Debby Lockey's Blog

Winter plants for winter insects.

In recent years I think we have all become aware of the plight of the honeybee and the importance of having the correct plants in our gardens to feed insects.  This has resulted in wild flower gardens popping up all over the place, culminating in the beautiful wildflower garden at the 2012 Olympic Park.  These fantastic, brightly coloured gardens are great for attracting and supplying food to insects over the summer and autumn months. But as I look out over my garden on yet another wet, mild winter’s day I can’t help wondering what happens to those same insects over the winter months when there are hardly any wildflowers present in the garden let alone bursting into flower?


Naturally there are fewer insects during winter.  Many die before winter arrives, leaving only eggs, larvae or pupae to keep future generations alive.  Others migrate to warmer climates.  Of those that do remain, some go into a form of hibernation known as diapause. In this state, these insects survive the cold weather by either building up the level of glycerol in their body fluids, which acts as a kind of antifreeze, or they actually freeze their own body fluids. Others remain semi-active.  Honeybees, some ants and mayfly fall into this latter category.


These semi-active insects do bunker down for the winter.  They move further into their nests and stop up the exit with organic matter such as leaves and soil.  Then they all huddle together for extra warmth.  Studies at Delaware University have shown that during the winter months honeybees in the middle of the huddle produce heat by moving their wings, while those on the outside stay still and effectively create an insulating layer to keep the warmth within the group.  The bees then take it in turn to be in the middle or on the outside with only the queen bee staying right in the centre of the huddle.


To maintain this level of activity, bees and other active insects need to go out and forage for nectar, as their food can only be stored for a couple of days.  As their level of activity is much slower during these winter months, and in order to conserve energy, the insects tend not to travel far from their homes. Food giving plants must therefore be readily available in our gardens for these insects.


Below is a list of plants that insects like to feed on during the winter.  They are mainly single flowering plants as this design makes it easier for insects to reach the nectar and pollen. And, an added bonus for us gardeners; many of these flowers have a strong scent in order to attract the insects.  What more can a gardener ask for – flowers and scent in the depths of winter.


The food-providing plants that normally flower between November and February are:


Chaenomeles (Japanese quince)

Clematis cirrhosa

Mahonia (great in a shady part of the garden)

Lonicera x purpusii

Viburnum tinus or viburnum bodnantense

Early crocus e.g. Crocus tommansinianus.


While from March to April grow




Erica Carnea

Primroses and Polyanthus

Pulmonaria (Lungwort)

Single flowering snowdrops


Wall flowers

Fruit trees

 One of my client's garden in spring.  We also planted Mahonia, which the bees and flies love, and Sarcococca which, on a sunny still winter's day,  fills the air with its heady scent

And another tip to help insects over winter: don’t keep your garden too tidy.  Wood piles, heaps of leaves, and dead flower stalks all provide shelter as well as food for insects. So don’t remove them, unless they are diseased.  Instead when the weather is suitable, try planting some of these heavily scented shrubs and flowers near the house so you as well as the insects can enjoy them when the sun comes out.  

Posted 9:22, Wednesday 2nd March

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About Debby's blog

Every month I will give you some tips on what to do in your garden and allotment for that time of the year.  Because I am a designer there will be elements of design thrown in along with gardening advice.

I’ll also let you know about any projects I am working on;  the ideas behind the design, how we will implement it and what the outcome was like. 

If any one would like to contribute I would be pleased to hear from you.  I am always pleased to hear other people’s experiences especially since I have found that the more I learn about gardening the less I seem to know.

Recent posts

Growing sweet peas, Lathyrus odoratus, for summer fragrance

How to create a lovely spring planting combination using the colour yellow.

Posters to help you make your street hedgehog friendly

Winter plants for winter insects.

The spring garden

A vegetable plot for lazy people

Some design thoughts

Achieving balance in the garden

Sculptures in the garden

Small is definitely beautiful