Happy New Year IBCP Followers!
We made it through 2022 and are already flying towards February!
As I wake before dawn I can hear the birds singing. Despite the bitter cold, spring is coming! But the nights are still long and cold, and birds must eat to keep up fat reserves. At my day job, bird seed is flying off the shelves; it’s great to see the community is looking to support our birds.
And what of our other pollinators, like bees? In the depths of January, you’re not going to see bees, or hear them. But they are there, and each species handles winter differently.
- Honey bees handle winter like I do, they huddle together to keep warm. Honey bees vibrate their wings to create heat, with the queen at the center enjoying temperatures of around 35C!
- Bumble bees and solitary bees cope with winter how I wish I could, they overwinter. In essence, they hibernate. Only bumble bee queens overwinter.
- Solitary bees make up around 80% of Ireland’s bee species—and they’re so diverse that how they spend their winter can look different. Their life cycles play a role in this. Some solitary bees overwinter as adults. While other solitary bees will be only eggs or at the larvae or the pupae stage through the winter.
For bees, their active season is between March to September. So, we’ve still 1½ months or so before we start seeing bees again.
However, just because we don’t see or hear bees like we do the birds at this time of year, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do to help them. Different bees have different needs, but no matter the species they all need a place to sleep and food to eat.
This is the perfect time of year to consider :
- Selecting and installing bee lodges
- Adding early season forage to your garden
Installing Bee Lodges, Homes, and Hotels
IBCP currently offers two types of Bee Lodges (think bee homes),
1) Honey Bee Lodges
2) Solitary Bee Lodges
*and we hope to introduce Bee Posts in the future–so stay tuned*
Honey Bee Lodges are really only suitable for large sites and need to be in groups, so not suitable for the masses. Note that IBCP are not beekeepers. We are bee-wilders—supporting the re-wilding of the honeybee, so these lodges are not conducive to honey production. Seek out your local beekeeping association if you are interested in beekeeping.
For many of us, we have smaller gardens, so I suggest a Solitary Bee Lodge. Not only are they the most abundant type of bee (in Ireland and across the world)—they are also the best pollinators, and are the underrated and under researched bees. What IBCP does know from our own experiences is that both the Red Mason Bee (Osmia rufa) and a species of leaf cutter bee have found our Solitary Bee Lodges suitable to nest in! Cool right!?
Of course, you can also consider buying or making your own bee hotels. But be sure to keep it small. Large bee hotels are not actually suitable. They have an inclusive policy which invites predators and parasites in. I’ve observed the various types of bee lodges and hotels at sites around Fota, and found the large, palletized hotel not active with pollinators. There are great resources available on making your own bee hotels all over the internet. I highly recommend checking out the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan’s How to create solitary bee nest sites on your farm which not only gives direction on the materials and creation of bee homes, but also includes interesting facts.
Adding Early Season Forage
We have time before bees start to emerge, but nevertheless in late winter and early spring there isn’t much in bloom. But a bee’s gotta eat! So, what food can you provide?
Thanks to the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, they’ve done a lot of the work for us all by providing lists of pollinator friendly plants. Those that have proven particularly good for Irish pollinators are below, but for even more options check out the full Pollinator Friendly Planting Code.
If you’re like me, you’re a bit selfish, you want to help pollinators but you want plants that look good and suit your garden and needs too. Is it too much to have it all? Probably, but sure we can still try—so I’ve added some helpful notes to help inform your plant choices.
WINTER & SPRING POLLINATOR FRIENDLY PLANTS
Bulbs pop up out of the ground as if from nowhere, shine bright for a time, and then disappear back into the ground not to be seen until next year. When it comes to spring flowering bulbs, they should’ve been planted last autumn. But no worries, you can often buy them as young plants from garden centers. Or, plan to buy bulbs this autumn to plant for next spring.
- Crocus (Crocus sp.)
Often, with snowdrops, the first flowers to burst from the ground as signs of spring to come. Often in purples and whites, it’s a beautiful flower. Be sure you select the spring flowering species, as there are autumn flowering ones as well)
- Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
Along with crocus, the first flowers of spring. Small but beautifully white flowers.
