As the climate trends toward warmer winters, honeybees begin foraging earlier than traditionally expected. A few early-blooming plants will provide at least a small amount of nectar to assist bees in making it through the flux between warm and cold spells, but early-blooming trees are the most important source of nectar and pollen.
How Bees Forage
A honeybee's diet consists of nectar from flowers, which is condensed and turned into honey, as well as pollen collected from a variety of plants. During the spring and summer months, there is usually a good supply of options for collecting both. However, many colonies in areas affected by climate change may be fooled by warmer weather into believing that plants are available for them to use even when they are not.
In the late winter and early spring, honeybee colonies begin to rear young in large numbers in preparation for their busy season ahead. Bees feed their larvae, often called "brood," a mix of honey and pollen. Several plants that appear to have insignificant blooms to us can help support a growing colony. Honeybees will generally fly from the hive on days that range in temperature from the high 40s and up but most often will wait to forage consistently until there have been several days of weather near the 50-degree mark.
Important Winter Plants
Often the earliest plants to bloom are some rarely found in gardens. Winter hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) and witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana and Hamamelis vernalis) may both bloom as early as January and provide a source of pollen and nectar for bees foraging on the occasional warm day.
In February swamp plants such as skunk cabbage begin to bloom. Skunk cabbage is known for its pungent odor but the bees know it for its copious amounts of pollen. The plants must be grown in swampy soil and will begin to go dormant after blooming. In the Mid-Atlantic states, skunk cabbage leaves are usually completely decayed around July and only the basal growth of the plant is left. A few bulbs also bloom in February including winter aconite. Although bees will visit these plants, unless they are planted in massive drifts, the payoff will be very low.
Although gardeners often see honeybees on annual and perennial flowers, trees are an even more important source of both pollen and nectar for honeybees. Maples are among the early bloomers in February and March.
Shrubs such as pussy willow (Salix discolor) and forsythia are also early bloomers and an excellent source of food for bees.
Weeds, such as dandelion and clover, are a favorite of bees and have, in recent years, begun blooming as early as February. Delaying (or eliminating) the use of herbicides will enable honeybees to use these early bloomers as a food source.
Helping Bees Survive
In addition to planting a garden for continuous bloom, honeybees can be greatly helped by having an unfrozen water source. Maintaining a bird bath with a few rocks or sticks in it, to allow bees to perch for a drink, aids bees in finding a source close to their home for quick trips back and forth. Beehives should not be disturbed in the winter as the bees themselves, and their brood, can chill and die from even brief exposure to the elements.