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Little Green Space by Penny Bunting



Growing plants that produce nectar-rich flowers in winter and early spring is an important way to help pollinators, including bumblebees, butterflies and hoverflies.

Many insects hibernate over winter. Bumblebees may wake up and emerge during mild spells in January, February and March – and when they do, they will be on the lookout for something to eat.

Butterflies may also be active during warmer winter weather. Species such as peacock, comma, brimstone and small tortoiseshell overwinter as adults – you can sometimes find them sheltering in sheds or garages.

The problem is that when these insects emerge, there are very few flowers about for them to feed on. So growing some winter-flowering plants can be a real lifeline for hungry bees and butterflies.

Planting different varieties is a good idea too, as different flowers can help different insects. Bumblebees, for example, can have either a long or a short tongue, depending on the species. So growing some deep, tubular flowers will help long-tongued bumblebees, while flatter, shallow flowers are preferred by short-tongued bumblebees.

Five pollinator-friendly plants for winter and spring nectar

Primroses are found in woodland and under hedgerows. The cheerful yellow flowers usually start appearing in early March – but in mild winters, they can be seen as early as December. If buying plants, look for the UK’s native variety, primula vulgaris.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Bee kind tool (www.beekind.bumblebeeconservation.org/home) marks our native primrose as a bumblebee ‘Super Plant’. It’s also an important plant for butterflies. The flowers provide nectar for brimstone and small tortoiseshell butterflies, and primroses are also the foodplant of Duke of Burgundy caterpillars.

As they are a woodland flower, primroses are useful for growing under trees and in other shady spaces¬ – and they look lovely in patio pots.

All heathers are attractive to bees, but winter-flowering varieties are particularly useful, as they can be in flower right through winter from December to April.

Most winter-flowering heathers are compact shrubs that are easy to grow, and tolerate drought well. They’re a good choice if you have acidic soil – but can also be grown in a container filled with ericaceous compost.

There are many different varieties of winter-flowering heather, and you can choose from pink, purple or white flowers (the latter are believed to bring good luck!). With some varieties, though, the blooms don’t open fully – these don’t benefit pollinators, as insects can’t access the nectar within. So when buying plants, look for varieties with the RHS ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ logo.

Snowdrops are often the first flowers to appear in January – and can sometimes be seen as early as December. They have delicate white blooms that are attractive to bumblebees, hoverflies, and other pollinators.

While not native to the UK – they are believed to have been introduced to England in the early 1500s – snowdrops have been around for a long time, and are now a common sight in gardens and the countryside.

Snowdrops are available in many different varieties. For maximum wildlife benefit, avoid the frilly varieties and opt for the single-flowered Galanthus nivalis, or common snowdrop.

Mahonia is a brilliant plant for bumblebees, producing abundant nectar when there’s not much else about. The cheerful and fragrant yellow flowers bloom all winter, from November to April. Some mahonia varieties – mahonia aquifolium (also known as Oregon Grape), for example – produce berries in autumn that are eaten by birds.

These hardy, evergreen shrubs are easy to grow in all types of soils and situations, including shade. Although mahonia is a non-native plant, it’s well worth growing in a wildlife-friendly garden.

One of the best things you can do for pollinators in winter and early spring is to let the dandelions grow.

These native flowers appear as early as February, providing cheerful bursts of colour – and abundant nectar – when there are few other flowers in bloom. Dandelions are not only loved by bumblebees – in fact, they support more than 50 insect species, including butterflies, moths and hoverflies. And the seeds are a useful source of food for birds like goldfinches, too.

When it comes to growing dandelions, it couldn’t be easier – just do nothing, and they should soon appear. Leaving a patch of lawn unmown is a good way to encourage dandelions to grow – and an added benefit is that other pollinator-friendly, native wildflowers should also soon emerge. Red and white clover, buttercups, cuckooflower and ox-eye daisies are all beneficial plants that often appear when you let the grass grow.

Waxwings in the Peak District

In January, huge flocks of waxwings took up residence near Hassop Station on the Monsal Trail.

These gorgeous, colourful birds aren’t often seen in large numbers in Derbyshire. They breed in Scandinavia and Russia, only visiting the UK (usually the far north and along the east coast) when the food sources in their home countries are depleted.

Waxwings are distinctive-looking birds, with sleek pink-grey plumage, a black face, and black wings and tail streaked with white and yellow. The species gets its name from the bright red waxy tip on its wing. It’s a little smaller than a starling, and has a crest of feathers on top of its head.

When large numbers of waxwings visit the UK, it’s called an ‘irruption’. More than 300 birds were recorded along the Monsal Trail – one of the highest numbers of these birds recorded in Derbyshire. They were probably attracted by the abundance of hawthorn berries in the area, which – along with rowan berries – are one of the waxwing’s favourite foods.

We were lucky enough to see the waxwings last month, and it was a fantastic sight. They are relatively tame birds, and seemed totally unphased by the large numbers of photographers and birdwatchers that flocked to see them.

It’s been a bumper season for hawthorn berries this winter – in fact, autumn 2023 saw one of the biggest crops of haws recorded since records began 20 years ago.

Waxwings aren’t the only birds to enjoy hawthorn berries. Fieldfares, redwings, blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and chaffinches can all be seen feasting on haws along the Monsal Trail – and these birds will still be around once the waxwings have moved on.


Penny Bunting

Twitter @LGSpace

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