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  • Joe Dlugo

The Season's First Bees on Winter Heath

A queen Bombus vosnesenskii bumblebee, a large, fuzzy bee with jet black and yellow hair, dangles upside-down from a small flower-laden branch of winter heath, Erica carnea.
Bombus vosnesenskii ~ the yellow-faced bumblebee

Every year around mid-February, after suffering through months of the abysmal gray Pacific Northwest rain chamber, I begin to wonder if I’ll ever see a bee again. Maybe you like bees and have had this same thought. Wherever winter strikes, Apid abandonment becomes a serious problem. Nature has given us the snowy owl or the arctic fox, but has yet to evolve a snow bee that can keep us entertained in the off season. It has however given us a magic winter plant.

Winter heath, Erica carnea, is that plant. Native of woodlands of southern and central Europe, it is an actual floral festival at a time when when most growers are dreaming away at the home and garden festival. Some time ago, in the vastness of evolutionary history, it seems a rather persuasive pollinator must have talked it into blooming at a time when things shouldn’t, and that has been good news for those who loathe the winter enough to show it who’s boss.

Erica carnea, numerous pink flowers matting a forest flower. "Schneeheide vor Birke" by Botanischer Garten TU Darmstadt is licensed under CC BY 2.0 CC BY
Winter heath growing in a European woodland. "Schneeheide vor Birke" by Botanischer Garten TU Darmstadt is licensed under CC BY 2.0 CC BY

Because of its magic Prozac-like powers, heath is planted just about everywhere in my area. In my town, I can find it at the gas station and the mall parking lot. Of course there are plentiful amounts in my own yard, and then down the street in my neighbor’s yards. Loads of it are for sale at the nurseries and the big box stores, where it’s marketed as “heather.” That it is not, but the name gives a pleasant response. Its ubiquity has made it an important plant for the season’s earliest bees, and especially for queen bumble bees.

A large patch of pink and white winter heath is planted on an island in a mall parking lot. There are stores in the background.
Winter heath growing in the local mall parking lot

These photos will attest to its importance. There’s virtually nothing else in bloom that has the same attraction. Sure, winter gives us a few blooming wild native shrubs on the coast, such as Indian plum and hazelnut, but one can watch one of this shrubs in full bloom all day and only see a few bees arrive. After watching the winter heath in action you wonder what the bees ever did before it was planted here. It is basically the same as plopping a bird feeder in your yard, attracting an unnatural but entertaining amount of bees to cheer up the scene.

A male Osmia lignaria, blue orchard bee, a dark green iridescent bee with long white hair and long antennae, visits the pink blooms of winter heath, Erica carnea.
Osmia lignaria (male) ~ Orchard Mason Bee / Blue Orchard Bee

It’s only natural to wonder what it is about winter heath that gives it such traction with the bees. Being that bees visit flowers for two things, nectar and pollen, a look inside reveals a plentiful amount of both. A close look at the cross section image below shows the nectar at the very base of the flower, just below the brownish colored ovary. It’s almost bubbling with it.

Dissection of an Erica carnea flower, winter heath.  Showing the nectaries at the base of the flower covered in nectar.
Dissection of Erica carnea flower

It’s also no slouch when it comes to pollen. Check out the video below and see for yourself the little white grains flying out when the bees insert activate the anthers with their proboscises.

In addition to it all, one must not overlook the fact that these plants produce an extraordinary quantity of flowers. This means that instead of having to fly between branches to get more food, the bees can simply take a step and there they are, at a fresh branch of three dozen new flowers. It’s easy to imagine a bumble bee having to burn some gas to get airborne, and nature has a well known tendency to play favorites with the efficient.

A large queen Bombus melanopygus, black-tailed bumblebee, with light yellow hair and orange hairs on her abdomen approaches a winter heath flower from below.
Bombus melanopygus ~ The Black-tailed Bumble Bee

So to sum things up, if you‘re having a hard time with winter, you can always shorten it by bringing a little heath to your garden. At the same time, you’ll be providing a motherload of resources for the season’s first pollinators, and those include the bumble bees. And of course, who doesn’t love bumble bees?

A dark green, tan-haired female mining bee of the genus Andrena walks along the pink bell-shaped flowers of winter heath, Erica carnea.
Andrena sp. ~ Mining Bee

A furrow bee of the genus Halictus feeds in a vertical position from the bright pink blooms of Erica carnea.
Furrow Bee ~ Halictus sp.

A honey bee worker curls its body upside down to feed from the pink bell-shaped flowers of winter heath, Erica carnea
Apis mellifera ~ The Honey Bee

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Joe Dlugo photographing bees on a tallgrass prairie

Joe Dlugo

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The world is a lovely place that has thousands of different kinds of bees. Contrary to popular opinion, few of are actually colored black and yellow. In fact, a great many are green - like those in the photo above.  Most also do not live in hives making honey and beeswax. They do other exciting things. I hope you find this intriguing and want to dive into my bee photo galleries to see the diversity of their world for yourself. 

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