Worried about your honey bees not getting enough food? Or maybe you’re just wondering what you can do to help bees in general? At certain times of the year, bee forage can be more difficult to find, forcing bees to fly further afield to seek nourishment. So why not create your own flower garden to attract honey bees? Even a small space in a rural or urban setting can provide a boost for honey bees throughout the season.
Some honey plants that are easy to grow in most parts of the USA include:
- Trees like Basswood, Maple and Willow
- Herbs such as Oregano, Rosemary and Chives and Lemon Balm
- Flowers such as Sunflower, Coneflower, Lavender and Bee Balm
- Lawn plants like clover, bee balm, Self heal and Creeping thyme
But not all flowering plants are best for bees. You need different shrubs and flowers that bloom at various times of the year to provide a rich feeding ground for our buzzy friends.
Why plant flowers to attract honey bees?
Bees are terrific pollinators. By transferring pollen from flower to flower they allow plants to reproduce and at the same time yield fruit. A vast amount of our food crops rely on pollination (particularly by bees) to produce a successful harvest.
However, it’s said that bee populations have been in decline for several years because of a number of factors including industrial agricultural methods, pesticides, climate change, loss of habitat, and various bee diseases.
And industrial agriculture techniques have had a big impact on the quantity and quality of wild flowers which bees would normally take advantage of. A large amount of native vegetation and wildflowers get plowed for planting crops causing wildflowers to be in serious decline. Some species have even disappeared!
As a result, the variety and extent of nectar sources for bees has significantly diminished in certain areas. This causes stress on bee colonies looking for forage and particularly at certain times of the year when blooming plants become even more rare.
Honey Bee Forage
Honey bee food or forage includes pollen and nectar which bees will normally search for within a three mile radius of their hives. Bees aren’t fussy about what flowers they feed on. They will feed on just about any kind of flowering plant that rewards them with nourishment. Nectar contains a high level of sugar and provides bees with a source of energy. Pollen is a source of protein and minerals. Bees will eat nectar and pollen directly from the flowers, but they also collect these substances to bring them back to the hive. Nectar will be turned into honey and pollen can be stored as food to help raise brood.
Honeybees cover a vast area in search of food and although a small garden isn’t sufficient for all of a hives needs you can still plant species that are particularly beneficial for bees.
Honey plants and nectar flow
Honey bees forage for food during what is known as the nectar flow(sometimes called the honey flow). This is the period of the year when native vegetation is blooming and conditions are good for bees to get out and about. At this time bees start making honey which they stock as food for the winter (bees don’t make honey all year round, but only to survive the cold winter season).
But sometimes the nectar flow isn’t great. Depending on where you live, the nectar flow typically begins in spring around April and lasts until the fall in September. The bloom period at both of these extremes can be minimal. Also, during very hot summers certain flowering plants suffer greatly and this diminishes the amount of forage for bees.
This shortage of nectar producing blooms is often referred to by beekeepers as the nectar dearth.
Providing bees with diverse and plentiful food sources is an excellent way to improve the health of bee colonies. Making sure bees have access to varied blooming plant sources allows bees to better resist diseases and pests such as the varroa mite which can destroy a bee colony if left untreated.
Plan Blooms for All Year Round
If you select a wide range of plants for your garden you’ll be supplying a diversity of forage options for bees. To help bees at difficult times of the year you can choose varieties of plants, flowers, and even trees that bloom at different times of the year. This will help provide a more constant nectar source if you supply a few different types of blooms for all seasons.
First and foremost, consider different species that bloom at these times of the year:
- Late winter and early spring
- Summer (in particular during hot summers)
- Fall (when the nectar flow starts to dwindle)
Choose Plants which Bloom Early and Late in the Season
One of the best ways to help bees that are struggling to find food at the beginning and end of the nectar flow is to choose some bee friendly winter plants. Planting flowers, shrubs, and trees that bloom in the colder winter months and early spring can help keep bees happy and healthy. Some good examples include the following:
- Crocus species come in a huge variety of colors. They are often among the first flowers to bloom in spring.
