Winter pollen for bees: snowdrops, crocus, and squill
Good news: if you act quickly, you can still plant some early-blooming perennial bulbs and corms for your bees. During a quick check of local stores yesterday, I was able to find my three favorites: snowdrops, crocus, and Siberian squill. All of these perennials provide an early supply of pollen for your honey bees just when they need it most—when the brood nest is beginning to expand but pollen stores are running low.
Snowdrops (Galanthus) are in the Amaryllis family, and as their name suggests, they will pop right through a crust of snow and open into inverted white and green blooms. Although they open much too early for most solitary bees, given a warmish day they will be visited by honey bees.
Snowdrops do best in rich soil and thrive in full sun or partial shade. I have them planted around the trunks of evergreens and they seem happy with that. The pollen ranges from orange to reddish orange.
Crocuses are next to make an appearance. In the Iris family, they arise in shades of purple, white, pink, and yellow and are loaded with orangey-yellow pollen. I’ve loved crocuses since my mom planted them randomly throughout the lawn. They bloomed early—about February—and then died back for the year. By the time the lawn was ready to mow in spring, the plants were gone and no harm was done to the resting corms.
Honey bees literally frolic in crocus blossoms—you can almost hear them giggle. They roll and spin and come out looking like chicken legs tossed in flour. Since crocuses open a bit later than snowdrops, they also attract the occasional early bumble bee.
The flowers—which aim upwards—tend to collect rainwater, so I plant my crocus inside the drip line of small trees and shrubs on the south side. This gives them plenty of sun, but keeps them drier for the bees.
In the Lily family, Siberian squill has nodding blue flowers and steel blue pollen that glistens when mixed with nectar. Siberian squill blooms even later than the other two, so it will attract a large variety of early bees. Last year, I photographed at least ten species on my squill including mason bees, mining bees, three species of bumbles, and a steady stream of honey bees.
Of course here in the Pacific Northwest you have to be willing to lay on the rain-soaked ground with your cameral wrapped in plastic, but hey, is there anything we won’t do for a good bee pic?
I have my squill planted under a large pine tree where they get morning sun but are partially protected from direct rain. Again, this is more for the bees than the plants, but it seems to work well—during light rains, the bees continue to forage as if nothing were amiss.
Planting in drifts
If you are planting any of these perennials for honey bees, bear in mind that honey bees seek large quantities of any flower they forage from, so it is best to plant in drifts or large swaths of a single variety.
One of my favorite methods of garden design consists of placing all the bulbs or corms in a basket and then tossing the contents into the planting area. Then you simply plant them where they land, separating those that are too close together and bringing in the outliers. The random arrangement gives a natural look to the garden that you and your bees will love.