Bees are vital to the human food chain – 1/3 of our food production is completely dependent on pollination by bees - but the bees have been in trouble for a number of years. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has decimated thousands of honey bee hives, and several popular food and fiber crops have suffered as a result. Native bees are suffering from a loss of habitat. It’s time to do something!
Gardeners to the rescue
In the last few years, home gardeners have become acutely aware of this issue and have expressed an interest in gardening for the bees. A growing number of gardeners are giving space to a small hive in their gardens. They are joining forces in the natural beekeeping community whose philosophy is “instead of one beekeeper with 60,000 hives, our goal is 60,000 beekeepers with one hive each”.
Of course, not everyone wants, or can accommodate, a hive in their backyard, but everyone CAN plan and manage a garden that is friendly, inviting, and healthy for our gentle “sisters of the sun”. It’s a great partnership, too. The bees will pollinate your plants as they forage, resulting in an increase in the number and quality of fruits, vegetables, and viable seeds to save and replant.
Making a Garden Bee-Friendly
If you have introduced plants designed to attract butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden, you already have good foundation on which to build your Bee-Friendly garden. Most pollinators have some things in common such as a desire for natural nectar, but not all nectar plants suit all pollinators. For example, hummingbirds have long beaks and butterflies have a long proboscis for sipping nectar from deep, tubular blooms. Bees do not have this mechanism and are more likely to be attracted to open blossoms. (Note: some bees will chew through the side of a tubular flower to get at the nectar.) It’s not only about nectar though, and bees do have some very different and specific needs that differ from those of butterflies and hummingbirds.
Here are some things to consider:
Bees need food all year long. Yes, they do store honey in the hive for times when nectar is not flowing, but a hive can easily run out of this stored food during a dearth – a period of little to no forage. Bees require two food sources; nectar and pollen. Nectar is their source of carbohydrates, and pollen is their source of protein. They also combine nectar and pollen to make “bee bread” that is fed to their larvae.
Try to provide something blooming at all times. This is not as hard as it sounds, and it is usually a goal of most gardeners anyway. It just takes some planning. For example, Tazetta narcissus will bloom for a long period of time from late fall into early spring.
There are many winter blooming annuals that can be planted along with the Tazettas – Snapdragons, Calendulas, Sweet Alyssum, Poppies, Larkspurs, and more. These all overlap the late winter and early spring temperate fruit tree season when bees will be enjoying apple, peach, plum and pear blossoms.
Citrus and blueberries overlap this season, and then come our summer favorites – sunflowers, zinnias, and a host of summer blooming trees, shrubs, herbs and perennials. Many of these bloom well into fall such as the Catmints, Basils, Coral Vines, and Lantanas. Planning cycles of overlapping blooms like this example will provide both nectar and pollen year round.
The Right Plants
Honeybees have adapted to forage many flowers, but native species of bees evolved with our native plants. Try to include natives and long-adapted species in your garden. Your garden doesn’t have to be exclusively natives, but you will see more varieties of native bees if you include as many you can and the honey bees love them, too. We have many beautiful native plants to choose from and they are right at home in our ornamental gardens.
Bees love herbs. Herb flowers seem to produce a lot of nectar, and they will be covered with a cloud of bees on warm, sunny days. I love to watch our honeybees work over the Catmints (Calamintha and Nepeta varieties). Even though the flowers are tiny, they will make dozens of stops on one plant before they return to the hive. The same is true for the Mentha spicata varieties – the Spearmints. Borage is on my Must Have** list. This is such a gorgeous plant all on its own, and the bees simply adore it.
Bees also love fruits and veggies, and here is where our partnership with them comes into play. We need them, and they need us. You will have more success in attracting bees to pollinate your fruits and veggies at the right time if you have a diverse garden full of blooming plants before and after their bloom season. Bees are creatures of habit and they will have made your yard a “frequent fly zone” long before the production garden season begins.
Another factor in the Right Plants plan is the type of flowers you provide. Bees prefer single-flowered varieties over double-flowered varieties. In general, these flowers produce more pollen. Double-flowered varieties are often the result of hybridization, and pollen production suffers in the process. As a general rule, avoid highly hybridized flowers. They will visit a variety of flower shapes – composite, broad tubular, and open-bowl shaped flowers are among their preferences.
Bees need a lot of water. In addition to water for drinking, they use it to cool their hives and to dilute honey to feed to their young. The easiest way to provide water is to put out a “bee bath” – a modified bird bath.
Bees are small, and they can’t swim. You will need to make sure they don’t drown by filling the bee-bath with gravel, sand, or by providing a large, porous landing rock. The rock will draw up water from the bee-bath and the bees will land on the rock and suck water from the saturated portions.
I have seen recommendations to provide twigs to allow them to crawl out of the water, but it is my experience that this is not the best way. Some will drown before they can reach the twigs. It’s best to give them something to stand on so they can reach the edge of the water and just sip at it.
Bees also love damp potting soil and compost. In fact, out of several water sources in my yard, they seem to prefer sucking water out of the plants potted in my propagation nursery or out of a hanging basket lined with moss that is watered frequently.
I have inquired of my beekeeper friends about whether this behavior might mean they need minerals from the soil, similar to butterflies seeking minerals from a mud puddle. While I don’t have a definitive answer yet, I do know that some beekeepers are providing small salt licks for their bees because they have also observed this behavior.
