Planting Flowers for Your Bees

Flowers and bees are a perfect match. Bees gather nectar and pollen enabling plants to reproduce. In turn, pollen feeds baby bees and nectar is turned into honey to be enjoyed by the bees and you, the beekeeper. Everyone's happy.

While many kinds of trees and shrubs are bees' prime source of pollen and nectar, a wide range of flowers contributes to bee development and a bumper crop of honey. You can help in this process by adding some of these flowers to your garden or by not removing some that already are there. Did you know that many weeds actually are great bee plants, including the pesky dandelion, clover, goldenrod, and purple vetch? You can grow all kinds of flowering plants in your garden that not only will add beauty and fragrance to your yard but also give bees handy sources of pollen and nectar. You'll hear the warm buzz of bees enjoying them before you even realize the plants are in bloom.

Each source of nectar has its own flavor. A combination of nectars produces great tasting honey. Not all varieties of the flowers described in the sections that follow produce the same quality or quantity of pollen and nectar, but the ones that listed here work well and bees simply love them.

Asters (Aster/Callistephus)

The Aster family has more than 100 different species. The aster is one of the most common wildflowers ranging in color from white and pink to light and dark purple. They differ in height from 6 inches to 4 feet and can be fairly bushy. Asters are mostly perennials and blooming times vary from early spring to late fall. However, like all perennials, their blooming period lasts only a few weeks. Several varieties can be purchased as seeds, but you'll also find some aster plants offered for sale at nurseries.

Callistephus are china asters, which run the same range of colors, but produce varied styles of flowers. These pincushions-to-peony style flowers start blooming late in summer and continue their displays until frost. They are annuals. Plants can be bought potted from local nurseries or purchased by seed.

Sunflowers (Helianthus/Tithonia)

Sunflowers are made up of two families. They provide the bees with pollen and nectar. Each family is readily grown from seed, and you may find some nurseries that carry them as potted plants. When you start sunflowers early in the season, make sure that you use peat pots. They are rapid growers that transplant better when you leave their roots undisturbed by planting the entire pot. Helianthus annuus include the well-known giant sunflower as well as many varieties of dwarf and multibranched types. Sunflowers no longer are only yellow. They come in a wide assortment of colors, from white to rust and even several varieties of mixed shades.

Watch out for the hybrid that is pollenless, because it is of little use to the bees.

Salvia (Salvia/Farinacea-Strata/Splendens)

The Salvia family, with more than 500 varieties, includes the sages (Salvia officinalis) and many bedding plants. The sages are good nectar providers. When in bloom, they're covered with bees all day long. The variety of colors and sizes of the Farinacea and Splendens cover the entire gambit from white, apricot, all shades of red, and purple, to blues with bicolors and tricolors. They're easily found potted in garden stores or available as from seed. Salvia officinalis is the sage herb that you can use in cooking.

Bee balm (Monarda)

Bee balm (Monarda didyma) is a perennial herb that provides a long-lasting display of pink, red, and crimson flowers in midsummer. They start flowering when they reach about 18 inches and continue to grow to 3 or 4 feet in height. Deadheading them encourages more growth, which can prolong their flowering period. Bee balm is susceptible to powdery mildew but the Panorama type does a good job of fending off this problem. Bee balm is a good source of nectar for bees as well as butterflies and hummingbirds. This family also includes horsemint (M. punctata), and lemon mint (M. citriodora). The fragrant leaves of most of these plants are used in herbal teas. They are easily found in seed catalogs. Several varieties usually are available at local nurseries.

Hyssop (Agastache)

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) has a licorice fragrance when you bruise its leaves. It produces tall spikes of purple flowers in midsummer. Sometimes you can find a white variety of this plant. The bees happily gather nectar from it. Hyssop flowers from seed the first year that you plant it. Another common hyssop is found in the wild — Agastache nepetoides. It has a light, yellowish flower and is found in wooded areas. The seed for this variety are more difficult to find, but some seed houses carry them.

Mint (Mentha)

Chocolate, spearmint, apple mint, peppermint, and orange mint are only a few of the types of mints available. They come in a variety of colors, sizes, fragrances, and appearances, but when they produce a flower, bees are there. Most mints bloom late in the year. Some can be easily grown by seed; other varieties you can start from roots. Mints are easily obtained because they spread readily and many gardeners are happy to share their plants. Most nurseries carry peppermint and spearmint.

Cleome / Spider flower (Cleome)

Spider flower (Cleome hasslerana) is heat and drought tolerant and grows well in the cold Northeast. This annual is easy to start from seed and grows more than 4 feet tall with airy flowers that are 6 to 8 inches across. It comes in white, pink, and light purple and adds an unusual flower to your garden. It's also a good producer of nectar for the bees, blooming from midsummer to fall.

Thyme (Thymus)

Thyme varieties are low-growing hardy herbs. Common, French, wooly, silver, and lemon are but a few of the varieties available. Several are used in cooking. In spring most nurseries have large selections. These varieties also can be started by seed at least two to three months before planting. Put plants between your steppingstones or at the edges of your garden beds. They bloom from midsummer on. Bees will cover them most of the day gathering nectar, which is aromatic and produces nice tasting honey.

Poppy (Papaver/Eschscholzia)

Danish flag (Papaver somniferum), corn poppy (P. rhoeas), and Iceland poppies (P. nudicaule) are easily grown from seed. Some are deep scarlet or crimson, but others are found in pastel shades. All bloom freely from early summer to fall, need full sun, and grow 2 to 4 feet tall. Literature claims that poppies are valuable mostly for the pollen, but bees also are gathering a fair amount of nectar.

California poppies (Eschscholzia) are golden orange and easily grown. They are a good pollen source for honey bees. California poppies will self-seed in warmer climates.

Bachelor's buttons (Centaurea)

Annual and perennial selections of bachelor's buttons are available. The annuals (Centaurea cyanus, C. imperialis), found in shades of white, pink, yellow, purple, and blue, also are referred to as cornflowers.

The perennial version is a shade of blue that blooms early in summer, and sometimes again in late fall. They're sometimes referred to as mountain blue buttons. Annual and perennial varieties produce an ample supply of nectar. They're easily grown from seed and most nurseries have the annual variety available as potted plants.

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