It’s not just perennials and spring flowering bulbs that are great bee plants, garden shrubs play an important role too. You need to look at the plant as a whole, especially when it is an established specimen. Flowering currants are a great bee plant. Take a close look at each cluster of rich pink flowers, that hang like bunches of grapes from the stems. Each cluster is made up of a dozen or more small, nectar rich flowers.
Now visit your flowering currant when the sun is shining in spring and just listen for the buzz. This amazing plant is in flower just when the queen bumblebees start to emerge in spring. These precious pollinators need nectar to sustain their activity and to find such a rich supply in one place is exactly what these bees need. Stand back and enjoy the sound as these newly emerged bees fill their honey stomachs with sweet sugar rich nectar.
Bumblebees don’t make honey but they do store a stash of nectar in Winnie the pooh shaped honey pots which they fashion out of waxy scales that they secrete from between the hard plates that cover their body. The pot is placed near the entrance to the nest and is filled by the queen bee as she forages for food in our gardens. This nectar store is a vital rainy day food source when the queen is not able to forage and it also keeps her fed while she sits atop her first brood of eggs.
The quality and quantity of nectar varies from plant to plant. Bees exhibit floral constancy (they feed from the same type of flower so they work a flower patch), it’s more efficient and this makes them better pollinators. Ongoing research at Bristol University* has measured nectar levels in over two hundred garden flowers. Nectar per flower needs to be multiplied so that it represents the whole plant. Researchers discovered that one flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) with 3000 flowers provides as much nectar as 16 000 primrose (Primula vulgaris) flowers or 69,000 snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and that shrubs like mahonia, berberis, pieris, ceanothus, and pyracantha can be similarly nectar rich. These shrubs create hot spots of food that can be really important. This makes private gardens a fantastic opportunity for helping to conserve pollinators on our doorstep.
*Thanks to Phd student Nick Tew for a sneak preview of his research.