Winter flowers and bumblebees

Posted: Friday 22 November 2013
by Kate Bradbury

While cold, there has not yet been a frost in this part of London. This means there are still a few plants in flower in my garden... There's plenty here for winter bees.

Mahonia lomariifolia

Last month I wrote about the common carder bumblebee, whose raggedy workers were still visiting my garden. They have gone now – mated daughter queens will be hibernating in holes in the ground, beneath leaf litter, in compost bins or in other dry, out-of-the-way places. The original queens who founded this years’ nests will be dead, along with the workers who foraged nectar and pollen for their siblings, and the males who played their part in next year’s generation.

Now all I see are flies and common wasps, but I’m keeping an eye out for the first of the winter bumblebees.

In recent years, mostly in the south of the UK, buff-tailed bumblebee queens and workers have been seen increasingly in winter. They forage on winter flowers such as mahonia, winter honeysuckle and clematis. According to Professor Dave Goulson, founder of Bumblebee Conservation Trust and author of A Sting in the Tale, these bumblebees are emerging from hibernation about four months early, and building nests so their workers are on the wing in December and January. “The key seems to be garden flowers”, he says, “they seem to have adapted to make use of this new food source.”   

Research into the phenomenon suggests that winter-active bumblebees are at least as successful as those in summer. It’s thought that, because there are fewer bees around there is less competition for food, and so workers make shorter journeys and return to the nest with a good supply of pollen and nectar. The best thing we gardeners can do for them is to grow winter-flowering plants.

While cold, there has not yet been a frost in this part of London. This means there are still a few plants in flower in my garden. As well as Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ (which never seems to be out of flower), I also have Salvia ‘Hot Lips’, cosmos, honeysuckle ‘Graham Thomas’ and a rogue hellebore that started flowering a week ago.

In the neighbourhood I’ve seen jasmine (Jasminum officinale), roses, Verbena bonariensis, passion flower and rudbeckia still in bloom. These will die down as soon as the frosts come, but they will be replaced by true winter-flowering plants – winter honeysuckle, clematis and mahonia. Despite planting Clematis ‘Freckles’ in my garden four years ago it still hasn’t flowered, but there’s a lovely one coming into bloom now, in a neighbouring garden. There’s a good supply of mahonia in the park. There’s plenty here for winter bees.

If you see any bumblebees foraging this winter, please let BWARS know. This will help scientists track the spread of winter bumblebees, as well as monitor their success.

What’s still flowering in your garden?

Discuss this blog post

Talkback: Winter flowers and bumblebees
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oldchippy 22/11/2013 at 13:45

I still have flower on my Hebe and the Mahonia has just started to flower I haven't seen any flower on the Hellebore yet. Oldchippy.

flowersforbees 22/11/2013 at 14:00

Are you still seeing bumblebees O ldchippy?  I haven't seen any since the

first frost here and I don't think I have any hibernating in my bee box .

flowering rose 22/11/2013 at 16:23

I think you ll find hibernate in winter.

flowersforbees 22/11/2013 at 21:17

Thanks Flowering Rose.....Thought I'd sent this earlier to you....too

much red wine again!!

Roy Hill 22/11/2013 at 23:12

This spring the bumbles appreciated the mahonia aquifolium. What I have also seen in the past is that blue tits are attracted to some (not all) Mahonia x media types. I think they also are taking advantage.

Talking of frosts - minus 5 this evening, sparkly brrrrr. I wonder when the redwings and fieldfares will arrive.

What is still flowering in the garden? Nothing, bar some violas. The frosts will nip back their flowers, but they'll produce odd blooms in milder spells. The rest is being reduced to structural bones. The larch has shed the vast majority of its needles, the beech has lost most of its leaves. The birches cling to a few yellowing leaves, the berberis leaves are taking on a deeper hue of red so there is still colour scattered around.

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