Flowers For Honey Bees: Beginner’s Guide
Many homeowners, gardeners and beekeepers wish to invite more pollinators to their backyards. With good planning, it’s possible to create a beautiful landscape for yourself and area pollinators. Finding useful flowers for honey bees is one of the easiest parts of building a bee-friendly garden. However, deciding which ones to use can be a bit more difficult because of the wide selection.
Honey Bee Flowers for Your Garden
Being a gardener for years and a beekeeper, I understand the close connection between plants and pollinators.
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My motto is “if I have to dig a hole to plant something – it better feed my bees!” Thankfully, many other people want to help feed pollinators too!
You might be surprised to know that you don’t have to have a large space to make a big difference. Even small gardens can play a role in providing a diverse diet for beneficial insects.
What Makes a Flower Bee Friendly?
Bees and other pollinators strive to collect food needed for their colony or nest. In the case of honey bees, they seek out blossoms that provide nectar, pollen or both.
We know that a colony of bees gathers plant nectar to make honey. Stored honey allows them to prepare for Winter survival – when no food is available.
But, nectar is not the only resource needed. The honey bee diet also includes pollen. Plant pollen is the only protein source for honey bees.
Unlike wasps, bees eat no meat. Without sufficient pollen, no new baby bees can be raised. Colony nurse bees must be well feed in order to provide the ample food that ravenous bee larvae require.
Of course, honey bees are not the only ones that benefit from blooming plants. Bumble Bees, Wasps, Butterflies, Moths, Hummingbirds and many native bees visit the garden. They will all benefit from your bee friendly garden design.
When choosing honey bee flowers, try to include a mix of plants that produce nectar or pollen or both! A variety of food sources over a long period of time is the ultimate goal.
Do All Flowers Need Bees?
Plants that require bee pollination lure insects in with color, odor and food. The fuzzy bee bodies collect pollen and move it from bloom to bloom. The result is pollination and the plant is now able to produce seed or fruit.
But, not all plants need insects for pollination. Some are pollinated by the wind. Pollinators may visit these plants but they are not required for seed production. Adding flowers that attract bees to your garden is a great way to increase yield in your vegetable garden.
Bees’ Favorite Flowers
Bees will forage on any nectar or pollen producing plants. But yes, they do have preferences. As you build your honey bee habitat, include plants with some of the following characteristics:
- blue, yellow or purple flowers
- simple single flower types – open petals
- perennials that return year after year
- flowers that bloom when natives plants do not
Flower Colors that Bees Prefer
Honey bees have 5 eyes and these specialized structures help them do the things they need to do – including finding food. Three small eyes are light sensors but the 2 large ones are for sight.
However, bees see flowers differently than humans do. They can see UV light but red looks black to the bee. They find flowers that are blue, purple and yellow most appealing.
Simple Flowers are Bee Favorites
Some of the best flowers for honey bees have single flowers. This is because the single flower plant invests more energy in nectar production and less in petal formation. Consider using some of the older simple flowers.
Avoid new hybrids with double flowers and massive blooms, many of them provide no food for pollinators. Today, most new plant varieties are developed for a showy display. They are pretty but not so good for feeding your local bee population.
Perennials are A Good Choice for the Bee Garden
Be sure to plant some perennials for your bees. Returning the next year from root systems or tubers in the ground, they can live for years.
They pack a lot of “umph” for the bee garden because you only have to plant them once. Also, they provide a nice background for showy annuals that you might like.
The annuals provide abundant food for one season and certainly have a place in the garden. However, once the first frost arrives – they are gone for good.
Don’t let the bees have all the fun. Some plants can feed bees and help you in the kitchen too. Herbs are very attractive to pollinators and we can enjoy the benefit of fresh herbs for the table. Thyme, borage, echinacea all are visited by honey bees.
Drought Tolerant Flowers
As you are planning your flower choices, remember to consider the whole season. Fewer natural sources are available during times of drought when rainfall is at a minimum.
If you have a problem area that gets very dry during parts of the year, the flowers blooming there may not produce any nectar or pollen. These spots are great candidates for drought tolerant plants.
Some types of plants – native or commercial – do better in dry conditions. They are able to not just survive but thrive when rain is scarce.
In contrast, if you have an area of your garden or yard that often become a swampy area, choose plants accordingly. Here you may create a mini rain garden to provide food for area pollinators.
As the seasons pass, the conditions in the garden do change. Wet, dry, hot or cold, try to include some bee plants for each growing condition.
Your garden can become a great food source for pollinators looking for nectar late in the season. Include some fall flowers that bees like in your garden. This helps the colony get ready for Winter.
If you are a beekeeper, check with your local association to learn the times of the year when providing extra forage is most beneficial.
Flowering Trees that Feed Honey Bees
Blooming trees can provide large amounts of nectar in one season. Do you have space for a tree in your garden or perhaps room for flowering shrubs?
If so, be sure to check the growing conditions and find one that grows well in your climate.
You may already have some native trees that provide food for bees. One of my favorites is the Tulip Poplar Tree. We have these growing wild along the mountain sides and the tree tops buzz each Spring.
