It happens every year. As soon as the last garlic cloves are tucked into the ground, I start thinking about how one can never have enough spring-blooming bulbs, so why not plant a few more? As with all decisions about pretty flowers, I keep in mind the permaculture notion that plants should serve multiple purposes. Ring the bells and call the people, because very early bloomers like crocus and scilla provide pollen and nectar for bees on mild late winter days, when little else is in bloom. Easy to grow in a range of climates, early-blooming bulbs help get the first honey bee brood of spring off to a nutritious start, and they nourish native bees, too. A Turkish study of pollen that honey bees brought into their hives showed that until fruit trees and berries start blooming, early-flowering bulbs are of great value to bees.
It is also nice that little bulbs in general prosper when grown in landscape edges – areas where trees and shrubs give way to open lawn or garden.
Permaculture gardeners exploit edges by using them to grow berries or shade-tolerant perennials like comfrey. Because early-blooming bulbs make most of their growth when deciduous trees are bare, they are perfect for sites that get winter sun followed by summer shade.
Best Bulbs for Bees
Here are four early-blooming bee favorites for permaculture landscaping:
Snowdrops (Galanthus species) often bloom through February snow, but the pendant blooms last long enough for bees to find them on warmish afternoons (most Galanthus cultivars emit a mild fragrance). Single-flowered snowdrops are easier for bees to access compared to doubles. Snowdrops prosper in enriched planting holes beneath deciduous trees, or in the part-day shade cast by buildings. The clumps bloom best after they have had a couple of years to become settled in a permanent home, so be patient. Once established, snowdrops persist for decades.
Like snowdrops, winter aconites (Eranthis species) need a woodsy setting in which they can slowly naturalize in humus-rich soil. Large yellow buttercup flowers open in late winter, providing generous dabs of yellow pollen for bees. Grown from shriveled rhizomes, winter aconites should be soaked in water for several hours before planting. Many woodland flowers like acidic soil, but winter aconites prefer neutral to alkaline conditions. Periodic liming may help them along. All parts of the winter aconite are highly poisonous to people and pets, so they are naturally shunned by deer.
Crocuses become bee magnets on warm spring days, offering protein-rich pollen from noon to midafternoon. Crocus blossoms close up at night, so they are sometimes used as bee motels. Inexpensive and easy to grow, crocuses are fun to naturalize along the edges of a lawn or driveway, where they pop up like happy surprises each spring. Squirrels have a gift for finding buried corms of large-flowered Dutch crocus (C. vernus hybrids), but they quickly lose interest in crocus varieties classified as C. tommasinianus, which many crocus lovers simply call "tommies".
Dainty blue scilla (Scilla siberica), often called squill, brings bright blue color to the same niches that please crocuses, such as the edges of the lawn or open woods. Scilla pollen is bright blue, too, so bees show blue rather than orange or yellow pollen sacs when they have been foraging among the squill. After the flowers fade, scilla produces seeds that enable it to spread a little too enthusiastically in some climates. But when sited carefully, a drift of scilla will delight both humans and bees.
None of these bulbs are edible, and several are poisonous, but their beauty nourishes the soul at a time of year when inspiration is in short supply. This matches up well with permaculture’s goal to promote harmony among all of the inhabitants of a place, especially important ones like bees.
By Barbara Pleasant
Photo of scilla courtesy of Rusty Berlew of Honeybeesuite.com