Sandy Parrill: February begins bee-watching year

Mahonia is one of the first plants to bloom and offers nectar to early bees.Courtesy | Sandy Parrill

Mahonias outside the sunroom window are just beginning to unfurl tight clusters of yellow flowers, and with last weekend’s spring-like temperatures were buzzing with wild honeybees swarming for tasty bits of nectar to tide them over until spring. The weather bungee cord dropped to the bottom again in midweek with snow, sending them back to their bee-tree, probably in the woods along the interstate — there have been no beekeepers with hives close by for several years that I know of — to keep warm until we are on the upswing again.

Mahonias bear some of the first flowers available for winter-foraging bees in February, before dandelions and forsythias and along with hellebores and early crocuses. A barberry relative native to China, leatherleaf mahonia (formerly Mahonia bealei, now reclassified as Berberis bealei) is evergreen all year and sets flower buds in late fall; the intensely fragrant flowers open with the first warm days of early February just as bees need sustenance to tide them over until spring. This slow-growing mahonia can mature to 10 feet under ideal conditions, but ours have never topped 5 feet in the 25 years they’ve been growing here. Tough and mostly hardy — though the flower buds may be killed by a prolonged hard freeze — they suffer from few diseases or insect problems. They prune easily for size and shape right after berries are gone if they outgrow their space.

I had tried growing native, lower-growing Mahonia (Berberis) aquifolium underneath them to camouflage their bare, skinny legs, but the two mahonias didn’t seem compatible and bealei refused to share the bed. After trial and error with ground covers, my other nonnative winter-flowering favorite hellebores finally succeeded there, with later April-blooming Spanish bluebell bulbs tossed in for good measure. The combination creates a wonderful winter bright spot next to the front door under my winter nesting spot by the sunroom window, where I can watch while I have my morning coffee as it serves a smorgasbord for those honeybees, bumblebees (if we are lucky), a few early native bees and emerging, overwintered butterflies lured out by warm days.

Though leatherleaf mahonia is not on the “plant native” list, I grow it for the bees and migrating cedar waxwings that flock to the waxy, purple/black berries in April or May. It also feeds local bluebirds and robins, so I keep it despite dire warnings about invasiveness issued for the Southeast, where it has naturalized in forested areas. Though on watch lists for other parts of the country, it does not seem to be a problem for our colder Ozarks (unless rapidly advancing climate change suddenly flings us into zone 8). The University of Arkansas Extension calls it “a choice broadleaf evergreen shrub” for landscapes; apparently, they are not worried. We’ve had a few seedlings pop up here and there as seeds are spread by birds, but they are less of an issue than native dogwoods and redbuds that would completely reforest our garden in fewer than 10 years if we didn’t keep them pulled. I have plans for relocating those half-dozen or so small mahonia babies to the end of the woods below the row of oakleaf hydrangeas, where they can fight it out with day lilies and liriope. Deer-proof with their bloodletting, sharp, spiny leaves, a hedge of them may help protect the hydrangeas from the annual pruning they get from the local herd, Agnes et al.

Witch hazel is finished blooming, but early snow crocuses and Jasminum nudiflorum are luring honeybees, and dandelions will be dotting the lawn like drops of golden sunshine before the month is out. I’m hoping to see more native bees this spring. Last season, something happened to the colony of carpenter bees that had been living for several years in the rafters of my potting shed: They simply vanished. We saw almost no bumble bees and no red wasp nests anywhere, though some were seen visiting summer flowers. We saw a few green sweat bees. I don’t even remember seeing any yellow jackets, which is most unusual. Whether it was the near-constant rain affecting native, ground-nesting bees and hornets or something else, it was troubling to say the least. We are totally pesticide free, and there should have been many. The wasp issue may have been weather related; possibly the queens emerged too early in a winter warm spell and were killed by a hard freeze without establishing normal colonies, or mosquito spray I smelled in the neighborhood one day last spring may have been the cause. I’ve heard it was a bumper year for them elsewhere.

Honeybees, in spite of alarms raised about them disappearing, are adapting very well in feral colonies — too well in fact. As generalist foragers, they may be outcompeting smaller, plant-specific, specialized native bees for nectar and pollen. Researchers are now discovering that neonicotinoid pesticides may have little effect on honeybees other than making them nicotine addicts, but are devastating to bumblebee and other native bee populations.

The lack of wasps may have been a good thing for butterflies and moths; without them to prey on caterpillars, perhaps even monarchs will come back — wasps killed the few monarch caterpillars here three or four years back, and there haven’t been any since, in spite of ample purple swamp milkweed — though, upon reflection, nothing ate the milkweed last year, not even aphids, milkweed bugs or the normally abundant tussock moth caterpillars, which were also among the mysteriously missing insects. It seemed an unbalanced insect year at Chaos, with dozens of swallowtail butterflies and rarely seen silk moths, an abundance of lightning bugs, cicadas and June bugs, fewer grasshoppers and ticks, but more dragonflies, spiders and assassin bugs. It was also a year when we did little planting, less leaf removal and weeding out of native plants and less aggressive maintenance of the garden as a wait-and-see year. Just observing.

As essayist and poet Wendell Berry wrote: “We cannot know what we are doing until we know what Nature would be doing if we were doing nothing.”

Maybe this year, we will know a little better about what we should be doing. I’ll be watching the bees.

Sandy and Jim Parrill garden at Chaos, their acre of the Ozarks in Joplin. Sandy is a lifelong gardener and a Missouri master gardener. Jim is a former garden center owner and landscaper; both are past members of the Missouri Landscape and Nursery Association. Email them at and follow their Facebook page, A Parrillel Universe of Wonderful Things.

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