I often tell people that they don’t have to become a beekeeper to help the bees. In fact, the best way to help bees is to plant flowers! In this way, you can help not just honey bees, but our unsung native species as well. So, what flowers are best for bees? Read on to see my top ten list and a few other tips on how to help bees in your garden.
- Lemon Queen Sunflowers, Helianthus annuus
Sunflowers are easy to grow and make an audacious addition to the garden. There are many excellent varieties for bees, but if you want the best, go with the Lemon Queen. What makes this sunflower different is its tendency to branch. From one seed, a Lemon Queen can produce as many as twenty flowers!
- Cosmos, Cosmos bipinnatus
- Cosmos are a favorite of honey bees and natives alike. They thrive in many regions and are among the easiest flowers to grow from seeds. Plus, they are generous re-seeders!
California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica
I often wonder why I don’t see more of this iconic California state flower in gardens. It is absolutely loved by bees and I frequently see multiple honey bees scuffling inside the blooms. Do us all a favor and plant some! They are a stunning addition to the garden.
- Matilija Poppy, Romneya coulteri
I have a special weakness for this flower. It has the largest flower of any poppy and when it blooms, it is an absolute feast for the bees. I have seen as many as twenty honey bees on a single flower. It can be difficult to get established, but once you do, it will really take off and spread well beyond it’s original planting location. Some complain it is invasive, but I think that’s a plus!
- Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale
Despite its dismissal as a weed, Dandelions provide crucial for bees because they are one of the first pollen-rich blooms to emerge in spring. So, you might want to reconsider pulling these when they pop up in your garden. Leave them for the bees!
- Borage, Borago officinalis
Borage is a prolific plant that will spread handily through your garden to the delight of bees everywhere! It’s also an edible flower that’s great for dressing up salads and cheese plates. Not to mention it’s qualities as a companion plant in the vegetable garden.
- African Blue Basil, Ocimum kilimandscharicum × basilicum
An all star of bee-friendly plants. This hearty herb will buzz with bees 365 days out of the year in the Southern California climate. It’s grown easily from cuttings and works great as a stand alone bush or as a border.
Rock Purslane, Calandrinia grandiflora
This low water succulent stuns when in bloom. Tall slender stalks shoot up high from the low collection of rosettes and end with a burst of hot pink. They will bloom almost year-round in mild climates.
- Pride of Madeira, Echium candicans
This large, fast growing shrub explodes with huge (20 inch), purple flower stalks in the spring. If you want to see purple pollen pants on your bees, this plant will deliver.
- Catnip/Catmint, Nepeta mussinii; Nepeta grandiflora; Nepeta cataria
Rivaled only by African Blue Basil for drawing the most bees, this will be a popular plant in your garden and will provide some much needed summer blooms.
A Few More Tips
Bees are creatures of efficiency so, they love large grouping of flowers. Honey bees often forage on just one type of flower per foraging trip. To best support them, plant a large patch of the same kind of flower. If you want to attract native bees, be careful with mulch. Many native species nest in the ground and if your entire garden is mulched, they can’t dig their nests! Another cation you should take is where you source your flowers from. Many nurseries sell starter plants that have been pre-treated with neonicotinoid pesticides. The pesticide most likely responsible for our pollinator collapse. This pesticide is a water soluble systemic. That means it is sucked into the plants vascular system and into its tissues, pollen and nectar. It can also be absorbed by other surrounding plants. It weakens the bees immune system and attacks their neurological system. Remember that bees store pollen and consume it slowly over time so, when they collect poison pollen it takes its toll over time, slowly weakening the hive with small doses poison. One study found this pesticide remained in the plants for up to 25 years. So, when planting for bees it is safest to start from seed. Stay tuned for a more in depth article on this subject.
Of course, this list is the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more flowers in the sea! To get started, check out a great new book that’s hot off the press: The Bee-Friendly Garden by Kate Frey and Gretchen LeBuhn.
This book covers everything you need to know to garden for bees, no matter your locale, and you couldn’t ask for a better team of authors: Kate Frey is an award-winning garden designer, who specializes in sustainable gardens, and Gretchen LeBuhn, a San Francisco State biology professor, is a bonafide bee expert, who has written two other books about pollinators.
What I like about this book is the regionally specific information about growing flowers for bees in the United States, balanced by an approach to gardening that is applicable the world over. The book itself has over 200 pages of easy-to-read information on garden design, plant physiology, and bee-friendly growing practices, with a great index and plenty of illustrative and inspiring photos. It is a perfect addition to any gardener’s reference collection!
Win a Copy!
We’re giving away five copies! To enter, leave a comment on this post about your favorite bee flower right now. Let us know why you like it, whether you’re growing it yourself, seeing it bloom in a neighbor’s yard, or just aspire to plant the seed in the future.
Contest ends on May 15, 2016 at midnight! We will announce the winners on Monday. Contest winners restricted to US and Canada.