One of the most popular bees in the world is the honey bee. And, one of the most popular flowers in the world is the sunflower. It is only natural for us to wonder do bees like sunflowers? Yes, they do. But, not every sunflower variety attracts bees. In this post, I share with you the best sunflowers for honey bees so you will have many winged visitors to your garden.
As a long-term beekeeper, I am always on the watch for new flowers for bees. Sunflowers are one of the easiest to grow – as long as, you have a location that gets some sun.
Are All Sunflowers Good for Bees?
While all of them are beautiful, only some varieties of sunflowers provide food bees eat. Nectar, pollen or both may be gathered from the blooms of sunflowers by pollinators. But, not every variety of sunflower produces bee food!
Nectar is a sweet liquid substance secreted by flowers to attract insects. Many flowers need bees, flies or butterflies – if they rely on insect pollination to produce seed.
Avoid Pollenless Flowers
Some of the newer types of sunflowers have beautiful colors and flower types beyond yellow and orange. These are female plant characteristics. However, they are pollenless.
Producing pollen is a male characteristic among plants. It is natures way of producing seed-but some people don’t want seed.
Pollen less cultivars are developed due to the desire of gardeners to avoid the mess of pollen. And, it is a matter of serious allergies for some people.
These special hybrids will look great in your garden but they are not beneficial to bees and other pollinators. Read the seed label carefully – as most of these plants will be clearly marked on the retail package.
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Sunflower Varieties to Grow for Bees
Here are some of the top sunflowers varieties that gardeners claim are a favorite of bees. Read the label for each type to determine their size and requirements.
- Lemon Queen
- Mammoth Grey Stripe
- Black Russian
- Giant White Seeded
- Henry Wilde
- Autumn Beauty
- Chocolate Cherry
- Evening Sun
- Red Sun
- Maximillian – Requires cold temps to germinate (plant in Winter or keep in frig)!
- Velvet Queen
- Teddy Bear Sungold
The small teddy bear variety (Sungold) provides some pollen if you only have a small space in your bee friendly garden.
Try to combine more than 1 sunflower variety for longer bloom time and include some perennials bees like in nearby areas.
Lemon Queen Sunflowers & Honey Bees
As a standout on the list, we must acknowledge the most popular sunflower grown for bees -Lemon Queen. With large pale petals and dark centers, this flower is magnificent in any garden.
They are also bee magnets and attract many insects including native bees looking for pollen and nectar. Grab some seeds and participate in The Great Sunflower Project.
Growing Sunflowers for Pollinators
When growing sunflowers for bees or other pollinators, you get a bonus. Seed produced will be a good food source for many kinds of wildlife later in the season. You can enjoy watching birds and others enjoy the crop – or eat them yourself.
Choose a Size that Fits Your Bee Garden
You do not have to have a large space to grow sunflowers because they come in many varieties beyond the common sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Some of them do get very tall so keep that in mind.
A mix of several different ones adds beauty to the garden and food for pollinators too. In general, sunflowers are divided into 3 groups: Giant, Dwarf and Colorful.
Giant sunflowers grow tall with large flowers featuring yellow petals. This type can actually be planted in a way to create a sunflower forest of the stalks.
It is not unusual for giant sunflowers to reach a height of 10-12 feet or more. Keep this in mind when you are choosing where they should be planted.
Provide support by growing along a fence or other barrier. They are easy to start from seed, grow quickly and are an impressive choice for gardening with kids.
Dwarf Sunflowers are those that reach a smaller stature. Tending to be under 4 feet tall, dwarfs normally have a slightly smaller bloom. They are a good choice for smaller spaces and do not require staking.
A few of the smaller types can be grown in large pots or container gardens for bees and other pollinators. But, be sure to check the seed package to make sure they are bee friendly.
Colorful sunflowers are mostly newer hybrids. They are grown for their unique color combination. Having the same flower style as traditional sunflowers, they come in a variety of unusual colors. Pale yellow or white is popular, as well as, pink or deep red.
Among the sunflowers that produce nectar, some will yield more than others. And, there are even some types of plants that repel bees because they do not need insects for pollination.
Sunflower Pollen Benefits
A study published in 2018, suggests that pollen from sunflowers may actually provide some special benefits for honey bees. Other mono-floral pollens did not show the same results of protecting (Apis mellifera) from bee pathogens.
We know for a fact that having a diverse diet is good for insects. Adding a couple of sunflower varieties to the bee garden can’t hurt.
Care for Your Sunflower Bee Garden
Sunflowers do best in soil that is light and not compacted. This is because their roots like to spread out. Heavy clay soil will not produce the best plant. While they appreciate slightly acidic soil, they can do well in alkaline soil too.
With the word “sun” in the name, you must know that this is not a shade plant. Sunflowers need sun and lots of it. Giving your flowers at least 8 hours of sun each day is the very best location.
These plants like warm temperatures. Heat is good. It is common for bees to continue visiting sunflowers through late Summer and well into Fall.
Even though they can stand drought conditions once established, sunflowers can be heavy feeders. Working organic material in the soil is a great way to encourage them as is using liquid fertilizer.
Especially for the taller varieties, you may need to consider some type of support. Those large flower heads can make the plant “top heavy” especially in windy weather.
Planting them in a group also helps them provide support for each other. Avoid pesticide use on the flower heads, you do not want to poison visiting pollinators.
Start From Seeds
The most common way to grow sunflowers for bees is to start with seeds. When buying seeds, always try for organic as these will not have a pesticide covering.
Sunflower seeds can be started indoors in peat pots 2-3 weeks before your Spring planting date. Then planted outside “pot and all” before they get too large. (Some varieties may require a period of cold – “Maximillian” – read your seed packets!)
Read the seed packet carefully and look for “bee friendly” avoid those that say pollenless. Plant your sunflower seedlings – or direct seed- after all danger of frost is over.
This type of seed also does well when used in making seed bombs with air dry clay and a soil matrix or potting soil – add a couple and maybe another annual seed too!
Yes, sunflowers do more than just brighten up our gardens. They are very attractive to bees and other insects.
Most sunflowers provide food for honey bees – pollen and/or nectar. But, no all varieties to as some as pollenless. Of course, honey bees do not actually eat the petals or plant tissue.
The symbiotic relationship between sunflowers and bees is one of both parties benefitting from the partnership. The bee gets food and accidentally provides pollination for the plant to produce seed.
Yes, bees can make sunflower honey but it is not commonly available as it requires large fields of plants in bloom and beehive in place at the right time.
By choosing sunflowers bees love, it is easy to add a colorful palette to your outdoor space. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy gardening and benefit all pollinators in your area. It is a wonderful relationship: bees help flowers by providing pollination and the plants give food to the bees.