28 February 2024

February Fair Maids

Snowdrops are not native to Britain but originate from mainland Europe and the common variety, Galanthus nivalis  (Galanthusmilkflower, nivalis of the snow) is believed to have been introduced around the beginning of the 16th century, or possibly earlier with the Romans.

Appearing in February and March, they are amongst the earliest spring flowers in the UK. In milder winters they may flower in January or even in late December but regardless of the weather they never fail to appear even pushing through frozen, snow-covered ground.

Snowdrops have grown here for a long time, so it’s not surprising that they have adapted to our climate. Their leaves have hardened tips to help them break through frozen soil and their sap contains a kind of natural antifreeze.

Sex in the Snow

But how do they reproduce in a cold, frozen winter when there are not many pollinating insects flying about? All snowdrops have evolved to split their bulbs and increase their spread this way, resulting in the glorious carpets of flowers that clothe an undisturbed woodland floor. Double-flowered snowdrops, in particular, are sterile so this is the only way they can reproduce. Some other varieties are self-fertile so they can produce their own seed and as the little seeds ripen in the pod they excrete substances attractive to ants which distribute the seeds underground, another successful ploy!

Landscape showing Green vegetables of Kale and Cabbage
Bee feeling in a snowdrop
Honey Bees and Snowdrops

However, on a bright, spring day, honey bees and early-flying bumble bees are enticed out by the warm sun and go hunting for pollen and nectar.  Like other flowers, snowdrops use fragrance as a means of attracting pollinators and this perfume is irresistible to the early-flying insects.  Once the temperature rises above 10C ( 50F) the outer petals open wide allowing the bees to access the nectar, closing up as the temperature drops.  The flowers hang downwards keeping the pollen dry but, undeterred, the pollinators cling to the petals with their back legs whilst they push upwards into the flower bells.

Pollen grains

The male parts of the flower produce the golden-orange pollen which is clustered deep inside the flower cavity and the delicate green lines and markings on the inner petals guide the bee to the correct spot to harvest the delicious nectar. In the process, their body hairs get liberally covered with pollen grains.  The pollen grains are classed as small (25microns) and the sculpted surface helps them stick to the bees’ hairs.

Single Snow drop pollen, Using an an oil immersion lens.
Snowdrop fertilisation

The bee then brushes the pollen from its head and body down to its hind legs where the pollen is squeezed into the little yellow ‘saddle-bags’ called pollen baskets, and the successful bee flies back to the hive or nest with food for the colony.

In exchange for this food, the bee has fertilised the snowdrop and the process of seed production begins. Amazingly, they will probably visit about one hundred flowers before returning to the hive.

Snowdrop pollen under a microscope
Snowdrops – things you didn’t know

To us, one snowdrop looks pretty much the same as the next one but if you look closely you may notice different shaped petals, a taller stem, or longer, more dangling flowers. Welcome to the world of the snowdrop collector or Galanthophile! There are hundreds of different varieties of snowdrop and an extremely rare bulb could set you back by a thousand pounds.

Please try not to pick or disturb them in the wild as they are an endangered species and once removed they take a long time to re-establish. All parts of Snowdrops are poisonous, particularly the bulbs.

Margaret is the Head gardener and leads the Gardening team.


Catherine Bradley.<br />

Ilona is the Head Beekeeper and leads the Apiary team.

Written and photographed by

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