a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France

The bees in winter


Hives 12 December

This is a picture of the bee hives on the twelve of December.  They are enjoying the sun but the air temperature is only ten degrees Centigrade.  We have our nets at the ready because we have still been catching a few hornets this week.  Later in the day the air temperature rose to fifteen degrees.

Back to the hive

We had noticed that all the hives have been active this week, especially Sunflower our youngest who brings in a lot of pollen.  I decided to try and find out where the pollen was coming from.  Apart from this rich orange pollen she is bringing in an almost white pollen, a yellow pollen and a tiny bit of light green pollen.


I must admit I had a good idea of where to look for the orange pollen.

Gorse spines

Gorse is a good winter provider of pollen for the bees.  But look at those spines!  Not a plant for the garden but a good plant to have in wild areas for the bees.

Clouded Yellow

I saw several Clouded Yellow butterflies (Colias crocea, I think) warming themselves in the sunshine not far from the gorse.  It seemed strange to be walking in the sunshine in December and seeing butterflies on the wing.  However, night time temperatures are going down to only two or three degrees Centigrade so they will have to find somewhere to shelter when there is no sunshine.

Honeybee on thyme

I do have my doubts whether all the individual bees are equally industrious.  This bee attracted my attention as she was sitting on the thyme on the other side of the rockery just out of sight of the hives.  You will note she is not sitting on a flower.  The thyme has flowers, which she could hardly miss, but she chose to sunbathe on the tip of the stem to soak up the sun’s rays. Perhaps she is an autumn bee – programmed to take a more zen approach to life and to enjoy life until next spring.

Bee on Rape

There is a lot of Rape (Brassica napus) flowering at the moment.  These are the self seeded plants that have grown when the Rape was harvested earlier in the year.  Stretches of the flowers can be seen along the lines of bare vines where the seeds must have been trapped by the wind.

Rapeseed pollen on bee

Today I noticed a bee collecting pollen on the Rape flowers, so this is a possible source of the yellow pollen the bees are bringing home.

honeybee on winter honeysuckle

However, my Winter Honeysuckle is only metres away from the hives and is proving very popular with the bees.

10.5 degrees

The air temperature was only just over ten degrees when this lady joined the bumble bees to take her share of the nectar on offer.

Honeysuckle pollen

Later on some of the bees started collecting pollen which is a rich sugary yellow colour.

Garden bumble bee

The Honeysuckle flowers are also appreciated by the bumble bees that are active on the warm days too.

Large bumble in winter

If you compare the size of the Honeysuckle flowers and the queen bumble bee it will give you an idea of how big she is – much bigger than a honey bee.  I think she is a Garden bumble bee, a bombus hortorum, as she has a long face – but I find bumble bees difficult to identify so I am not sure.

Honey bee on Erica

I have been pleased to see the bees visiting my Erica darleyensis but I have not seen them taking any pollen.  So I have not solved the mystery of the source of the white pollen yet.

Bee on Lambs' ears

But with the bees there are more mysteries than answers.  This bee was sourcing something tasty from my Stachys (Lambs’ Ears) leaves!

Scabious in flower in December

So I have managed to work out that the majority of the pollen is coming from the gorse at the moment with smaller additions of yellow from the Winter Honeysuckle and Rape.  I did not get any photographs of bees on flowers gathering white pollen but there is plenty of Scabious flowering at the moment so that is my best guess as to where that white pollen came from.

I just hope that the bees are not as unsettled as some of the plants in the garden at the moment.  The fruit trees are starting to bud and we have seen our first apricot flower.

Author: afrenchgarden

Born in Scotland I have lived in England, Iran, USA and Greece. The house and land was bought twelve years ago in fulfilment of the dream of living in France that my Francophile husband nurtured. We had spent frequent holidays in France touring the more northerly parts and enjoying the food, scenery, architecture and of course gardens. However, we felt that to retire in France and enjoy a more clement climate than we currently had in Aberdeen we would need to find somewhere south of the river Loire but not too south to make returning to visit the UK onerous. The year 2000 saw us buying our house and setting it up to receive us and the family on holidays. The garden was more a field and we were helped by my son to remove the fencing that had separated the previous owners’ goats, sheep and chickens. We did inherit some lovely old trees and decided to plant more fruit trees that would survive and mature with the minimum of care until we took up permanent residence. The move took place in 2006 and the love hate relation with the “garden” started. There was so much to do in the house that there was little energy left for the hard tasks in the garden. It was very much a slow process and a steep learning curve. Expenditures have been kept to a minimum. The majority of the plants have been cuttings and I try to gather seeds wherever I can. The fruit trees have all been bought but we have tender hearts and cannot resist the little unloved shrub at a discount price and take it as a matter of honour to nurse it back to health. This year I have launched my Blog hoping to reach out to other gardeners in other countries. My aim is to make a garden for people to enjoy, providing shady and sunny spots with plants that enjoy living in this area with its limestone based subsoil and low rainfall in a warm summer. Exchanging ideas and exploring mutual problems will enrich my experience trying to form my French garden.