- Grape Hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum)
They look similar to the beautifully scented hyacinths, but they are entirely different and look more like tiny bunches of grapes, hence the name. They are small flower in purples and whites.
These are flowers that’ll come year after year. Many do die back for winter though, so if you’re keen on green all year seek varieties that’ll offer evergreen foliage. Biennials only last two years and flowering in their second year. However, they will often set seed, ie make more baby plants, and it will seem as if they are perennial.
- Hellebores (Helleborus sp.)
Hellebores aka Christmas or Lenten Rose, has broad evergreen foliage but they don’t like to be moved so be sure you’re confident of their placement.
- Wallflower (Erysimum sp)
Wallflowers are a biennial. They often have a nice, subtle scent from their flowers, coming in a variety of colors, and they are often in flower all year long. For example, at my work our wallflowers have had flowers all through winter (though not as full as in summer) and I can see new buds already in mid January! They’re foliage is often evergreen as well so it looks good even in winter.
- Lungwort (Pulmonaria sp.)
These have very interesting foliage, white dotted green leaves. These are great for shady areas and seem to be a fav with one of the earliest to rise solitary bees, the Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes). Their foliage is semi-evergreen, so if you’re in a mild area or have a very mild winter it *may* retain it’s foliage in winter.
- Spotted Dead Nettle (Lamium maculatum)
Despite the ominous sounding name, this nettle does not have stinging hairs and is part of the mint family. It’s great for shady areas and ground cover.
SHRUBS & TREES
What is the difference between a shrub and a tree? For me, it’s height and bushiness. Some trees can be grown as shrubs—think hedging. And some shrubs can be pruned to look like small trees (crown lifting). Shrubs come in a range of sizes, as do trees, to fit whatever size garden you have.
- Oregon Grape (Mahonia sp.)
With leaves like holly (dark green, glossy, evergreen, and sharp edges) they have yellow flowers in winter with a nice scent.
- Willow (Salix sp., particularly Musk Willow (Salix aegyptiaca), male Wooly Willow (Salix lanata), Halberd Leaved Willow (Salix hastata ‘Wehrhahnii’)
Ah the sallies, one of my all-time favorite trees mainly because we had a giant weeping one in my front yard as a kid, home to a treehouse, sandbox, and swing. Couple that with my love of Gramma Willow in Pocahontas and the fact willows essentially gave us painkillers, I’m a big fan. I digress, willows are great for wetter areas there are small and larger varieties.
- Viburnum (Viburnum tinus)
Evergreen, dark leaves with beautiful … of flowers, i.e. an umbrella of small flowers in winter that can be scented.
- Barberry (Berberis darwinii)
A prickly boi is Barberry. Evergreen with prickly leaves. This particular type of barberry has orange flowers in spring, purple berries in fall, and can suit a coastal site.
- Heath (Erica carnea & Erica x darleyensis)
These are shorty, evergreen shrubbies. Erica heathers (vs. the very similar Calluna sp. heathers) *tend* to flower in winter/spring making them ideal for early forage. They tend to prefer more acidic soils, but these varieties will tolerate more neutral and alkaline soil. They do well in containers too.
- Hebe (Hebe sp.)
Evergreen shrubs hailing from the southern hemisphere (mainly New Zealand), there a variety of options with various colors of foliage and flowers. They are tough, can tolerate coastal and poor soil situations, and can struggle in wintry winds.
- Black & Redcurrant (Ribes nigrum & Ribes rubrum)
With prickly stems, these plants are deciduous but boy oh boy do they offer some tasty berries for us to eat. And all thanks to the bees that love to feed on the flowers. They can tolerate some shade, but the more sun the better the berries.
Whew, you still there? I hope you find this helpful as you begin or continue your journey in supporting Ireland’s bee and other pollinating species.
Did you install a bee lodge or bee hotel? Did you plant an early flowering pollinator friendly plant? Let us know by sharing and tagging @IrishBeeCP .
Still unsure of how to get started? Contact us at email@example.com.