PLANTS THAT ATTRACT BEES
Bees and other pollinators are under a lot of stress both from loss of habitat and from pesticides. Individuals can do a great deal of good by avoiding bee killing pesticides and by improving their planting to fight loss of habitat. Most of the plants that bees like will also attract butterflies.
What is a BEE anyway?
Canada Agriculture and Food Museum page on Bees
We tend to think of bee as honey bees but there are a whole lot of other kinds of bees.
Here is a link to a Wikipedia article on bees
The various family of bees, including bumble bees, are the most important pollinators followed by hoverflies, but other insects and animals also do some pollination. Wasps, Butterflies and moths, horseflies and mosquitoes, some beetles, birds such as hummingbirds, some bats, and a few species of monkeys, possums, lemurs and rodents, all do some pollination.
Bee colonies have long been brought in by fruit growers to pollinate the orchards and it is not unusual for tomato farmers to keep a bumblebee colony in the greenhouse where the tomatoes are grown.
Bee numbers are going down
The numbers of insects are going down, this has been noted in many species, and bees and other pollinators are no exception.
Many reasons have been suggested. These include the use of pesticides, loss of habitat such as reduction of number of suitable food plants or smaller area where food plants are found. These are major causes but others have been identified.
What do bees eat?
They eat sugary nectar for energy and pollen for fat and protein. Plants that are pollinated by insects make the nectar to coax the insects in. They can then sip the nectar and transfer pollen around while carrying some away to feed the young larva.
What can you do to attract bees and pollinators?
It turns out that individuals can do a great deal.
Don't use insecticides and take great care in choosing any material you use in your yard. Not only do you not want to expose yourself and your family and pets to poisons but you cannot help bees if you poison them.
Many common pesticides including glyphosate have been classified as probable carcinogens. Link is to an article in the Lancet, you need to register but it's free. California has deemed Roundup to be a carcinogen.
Choose plants that produce nectar and pollen
Choose plants that will feed the bees rather than plants that look nice but produce no pollen or nectar. Plants and flowers are developed to look nice. Sadly many have lost the ability to produce pollen or nectar and are useless from the bees point of view. A beautiful green lawn is a desert as far as bee, butterflies and many other insects are concerned.
Accepting "weeds" in your life can make an enormous amount of difference to bees.
Devote some areas to grow flowers
Paving an area or planting unsuitable plants counts as habitat loss. Reduce the lawn area and increase the flowers.
Plant trees that produce flowers
Many fruit trees and other trees such as the tulip tree produce lovely flowers. Not only do they smell nice, often produce fruit, but the flowers can feed bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators. (link is to my page on growing tulip trees.)
Where to get plants that attract bees?
Most native flowers will attract and feed pollinators including bees. Go for a drive in the country or walk around your neighbourhood, and look at what is growing wild and what the bees are going for. Many so called wild flowers are lovely and can be grown in your gardens. Collect seeds or get plants from garden stores, many offer native plants for sale. Many native plants are protected so don't go off with your shovel and indiscriminately dig anything you like!
Another good source of information to help you choose plants for bees and butterflies is the various growers. They often have lists of plants they offer that attract pollinators. There are many online suppliers.
Ask your neighbours and friends. Keep an eye out.
Try and go out several times so you can get a range of plants for the various seasons.
Plants that attract pollinators, by the seasons.
The following suggestions are all plants that attract bees in my garden. Some will work well anywhere, others might be more of a local specialty. It gives you a place to start though. I'm not including all the plants where I've seen bees, just the ones that they seem to prefer and which attracts the greater number of bees.
This is a particularly difficult time for bees. There are not a lot of plants flowering yet so it's important to have early spring flowers.
This spring I saw bees eating out of the bird feeder. Dozens of them were among the seeds covered in dust. There were not a lot of flowers around so I guess they were picking up seed dust instead of pollen. I tried giving them sugar water in a sponge but they ignored it and kept going to the seeds. Birds were not impressed and stayed away. As soon as there were better flowers they went to that.
When I later read about this I found out that they are attracted particularly to corn dust.
