On Tuesday and Wednesday my bees were out forageing, which was great to see, so I thought that it might be nice to summarise what bee forage plants they’re making use of at the moment. I also though that I’d add a few growing tips, and add some thoughts about how the plants fit into a permaculture design, or planting scheme.
February Bee Forage Plants
The first plant that I spotted foragers on this year was Winter Flowering Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima).This is also sometimes known as Lonicera purpusii, although I’m not sure whether there are two different species, or if they are identical. This is like a cross between a climber and a shrub, which should do well on a fence, or clambering over a small tree. The one pictured above was one of ten bought and planted two years ago. It flowered a little last year, but there are more flowers this year. I’ve also grown some from seed, although the seedlings were ‘trimmed’ by rabbits this Winter, but are now growing well again. On Tuesday, there were more bees flying around the plants than there were flowers, probably attracted by the fragrance, which is great.
Yesterday there were bees working the snowdrop flowers that were open, and even seemed to be trying to force their way into the flowers that were not fully open.These are best planted in clumps, to make it easier for the bees to spot. They are normally planted as ‘green’ plants, once they have finished flowering. There are lots of on line suppliers, most of them based in South Lincolnshire. These suppliers also advertise in the gardening magazines.
Other plants that the bees are working at the moment include Mahonia, and Winter Aconite, with Willow and Crocus just about to add to the available forage. I’ve read that Hellebores are also good bee forage, but I haven’t planted any yet, so cannot confirm that from my own observations. Last year I had bees forageing on Christmas Box (Sarcococca), but haven’t noticed any bees on them so far this year.
Permaculture Priciples for Bees
Every element should perform more than one function
One of the principles of Permaculture is that every element should perform more than one function, but there are so few bee plants that flower at this time that I’m happy to include aesthetics, and/or fragrance as additional functions. The only bee forage plant that I’ve listed that has an edible component is the Mahonia, which has edible berries.
When applied to humans, zoning places elements that need the most attention closest to the centre of human activity, normally the home. I use it differently when applying it to bees. Early and late in the season, not only is forage short, but conditions for flying are normally poor, and the number of foragers is low. Therefore I put bee forage plants that flower in these times much closer to the hives. Not right under them, but certainly within one hundred meters, and frequently much closer. For most people, that’s their whole property, so strategies for increasing your forage would be planting bulbs in public land nearby, and giving bulbs or plants as gifts to your immediate neighbours.
Plants can be stacked in height, and in time, and using these plants we can give examples of both. Stacking in height involves using plants that use different space above and below ground, whilst stacking in time allows plants to make use of resources at different times. One combination that does both would be snowdrops with the willow, or the honeysuckle. The snowdrops are low growing bulbs, which are happy growing under trees and shrubs. Not only do they occupy a different height, but the snowdrops grow leaves, flower, and do most of their growing before the trees and shrubs put out leaves, and shade the ground below them. By growing early in the year, the snowdrops avoid the worst of the shade.
The Mahonia is an evergreen, so the bulbs will not thrive right underneath them, but the Mahonia itself will tolerate some shade. That means that they can grow under the edge of a tree, or against a North facing wall. The Christmas box is similar, in that it will live in shade. It attracts pollinators with flowers with a strong fragrance. It is lower growing than the Mahonia, and can be grown as a ground cover between trees, if planted close enough together. I’m not sure how well it competes with other plants, as mine are planted in quite deep shade, with no real competition.
My crocus are planted in an area of grass that is used for parties. By the time that Summer arrives, the crocus foliage has died back, and the grass can be kept short, with the clippings mixed with straw from the duck house, and composted. Here it is the functions that are time stacked. The crocus in the lawn gives me bee forage in the early Spring, clippings in the late Spring/Early Summer, and then space for fun for the rest of the Summer.
Every function should be provided by more than one element
This principle ensures that a failure of one plant species will not leave you without a yield. In a smaller space this might be difficult to achieve, but it’s worth trying. By Stacking two different bee forage plants in the same space, that flower at the same time, you can manage.
There are plenty of ways to incorporate these plants into a design, or planting scheme. Possibilities include planting snowdrops, and aconites under Winter flowering honeysuckle. Mahonia or Christams box under Willow (North side) with bulbs under the southern side. Crocus in grass anywhere. In reality, it’s unlikely that you’re only going to use February flowering plants, but the principles remain the same. Plant in layers to make best use of space, use more than one type of plant for each segment of the season, and group plants together to make use of their different growing habits. Also remember to think outside of the box (your property). Gifts and public plantings will yield more than just bee forage.
All of the best