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Best Sunflowers for Honey Bees

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 flowering plant is attractive to insects and this is true for sunflower varieties too. A beautiful addition to any bee garden, just be sure to choose the best sunflowers for honey bees and you should have many winged visitors.

Growing Sunflowers for Pollinators

Lemon queen sunflowers with bees visiting image.

With over 70 different species of sunflowers in the world, the home gardener has many types to choose from.  Most of them are easy to grow, as long as, you have a location that gets some sun.

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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 other 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.

Dwarf bee friendly sunflowers in a  mass planting image.

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 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.

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Are All Sunflowers Good for Bees?

While all of them are beautiful, only some varieties of sunflowers provide food for bees. Nectar, pollen or both may be gathered from the blooms.

Nectar is a sweet liquid substance secreted by flowers to attract insects.  Flowers need bees, flies or butterflies – if they rely on insect pollination.  Honey bees use the watery plant nectar to make honey.

As bees collect pollen, or nectar, they inadvertently move pollen from one flower to another.  Honey bees use pollen as a protein source to raise young.

picture of honey bee gathering pollen from tiny blooms of sunflower

So, when choosing the best sunflowers for bees, we want those that provide bee food. And, don’t forget to include other flowers for bees that will bloom before and after your sunflowers. Together they can be a beautiful display and variety is a wonderful thing when it comes to bee diet.

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. For them, the energy for nectar production would be wasted.

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.

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 to producing seed but some people don’t want seed production. Pollen less cultivars are developed due to the desire of gardeners to avoid the mess of pollen. 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.

Best Sunflower Varieties to Grow for Bees

  1. Lemon Queen
  2. Mammoth Grey Stripe
  3. Black Russian
  4. Giant White Seeded
  5. Henry Wilde
  6. Autumn Beauty
  7. Chocolate Cherry
  8. Evening Sun
  9. Sonja
  10. Red Sun
  11. Maximillian
  12. Velvet Queen
  13. 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 variety for longer bloom time and include some perennials in nearby areas.

image of pollinator ebook to help grow your bee garden

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. This is because it is so easy to do and as the plant grows larger, transplanting can be challenging.

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.

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 seed ball projects.

Or if you prefer to use the other method of increasing bee habitat, seed bombs made with air dry clay work too.

The Queen of Bee Friendly Sunflowers

The most popular sunflower grown for bees is Lemon Queen.  Grab some seeds and participate in The Great Sunflower Project.

It’s a wonderful way to enjoy gardening and benefit the pollinators in your area. Bees help flowers by providing pollination and the plants give food to the bees. If you have a larger area, consider planting a variety of sunflowers to add color to your landscape.

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