33 thoughts on “The bees in winter

  1. I’ve only seen a clouded yellow once or twice – they seem more common there, Amelia. I was in one of the outbuildings the other day and very nearly stood on a peacock butterfly. No effort to hide away just sitting, quietly, on the floor. Not too bright and self aware but very beautiful. Glad not to have squished it. Dave


  2. You are giving me quite an education in bees. Thanks.


  3. This is so heartwarming to see your Bees and the plants they enjoy Amelia. We have been walking 3 dogs this week across a heath filled with Gorse, but no Bees to be seen. Our temperatures are around 10 but there has been a damp chill the last few days too. I really enjoyed your photographs as well.


  4. I think your bees are very lucky to live with you in paradise! Who needs long cold winters? Not me and definitely not my bees 🙂

    I looked closely and the photos you have of bees all look fairly young (see how their wings are all intact). I am sure they are healthy and planning to work through the winter to help their queen with her spring brood. The only risk I see that you face is that the spring blush will stimulate the queen and she’ll start that spring brood before there’s enough nectar (and warm hours for the workers to collect) to feed them. Clearly pollen isn’t going to be an issue – the brood frames must be bursting with it!

    Thanks for the mid-winter update. I love following your bees on the other side of the world.


    • I had similar thoughts. I just hope the queen is counting the short daylight hours and knows that it is not time to start laying in earnest. We feel very fortunate to get more than our fair share of sunshine here. It makes walking and gardening in the winter much more enjoyable. Amelia


  5. Interesting that your bees are visiting the gorse. I have often wondered why gorse flowers over winter, as I’ve never noticed any pollinators on it. I’ve been for winter walks on Cornwall cliffs absolutely covered in gorse and never seen a single fly or bee like creature. Perhaps they are all hibernating whereas your warmer winters allow the bees to come out.


    • There are flies and hoverflies too, on the gorse over here. There is the odd bumble but it is not in numbers like the honey bees. The bumble bees prefer the other flowers like dandelions and clover which are also around. Amelia


  6. Bees and honeysuckle blossoms are just a dream here at this time of year. It must stay very warm there.


    • We are close to the Atlantic which keeps the winters mild and get a warm winter sun that keeps the temperatures higher than more inland. We still get periods of proper cold during the winter but it is these mild periods that are so useful to work in the garden and for walking. Amelia


  7. Interesting article , thanks. Amazing for the time of year.


  8. I’m all for the sunbather bee with the zen approach to late year sunshine


  9. Your observation about some bees not doing much work may hold true. Recent studies of ant colonies show that certain individuals just mill about not actually doing anything, and it is the same individuals all the time. The scientists are working on a hypothesis for why this should be. My best guess is that these are individuals being held in reserve in case there is a crisis.


    • Really interesting about the ants. A freeloader does not fit in with the “all pull together” idea of colony life. It reminds me of studies of the fit Alpha male trying to guard his hinds by force from the weaker Beta males who were more sneaky and managed to cover the females anyway by nipping in when the Alpha male was otherwise occupied. Amelia


  10. Like Emily I have seen gorse in profusion on Devon cliffs but never an insect taking advantage. I think this has been at times when insects are about, perhaps they find flowers they prefer here in the West Country.


    • It does depend on availability of other sources of nectar and pollen. There is also the question of air temperature and the temperature we perceive in the sun. I find that a difficult concept to get my mind round. The honey bees were on my winter honeysuckle and gathering pollen at eleven degrees centigrade today but it is not far from their hive and both are in the sun. Amelia


  11. I’m interested that your Lonicera is already flowering, as mine in the UK would have been too. Here it doesn’t flower until later. There aren’t so many bees around now but they are still visiting the Teucrium, lavender ad Arbutus.


    • It is interesting that the different climates don’t make the plants flower when you might expect them. My Teucrium is not flowering nor is the lavender but you are much warmer than us.
      Lindy Lou brought Diervilla rivularis to my notice and I have ordered two small plants in the U.K. They are supposed to be very drought tolerant but accept the shade too. I thought you might be interested to look them up. Amelia


  12. Pingback: The bees in winter | a french garden – WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  13. I’m jealous (on behalf of my bees.) Though we have abnormally mild winter temperatures (and no snow), they are out and about, but with no food in sight! Lucky French Bees!


  14. We are having a very mild Autumn and winter here too and I’ve seen bees on my mahonia flowers.


  15. I enjoyed your pollen investigation 🙂 Since keeping bees I pay more attention to the pollen colour in flowers and try to remember the colours when the bees fly home with pollen on their hind legs. Although Emily’s pollen chart under the hive roofs is also helpful!


  16. Loved the photos!

    Your post is all about mindfulness and being in the moment. As you went about studying the bees and the blooms, what were your thoughts in the moment?



    • I was very concentrated on pollen colour and finding flowering plants. However, watching the bees does help you be mindful of the moment as their lives are very short. They are always concentrated on their task of the present, whether finding sustenance or shelter. They are very beautiful and feed from beautiful plants but I doubt if they appreciate the beauty of their surroundings or the dangers that surround them. Amelia


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