Honeybees prefer to be up in the trees dancing laden with pollen among the bursting willow catkins, heady with excitement in the pearly cups of apple blossom or vibrating with ecstatic delight among the golden flowers of the Linden tree. The honeybees come down from time to time to taste the wildflowers, foxgloves, knapweeds, teasels, mints and ivies to share them with the wild bumblebees and solitary bees. Wildflowers provide a varied diet that strengthens their immune systems. Then it’s back up to the trees again for pure pleasure! Our Rivers of Flowers have trees in them to feed the bees.
Nectar or Pollen? Plants provide nectar as a reward for pollination services. Nectar is the sugary fuel all pollinators depend on, and it is the basis of honey, a store of bee food for the winter. Bees are the only pollinators to actively, rather than inadvertently, collect pollen to nourish their larvae. Pollen provides the ‘protein’ part of their diet whereas nectar provides the high energy yielding ‘carbohydrate’. Bees will collect pollen from Alder and Hazel trees that do not need to provide nectar because they are wind pollinated. The list below shows that Pear blossom produces hardly any nectar whereas the Lime or Linden tree is a real nectar feast!
Most of the earliest flowering trees are wind pollinated with flowers arranged in slim cylindrical clusters or catkins. The female catkins are usually smaller than the male catkins and tucked away in buds or hidden behind leaves while the pollen laden catkins hang it all out to catch the wind like so many ‘lamb’s tails’.
Native trees: Alder (P) * Apple (NP) * Blackthorn (NP) * Cherry (NP) * Crab Apple (NP) * Hazel (P) * Hawthorn (NP) * Holly (NP) * Lime (N) * Maple (NP) * Medlar (NP) * Mountain Ash (NP) * Quince (NP) * Pear (P) * Sweet Chestnut (NP) * Sycamore (NP) * Whitebeam (NP) * Willow (NP) N = Nectar; P=Pollen
Spring Flowering Trees
Male and Female Alder catkins © Derek Harper
The Alder (Alnus) is the common name for a group of flowering trees and shrubs belonging to the Birch family. This interesting wind pollinated tree can take in nitrogen from the air and therefore it will improve the fertility of the soil it is growing in. The Alder provides a wonderful supply of early pollen for bees. The male catkins are long and slender with the shorter darker female catkins growing on the same tree. Our native alder is the Black Alder but the Tag Alder is common in the UK.
Male Hazel catkins © Simone Stibbe
The Hazel (Corylus) comes from a group of wind pollinated flowering trees and shrubs usually placed in the Birch family. In the native Common Hazel, the flowers are produced very early in spring before the leaves and appear as long pale yellow male catkins and tiny female catkins concealed in buds. Hazels have grown in the British Isles since the end of the last Ice Age. It makes a good hedging plant.
Male Goat Willow catkins© Kurt Stüber
The Willow (Salix) provides a glorious frosting of golden pollen and modest amount of nectar for bees very early in the year. The Salices are a large group of around 400 types of flowering trees and shrubs world wide. The White Willow and the Crack Willow that grows beside riverbanks are common trees native to Europe. Shrubs with narrow leaves are called Osiers. The broad leaved shrubs are known as Sallows or Sally Trees, and include the Goat Willow and the Grey Willow both commonly called Pussy Willow because their unopened catkins resemble the silky fur of a kitten. The Willows produce a modest amount of nectar which bees can use to make honey so they are a valuable source of both nectar and pollen early in the year. Willows are among the shortest lived of the native trees.
Blackthorn blossom © Anne Carter Van Roy
The Blackthorn flowers between March to May. The branches look as if they have been frosted with flowers because the massed white flowers come out well before the leaves. It is an excellent hedging plant.
Wild Apple blossom © John Fielding
Fruit Trees such as the Wild or Crab Apple, Medlar, Quince and Wild Pear flower in spring and are great for bees. Wild Pear is the earliest flowering (March- April) but it’s rather a rare tree and not well endowed with nectar unlike the Wild Cherry.
The Hawthorn is a quick growing excellent hedging plant that in the right location, can be a very long-lived tree. It is often a profuse nectar provider, flowering with white blossom from May onwards and known as the May Tree.
The Field Maple is May flowering too and a good source of nectar. It can found as a standard tree or in hedgerows.
Urban Trees: The graceful Mountain Ash, also known as the Rowan, and the Common Whitebeam, are two small trees that thrive in the urban environment. From May onwards, sweet scented white flowers of the Whitebeam draw the bees in avidly while the white down under its surprisingly large leaves shimmers the tree with silver. The Wild Service (Sorbus torminalis) is one of the UK’s rarest trees. It is not easy to germinate and very slow growing. The Wild Service produces a profusion of white blossom in May, gleaming among the maple-shaped leaves and the way that the bark peels off the tree in squares has led to the tree being called the Chequered Tree. It is an indicator of ancient woodland.
Summer Flowering Trees
Holly flowers © Penny Mayes
The Holly given space and light, can grow into a fine tall tree. The European Holly belongs to this very large group of 400-600 plants world wide. It has tiny evergreen flowers that are very attractive to bees and flower in June.
Sweet Chestnut Male Catkins © Christophe Bidaud
The Chestnut belongs to the same family as the oak and beech and should not be confused with the Horse Chestnut that was introduced into this country in the late 16 century and produces inedible fruit. The European Chestnut has flowers arranged on catkins that follow the leaves in late spring or early summer. The male catkins are long and a pale cream colour whereas the female flowers are green, spiny and partially hidden by leaves. The flowers have a heady sweet scent to attract the bees. The Chestnut was brought over to the British Isles during Roman times. It is very long lived and can reach great heights.
Lime Tree flowers © Bob Embleton
The Lime Tree also called the Linden Tree has two native varieties, small leaved and broad leaved, that produce such fragrant and heady nectar loved so much by the bees that appear to be ‘drunk’ with delight. The Lime flowers are valued for their medicinal qualities in teas and honey, and for their perfume. These trees are among the longest living and tallest of the native trees.
Trees that feed the bees, which were introduced to the British during the past 1,000 years and are now naturalised, include the Sycamore (circa 1250 AD) and the Horse Chestnut (circa 1600 AD).
Honeybee on Willow catkins © BCB
Native Britsh Trees (1998) by Andy Thomson published by Wooden Books
Bees in the City by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum
Tree Muskateers: Russell Miller