- Hellebores are frost resistant and bloom from winter to early spring. The variety known as Christmas Rose is a good example.
- Winter Heather is easy to grow and blooms for long periods. This plant can provide salvation for bees in winter and early spring. There are lots of varieties to choose from.
- Hyacinths are grown from bulbs which you plant in the fall and they have very fragrant flowers. And if you leave them they’ll grow back the following year!
In the fall the number of flowering plants starts to reduce and honey bees find it more difficult to find nectar sources. But there are plenty of fall and summer nectar plants that you can include in your garden to help.
- Bee Bee Trees are a major source of nectar for honey bees and will flower through september.
- Dahlias and Ivy can provide bees with a good source of nectar well into autumn.
- Aster flowers are very ornamental and come in a variety of species and bloom from august through to October.
- Maple trees such as Silver Maple bloom as early as February. They’re a great source of nutrition for a honey bee colony coming out of winter.
Plant Blooms for the Hot Dry Summer Months
Drought tolerant flowering plants are an excellent addition to any bee garden particularly if your summers tend to be long and hot. Any plants which have roots that dig down deep into the soil will resist well in warm climates.
There are plenty of flowering perennials to choose from such as Globe Thistle and Sea Holly or mediterranean flowering plants like Lavender and Star Jasmine.
- Blueweed, otherwise known as Viper’s Bugloss blooms in both spring and the end of the summer. This flower provides a steady nectar source because the flowers are shaped in such a way that they protect the nectar from evaporation in the heat.
- Ornamental Onions are a great perennial (long lasting) plant which can flower from early summer through to fall.
- Butterfly weed is another species of milkweed and flowers from early summer to early autumn.
- Coneflowers also fare well during hot summers and last from year to year.
- Wand Flowers are very drought tolerant and is a bushy north american flower which grows in clumps (great for attracting bees).
Flowers which yield a High Nectar Production
Do you want your bees to get the biggest payoff when visiting your flowers? If you’re a beekeeper and you’re concerned about your honey yield, there are certain types of flowering plants that produce a sizeable amount of nectar.
Milkweed is a great species of plant for honey bees and has one of the highest honey yields.
Oilseed Rape is widely cultivated for its oil so if you see this plant in nearby fields it’s an important honey plant for your bees.
Aster flowers (also commonly referred to as daisies) has a huge variety of different species. These flowers provide a major source of nectar for bees.
Heather contributes another significant nectar source for honey bees and the flavor of heather honey is quite unique!
Reconsider your Lawn
White Clover, Thistles and Dandelions might be considered as weeds by most, but they are also a great source of nutrition for honey bees. You might want to reconsider how you treat an area of your lawn and leave flowering species to flourish. Short, low growing flowers such as Self Heal and Creeping Thyme can be mixed in with your lawn. You can even add a few blooming herbs. Roman Chamomile tolerates very low a high temperatures and makes a great flowering addition to any lawn.
One of the reasons for the decline in honey bee populations is thought to be because of pesticides which are toxic for bees. Colony collapse disorder is a phenomenon where honey bees suddenly disappear from their hives leading to the failure of the colony. This problem is thought to be linked to pesticides. The phenomenon has become so bad that certain countries have banned certain types of pesticide in an effort to help preserve bees.
So, when considering types of plants for your bee-friendly yard, think about the different seasons when flowering plants struggle and bee forage tends to lessen. If you can supply alternatives for bees during these moments of the year you’ll be providing a great service. Whatever your reasons for wanting to start a bee garden I’m sure your buzzing friends will thank you!
What are the flowers that attract honey bees? Did you know that honey bees are attracted to some color more than others? Bees don’t perceive color in the same way as we do. For example the color red appears black to bees. Plants with blue and yellow flowers are good options because bees can easily perceive these colors. Purple and white are also easily found by bees. It helps to plant flowering shrubs in groups to provide a stronger visual presence and attract bees more easily.