Grow These Flowers For The Bees
“Which flowers can I plant for the bees?”
You’re growing cutting flowers and you want to help the bees. All the pollinators are in decline. But you can help in a significant way with a pollinator garden. You need the right kind of flowers and enough of them, to give them the pollen and nectar they need to live and raise their young.
Most all the flowers we grow for cutting are good for bees, so if you’re growing them your off to a good start. But there is much more to it than that.
What’s good for bees is good for all the other pollinators, too: butterflies and moths, beetles, hummingbirds, flies, and wasps. But I’ll focus here on flowers for the bees because they’re the most important pollinators.
I’m talking about the native bees here—not honeybees. Honeybees were imported from Europe 400 years ago. There are about 4,000 species of native bees in the US, and they are very effective and vital pollinators. So, when you see bees, try to find the non-honeybees to see what they’re like and get to know them. These are not stinging bees—unless your hand is in their nest or squishing them.
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The most important plants bees need
The first requirement is to give them a spectrum of native plants.
Native flowers are essential for up to 25% of the bees that are specialist feeders. These specialists evolved at the same time as one, or a few, plant species and they depend on those flowers for their pollen and nectar. In turn, those flowers often rely on only those bees for adequate pollination. The specialists emerge from their nests as their flower begins to bloom.
The other bees are generalists and can visit many different flowers.
Pollinators are essential for nearly 90% of all plants, including those in the wild, to form seeds for the next generation of plants. If specialist native bees are needed to keep plant species going, we need those bees.
Bees need diversity in their diet, just like we do. Nectars vary in their ingredients, some even contain caffeine, which has been shown to improve bee learning and navigation skill! (Source) It’s been shown that native plants offer the most benefit to pollinators in their nectar and pollen. (Source) Since we know little about most native bees, the best we can do is to choose a variety of native plants to help.
Many of us live near native trees and shrubs. Most of these are hosts for butterflies and offer shelter and resting spots for pollinators. Hopefully you have natives around you already. If not, consider planting some native trees and shrubs to support your pollinator garden. You’ll be helping the birds, too, because all our wildlife depends on the plants that evolved where we are.
Provide enough bloom throughout the season
To truly support the bees, plant flowers for continuous bloom throughout the season. Once bees have found your garden they will come back often and even nest nearby. Satisfy their efforts and keep a steady supply of flowers blooming for them. From very early spring through fall plan to have at least three types of plants blooming at any time.
Try to have abundance for them. The recommendation from the UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab is for each species of bee plant you have to take up a minimum of three square feet. This can mean one shrub, or a three-by-three foot patch of a native flowering perennial.
Different types of flowers for different bees
Some bees have short tongues, some have long tongues. The short-tongued bees can only feed from flowers that have easily accessible food. Sunflowers, daisies, and asters are examples of this type. Long-tongued bees can dip into more tubular flowers for their food: plants like penstemon, bee balm, and salvias are good for them.
Try to choose flowers for both short and long-tongued bees for each bloom time.
Avoid double flowers because it’s difficult or impossible for bees to gain. Double flowers have ruffled centers with many petals. They are difficult for bees to access to the pollen and nectar. So, use doubles only for your favorite cutting flowers.
How to choose flowering native plants for your garden
It can be daunting to figure out which plants to choose. The Xerces Society is an excellent resource. They’re devoted to invertebrate conservation and their website is full of information. This page gives you access to plant lists for US states, regions, and Canadian provinces. They include plenty of links to other resources to help you find the native plants for your area. You’ll look for shrubs, perennials, and annuals.
And the National Wildlife Federation has its resource, too.
If you live in California, the perfect native plant finder is Calscape.org. You can type in your exact address or your zip code to get to a list of all the plants native to your exact area. Plus, the nurseries where you can get them from.
You’ll need to know what your sun exposure is for where you want to plant your bee plants. Full sun is at least six hours of direct sun—this is best. Part sun-part shade is four to six hours of sun. Shade is less than four hrs. of sun.
Create a low maintenance, mixed border with native shrubs
Border your cutting flower garden with a mix of native shrubs and subshrubs. Position these at the north end of your garden so they don’t shade your annual and perennial flowers. This can provide significant bee food and shelter and attract other pollinators.
Select the plants from your native options that will bloom at different times, but especially early spring bloomers. Willows are native to most areas and offer an early source of pollen and nectar for bees. And they host some beautiful butterflies!
Perennial flowers, annual flowers, and wildflowers for bees
Perennial flowers are fun plants to select and grow. There are so many flowers to choose from, and once planted, they keep coming back and get bigger each year. Start with native flowering perennials and then fill in with non-native cutting flowers.
Plants such as Penstemons, Salvias, violets, Coreopsis, Helenium, Agastache, Monarda (bee balm), and daisies may be included in your native list and are also great cutting flowers.
Other perennials that may be native or non-native to your area that are good for pollinators include echinacea, all the nice varieties of Agastache, feverfew, all Salvias, campanulas, asters, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Echinops, Eryngium (Sea Holly), lavenders, asters, oreganos-ornamental and culinary varieties, yarrow, and many other flowers! You can use all of these for cutting flowers, too.
Annual flowers for bees and cutting include sunflowers, cosmos, celosias, alyssum, Tithonia, zinnia, and many more.
Include wildflowers both native and perennial! Find the best blend for your area. A good source is American Meadows. See their instructions for how to sow as well. Local nurseries usually carry wildflower seed mixes, too. There are even some blends specifically for pollinators. Full sun is best, at least six hours of direct sun per day.
There are species of goldenrods that are native to every region in the US, and they are all extremely attractive to pollinators of all sorts and bloom in late summer to fall. (Please—do not confuse goldenrod with ragweed! Goldenrod is the genus Solidago and it does not cause hay fever. Ragweed looks similar but is the genus Ambrosia and is highly associated with hay fever.)
Herbs, fruits, and vegetables are good too!
Fruit trees, berries, and herbs feed the bees. Vegetables, too. Once you have a good array of native plants, you’ll have attracted plenty of bees to pollinate your food plants. Herbs like oregano, mint, sages, rosemary, thyme all feed bees. Annuals that go to flower, like dill, cilantro, and parsley, feed many of the tiny bees.
So it’s fairly easy to boost our pollinators with flowering plants. You need season-long bloom, enough of each plant, no doubles, and include plenty of natives. The natives will require less water and maintenance than other landscape plants–a bonus.
You can create a pollinator garden to feed the bees, have a gorgeous landscape feature, a supply of cutting flowers, and have a serious impact on helping the pollinators by having a garden with flowers for the bees.
Even if you have a tiny space, containers full of native flowers can help. Every bit helps!