or acid soils and on mild days bees readily visit the flowers mainly for nectar and some pollen. Flower colours vary from white to many shades of pink and red.
All heathers whether they are summer or winter flowering require some maintenance by cutting the old flower heads back to just below the bottom of the flowers around mid to late April. Following t
his procedure new fresh vigorous shoots will be produced and provide flowers of high quality the following season.
This keeps the plants compact and prevents them becoming straggly. Do not cut back into old wood as heathers will not regenerate.
Gorse (Ulex europaeus)
The common gorse is very thorny and not a plant some beekeepers would want to plant in the garden. Can be used for hedging, screens or as a single shrub in the border. Gorse tends to be in flower for most months of the year and is at its best around March/April where it is a good source of pollen for bees, helping colonies build up in spring. Gorse is drought resistant, grows in poor sandy soils and has the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. It can be seen on many heathland areas where it can become invasive. If grown in rich soils it can become leggy and will need regular pruning to keep it compact.
It also provides protection, a good nesting habitat and safe haven for breeding small birds.
Other plants still providing some forage for bees if the January weather is favourable are, Mahonia, and some varieties of Viburnum.
Viburnum x bodnantense
Several related species of Viburnum are of value to bees for pollen on warm fine winter days. Frost resistant strong growing shrub with fragrant pink flowers appearing from late November to March.
Mahonia, Oregon Grape (Mahonia Aquifolium)
Mahonia is an evergreen shrub with holly like leaves that produces yellow racemes of fragrant flowers from November to March. Several species and varieties are available and in warm weather bees will work the flowers for nectar and pollen.
Large overgrown specimens can be cut back in early spring after flowering and will produce new growth that will flower the following autumn/winter.
Ivy (Hedera helix)
Ivy is an important source of nectar and pollen to honeybees at this time of year. Flowering late September to November and if warm enough flowers may still be found until late on in the year for bees to forage on. Pollen is consumed by workers in the autumn to enlarge the hypopharyngeal glands and fat bodies, allowing longer life of the winter bee.
Research has shown that honeybees going into winter with low levels of protein in their fat bodies have :
- Shorter lives.
- Are susceptible to Nosema and EFB.
- Don’t winter well and the colony is likely to suffer from spring dwindling as nurse bees require protein to produce brood food.
by Stuart Hatton