A well-planned pollinator garden can help support native bees by providing critical food and habitat during the winter.
Many pollinators hibernate (in our gardens) through the coldest months, but some begin foraging as early as January or when temperatures rise above 55°F. Having plants blooming in your landscape from late fall through early spring can greatly contribute to local pollinator success. Providing food and winter shelter for pollinators is easy once we understand their basic needs.
Most bees hibernate during the coldest part of winter, some as larvae, others as adults. Some (honeybees) spend months together closed up in a hive, while many native bees live solitary lives underground or in hollow sticks or holes in wood.
Many butterflies and moth species lay eggs that hatch into larvae, which need to spend the winter protected underground, waiting to emerge as caterpillars in spring. So many lovely butterflies and other creatures are accidentally raked up and sent to the compost each fall during leaf cleanup! Check out the Xerces Society for more great information and even consider donating.
Avoid Accidentally Evicting the Pollinators You Worked to Attract to Your Garden This Spring
Leave the leaves! Avoid raking fallen leaves where practical. Collect and store leaves in piles to spread onto the garden in spring (or once they break down).
Keep a small patch (3 by 3 feet) of bare earth available for ground-nesting bumble bees and others; do not cover with mulch or disturb the area.
Wait until spring to cut back dormant perennials and shrubs, especially those with hollow stems, or leave at least 12 inches of stem for habitat; OR loosely pile sticks and cuttings on-site for winter and wait until spring before composting them.
Add Late Fall & Early Spring Bloomers
Bees take in carbohydrates from flower nectar and protein from pollen. In addition to using this as a food source for themselves, many bees begin collecting and storing pollen before reproducing to nourish their newly hatched offspring. Once spring temperatures reach the mid-50s for several consecutive days, early pollinators emerge hungry, eagerly searching for flowers.
Tip: Cluster early-season bloomers together for easy foraging; it’s hard to work when it’s cold!
There are so many trees that flower in early spring or late winter!
- Flowering, ornamental or edible fruit trees are excellent food sources and need pollination in order to set fruit: such: apple, cherry, pear, plum
- Less obvious flowers on early bloomers are also critical in providing early sustenance for pollinators: Willows (Salix), Hazelnuts (Corylus), Maples (Acer)
- Some of the earliest blooming shrubs that offer food for pollinators are native plants, most notably Oregon Grape (Berberis, formerly Mahonia).
- Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) flowers on bare branches before spring leaves emerge with oddly beautiful, stringy petals that are dusted in pollen for an easy meal.
- Sweet Box (Sarcococca) has a similar, fringe-style bloom that is sweetly scented with a fragrance that attracts pollinators from far and wide.
- Manzanitas and Strawberry Trees (Arbutus) have clusters of tiny bell-shaped flowers that are popular with bees and hummingbirds.
- Andromeda (Pieris) have flowers similar to Arbutus, but usually smaller and more prolific.
- Many Viburnum varieties, like Viburnum burkwoodii, bloom early and are excellent food sources.
- Fall and winter blooming Camellia (Camellia sasanqua) are popular with pollinators, though they favor single-petaled flowers over double or semi-double flower forms.
Winter Jasmine (Jasmine nudiflorum) and Evergreen Clematis (Clematis armandii) are early bloomers with flowers full of nectar and pollen. Evergreen Clematis blooms are wonderfully fragrant, usually ivory or creamy white—’Appleblossom’ is a pink-flowering variety. Hummingbirds and other pollinators are attracted to the flowers regardless of color.
Perennials, Bulbs, etc.
- Hellebores (especially single-flowering cultivars)
- Early flowering spring bulbs: Crocus, Snowdrops, Primroses, Heather (Erica), Heath (Calluna)
- Allow garden brassicas and ornamental cabbage and kale to flower in spring before removing.
Unfortunately, pansies and violas are not very useful to pollinators as a food supply—there is either insufficient pollen or it is not easily accessible.