David Robinson is managing director of Suttons Seeds and National Bee Supplies. His garden on the edge of Dartmoor is designed with pollinators in mind – including his own honey bee colonies.

Growing up in Birmingham, the weather and seasons came and went, but since moving to (very) rural Devon with distant views to the west, I’m far more aware of the coming and going of the seasons. We can now watch the clouds that have built up over a thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean rolling across the countryside towards us.

Eighteen months ago, we set up our first two National hives to be visible from our kitchen window so we could see how the weather affected the behaviour of our bees every day of the year. Never was this more apparent than at the beginning of February last year. On the first day of the month, we saw the snow clouds tumbling towards us and painting the landscape white, leaving a blanket of snow on the top of our hives.

Snow covers but reveals

Along the terraced streets in Birmingham after a snowfall, you could tell which houses had good insulation (or maybe who had the heating turned down) by the amount of snow left on the roof. Although both of our hives were uninsulated, the circle of melted snow on the roof of one of the hives showed unmistakable signs that the colony was alive and well. One of the most astonishing facts (to me) from my beekeeping course was that, unlike bumblebees, honey bees use their honey reserves to keep the colony within that thin walled wooden box at a cosy 20ºC and more throughout the coldest days of a British winter.

By February, reserves are likely to be depleted and although both hives felt heavy enough, I was worried that only one of the colonies was clearly active. Just three days later, on 4 February (see top photo), the weather turned unseasonably warm and it was a huge relief to see the bees from ‘Hardy’ (the hive furthest from the laurel bush and the one I’d been concerned about) making the most of the opportunity to replenish reserves of both pollen and nectar.

I’d seen plenty of articles in the past advising gardeners to plant early-season flowers to help our pollinators. Indeed, we’d run an email offer for native primroses and celandines to customers of Suttons that very weekend, but this was the first time that it had really hit home to me that for many insects it really is a life-or-death time of year.

The lesson hit home, and that weekend I brought home 300 primrose plants and we planted them on the margin of our woodland, down by the stream. We also spent time wandering around the garden to see what other plants were attracting our bees and other emerging native queen bees.

We planted 300 primrose plants on the margin of our woodland, down by the stream

for many insects it really is a life-or-death time of year

I wish I could say that the most popular was a beautifully dramatic flower. In fact, it was the least showy of the hellebores, going by the equally unflattering name of stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, (see photo on next page). Despite the name, they are disappointingly odourless to my nose, but they are fascinating nonetheless. The nectaries are colonised by yeasts that raise the temperature of the flower. This higher temperature, it is speculated, helps to evaporate volatile organic compounds which seem to be so attractive to our bees that, time and again, we saw two or more of them nudging each other aside to gain access to the flowers.

Without bees, Suttons would have much smaller ranges of vegetable seeds for sowing in your allotments, raised beds and greenhouses each year. In the past couple of years, there have been so many bee-related news articles that most members of the public, when asked why bees are important, will mention the pollination of fruit. Many fruit trees and shrubs do indeed require bees to crop well but gardeners also have a part to play in maximising blossom and fruit crops.

if you’re planting for nectar, it’s best to shy away from the showy double flowered varieties

Galanthus spp
Traditionally regarded as the first forage of the year

Having moved into the heart of cider country and with a cider orchard and cider maker just a few miles away, it would have been disappointing if our predecessor hadn’t planted some apple trees, and indeed we have inherited a dozen different varieties. They were unpruned, tall and had intertangled and congested branches, but by spreading the pruning over several years we hope to provide a steady supply of spring blossom for our bees and autumn fruit for ourselves. If you’re anything like me, you won’t have pruned your fruit trees back in the autumn but there’s still time to catch up before spring arrives and the new season’s growth kicks in. Regular pruning will help to maintain the health and productivity of your gooseberries and currant bushes. There isn’t room here to give the pruning details of all varieties but there’s plenty of information online, so this is just a reminder to prune over the next couple of months before your fruit trees and shrubs burst into leaf and blossom again this year.

Last month, I suggested buying snowdrops ‘in the green’ – see the panel (left) for the best time to divide them.

(‘Apollo Mix’)
If you’re going to sow just one flower in late February or March, make it cosmos

Seed time

As winter turns to spring and the days lengthen, there will be more flowers and vegetable seeds to be sown, but if you’re going to sow just one flower in late February or March, make it cosmos. When Bee Craft co-editor Richard Rickitt visited us in Devon last August, the barbie-pink cosmos that we’d grown from seed were in full bloom and regularly visited by our bees. (He took the super picture above on that day.) Their seeds need light to germinate, so start them off in a propagator tray on a sunny windowsill, laying the seeds on top of the compost. Once they’ve started producing their second set of leaves, prick them out into pots. Plant them outside once the danger of frost has passed. They’re an undemanding plant and grow in all conditions but seem to thrive in poorer soils. We tend to plant them closer together than usually recommended so that their slender stems support each other, leaving their colourful flowers to dance in the summer and autumn breezes above delicate, fern-like bright-green foliage. Sow some now and later this year – you’ll be so pleased that you did!

Dividing snowdrops

If you’re lucky enough to have some in your garden already, then the perfect time to divide them and help them spread is as the flowers ‘go over’.

Lift the clump out of the ground with a fork and simply tease the bulbs apart before replanting them about 10cm deep and 10cm apart, ideally after having enriched the soil with plenty of compost. Next spring, you’ll have a bigger, better display for you and your bees.


Hellebores provide forage

If you’re after a hellebore that is good for the bees and beautiful on the eye, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Hellebores can now be found in a wide range of colours from near black through deep purple to rich reds, pinks, yellows, whites and greens. You’ll find plenty available in garden centres and online at this time of year. Planted now, they will provide bee forage and garden colour throughout the spring. As with nearly all flowers, if you’re planting for nectar, it’s best to shy away from the showy double-flowered varieties which tend to carry less nectar than their single-petalled counterparts.

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