Bees in Winter
11th November 2020

There are many ways in which you can help bees during the winter months. In the Southern, more built-up parts of the UK, some species of bumblebee are now nesting in the winter and rely on garden forage to keep them going.

 

1. Active winter bumblebees - Queen Bumblebees usually hibernate during the cold winter months. Once the worker bees and males have died off in the autumn, the new queen finds a suitable site, then huddles down for the long winter. Their life cycle is different to honeybees, (which overwinter in the hive and eat honey reserves for fuel, only flying on warmer days). Now our winters are getting warmer, some bumblebee species are starting new nests instead and need winter-flowering plants for pollen and nectar.

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Buff-tailed bumblebee foraging on Sarcococca hookeriana - January 2020 

2. Winter-flowering plants, trees and shrubs - Whatever the size of your garden, patio or window box, there are many plants, bulbs, shrubs and trees that you can add to support active bees in winter time.

- For smaller gardens, patios, balconies and window boxes the following plants are perfect (compact shrubs can be grown in pots): Heather (ericas), Winter Hellebores, Snowdrops, Winter crocus, Cyclamen, Winter Jasmine (climber), Sarcococca, Mahonia, Viburnum tinus, Clematis cirrhosa (climber), Winter Aconites, Winter Daphne, Winter honeysuckle (climber). In addition, for larger gardens, the following shrubs and trees: Witch Hazel, Winter Hazel, Cornelian cherry.

 I grow Mahonia 'Oregon grape', Sarcococca hookeriana and Vibernum tinus successfully in pots in my own garden. They attract buff-tailed bumblebees in the winter and afterwards produce lots of lovely dark berries which feed different birds. These shrubs also enjoy a shady spot, so perfect for the darker winter days and will cheer up your garden with gorgeous scents and lots of wildlife. Shop winter-flowering plants

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Buff-tailed bumblebees/ Honeybee foraging on Mahonia (Winter Sun) and Heather (erica) - January/February 2020 

Autumn is a great time to sow wildflower seed, plant bulbs and other perennials that will flower during the late winter or the following spring: Muscari, Alliums, Crocus, Snowdrops* and Native bluebells (make sure these are from a reputable supplier and not taken illegally from the wild). *These bulbs may be more successful planted ‘in the green’ in the spring. Ajuga Reptans (bugle) is a superplant for bumblebees, which can be grown during the winter (ideally in a cold frame), then planted out in spring.

Carder bumblebee foraging on Ajuga reptans
(Bugle) - April 2019 

3. Nesting and hibernating sites for Bumblebees - Queen bumblebees look for new places to hibernate after mating in the late summer months. They will usually hibernate, burrowed into loose soil, banks of earth or under piles of logs/stones. Nesting bumblebee sites include holes in the ground, grass tussocks, bird boxes, old mouse nests and under garden sheds.

- You can help to create potential habitats for hibernating bumblebees by making a log-pile, rockery or bank of earth in a North-facing part of your garden. If the area receives too much sun or warmth they may wake early out of hibernation.

4. Solitary bees - There are nearly 250 species of solitary bee in the UK. They nest in holes in the ground, wall cavities, bee houses/hotels, plant stems and even empty snail shells!   The solitary bees that will potentially nest in a bee house are ‘Cavity nesting bees’. These include species such as: Leafcutter, Red mason and Wool carder bees. In the wild they will make their homes out of dry, hollow stems of wildflowers or dead plants, earth banks or old beetle holes in dead wood. They lay their eggs in the tubes and seal the ends with saliva and chewed leaves, mud or fine leaf hairs, depending on the species.

- If you have a bee house or hotel, place it in a sheltered spot or in a cold shed/garage. This will protect it from the rain - stopping wet and mould getting inside, which may kill any baby bee cocoons. Moving it inside will also protect it from birds pecking inside the tubes. It can be placed back outside just before the Spring for the new bees to emerge.

- Instead of chopping dead perennial stems right down in your garden, leave them alone during the winter, as they could have a solitary bee nest in them, (as well as other overwintering insects). The Small carpenter bee (Ceratina cyanea) actually nests and hibernates in dead bramble stems.

 

The solitary bees that nest in the ground are called ‘Mining bees’. (Andrena species). These include species such as: Tawny mining bee, Ashy mining bee and the Early mining bee. A typical nest may look like a volcano shaped mound of earth in the ground.

- Avoid digging in your garden where you may have seen solitary mining bees during the summer months. There may be a nest underground.

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