Bees In The Garden - Our Most Important Pollinators
by High Country Gardens
It is estimated that bees pollinate around 70% of the world's plants. Not just many of the fruit and vegetable crops that we eat, but also the wild plants in nature that depend on pollination to produce seeds and reproduce themselves.
Since terrestrial plants are in large part, the foundation of the planet's food chain upon which many animals depend, bees have an essential role in maintaining life on Earth. And the health of bee populations is a direct reflection of the health of our ecosystems; they are like the proverbial "canary in the coal mine."
The Importance of the Bee
While the domesticated honeybee is the best-known bee, there are an estimated 4,000 additional species of native North American bees. But bees populations are in decline, primarily because of the widespread use of a new generation of especially potent systemic insecticides and the loss of wild habitats.
So it's essential that through our collective gardening efforts, we gardeners take on the essential mission of protecting their populations through the creation of beautiful and diverse gardens and landscapes and promotion of organic gardening techniques.
Bees and flowers are dependent on each other. Bees visit the flowers to feed on sugar-rich nectar and gather protein-rich pollen (commonly known as "bee bread") to feed their young. In return, bees move pollen from flower to flower which creates seeds and allows the plants to complete their reproductive life cycle.
Designing a Bee Friendly Garden
Bees need three things to create a habitat where they can live: flowers, nesting sites and water. And they need a safe environment where no synthetic insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers are used. An organic garden is a cornerstone to create healthy habitats.
Unlike the social honey bee that lives in communal hives, most native bee species are solitary. They nest in the ground, in rock embankments and dry-stacked rock walls as well as in hollow plant stems, under small piles of brush and holes in trees. Make sure that your landscape has un-mulched bare ground where bees can dig their burrows. Don't use weed barrier as this prevents a bee's access to the ground below.
Bird baths are commonly used by bees. Place a stone in the water where bees can walk to the water's edge and drink. Or create a muddy area by placing a drip emitter in a depression in the soil. (This will also attract butterflies.)
Plant a diverse selection of nectar and pollen-rich flowering plants that bloom throughout the growing season. A succession of flowers from early spring to late fall supports robust bee populations. Here are some general guidelines for selecting flowering plants for your bee-friendly garden:
Bees prefer blue, purple, and yellow flowers that have a sweet fragrance, but will also visit other colored flowers.
Use double flowers (like common garden mums) sparingly. Flowers that have no center "eye" are unusable for bees and other insect pollinators.
Plant in groups of the same flower species to maximize nectar and pollen availability while minimizing the travel distance needed to gather it.
When planting shrubs and trees with separate male and female plants (dioecious species), be sure to plant more male plants as they are essential sources of protein-rich pollen as well as nectar.
Plant as many native species as possible. Native bees will feed on both native and Old World plants, but often prefer native species.
On the other hand, honeybees (which are actually Old World insects, not native to the Americas) feed on both native and Old World plants.
Bumblebees especially like tubular flowers with wide openings and hooded flowers (like Lupine and other legumes) on which to feed.
A Basic Selection of Old World and Native Plants to Attract and Feed Native Bees and Bumblebees:
(*notes some favorite Bumblebee plants)
Early Spring bloomers
Oregon Grape (Mahonia)
Three Leaf Sumac (Rhus trilobata)
Late spring bloomers
Beardtongue (Penstemon) ⃰
Beebalm (Monarda) ⃰
Lamb's Ear (Stachys)
Ornamental Onion, bulb types (Allium)
Annual Bee Plant (Cleome)
Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
Blazing Star or Gayfeather (Liatris)
French hybrid lavender (Lavandula x intermedia) ⃰
Ornamental Onion (Allium 'Millenium' )
Prairie Clover (Dalea)
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea)
Russian Sage (Perovskia)
Sunflowers, perennial and annual (Helianthus)
Aster (Aster and Symphytrichitum)
Hummingbird Mint or Hyssop (Agastache)
Prairie Sage (Salvia azurea) ⃰
Russian Sage (Perovskia)
Favorite Old World Plants That Attract and Feed Honeybees:
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia)
Chaste Tree ( Vitex)
Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis)
Globe Thistle (Echinops)
Sea Holly (Eryngium)
A Footnote About Bumblebees
Bumblebees are remarkable pollinators that will out pollinate the common honey bee. Why? Because they can fly in colder temperatures, working earlier in the spring and later into the fall as well as earlier in the morning and later in the evening. They are faster workers than honeybees often visiting twice as many flowers in the same time period. And they can carry much more pollen in the pollen-collecting hairs on their back legs.
And bumblebees are a vegetable gardeners best friend because they are "buzz pollinators" that actually shake the pollen loose in vegetable flowers like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes.
Nepeta 'Select Blue' (Select Blue Catmint) is a fantastic xeric perennial with dramatic lavender-blue flowers and handsome gray-green foliage. A recurrent bloomer, the first flush of flowers comes in late spring, and again later in summer. A long-lived, easily grown perennial, this is an excellent plant for beginners.
1" tall x 18" wide. Pink Chintz Thyme (Thymus Pink Chintz) is a tight, low growing creeping thyme with thick stems of woolly green foliage that blooms in mid-spring with a profusion of salmon-pink flowers.
Perovskia atriplicifolia Blue Spires (Blue Spires Russian Sage) is the best large growing Russian Sage selection blooming with dark blue flower spikes appearing in mid-summer. Thought to be a hybrid of two species, this plant has amazing vigor and blooms for many months.
Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night’ (May Night Sage) blooms prolifically with deep purple-blue flowers. It is an outstanding perennial with excellent cold hardiness, vigor, and tolerance of heavy clay soils. Blooming in late spring with a profusion of flower spikes, it reblooms later in the summer when deadheaded.
Thumbelina Leigh is a robust dwarf growing English variety with plump, deep lavender-blue flower spikes, and a strong, sweet fragrance. Maturing to a height of about 15 inches, it is one of the most compact cultivars in cultivation.
Magnus is a distinctive, vigorous and large growing cone flower cultivar. The bright reddish-pink petals of its huge flowers are held flat as they radiate out from the cone, instead of curving backwards as is typical of most coneflowers.
Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) is a gorgeous plant that produces purple/pink flower clusters that wildflower gardeners love and spreads quickly. This native perennial is a primary food source for the Monarch butterfly providing large leaves for caterpillars and big pink globe-like flowers that provide nectar for the adult butterflies. Planting it will help to support Monarch populations. Perennial.
Veronica pectinata (Woolly Speedwell) is one of our finest groundcovers. Growing with long stems of wooly evergreen foliage, the plants cover themselves with blue blooms, aging to lavender-blue flowers in early to mid-spring. 2" tall x 18" wide.