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By Marianne Willburn, gardening expert and author.
Spring is a season of awakening, but bees are getting back to work sooner that you may imagine. By the end of February, honey and pollen stores are at a yearly low for honeybee hives; and as temperatures rise and the queen begins to lay eggs to replace workers at the end of their winter life-span, nectar and pollen must be gathered to feed them. For solitary bee queens such as the bumblebee, successful nesting is dependent on what they can forage for themselves as early as possible.
It’s a make-or-break time for bees, but the pollinator-conscious gardener can make things much easier by choosing fall-planted bulbs that will fill the spring with forage for hungry bees and provide color for the gardener. Planting in the fall also allows the gardener to easily slip bulbs between established perennials or shrubs that are still going strong in September and October.
For brevity’s sake, the term ‘bulbs’ refers to bulbous plants that come in many forms: true bulbs, corms, rhizomes, or stem or root tubers. When deciding what to plant, choose those that are not over-hybridized and over-selected. For instance, as showy as some daffodils are, they are rarely visited by pollinators since many of their desirable traits have been bred right out of them. Thankfully, American Meadows has many heirloom bulbs that are sure to please gardener and pollinator.
Let’s look at a few of these choices by bloom time, ensuring that early, mid, and late spring is a feast for the bees…and for the eyes.
The period after the temperatures have started to warm but before the dandelions have started blooming is a critical time for bees. It’s also a critical time for the gardener, who is most probably feeling a little winter-weary. Plant the following bulbs in fall to brighten everyone’s early season:
Snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) – We’re not the only ones to get excited when the first snowdrops bloom. For bees, they mark the start of the foraging season. White, nodding flowers are sometimes tipped with green and will spread copiously with time. Plant in a sunny position and do not allow the bulbs to dry out when planting. Z3-9
Crocus (Crocus spp.) – An old favorite, and a sign that spring is around the corner. Crocus will do well in sunny or in part-shade conditions and are fantastic naturalized in lawns, particularly with winter aconite. By the time the grass is ready to mow, the bees will have visited hundreds of times and the foliage will have died back. Z3-9
Winter Buttercup (Eranthis spp.) – One of the earliest flowers of spring, winter buttercup (aka Aconite) is also one of the most spectacular. Bright, waxy yellow blooms are set off by green Elizabethan ruffs and set huge amounts of seed which will germinate readily. Select a winter-sunny spot, and do not allow corms to dry out when planting. Truly a beacon for hungry pollinators. Z2-8
Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa spp.) – This wonderful sun-loving bulb is often forgotten in the quest for crocus and snowdrops, but is so worth growing. Floriferous and very hardy, gardeners in northern climates will enjoy seeing this one peeking through a late snowstorm – but only just. Chionodoxas rarely grow taller than eight inches. Z2-8
Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) – This beautiful bulb for sunny positions tops out at 6 inches high, and is a wonderful accompaniment for smaller plants such as primroses or dwarf iris. Deep violet flowers are held at the ends of flowering stems and have a deeper violet stripe on the back of petals. Exceptionally hardy and a great choice for rock gardens. Z2-10
Species tulips (Tulipa spp.) – If you’ve never grown species tulips before and want to plant for pollinators, now is the time to order some of these hardy but delicate bulbs. American Meadows carries different species that will bloom during early, mid or late spring and last for weeks – unlike their better-known cousins. And, bulbs come back year after year. Plant in a sunny, very well-drained position. Bulbs need a period of cold to reliably bloom. Z3-8
Dandelions begin to bloom and life is becoming a little easier for foraging bees in the countryside, but many urban and suburban landscapers have started the mowers, and sadly, have also started spreading chemical weed-and-feed applications. As much of the landscape is still just coming to life, the gardener who thought ahead and planted colorful bulbs for mid-spring will attract pollinators now and will create an oasis for bees in the weeks ahead. Here are a few options:
Anemone (Anemone spp.) – Spring anemones seem to sprout from part-shade positions almost overnight, calling all pollinators to the multi-colored, mid-spring buffet that stays low to the ground and emphasizes other bulbs such as tulip or allium. There are many species of anemone, so ensure you are buying corms for spring bloom, not fall. Z7-10
Grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.) – A beloved bulb for many gardeners, the purple wands of grape hyacinth are also a favorite for bees. Plant bulbs in a sunny position and enjoy the narrow, strappy foliage long before the blooms. Scented. Z3-9
Chequered lily (Fritillaria meleagris.) – The unusual checkerboard patterns of purple and white fritillaria will make them a hit in your garden, and the bees will be thrilled with these low-growing delicate blooms too. Plant bulbs in a part-shade position that benefits from reliable moisture, such as a wet meadow. Z3-10
Camassia (Camassia leichtlinii) - An impressive flowering bulb that sends lilac-flowered spears up to two feet high. Just like chequered lily, camassia prefers moist meadow sites but has much more sun tolerance. The bees will have a hard time missing these skyrockets! Z3-9
As spring starts to slip into high gear, there are many foraging options for bees, but gardeners who plant bulbs specifically for pollinators will be rewarded with increased activity in their beds and borders and increased pollination of important fruit and vegetable crops. Honeybees and bumblebees are at the height of their foraging activity and new bees are emerging from cocoons daily. One of the joys of spring is watching this activity unfold all around you. Plant the following and watch spring come alive with color and movement:
Allium (Allium spp.) – There are so many types of allium that the gardener is extremely spoiled for choice. The good news is, it’s hard to make a bad choice for pollinators. Bees love the thumbnail lilac heads of chives just as much as some of the larger globe selections. Plant them en masse for impact, or locate them throughout the garden for continuity and flow. Z.4-9
Dutch iris (Iris x hollandica) – In strong colors of yellow, deep purple, lilac and purest white, Dutch iris will brighten sunny or part-shade beds and provide a built-in landing strip for pollinators. If you can bear to take them from the bees, the blooms also make excellent cut flowers. Z 5-10.
Wood hyacinth (Hyacinthoides hispanica) – A woodland favorite, Spanish bluebells (also known as wood hyacinth) will multiply generously over the years, creating blue swathes of color in late spring. The bell shaped flowers are held along central racemes that open from the bottom up – making it super-easy for bees to find exactly what they need. Z3-9.
About the Author: Marianne is a Master Gardener and the author of the new book Big Dreams, Small Garden. You can read more at www.smalltowngardener.com or follow The Small Town Gardener on Facebook or Instagram.
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