Eye-catching catkins seem to be everywhere now, red ones dripping from Red Alder trees, and more common golden pendants hanging off Hazels and Alders in parks and gardens. They stand out against the brown branches and remind us that spring is on the way, and with it the emergence of early flying bee species. Although these trees are wind pollinated, the catkins are made up of pollen grains full of protein which bees desperately need to feed their young at the beginning of the season. So before long we should see bees on the catkins.
I’ve already spotted buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queens in among the undergrowth of bushes and hellebores hunting for a good place to nest and lay their eggs. They are mainly feeding at this time of year on the bright yellow Mahonia aquifolium, white Winter honeysuckle and a whole variety of coloured and pale cream hellebores.
Not everyone has space for a tree in their garden or backyard, but try and find somewhere to plant these early flowering forage plants for bees. The Mahonia and hellebores even do well in shady spots.
Limes (Tilia europaea) , sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) and the glorious Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides) all produce bounteous amounts of nectar during the summer for bees to turn into honey in our towns and cities. Mature lime trees, in particular, which have been planted in huge numbers in London parks and streets, with their tiny white flowers, are the main source of honey for the capital’s honeybees, producing a delicious light honey.
This summer, with the extreme heat and drought conditions the trees have all flowered much earlier than usual. The limes were out by mid June, if not earlier in some locations. Sweet chestnuts, to my surprise where not long behind, with their dramatic spindly, long white flowers blooming by the end of the month. And I nearly fell of my bike on the 26 June when the magnificent Indian Bee Tree that I pass on my way to work every day was in its full glory – displaying its enormous white blooms which usually don’t appear until early August!!! You don’t see many of them in London, but they usually stand out in late summer with their eye-catching display when other trees have long-finished flowering.
But not this year, coming out at a similar time as the others. Is this because they are stressed by the lack of rain and need to flower quickly to produce seed? As the name of the Indian Bean Tree suggests, its seeds are contained in long bean pods which hang from the tree after it’s flowers have been pollinated.
Whatever the reason for the early show of flowers, it unfortunately means the Urban Bees Trees for Bees guide is hopelessly out this year with the month the trees are flowering. More concerning, it means that there won’t be any late summer forage for bees if the trees have all flowered by July.