Another tree that is native to many areas is the Red Maple. Red Maples bloom very early in the year and are important for colony buildup.
Don’t forget to consider adding a tree to your area if space allows. They are especially beneficial if you add a tree that blooms at a different time than the local natives.
My list of flowering trees that feed bees will give you some great ideas. Most trees can be planted in late Summer or early Spring.
When to Plant Bee Flowers
The best time to plant flowers that benefit pollinators depends on several factors. Will you be starting from seed or buying plants already started?
Choosing seed varieties of flowers to grow does not have to be difficult. You can purchase a meadow mix. Providing a variety of different kinds of flowers and consider your climate as your choose.
Aim for a variety of flowers to create long bloom cycles. When one plant fades, another is coming into bloom all during the warm months. Every blooming flower that produces nectar or pollen counts.
And of course, use any weed killers or pesticides with extreme care in your pollinator garden. Natural weed killers are best for situations where it must be used. Always follow the directions on the label.
Planting Tips for Beekeepers
Of course you don’t have to be a beekeeper to enjoy planting for bees, but we do take a special interest in bee friendly flowers.
It is important to take native flora into account. Don’t try to compete with native plants that provide forage for pollinators. The best idea is to complement this bloom time and fill in feeding gaps.
Can you let those weeds grow a few weeks? Bees loves weeds too! Especially in early Spring, leaving the weeding for a bit can provide important bee food.
For example, dandelions are not a complete diet for a honey bee but they do contribute as an early food source.
Most beekeepers do not have a large enough area to affect honey production in a big way. But, they can contribute to the foraging resources for a colony.
Choose some of the well known honey plants. Even a small plot can contribute abundant nectar for a few colonies.
Each year after I include a small planting of buckwheat for my bees. I don’t care for the honey produced but it provides good food during a time when conditions are normally dry in my area.
Be wary of using invasive plants – even if they feed your bees. In the long term, they are not a good choice for the ecosystem.
Special Bee Flower Projects
Now its your turn to choose get busy and choose some new plants for your garden. You are sure to find something that appeals to you and grows well in your region.
If you are looking for an annual plant with a lot of pizazz don’t forget Sunflowers. Some varieties of sunflowers are good for bees. But do your homework – some sunflowers are pollen-less.
Not every blooming plant is a friend to pollinators. A few plants plants produce nectar or pollen toxic to bees.
These rarely cause bee deaths but it is good to be aware of which ones to avoid. Some are actually good food sources under normal weather conditions but can be dangerous during a drought, etc.
Aren’t you tired of all that grass? Leave some natural areas for the beneficial insects when you can. If you have enough space (or even a few pots), create a bee friendly garden.
A popular method for small spaces is to make a container garden with honey bees in mind. Herbs, coneflowers, bee balm and lavender do well in containers. Many annuals bloom well in pots too.
If you want a truly unique experience, go for the unusual. If you have a long growing season, grow some sponges. Enjoy growing luffa sponges and seeing the bees visit the big yellow blooms.
One easy way to increase the variety of flowers in an area is to make seed bombs with air dry clay.
Another similar project uses potting soil and red clay –Wildflower Seed Balls. Both of these projects are a great way to introduce gardening to kids.
Suburban gardeners and city municipalities often create plantings to benefit pollinators. These gardens help control run-off water, add beauty to the area too. Roof gardens can provide much needed bee food in a city environment.
Many State Highway Departments have programs to plant strips of wildflowers that add bee food, shelter and beauty to the landscape.
Providing food resources for insects is very easy to do. All of the pollinators in your area will benefit from the beneficial honey bee flowers in your garden.
And in return, pollinators (including bees) will help your garden flowers produce a higher yield.
Depending on your climate, consider the possibility of including a few cold season plants. Bumble bees and some honey bees will take advantage of Winter flowers – if the temperature allows.
Almost everyone can provide some areas of honey bee habitat! You don’t have to live in an area with wide-open spaces to plant bee friendly flowers.
Honey bees do not eat flowers or plant tissue. They do collect sweet nectar and protein rich pollen from millions of blooming plants.
Some of the most popular varieties of honey come from blackberries or citrus plants. These are consider premium products and bring a higher price.
One of the most attractive flowers for bees is called “bee balm”. This perennial is native to North America.
Please add Luffa as a great plant to grow for bees. Luffa provides many yellow flowers that the bees love. I am a Luffa grower in Texas and also a Beekeeper. Luffa is very beneficial to bees in July, August, September, October, November all the way up to the first frost. #Luffatoo. Thank you for information. Deb Luv A Luffa
Thank you Deb. That is a great idea!
I had bees on long island NY, lost them years ago. Now retired in Florida. I found a hive hanging from a tree branch not to big but established. Tree is in a nearby preservation. I plan to plant some supporting plants nearby . Water is close by. Do you think if i put a hive box with frames and raw honey near by they will take to it? The hive is very exposed.
They probably wont leave baby bees in the tree. But another colony might take up your offer. Be careful, Florida has africanized bees in some locations. Try to connect with a local beekeeping association. I am sure someone will help.
Thank You Charlotte
Welcome as always…