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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

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.

Crocus

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.

Siberian squill

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.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

By Orangeaurochs from Sandy, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Snowdrops. Photo by Orangeaurochs from Sandy, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Anne-Sophie Ofrim (Uploaders own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Crocus. Photo by Anne-Sophie Ofrim (Uploader’s own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Honey-bee-on-siberian-squill
Siberian squill. Honey bee with blue pollen all over her face. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Miriam
Reply

Another bulb that comes out super early and the bees love are winter aconite. In UT, I’ll see them blooming as early as February if it’s a mild winter, and the bees love them!

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, a great suggestion!

Bill
Reply

Rusty,

I just planted a bunch crocus and ordered a bunch more Siberian Squill. Very nice photos you have posted.

Bill

Danette Wright
Reply

Hi Rusty,
Just read about these cousins and thought you might enjoy!
Thanks ever so much for teaching the rest of us about the wonderfully amazing world of bees!

Rusty
Reply

Danette,

Great photos! Thanks for the link. I like the idea of eating fermented watermelons.

ksirovy
Reply

Hi,

I did some research on Siberian Squill, just an FYI people are calling it invasive and some are having issues controlling it.

Rusty
Reply

Yes, whenever I mention Siberian squill as bee forage this comes up. Apparently it depends on where you live, but if conditions are right, it will spread aggressively. I for one, wish it would invade and choke out my other invasives, those that the bees have no interest in.

Glen B
Reply

Crocus close up at night, and we have seen more than one bumble bee hunker down in these botanical sleeping bags, emerging the next morning ready to resume work. [Not sure how to put photos in a post, will send a few by separate e-mail.]

I gotta say — next batch of crocus I will plant wrapped INSIDE a wire mesh basket — I am tired of providing ongoing winter nourishment to bulb-eating gray squirrels.

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

I love that mental image, “botanical sleeping bags.” Would love to see the photos . . . e-mail works.

Mark
Reply

I was going to plant a whomp of Crocus this fall but figured they would get lost in my sea so Scilla so I did clumps of Narcissus instead. Do bees like those, too?

Rusty
Reply

Hi Mark,

I remember the discussion of your sea of Scilla. But, as for Narcissus, read this post: Who pollinates the daffodils?

Ken
Reply

Rusty,

Winter Honeysuckle. The blooms are a light yellow and white.

While not a bulb, this bush provides a huge amount of blooms for several months that are filled with pollen and nectar. They usually start blooming here in Middle TN in late Feb or early March but have seen them in bloom as early as Jan.

I purchased 5 large ones last spring and the bees were there almost immediately.

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

That sounds interesting; I’ve never heard of winter honeysuckle, but I will look it up. Thanks for the tip!

Glen B
Reply

We planted winter honeysuckle this year after Janet saw it in bloom in early spring covered in bees – a big plant in rural SW Washington. Lonicera fragrantissima. Our mail-order plant seems very healthy, but this has been an easy plant year here – so far.

mbee
Reply

When planting snowdrops for bees, make sure they aren’t a double-flowered variety. I have several types of snowdrops in my garden and the bees completely ignore the doubles. Unfortunately, this is often what I see for sale, either in autumn bulbs or late-winter plants.

As you’ve mentioned elsewhere, Rusty, double-flowered varieties of plants usually offer very little in the pollen department.

Rusty
Reply

mbee,

This is an excellent reminder. Plants that have been highly manipulated by breeders to achieve a desired outcome (such as double flowers) are often lacking in the very attributes that made them popular with bees in the first place. More on this can be found in: “Who pollinates the daffodils?

David R
Reply

One more time I wish to say thank you!! I could only grin when the guy at the local feed and seed store this afternoon, remarked, “Wow, that is a lot of Crocus”, as I laid down my arm load of bags….They will make a wonderful boarder along the southeast corner of one of my barns….Oh, and he also wants to carry my honey in his store.. There is much work to be done but I find working with the bees to be very rewarding emotionally and maybe someday, just a little bit, financially. Thanks again for your respect for nature and sharing your knowledge.

Rusty
Reply

David,

That is great news that he will carry your honey! Have fun planting your crocus. I bought some more too, but just a few . . . not bags and bags. You’ve got your work cut out.

Rachel
Reply

Hi, I just planted a bunch of bulbs for early spring, squill, crocus, snowdrops, hyacinth…..now I’m concerned that they may have neonicotinoids in them. I got them at a local grocery store, Ingles, and the bulbs came from Holland, but I’m worried. I planted a lot; do you have any problems with neonicotinoids in bulbs? Thank you!

Rusty
Reply

Rachel,

I honestly don’t know. I’m sure every grower does it differently, and I don’t even know which pesticides are commonly used on bulbs. I have never noticed a problem on my bulbs, but sublethal effects are not something you are going to see easily. I’m afraid I don’t have an answer.

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