Siberian Squill is my number 1 winner for early spring. It come up early and is beloved by bees in my area. It will naturalize and make a blue carpet in your lawn and come back every year. It grows from a bulb and can be planted directly in the lawn. The squill will flower and seed before it's time to mow the grass. It virtually dissappears from the lawn until the next spring.
It makes blue pollen.
Amazon lists these guys for Siberian Squill bulbs.
Other plants you can sneak into your lawn are Crocus and Snowdrops, Glory of the Snow and Bluebells. These guys hurry up and flower, the leaves soak up the sun for a couple of weeks to replenish the bulbs for next year, and then die down and go dormant for the rest of the year.DayLily Nursery sells crocus on Amazon
This past spring I went for a walk and found a patch of trilliums covered in honey bees. I guess bees like trilliums. Trilliums are protected, you can buy them in many places though. Don't pick the flowers because it kills the plant. Canadian Tire had some in their garden store section this year. Many garden stores will carry them.This trillium supplieer on amazon has good reviews, others are quite suspect. Fraser's Thimble Farm sells trilliums in BC Canada. and American Meadows sells trilliums in the U.S.
I know Dandelions are not everyone's favourite plant BUT bees and other pollinators just love them. I try to aim for a compromise and allow them to flower but pull them after. They come when there are not a lot of other flowers in my area so that gives them a bit of an advantage in my lawn.
A small enthusiastic creeping plant that I know as Creeping Charlie makes an abundance of small blue flowers in the spring that draws bees by the hundreads. The rest of the year, I yank it out by the handful but in the spring it pays the rent by feeding lots of honey and other small bees. DONT GO AND PLANT IT though. It can be quite an aggressive weed. If you have it, let it flower for the bees THEN pull it out.
Late Spring - Early Summer
For late spring, Milkweed Flowers are my absolute grand champion for the late spring early summer period. The flowers are covered by not only honey bees and many other bees including bumble bees and carpenter bees, but also by butterflies, and many other insects.
I grow milkweed to feed and encourage Monarch butterflies but the flowers are a favourite plant in the insect world. Here is a link to my milkweed page
I expected the milkweed to be popular with the monarchs but was blown away by the wide range of insects that could not get enough of it. I've read that the milkweed pollen can be quite sticky and sometimes traps bees but I've not seen this happen. I've seen Swallowtail butterflies come to the milkweed.
Sadly the flowering period is not very long and only lasts about 2 weeks.
A great favourite of bees and other beneficial insects is clover. My lawn has large patches of clover that bloom in the late spring and attract lots of bees. I hold off mowing these areas while the white blooms are out, to let the bees feed. It's not much of a problem because white clover lawns do not grow very tall anyway.
I've also planted purple clover that is much taller, in a wild flower area on my septic mound. It is a popular plant for all the bees.
Many people deliberately plant clover lawns because they are quite trouble free. They also have the benefit of not dying as badly as a regular lawn when peed on by a dog and the ability to crowd out many of the weeds that can prosper in a regular lawn. Here is an article about the pros and cons of a clover lawn.
I've seen the clover lawn seeds in my garden store so they are readily available.
Sweet white clover and sunflowers come out about this time and have a steady flow of customers
There are a large number of small fruit trees and bushes that are native or are invasive in this area. They flower in the late spring and attract bees and other insects in great quantity. One of them is the Japanese Honeysuckle, Lonicera maakii.
It is generally considered invasive but in this area it does not seem to have elbowed out the native plants. Mine was planted by previous owners as an ornamental. It has shown no urge to expand itself beyond the original plant. It produces white-yellow flowers which are well liked of bees and later red berries that robins love. It seems to particularly appeal to juvenile robins in my yard.
In the summer bees and other insects are frantically visiting flowers. Many flowers have worked well for me.
Second only to milkweed in popularity, Catnip flowers have a quite long flowering season. Bees will fly over a field of wildflowers to get to my catnip patch. It also attracts many butterflies. I grow just regular catnip but there are many varieties some prettier than others. The more decorative catnips tend to get called CATMINTS.
When I first planted it I planned to harvest and dry it after it had started flowering but I did not have the heart to cut the flowers and take them away from the bees.
