Plant Selection

What plants bees like is not an easy question.

Bees are fussy. Even about color. Given a choice, the color of flower blooms that dependably attract bees are: white, yellow, pink, blue and violet. Bees see reds very poorly if at all, as their vision seems tilted toward the violet, ultra-violet wavelengths. Reds and oranges are not usually on the bees preferred list, but if that’s all there is left blooming in September is a red annual red flower, that will provide when hunger over-rides fussy.

September 2015 Giant Zinnia

September 2015 Giant Zinnia

Honeybees behave as a group inter-communicating about where the best food sources are. Some large greenhouses keep honeybees as well as bumblebees for pollination.  If a honeybee from a greenhouse-kept colony foraging outside the greenhouse discovers a more favored group of plants to extract pollen from outside the greenhouse, the honeybees have been known to ignore the plants in the greenhouse they were supposed to pollinate and pass through the greenhouse vents to work with the preferred outside source of pollen.  Bumblebees do not seem to be socially organized to extent that a honeybee colony is and would most likely remain in the greenhouse to dine on what is available, even though one or two might find the good stuff outside.

Having flower blossoms available is only part of the answer. Having the right flower blossoms available locally  is the end task so they don’t have to go looking.

Plant Selection

  • Focus on native perennials to create long-term permanent habitat because bees and local regional perennials co-evolved together.  Over thousands of generations, bees have been instrumental in assisting their favorite plants to multiply and become well established.  Stay away from trendy new designer plants that have been bred for appearance only.  After all, that’s where today’s cardboard-tasting mass produced tomatoes came from!
  • Think about the old-fashioned flowers that were at your grandmothers house; lilacs, violets, morning glories, clover in the lawn,etc.. These are examples of perennials that harbored no strange pests and flourished locally.
  • Most flowering plants only bloom for a relatively short period of time. Bees need to feed from spring to fall. Plan a succession of overlapping bloom periods to eliminate a pollen or nectar “Gap”.  Some plants such as coreopsis or goldenrod have a relatively long blooming period as a method of dealing with the problem.
  • Abundant pollen and nectar!  Stick with the list recommendations in the references. They’re bee favorites and you always see bees in them.
  • Supplemented minimally by annuals.  Annuals such as the zinnia above might be useful to fill in at the end of season. I’d favor perennial New England Asters and Goldenrod instead of Zinnia, but I can readily admit that Zinnias look better than goldenrod next to the backyard picnic table.
  • Available and affordable because you’d like to have a lot of flowers. Native perennials have naturalized  in your area and should be easy to grow with minimal maintenance once established.  They’re also likely to be inexpensive because they thrive.
  • Choose pesticide-free seeds and plants because pesticides are indiscriminate in what insects they kill.

Pesticide-free deserves some emphasis: Technological progress enhances everything and pesticides are no exception. The newly developed “Twenty-First Century” pesticides commonly in use now  such as neonicotinoids are “systemic” meaning they spread though all parts of the plant including, leaves, flower petals, and even the pollen and seeds.  These pesticides may be sold for their ability to kill leaf-eating caterpillars, but the systemic pesticide also becomes present in pollen that bees can take back to their hives as food.

Persistent means their harmful effects persist over several growing seasons in the same spot. The pesticide that falls to the ground as the plant dies can be taken up by the root system of plants growing the next year where there killing effectiveness extends over more than a single planting season.  Systemic pesticides with persistent behavior need to be treated more like nuclear material with multi-year half-lives to be managed properly.  No wonder they’re discovering these pesticides are getting into the water supply!

Beekeepers so far have been loosing the regulatory fight with chemical manufacturers selling these new pesticides.  The manufacturer’s recommendation to “cover up your beehive when we spray” is no longer adequate and ignores the problem that these systemic and persistent pesticides become part of the plant so that their lethality persists long after the spraying disperal event. For the beekeeper whose honeybees have a several mile foraging range, even a distant neighbor over-using the neonicotinoid pesticides can can do a harm without ever witnessing or understanding the harm they have done.


 Think big!   Virtually any tree that makes seeds, has flowers.  Evergreen trees such as pines and most oaks don’t seem to have a place in the list of trees that bees favor, but many other large trees do! Do you have room for a large tree? What about a small tree such as a flowering crabapple or nut tree?  Over time, you can replace evergreens with flowering shrubs and bushes.  Do you have room in your garden to plant berries? raspberries, blackberries, pole beans.


White clover in the lawn Photo from Good-Natured Landscapes

Remember what the lawn looked like at your grandparents house?  IMHO one of the largest opportunities to have thousands of long-flowering pollen and nectar producing plants in our yards is by integrating white or yellow clover into our lawns.  As a bonus, the clover will fix nitrogen into the soil as it grows.  Similarly, on the shady side of the house let a few violets escape into the lawn area.

We’ve been brainwashed to believe that perfectly smooth, level and uniformly green lawns are an American way of life. This is a water-wasting fiction promoted by the sellers of lawn fertilizer and  real estate marketers.


