Let’s talk about how we can save the bees during a vulnerable time–early spring. This can be a tough time for bees. They may have low to no food reserves in the hive. And yet, they need a tremendous amount of pollen and nectar to grow the next generations of bees. Despite this need, the right flowers are often not available. Many early flowers that we commonly have in our yards, such as forsythia or daffodils, do not offer pollen and/or nectar for the bees. And some days are just too cold for the bees to forage. (Honey bees like it at least 55 degrees F to forage. Other native bees, such as mason and bumble bees can take the chill.)
Yet this is an easy fix. There are many early spring bee flowers that would look great in our yards and give us some spring cheer. They also happen to be fuss-free plants. Could you add some early spring bee flowers and give the bees a break? (All are good, but the starred flowers offer larger amounts of pollen and nectar.)
*American Hazelnut (Corylus americana)
Native to eastern United States. Grows well in medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Can tolerate clay soil. These shrubs grow to about 15-20′ high and would make a good hedge. The late summer hazelnuts can feed you and the wildlife. Fall color is variable. Zones 4-9.
Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas and C. officinalis)
A deciduous shrub or small tree that grows over time to 15-25′ tall with a spread to 12-20′ wide. Easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Prefers moist, organically rich soils. This plant will sucker. Small yellow flowers turn into small red berries. Zones 4-8.
*Crocus (look for earliest bloomers, such as tommasinianus)
A classic among the early blooming flowers. Bees love them and they are a great source of pollen. Grows best in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Avoid heavy clay soils or moist soil conditions. Crocuses are great in the lawn–just be sure the foliage is left unmowed until it yellows (about 6 weeks after bloom). Naturalizes well. Plant in fall. Zones 3-8.
Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa luciliae)
An early bulbous flower that can be lilac blue or pink with white centers. Easily grown in average, medium moisture, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Naturalizes easily. Plant in fall. Zones 3-8.
*Golden Currant (Ribes aureum)
Native to the West, but can grown throughout much of the United States. Small yellow flowers on a shrub from 3-7′. Best grown in organically rich, fertile, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Yet tolerates drought and a wide range of soils. Also attracts birds, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Zones 4-8.
Heath (Erica carnea) or Heather (Calluna vulgaris)
These two species are closely related and have similar appearances and growing conditions. Both are a low-growing, evergreen shrub. Best grown in sandy, acidic, medium moisture, well-drained loams that are enriched with peat. Best flowering occurs in full sun, though plants will appreciate some part afternoon shade in hot areas. Avoid heavy clay soils. Zones 4-7.
*Hellebore (Helleborus spp., foetidus offers the most pollen and nectar for bees)
A wonderful shade perennial with showy flowers that bloom in late winter to early spring. Beautiful massed underneath a tree. Best grown in organically rich, humusy, well-drained soils. Although the foliage is evergreen, it may become scorched and tattered in extremely harsh winters, particularly if plants are exposed. New plants can be obtained from division of the clumps (best in spring) and from seedlings which grow up around the plants. Tolerates deer and dry soil. Zones 4-9.
Magnolia (Magnolia spp.)
There are about a dozen species that are native to North America. The first magnolias to bloom are usually the star magnolias, Magnolia stellata. Seek out the varieties that do well in your area. Best grown in moist, organically rich, well-drained loam in full sun to part shade. Best flowering in full sun. Appreciates consistent moisture in summer. Generally intolerant of soil extremes (dry or wet).
Mahonia (Mahonia spp.)
An evergreen shrub with showy yellow flowers. Grow in moist, organically rich, acidic, well-drained soils in part shade to full shade. Prefers part shade locations. Suckers. Zones 5-8.
*Maple trees (except for the Asian ornamental varieties)
Maples are a great source of pollen. Easily grown in average, medium moisture, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Best in fertile, slightly acidic, moist soils in full sun. Grows poorly in compacted, poorly drained soils. Intolerant of road salt. Generally intolerant of urban pollution. Zones 4-8.
*Pussy Willow (Salix discolor is native, S. caprea & S. cinera are nonnative)
I have come to adore this simple shrub. The furry catkins, that are gray, silky, and resemble a cat’s paw (hence the name), are a sign of early spring. After the gray furry catkins make their appearance, the stamens full of pollen appear. This plant is diocenous (meaning that male and female flowers are on separate plants.) Only the male plants have the lovely gray catkins and pollen for the bees. Both male and female plants offer nectar however.
Did you know that you can cut branches of pussy willow, plant them in garden soil and they will grow? Keep them well watered until established. An easy way to start new plants. Zones 4-8.
*Scilla (Scilla siberica or tubergeniana)
A vibrant blue bulb flower. Surprisingly, the pollen is blue as well. Easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. A tough, extremely cold hardy, low-maintenance plants that will naturalize easily. Effective when massed in front of or around shrubs or trees, or planted in large groupings with other early spring bulbs. Mass in sweeping drifts in woodland, wild or naturalized areas or along shady banks. Also may be naturalized in the lawn. Plant bulbs in fall. Zones 2-8.
*Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
A charming white nodding flower. Easily grown in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Prefers moist, humusy soils in part shade. Grows particularly well under deciduous trees where exposure to the sun is full in early spring but gradually changes to part shade as the trees leaf out. In optimum growing conditions, this bulb will naturalize well. Zones 3-7.
Spice bush (Lindera benzoin)
A large shrub which typically grow 6-12′. Clusters of tiny, aromatic, greenish-yellow flowers. Easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Fall color is best in sunny areas. Likes moist conditions. The male plants has flowers that are larger and showier than the female ones. Flowers of female plants produce bright red drupes which mature in fall and are attractive to birds. Female plants need a male plant nearby in order to set fruit. In addition, the caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly feeds on the leaves of this shrub. Zones 4-9.
*Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)
Winter Aconite appears so early, that it will even beat a crocus. Its yellow flowers are a cheery announcement that spring is on its way. Easily grown in organically rich, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Best in locations that enjoy full sun at the time of bloom, but become shady as overhead trees leaf out. Plant the tubers in early fall. May self-seed and naturalize over time in good growing conditions. Zones 3-7.
In addition, Winter Aconite can work in a variety of situations. Borders, rock gardens, along paths or walkways, or containers. Mass under trees or in front of shrubs. Naturalize in open woodland or wildflower areas. Beekeepers should plant it near their hives.
Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)
A trailing, viney shrub with yellow flowers. Best grown in well-drained sandy loam with regular moisture in full sun to part shade. Tolerates full shade but with reduced flowering. Tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions. As a shrub, it typically grows in a sprawling mound to 4’ tall with arching branches, and spreads by trailing branches that root as they go along the ground. As a vine, it typically grows to 10-15’. Zones 6-10.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis)
Last but not least. This large shrub to small tree is an elegant choice for your yard. Easily grown in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Best flowering in full sun. Prefers moist, acidic, organically rich soils. Tolerates heavy clay soil and deer. Suckers. Zones 4-8.