I have many hosta plants and the flower spikes are not particularly spectacular but there is a steady number of bees and other insects attracted to them. After they have flowered I cut them down.DayLily Nursery sells hosta online on Amazon
Bittersweet, (some people call it deadly nightshade by mistake) is very popular with bumble bees. Later the fruit attract birds. Unlike deadly nightshade it is only mildly poisonous. It's interesting that the bumble bees are also attracted to the tomatoes and aubergines. These are all member of the nightshade family.
In the summer there is no shortage of suitable flowers to pick from and plant for bees. This year I tried growing the Cheerio bee plants seed assortment which was available for free. It contained among others, California poppies, Purple coneflowers, forget-me-nots, Chinese Asters and several others. They certainly attracted bees but no stars except the forget me nots which were popular. They are considered invasive in some areas though.
Cosmos of any colour and Purple coneflowers attract bees. The cosmos seeds will later attract American Goldfinches.David's Garden seeds sells nice cosmos assortments. They also sell Purple Coneflower seeds.
All the daisy-like flowers seem to attract bees and other pollinators. They are also very cheerful in the garden.
Some flowers DO NOT attract bees at all. Roses are lovely but bees don't come to them. Neither do bees like geraniums (actually they are really pelargonium), impatience or marigolds, (I plant marigolds because they help keep nematodes out of the garden). Bees stay away from petunias as well.
Strangely Bee Balm does not attract honey bees but bumble bees come, as do the delightful hummingbird moths.
The Butterfly Bush is famous for attracting butterflies but bees love it as well and it flowers all summer long. It is said to be invasive but in our area it tends to die down in the winter so it is not particularly aggressive. I plant them where I can keep an eye on them and beat them back if they grow too large.Proven Winners sell Butterfly bush plants.
I live in a 6A zone and butterfly bush is sometimes difficult to grow. I have 2 plants, one comes back every year with no dying of the branches and one plant dies down to the roots every winter but comes back up in the spring. I throw a bit of mulch on it in the fall to help it along.
Late Summer and Fall
Late summer and early fall continues the summer flowers and also brings a few new flowers that attract bees.
In my garden 2 plants are particularly attractive to bees. Goldenrods and Oregano are absolute bee magnets and are constantly covered with bees and other insects.Roundstone Native Seeds sells goldenrod seeds
lavender which seems to bloom summer to fall, and most other herbs including chives, mints (spring), fennel and dill are all attractive to bees. The lavender is also very attractive to butterflies and is covered with little blue ones as well as skippers and yellow butterflies.
Asters come out at this time and are a popular stop for the bees in my garden.Roundstone Native Seed sells aster seeds
When the zinnias first came out I did not see any bees coming to them and was dissappointed, but when the little yellow flowers in the centre of the zinnias started blooming the bees flocked to the plants.
The Sedum attract a tremendous number of bees and other pollinators. Even when the flowers are barely open the bees line up to go on the flowers. Definitely a star plant.
Don't bees sting?
I suppose they do but the only time I've been stung is when I walk on them barefeet in the clover. They are not aggressive and avoid biting if you are just poking around.
How about wasps? Wasps are great in the garden and should be encouraged. They come for pollen but also attack and destroy a huge number of caterpillars and other things that attack the vegetable garden. I once watched as a team of black narrow waisted wasps landed on the asparagus and carried away the little grubs that were decimating the plants. Wasps definitely have their place in the garden. I have not been bitten in 4 years, and only once before that when I stepped on a nest. If you need to get rid of a nest, the garden hose seems to work very well for me.
University of Illinois Extension article on Bee Friendly in your garden.
University of Vermont Extension, Bee friendly garden
University of Maine Article on creating a bee friendly landscape
Buzz about bees list of flowers that attract bees
Bee Friendly flower seeds
Nice article from Gardeners's supply company on attracting bees and pollinators.
Natural Living Ideas has an article on plants to attract bees to your garden.
Burpee Wildflower Seed Mix for Pollinators
David's Seeds Pollinator/butterfly mixed seeds.
Article by the Woodland Trust UK on wildflowers for bees.
article from Beverly Bees on Planting a Bee Friendly Garden
Book: Pollinators of native plants.
Book: Pollinator Friendly Gardening
Book: Insect Pollinators
Book: 100 Plants to Feed the Bees