Thursday, 13 December 2012

Frozen beauties: Flowers in winter

The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) has nectar-rich flowers
Now in winter pollinator activity has nearly ceased. With the exception of the winter active bumblebee Bombus terrestris which is still visiting flowers on milder days in some urban areas and some winter active moths most other pollinators are inactive or hibernating in some form or another (watch this space for a more detailed essay about what pollinators do in winter, coming in January).

Nonetheless, there are still flowers to be found, some even providing much needed nectar for winter active pollinators. The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and winter-flowering Mahonia (Mahonia x media) are both flowering in winter and produce enough nectar to help winter active bumblebees sustain their colonies.

Mahonia x media flowering in winter
Mahonia flowers have a wonderful scent

Winter active Bombus terrestris enjoying Mahonia flowers
Flies are also visiting the Mahonia flowers
Viburnum tinus (picture below) is another winter-flowering shrub with small pinkish fragrant flowers which are visited by pollinators on milder days.

In late winter the first snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are peeking through the snow which is always a delight to see. They do not depend on insect pollination and mainly spread by bulb division.

Snowdrops can push trough frozen soil with hardened leaf tips

Some autumn-flowering plants can flower right until December and look beautiful on frosty days even if they are of not much use anymore for pollinators.

A frosted rose flower
Michaelmas daisies (Aster sp.) in the early morning sunshine
Penstemon flowers after a frosty night
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Even after the flowering is finished, the seed heads of some flowers look very attractive and can be an interesting feature in the winter garden. The seeds of many plants can provide a natural food source for birds and insects like to overwinter in the hollow stems. So when you tidy up your garden in autumn please do not cut dead stems and seed heads, as they can still be of value to wildlife and your garden will look much more interesting.

Hogweed (Heracleum sp.) seed heads on a frosty morning
Frosted teasel (Dipsacus sp.) seed head
Phlomis seed heads left uncut are an attractive sight
Seed heads of rudbeckia
Winter can be a daunting month with cold, dark nights and gloomy days, but you can make the most of any sunny day and have a look around outside. Frosty mornings can be enchanting and if we happen to have a mild day look out for winter active pollinators searching for nectar and pollen.


  1. Lovely photos and a fabulously informative site! I have 2 of these mahonia and hope to see some winter bees around.

  2. Fingers crossed you see some winter bumblebees. I have seen several Bombus terrestris bumblebees in one of our flower meadows in late November busily gathering pollen from some late poppy flowers. I suspect this could be a winter colony and need to investigate further when we have a mild day.

  3. For an interesting research paper on the importance of winter flowering shrubs for bumblebees see:

  4. That was interesting, Mark, thanks. I'm planning on a couple of bee hotels to be built and put up in the spring. I'm in LN13 (east Lincolnshire) and it's good to know that I'm not quite too far north for winter bumbles :-)

  5. Once again you are doing such a great job. I am so looking forward to the January post, I had to subscribe.

  6. Thank you Dave for your comment. That is very encouraging. We try to keep the blog entries coming but it is more difficult in winter; but the next entry about what pollinators do in winter is already in the pipeline :-).

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article of bees etc. Thank you for taking the time to put it together.