The Buzz on Bulbs

Plant Spring-flowering bulbs now to help our honeybee friends come Spring.

A honeybee giddily collecting pollen from an early-Spring blooming Crocus.

Many of us gardeners and farmers are oft quite fond of pollinators, and recognize the absolutely vital role they play in our ecological landscape.  We incorporate pollinator-friendly plants known to be ‘bee magnets’ (which are only a small part of the pollinator world, but this beekeeper has a special spot in his heart for the honeybee).  Some of us even go out of our way to have bee-friendly plants blooming through the entire Summer season (guilty as charged!).  However, we often forget about those early months of April through early May. You know, when we are scouring the grass for even a faint trace of green growth to give us hope that Winter be gone at last.   

Many people don’t realize honeybees have important nutritional needs very early in the season, oftentimes before the snow has even fully melted here in Minnesota.

While nectar is important for bees, as it is a sweet staple that gives the hive energy, pollen could be said to be even more important in the early Spring months.  As long as the hive still has honey stores leftover, they will have food to fuel their early Spring activities.  However, developing larvae are fed pollen, and a Queen Bee starts laying eggs by March.  It is vital they have early sources of pollen so they have enough food for the massive Spring build-up of the hive population. Which in turn is vital to the hive rearing sufficient numbers to capture the late Spring nectar flow and build-up honey stores.

A Grape Hyacinth flower captures the tender attentions of a honeybee.

Some of the wild pollen options for honey bees are hazelnuts (which produce pollen as early as late March in Minnesota) and several varieties of willow, which produce pollen and some even nectar.  However, us gardeners and farmers can also play a huge role in helping out honeybees during this crucial time of the year.  And that is by incorporating bulbs into our landscapes!  Not only do they bring us a burst of color and life at the time of year we Minnesotans are in desperate need, but by choosing the right bulbs, we can also feed the bees.

So what flowers should you keep an eye out for?  This is an excellent question, for not all bulbs are created equal in the eyes of the honeybees.  Many of our flower bulbs have been highly selected for vibrant colors and unique forms.  Oftentimes reducing, or even eliminating, most of the pollen once produced by a species of flower.

In the early-Spring category (late-March to mid-April), three bulbs excel at providing food for honeybees.  These are:  Siberian Squill (Scillia siberica), Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa sp) and Crocus.  Following shortly on their heels, the mid-Spring (mid-April to mid-May) bulbs to consider are the Chequered Lily (Fritillaria meleagris) and the Grape Hyacinth (Muscari sp).  Come late-Spring the two best options are Alliums and Wood Hyacinth/Spanish Bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica).

This Fall, Jack’s Hardware & Farm Supply is carrying a wide array of bulbs from Netherland Bulb Company, which includes options from each of the above listed bulbs.  We will have one display carrying their best-selling bulb varieties, and another display carrying their selection of heirloom bulbs, which are all the same flower types, but with older varieties (some dating back to pre-1500!). 

Another point to consider when choosing what bulbs to plant is the color of the flower.  Bees do not see all colors equally.  For instance, it is thought the color red appears black to honeybees, so they are not attracted to red flowers (unlike hummingbirds, to whom red acts as a magnet!).   Bees see white, yellow, purple-violet and blue best, and many of the flowers best for bees all arrive in those ranges of color.

Now some of you may be wondering about a few of your other favorite bulbs, like tulips and daffodils/narcissus.  Certainly keep planting these bulbs if they bring you joy and happiness, but they seem to be of less interest to honeybees.

A wild tulip, also known as a Species-variety Tulip.

A general rule is that tulips are not as attractive to bees as they have very little nectar and a low pollen count.  That being said, the older tulip varieties which have a splayed open pattern, sometimes referred to as Species-variety Tulips (Tulipa spp.), or wild tulips, will have higher pollen counts and can definitely be worth adding to the overall picture.  As with all bulbs, focus on the colors that best attract the bees, and just know those stunningly gorgeous hybrid tulips are doing nothing for bees.  But certainly plant them to feed your soul!

The white Poets Narcissus (Daffodil) in contrast to a more hybridized variation of the Daffodil.

Daffodils and Narcissus fall into the same highly hybridized camp as most modern day tulips.  They have been selected and bred for many years to create gorgeous form and color, yet this process has made them unappealing to honeybees and other pollinators.  But as with tulips, the answer is to go back to the much older, unhybridized version of the bulb.  The Poets Daffodil (Narcissus poeticus) and Narcissus jonquilla are two older versions of the plant that will tend to attract and feed honeybees, though not as much as the previously mentioned bulbs.

It is always important to plant whichever bulbs feed your soul, to revel in the Spring beauty, just throw some in to feed the honeybees too!

Cultural Information and Planting Tips for Bulbs

When to plant:

For us here in Minnesota, now is the time!  Mid-September through Mid- to Late-October is generally considered bulb planting time.

Where to plant:

Most bulbs prefer full- to partial-sun.  The beauty of the bulb, is they typically grow and flower before deciduous trees even leaf out, thus opening up areas of your landscape that perhaps are too shady the rest of the Summer.

Avoid areas of your landscape you know are usually flooded out in the Spring.  

How to plant:

Bulbs are typically planted up to 2 – 3 times their height.  So a small 1” tall bulb would be planted about 3” deep.  

If you are planting out a larger area, you can certainly dig out a bed.  If planting just a few bulbs, then a great tool is the bulb planter, which you can purchase at Jack’s Hardware & Farm Supply.  Or if you are planting a lot of bulbs, but scattered through the landscape, then a bulb auger might just be your tool.  (I mean, power tools and bulbs just go hand-in-hand!)  Jack’s Hardware & Farm Supply can get one of these ordered for you, so stop on by!

farmerstefan

farmerstefan

Farmer Stefan has pursued a long and eclectic journey of working the land. From being raised on a southern Minnesota family farm, to studying and practicing Permaculture out in Oregon for years, to running an urban vegetable farm in south Minneapolis, to developing an AgroEcology Center up on the North Shore of Minnesota. Wheew, and the journey isn't over yet! Always happy to chat any aspect of farming, farming life or world transformation.

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