Supporting early emerging pollinators

As our garden pollinators start to emerge in spring, just like the birds, they need our help to nest and breed, Jean Vernon explains.

Carder Bee on Dandelion

We know that our garden birds need top quality food, especially at nesting time, but have you ever given any thought to the food your garden provides for the bees and other early emerging pollinators? These essential creatures play a very vital role in our gardens. Not only are they the pollinators that enable your plants to set seed, but they are also a crucial layer in the food chain, becoming food for our garden birds and other garden wildlife. All pollinators need a supply of energy rich nectar to sustain their activities and they get this from flowers. Some pollinators like our bees need pollen too. Pollen is a protein rich food source which bees of all sorts feed to their offspring. Newly emerging queen bumblebees and female solitary bees also need pollen to ripen their ovaries before they start laying their eggs.

Queen bumblebee on grape hyacinth. Image: Jean Vernon

Form and function

Have a look in your garden right now and note what plants are in flower?? Chances are you’ve got a few crocuses, maybe some hazel catkins and some other early flowering bulbs. But that could be it?? Maybe it’s time to do more to support your garden pollinators?

It’s not just about having things in flower in the garden. Some pollinators are fussy, only feeding on particular plant pollen, but there are more complicated reasons why some of your garden plants aren’t suitable for many species. The early emerging Queen bumblebees are relatively large and heavy and can’t land on wiry stems and delicate blooms, they need strong stems to support their weight and landing pads to touch down. But, different pollinators have varying length tongues. Hoverflies and honeybees for example have short tongues, as do the early emerging Buff and White-Tailed bumblebees, and cannot feed from longer tubular flowers that the longer-tongued pollinators like some bees, most butterflies and moths can feed from. Short-tongued insects need flowers with easy access like the daisy family, crocus, tulips and even flowers like dandelions, yes these are wildflowers and are an excellent and copious source of both pollen and nectar. 

Short tongued insects need flowers with easy access like crocus. Image: Jean Vernon


Established gardens often have a range of garden shrubs and many of these are fantastic plants for pollinators especially if they flower early. Plants like the flowering currant Ribes sanguineum, with its drooping bunches of deep pink flowers, each one full of nectar. And when each cluster has 15 to 20+ flowers, and each shrub has dozens and dozens of clusters, this plant becomes an all-you-can-eat buffet for our pollinator pals. In my garden it’s a magnet for the Queen early bumblebees, but it will also support other, longer-tongued pollinators. Many attractive, hardy shrubs including hebe, fuchsia, cotoneaster, mahonia, lavender, escallonia, viburnum, buddleia and weigela also provide food for bees, at different times of the year. Just a few well-chosen shrubs in your garden will help support pollinators throughout their lifecycle. For early spring flowers consider Viburnum bodnatense ‘Dawn’ and Lonicera fragrantissima. 

Plant pollinator perennials

Choose a few garden stalwarts that will offer early spring flowers to brighten your plot and help to feed your pollinator pals. Lungwort and primroses are a good place to start. Both are a great source of nectar for longer tongued pollinators like the bee fly and the hairy-footed flower bees. There are some lovely varieties that will add spring colour to your plot. Give them a tidy up by removing old leaves and uncovering the flowers. This makes the flowers more accessible to pollinators and more visible to you too and improves your overall display.

Lungwort is a great source of nectar for longer tongued pollinators. Image: Jean Vernon

Interplant with perennial bulbs like grape hyacinths, crocus and species tulips. If you have them in pots bring one or two into a greenhouse or cool room so that they flower a few days earlier. Put them outside in the daylight so that the pollinators can feed and bring them inside for the evening so that you can enjoy their beauty close up.

For a plant that offers some dynamic flower power for your garden pollinators, choose hellebores. These virtual living umbrellas offer copious amounts of nectar in spring, creating all you can eat buffet bars for foraging insects.

Hellebores offer copious amounts of nectar in spring. Image: Jean Vernon

Trees for bees

You might be surprised to learn that some trees are good for bees. Some like willow, alder and hazel have pollen rich catkins. These are wind pollinated, but the willow catkins also offer nectar. Others offer masses of nectar rich flowers, like cherries and cherry plum, crab apples and pear. Some can be planted into a boundary hedge, like blackthorn, hawthorn and wild pear.

Hoverfly on willow. Image: Jean Vernon

Nesting places

You may have an insect house to provide safe nesting places for solitary bees. These are used by cavity nesting bees, like mason bees, leaf-cutter bees and occasionally the wool-carder bee. But there are dozens of other harmless solitary bees that nest in the ground, in sandy, sun blushed banks and even soft mortar and cobb walls. If you are building anything with bricks consider installing a Bee Brick into a south facing wall.

Give a bee a nest or home
Plant a Bee Brick on a south facing wall. Image: Jean Vernon

Natural garden nesting materials include shrub leaves, mud to seal the nests, fluff from fuzzy plant leaves like the lamb’s ears and even resin from the sticky buds and sap of trees.

Keep a watch out for Queen bumblebees zigzagging low over the terrain, they are searching for a suitable nest site and will take over an old rodent nest, some like the Tree Bumblebee search vertically and often nest in empty bird boxes or under the house eaves. 

Waterproof house for wildlife. Image: Jean Vernon

Larval stage

Most pollinators have a larval stage. And when it comes to butterflies, moths and even hoverflies, our garden plants and some of our garden insects are their larval food. Plants are at the bottom of the food chain, and even though we plant them for our pleasure many of them are fodder for different species of moth and butterfly larvae. These pollinators are very choosy about where they lay their eggs and only do so on healthy specimens of the plants that suit their larvae. The caterpillars do strip foliage but plants are rarely killed and often the caterpillars carry out a form of the Chelsea Chop. Many grass species and native plants are larval plants for moths and butterflies. And of course caterpillars are vital food for our garden birds! If you don’t want caterpillars eating your plants, grow plants that are not their larval food. Problem solved.


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