Provide native bee habitats Honey bees are colonial creatures and we can easily set up a hive that will suit them as a home. But native bees are often solitary bees and it is a bit harder to encourage them to set up housekeeping in your garden. You can set up or make a Mason bee house. If you observe native bee activity in a tree hollow, or in a spot of bare ground, you can make arrangements to prevent them from being disturbed. The most important thing most of us can do for the native bees is to provide safe forage.
Maybe we can’t manage this on a national level, but we can certainly pull this off in our own gardens. Find alternatives to using synthetic pesticides and minimize your use of natural pesticides. If you do have to resort to using a pesticide of any kind, make sure you use it in a way that will not adversely affect the bees. Do not apply it during their foraging hours (usually just after dawn until dusk). Try to isolate the treated plant from access by bees. If it is in bloom at the time of treatment, try tossing a lightweight row cover or some fine netting such as tulle, over it.
A healthy garden requires fewer pesticides. Build healthy soil and you will have a healthy garden. Begin a program of using high quality compost, such as that produced by Nature’s Way Resources, and natural soil amendments. Mulch trees and perennial beds with decomposing leaves and pine straw. Avoid dyed mulches or mulches that are devoid of nutrition when they decompose.
If you find that any plant requires constant attention, take a moment to assess why. If it is just not happy and healthy in your garden, perhaps it is time to shovel-prune it and pay a visit your favorite nursery to find a better selection.
Trees for Bees?
When planning a Bee-Friendly garden, don’t forget the trees. Bees love flowering trees like Vitex, Flowering Verbena, Hollies, Bottlebrush, Cherry Laurels, Catalpa, Redbud and Althea. It is harder to observe bees foraging there, but if you will stand still, look up, and watch the trees for a few minutes, you will see bees foraging among the blooms. Make sure to consider your flowering trees when you are planning your year-round bloom schedule.
Leave a few Wild Ones
This might sound like the hardest part at first, but it will make sense after you get used to it – don’t mow your grass too early in the spring. Bees simply love early spring weeds like clover and dandelions. They provide some badly needed, high quality, early forage at a time when honey stores will be low. Bees will be actively renewing the hive and heavy nectar supplies are required. The Queen will be laying and a lot of food is needed by the developing larvae.
If your garden seems a bit slow in breaking into bountiful spring bloom, try to wait a week or two to do your first mowing and let the bees have the weeds. You can still mow them before they go to seed and cause you trouble down the line. Even some plants we consider pest species, such as the Chinese Tallow tree, can provide really good forage – in fact Tallow honey has a following in some places, and one Louisiana beekeeper blends a bit in with his other honeys for a “Cajun twang”. I wouldn’t cultivate a Chinese Tallow tree intentionally, but if there was one in the neighborhood, I would expect my bees to be foraging there.
Even though there is a growing community of gardeners who are anxious to establish Bee-Friendly gardens, there is still a lot of bad press out there to defend. Some people are legitimately allergic to bees, and they may not want to walk through a garden buzzing with them. Once you have an established Bee-Friendly garden, you may want to mention this to visitors before they enter.
There are also people who are just afraid of bees. You can help ease their concerns with patience and respect for their fears. Just pass along the knowledge that bees are just NOT out to get us. They are actually quite docile. In fact, I would sooner enter a yard with strange bees than a strange dog. A bee has a job to do, and losing her life to you is generally not in her plan.
Most bee stings come from a mistake – a misunderstanding between species. Bees sting to defend themselves. If they aren’t pressed into a corner, they generally don’t defend.
I enjoy the company of bees in my garden. This summer I had a great time watching a small, furry, solid black bee make every single wand of blooms on a Lavender plant. She spent a leisurely time working from stem to stem, and I had a nice time watching her.
My husband monitors the water in the water lily tubs because the bees draw down the water so fast in the summer. It’s fascinating to watch them use the lily pads as landing strips and they seem to drink for a long time – I wonder how they hold it all.
I have scooted bees off a plant I needed to prune or deadhead with the tip of my finger. They seem to be unconcerned. I love watching them work my fence-line beds where they visit everything from climbing roses to the salvias to the tiny, tiny flowers of the Nepetas. It’s fun to watch them travel around in a circle, gathering pollen from every single disk flower on a sunflower bloom or to watch them disappear into a Penstemon bloom and then pop out a minute later. In short, a Bee-Friendly garden is just a nice place to bee.
Plants for a Bee-Friendly Garden
This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a list of readily available and easy to grow plants to get you started. As you make your selections, remember that bees need quantity, diversity, and continuity of supply.
Your nursery professional can help you with proper planting seasons and expected bloom times. Bees will enjoy all of these plants, but the ones marked with a double asterisk ** are MUST HAVES for all Bee-Friendly gardens.
Bee Friendly Plants
Basils (culinary and ornamental)
Blue Mist Flower
Foxglove (winter annual)
Fruit trees, temperate
Golden Rain Tree
Gulf Coast Penstemon**
Honeysuckle (non-invasive types)
Larkspur (winter annual)
Mints** (esp. Mentha spicata types)
Poppies (winter annual)
Tazettas (single only)
White Mist Flower**