Here in the Lincolnshire Wolds, we are having the longest cold snap that I can remember, in the nine years that we have been here. Despite this, signs that Spring is just around the corner are making themselves obvious, and reminding me of some of the things that I will be experimenting with over the coming two years. One of my experiments is to identify which Willow variety has the earliest catkins, and which of the early varieties is preferred by my bees.
I currently have five varieties of early flowering willow growing here. They are Salix Daphnoides, Viminalis, Caprea, and two un-named varieties from Steve Pickup, at Ragmans Lane farm, in the Forest of Dean, possibly Triandra, and Chinensis. His website is
I also have self seeded plants, which may be hybrids. In fact, almost any pot with some bare soil on in the Spring, gets some self sown willow in it.
The Daphnoides is already showing signs of the catkins opening, although it will be some weeks before they are producing nectar and pollen. The white of the opening catkins, contrasts strongly with the violet stems, looking like little balls of cotton wool, stuck to the branches.
In my search for early flowering trees, to aid the Spring buildup of my colonies, I discovered a variety called Aegyptiaca, whuich was listed in the excellent book, Bee Plants, by Martin Crawford, of the Agroforestry Research Trust. Aegyptiaca is listed as flowering January/February, whereas the other varieties do not flower until February/March. The Agroforestry Research Trust site is
I couldn’t find any suppliers of Aegyptiaca, so I contacted the National Willow Collection, to ask for help. After a very short discussion, they agreed to send me cuttings of three early flowering varieties, including Aegyptiaca, for me to experiment with. One is a hybrid, and the other is a cultivar of S. Daphnoides. There is a small handling charge, but it still works out cheaper than buying from a retailer, even if these varieties were available.
What I’m hoping to discover is which varieties produce the earliest catkins, and also to see if the bees have a preference, when more than one variety is available. It is likely to be two years before any of the new ones start to flower, but I’m not short of willow, so the delay is not a problem. It will also be interesting to see if any of the varieties tolerate the dry Summers that we have here, better than others.
In addition to the Willow, I’ve been planting Italian Alder, and Mahonia, and will be planting more Hazel, Cornus Mas, and Cherry Plum. All of which will hopefully contribute to a stronger Spring build up, and healthier colonies. As the trees start to shade out the grass, I intend to add Snowdrops, and Wild Garlic, along with other shade tolerant bee plants. Eventually I plan to have about nine colonies, each set in its own little glade, protected from strong winds, and surrounded by early flowering plants, close to the hive, so that the bees can get access to them when conditions are not ideal. There will also be some late flowering types, to assist with collecting stores for Winter.
By promoting a strong early buildup, I hope to have colonies that produce a good number of drones, and that swarm early, weather permitting. This should help get good matings, and give both the parent colony, and the swarmed colony, extra time to prepare for Winter.