Wild Flowers for Bees

by CHARLOTTE DU CANN

This is a wild flower list primarily for honeybees. Honeybees “work” flowers in a different way from bumble and other wild bees. They like to visit a stand of one species of flower at a time, rather than hop from one kind of flower to another. They also have a shorter proboscis which means they can access a smaller range of flowers than bumble bees. Flowers which require deeper probing, for example buddleia and honeysuckle, are inaccessible to honeybees, unless their bases have been pierced previously by other insects.

Certain species of flowers provide food for honeybees – for themselves and the brood, as well as winter stores. In addition to seeking nectar (sugars and essential minerals) and pollen (protein and fat) from flowers, bees are also on the lookout for propolis made from the gummy substances of plants, such as poplar and horse chestnut buds, pine resin and sunflowers. Bees also collect honeydew, the sweet substance exuded from sap-eating insects (e.g aphids) on trees, principally lime and pines. This provides the dark, strong tasting tree honeys, much loved in Europe.

This list has been compiled to bring attention to those wild flowers that have fed honeybees for millions of years. Like all creatures the vegetarian bees flourish best on a varied diet of wild plants. Though they visit the crops growing on agricultural land, from apple orchards and oil rape fields, it is the native or naturalised wild plants growing in uncontaminated soil that keep them in optimum health (and yield the best honey!). So you can really help the bee by protecting wild flowers and trees everywhere and allowing or planting some of the following species in your gardens and backyards:-

Winter quiet

 Though the main emphasis is on keeping the hive at a warm and even temperature and preparing the brood, emerging snowdrops and winter aconites will be sought out by worker bees foraging on mild and sunny days. Pollen is collected from the early flowering hazel and alder catkins.

Spring Activity (March-May)

In March the hive really starts to buzz as the Queen starts to lay and focus ison supplying the expanding brood with nectar and pollen. The hedgerows

are the first to burst into flower, beginning with cherry plum (sometimes as early as Feb) and ending with hawthorn in mid-May. All blossoms are widely visited by bees including blackthorn, cherry, plum, damson, bullace and crab apple. Other trees that are widely visited are the horse chestnut for its nectar and sycamore for its pollen. Key Spring tree for the pollen is pussy willow. If you stand underneath a willow tree in March you can hear the whole world buzzing.

Meanwhile closer to ground on the verges, before the first cut at the beginning of May, the bees are out seeking wild strawberries, forget-me-not and garlicky jack-in-the-hedge, and in the woods bugle, and the neglected but fine old world medicine plant, figwort. Out on the heath and scrublands the whole hive is making a bee-line to the shocking yellow pea-flowers of gorse, followed in May by the broom. March and April are the best months for their favourite composite flower that grows just about everywhere, the dandelion.

Note on weeds! In Spring weeds are going for it and reaching for the sky, as every keen gardener laments. However bees love weeds, especially those troublesome and untidy thistles and dandelions, so do leave some of those sunny flower-heads in your path for them. And cultivate a taste for a “French lawn” sprinkled with daisies, white clover and self-heal.   

 

comfrey on the verge

June Gap

This is the month where the hive is at its most active but there are few blossoms on the trees (Holly is the exception here) and few large stands of flowers. “Arable weeds” such as field poppies, viper’s bugloss and cornflowers were traditionally in their height this month before pesticides came to the fields and white clover, perhaps the bees’ top-ranking nectar flower, has been equally reduced in the meadows. However these flowers still grow in the margins where they can (and in bee lovers’ gardens). Opium poppies spring up in the wastelands everywhere this month and are avidly worked by bees for their (blue) pollen.

Other key wild flowers out now are the wild dog rose and common mallow in the hedgerows, bell heather in the heathlands, thyme in the hilly places and tree mallow by the sea. The sky-blue meadow cranesbill is also much sought out by bees, as are fruit “bushes” such as the moorland bilberry and woodland wild raspberry.

  Harvest Months (July – September) 

 These are the months the bees start building their store cupboard. The Queen is still busy laying, but the honeycombs are being stocked for the future months, as well as for the brood. Big nectar trees are the three species of lime that flower early in July and blackberry. The ditches and waste places are rich places for foraging bees in high summer, as meadow sweet, St John’s wort, evening primrose, teasel, great mullein, chicory, and the highly attractive rosebay willowherb and the melilots (white and yellow) all start to flower. All species of thistles are highly valued, especially the fragrant creeping thistle.

    

Down by the river the showy purple loosestrife is now at its peak, alongside great willowherb, Himalayan balsam and water mint. At the seaside the prickly scented flowers of sea-holly are visited by all bees and small butterflies, such as common blue and coppers, as is sea lavender in the salt marsh.

ling on the heath

Later in the season the purple-headed knapweeds come into play on the verges, with stands of yellow common toadflax and goldenrod. By late August heather (ling) is blazing on heaths and hilltops everywhere (its nectar yielding the much prized heather honey).

Fall to Winter The brood is diminishing and the focus is on preparing the hive for winter. By October the Queen is only laying in good weather and the drones are evicted. Outside the hive, the sturdy knapweeds are still flowering in the hedgerows and meadows, as are the sea asters in the marshlands. The main destination for bees (and all insects) however is the ivy. This green plant that climbs along walls and up trees everywhere is in full flower until the frosts. Though some wild plants flower further into the winter (chickweed, yarrow) the ivy marks the end of the  bee flower year . . . until the hazel flowers at the beginning of January.

hazel catkins

photos: pasque flower, bluebells and forget-me-nots; Dunwich snowdrops; blackthorn and Danish scurvy grass; gorse, dandelion field, poet’s narcissus; white clover and making frames for the Flixton hives; looking at bees among the toadflax on the verge.

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