Breakfast for bumblebees
... and other pollinators
Growing nectar-rich, pollinator-friendly plants is especially important in winter and early spring. We suggest five plants to grow
This article contains *affiliate links. Little Green Space may earn a small commission if you click on these links and make a purchase. It won't cost you anything, but does help keep this site going!
Growing plants that produce nectar-rich flowers in winter and early spring is an important way to help pollinators, including bumblebees, butterflies and hoverflies.
Many insects hibernate over winter. Bumblebees may wake up and emerge during mild spells in January, February and March – and when they do, they will be on the lookout for something to eat.
Butterflies may also be active during warmer winter weather. Species such as peacock, comma, brimstone and small tortoiseshell overwinter as adults – you can sometimes find them sheltering in sheds or garages.
The problem is that when these insects emerge, there are very few flowers about for them to feed on. So growing some winter-flowering plants can be a real lifeline for hungry bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Planting different varieties is a good idea too, as different flowers can help different insects. Bumblebees, for example, can have either a long or a short tongue, depending on the species. So growing some deep, tubular flowers will help long-tongued bumblebees, while flatter, shallow flowers are preferred by short-tongued bumblebees.
Here are five pollinator-friendly plants that should get your garden buzzing with insects on warm early-spring days.
Found in woodland and under hedgerows, cheerful yellow primroses usually start appearing in early March – but in mild winters, they can be seen as early as December. If buying plants, look for the UK's native variety, primula vulgaris.
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust's marks our native primrose as a bumblebee 'Super Plant' – but it's also an important plant for butterflies. The flowers provide nectar for brimstone and small tortoiseshell butterflies, and primroses are also the foodplant of Duke of Burgundy caterpillars.
As they are a woodland flower, primroses are useful for growing under trees and in other shady spaces – and they look lovely in patio pots.
All heathers are attractive to bees, but winter-flowering varieties are particularly useful, as they can be in flower right through winter from December to April.
Most winter-flowering heathers are compact shrubs that are easy to grow and tolerate drought well. They're a good choice if you have acidic soil – but can also be grown in a container filled with ericaceous compost.
There are many different varieties of winter-flowering heather, and you can choose from pink, purple or white flowers (the latter are believed to bring good luck!). With some varieties, though, the blooms don't open fully – these don't benefit pollinators, as insects can't access the nectar within. So when buying plants, look for varieties with the RHS 'Perfect for Pollinators' logo.
Snowdrops are often the first flowers to appear in January – and can sometimes be seen as early as December. They have delicate white blooms that are attractive to bumblebees, hoverflies, and other pollinators.
While not native to the UK – they are believed to have been introduced to England in the early 1500s – snowdrops have been around for a long time, and are now a common sight in gardens and the countryside.
Snowdrops are available in many different varieties. For maximum wildlife benefit avoid the frilly varieties and opt for the single-flowered Galanthus nivalis, or common snowdrop.
Mahonia is a brilliant plant for bumblebees, producing abundant nectar when there's not much else about. The cheerful and fragrant yellow flowers bloom all winter, from November to April. Some mahonia varieties – mahonia aquifolium (also known as Oregon Grape) for example – produce berries in autumn that are eaten by birds.
These hardy, evergreen shrubs are easy to grow in all types of soils and situations, including shade. Although mahonia is a non-native plant, it's well worth growing in a wildlife-friendly garden.
One of the best things you can do for pollinators in winter and early spring is to let the dandelions grow.
These native flowers appear as early as February, providing cheerful bursts of colour – and abundant nectar – when there are few other flowers in bloom. Dandelions are not only loved by bumblebees – in fact they support more than 50 insect species, including butterflies, moths and hoverflies. And the seeds are a useful source of food for birds like goldfinches, too.
When it comes to growing dandelions, it couldn't be easier – just do nothing, and they should soon appear. Leaving a patch of lawn unmown is a good way to encourage dandelions to grow – and an added benefit is that other pollinator-friendly, native wildflowers should also soon emerge. Red and white clover, buttercups, cuckooflower and ox-eye daisies are all beneficial plants that often appear when you let the grass grow.
For more ideas of bumblebee-friendly plants to grow throughout the year, see Dave Goulson's informative book, .
Little Green Space January 2024
Little Green Space is a non-profit project sharing solutions to the nature and climate crises, and offering inspiration for a greener lifestyle. If you like our content, please help keep us going with a small donation!