When you begin to discuss plants, there is a scientific classification and naming system in place to bring some order to immense diversity.  However,  when we go to buy seeds or plants, the marketing names come through most strongly.  For example, we shop for Anise Hyssop or Giant Hyssop plants, the vendor uses a marketing name that fosters sales of  the plant and its scent rather than the scientifically defined name of Agastache_foeniculum .  The dilemma is that to describe the plant accurately, we need the scientific name and a great deal of the time we have to do the translating to the common name.

One of the references is titled “Your urban garden is better with bees”.  On the second page, there is a paragraph titled  “Bees Love these Plant Families (especially these species)”.  I found this simple paragraph completely helpful as it bumped up to a more useful translated plant types (families) rather than plant names.

In just these few plant families listed, you can find window-box sized plants as well as tall background plantings.  These are the plant types you need to remember when you’re at the garden center or immersed in a seed catalog:

  1. Asteraceae –round open flowers – Daisy, Aster, Sunflower family includes Gaillardia,Coreopsis, and Cosmos. these are always popular and admired.
  2. Fabaceae – is the Legume family and include garden beans, and peas that put nitrogen into the soil as well as sweet pea flower. I’m going to add more pole beans to my garden as pole beans will flower for a long period of time.
  3. Lamiaceae –is the  Mint, Lavender, Salvia families.  Two of bees all-time favorites are Bee Balm and Agastache_foeniculum/Anise Hyssop is in the mint family.
  4. Polygonaceae –Buckwheat family –
  5. Rosaceae – Rose, Apple, flowering crabapples,  – flowering trees including nut trees, also virtually all berries. How about an elderberry bush or an old-fashioned Quince bush to screen your neighbors grill rather than an evergreen yew?   A little more untamed in appearance, but everbearing raspberries bloom twice a year in mid-summer and in late  fall when few other flowers are available.

Of course, when in doubt we can always google for the match up between marketing names and scientific names! That might be the only practical way to sort out marketing vs scientific names.

Keeping it really simple,  it is about geometry. You want the nectar and pollen to be easily accessible by the bees.  If you initially stick with round open flowers like daisies, or sunflowers, and mint family flower spikes such as you see on salvia and mint,  you will find a lot of suitable bee food before you run out of choices.

If your time frame is longer, flowering shrubs and trees may take several years to bloom, but they will produce a great many flowers  for many years. In this area,  the bees can likely find a lot of existing maple trees on their own, but a shade-providing nut tree can provide bloom diversity by flowering as late as early July well after the maples and apple trees have finished blooming.

The problem remaining is blooming time diversity. Bees collect pollen when its warm. so you need many different plants to cover the entire season.

Bloom diversity is a tough one!

How do you know where the gaps are in flower blooming unless you know  when all the local flowers bloom?  Hopefully someone comes along before you and identifies when each plant blooms.  The documents on the reference list include lists and tables that classify plants and shrubs by approximate bloom time.   Fortunately, this is not a precision exercise. Year-to-year variations in temperature and rainfall will influence the first day of blooming.

We have yards and neighborhoods that already flower and it is simply not clear where there are “blooming/pollen” gaps. Some of these flowers are not easy to see! I was surprised to see maple trees at the top ( alphabetically Amur ) of the list of pollinator-friendly flowers. But sure enough, Maple trees produce flowers! Lots of flowers, and at a time in early spring when there are not a lot of other flowers in bloom.

Our first priority when advocating for the bees, should be to fill in a gap in available nectar and pollen. I did an inventory of what was located around me that flowered and assigned dates based on when I thought they bloomed. I wasn’t always on target, but I dug through many of the backyard photographs I have to find those with flowers in the background. Many were dated lending some welcome preciseness while other family photos were taken on known holidays.

IMHO, I think a good initial approach is to concentrate on putting plants in place that bloom at the beginning or end of the seasons. In addition,  to take the guesswork out of the process, a notebook capturing what is blooming in your neighborhood can add clarity to the exercise in future years.

Chicory flowers by from Mr. Foster's bike ride

Chicory flowers by from Mr. Foster’s bike ride

Personalize-it if you wish.  My Italian grandparents always had chicory growing along the garden path, that they let go to seed for the next year. I can remember bees on the blue chicory flowers in the fall. The chicory flowers are pretty and open blooms available at the end of the garden year when most perennials have stopped blooming.  So I’m planting some long-blooming chicory this year.

I will try to keep a log this year of what is blooming around me. If I can do a once-a-week inventory of the immediate neighborhood, this will give some certainty to an imprecise exercise.

Before we move on to a Lowell Area plant list, we need to discuss bee habitat.  We can make it more convenient for the bees to maintain their nests close to our gardens by providing nooks and crannies to make it easier for them to get stay around.

Update: Summer 2016 tabulation of neighborhood flower bloom time. not published yet  If you get a chance, list flowers that tolerate shade like Hosta, Lily-of-the Valley, Astilbe.

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