It’s a mighty good thing that so many gardeners have bees on the brain these days. With numerous North American native bee species in dramatic decline due to habitat loss, forage scarcity, pesticide exposure, and other negative impacts, bees are in desperate need of a helping hand. Thankfully, many gardeners are now stepping up to the plate, creating pollinator gardens for these incredible insects and providing them with much-needed nectar forage. But, our native bees need more than just nectar to survive. Well-equipped pollinator gardens are designed with bee nesting habitat in mind, too. Today, we’re teaming up with the folks at Nature Hills Nursery to take pollinator gardening to the next level by introducing you to the best bee plants for fulfilling both of these important bee needs.
About native bees
Though European honey bees are among the most recognizable bees to most gardeners, they’re far from the most important. North America is home to more than 4,000 species of native bees, some of which are not much bigger than this letter b, while others are as large as the nose on your face.
The sheer diversity of our native bees is mind-blowing and their specialization is equally awe-inspiring. Some native bees only pollinate one particular species or family of plants. Others are far more general in their feeding habits, feasting on nectar from a broad array of plants. Knowing which plants are the best bee plants to include in a pollinator garden can be a tough thing because it depends on which species of bees live where you live and what their feeding and nesting habits are.
To accommodate for this regionality, gardeners are often presented with a simple list of the best bee plants to include in their garden, but few resources delve into why these particular plants are the best ones for helping bees. Today, we’d like to do just that. We’re not just going to introduce you to the best bee plants for your pollinator garden, we’re also going to tell you exactly why they’re the perfect fit.
The best bee plants: What qualities to look for
The physical characteristics of a particular species of native bee play a big role in which plants they use for forage and nesting habitat. Because of this, we’ve created a list of traits to seek out when selecting a good mixture of the best bee plants for your pollinator garden. Looking for plants that fit into one or more of these categories is a far more effective way to build a pollinator garden than by simply cherry-picking plants off a list based on what appeals to you. The best pollinator gardens include a mixture of plants for a mixture of bee species. The aim is to please as many different bee species as possible.
- Flowers with big “landing pads:” Bumble bees are some of our biggest native bees, and they need a sturdy landing pad before they can settle on a flower. This makes plants with large, lobed, lower petals ideal. And, unlike smaller bees, bumble bees can use their body weight to pop open flowers with enclosed nectaries. In fact, bumble bees are the only bees capable of pollinating hooded monkshood flowers (Aconitum ssp.). They’re also adept at popping open the blooms of snapdragons, Baptisia, lupines, and many members of the pea and bean family. Bumble bees have very long tongues, too, placing them on a very short list of bee species capable of drinking nectar from deep tubular flowers like Monarda, garden phlox, and some salvias (though sometimes bumble bees “cheat” and bite through the base of the flower to access its nectar, rather than entering from the open end of the blossom).
- Plants with many small flowers: On the opposite end of the size spectrum from hefty bumble bees are thousands of species of itty-bitty native bees. These little guys lack the long tongues of the their bumble cousins, so they need to access nectar from the shallow, exposed nectaries of smaller flowers. Any plant with clusters of tiny flowers, such as goldenrod, oregano, and angelica, are among the best bee plants to include in your garden. Also in this category are daisy-type flowers that consist of hundreds of tiny flowers collected together to create a central disc surrounded by petals. Plants like Shasta daisies, sunflowers, coreopsis, and black-eyed Susans are perfect choices.
- Plants with hollow stems: Unlike European honey bees who are social nesters that build a hive, most native bee species are solitary. Females build brood chambers either in small holes in the ground or in hollow plant stems. They also sometimes take shelter for the winter in these hollow plant stems. Because of this, some of the best bee plants out there are those that focus on providing this important nesting habitat. Excellent plants to add to your pollinator garden for this purpose are bee balm, raspberry brambles, coneflowers, elderberries, mountain mint, goldenrod, ironweed, ornamental grasses, and many others. Leave the dead stems in place at the end of the growing season or cut them down to fifteen inches to create nesting and overwintering habitat for the following season.
- Plants that bloom very early… or very late: Also among the best bee plants are those that don’t bloom during “primetime.” Instead, they provide pollen and nectar either very early or very late in the growing season, at a time when these resources are typically more scarce. Late bloomers, like goldenrod, asters, and certain sedums, are must-have bee plants. So too are early bloomers, such as nepeta, bugleweed, and spring-flowering shrubs like shrub dogwoods, blueberries, and serviceberries.
- Plants that are low-maintenance: Another trait worth seeking out for a pollinator garden are plants that do not require a lot of input from the gardener. The less we disturb a pollinator garden, the better. Do not include plants that need to be pruned, pinched, or otherwise catered to. Also avoid any plants prone to diseases and pests. The last thing you want to do is spray pesticides or fungicides in a pollinator garden. These products can have a very negative impact on pollinator health, as well as on the nectar fitness of the plants on which they’ve been applied. The best bee plants are carefree and require very little effort to maintain.
- Say no to doubles: While this list of the best bee plants focuses mostly on the traits you want in pollinator garden plants, there’s one trait you definitely don’t want: double flowers. Yes, flowers with a thick layer of petals are often considered beautiful by people, but they’re pretty useless to pollinators. Double varieties of coneflowers, sunflowers, Shasta daisies, columbines, and many others have nectaries that are completely inaccessible to pollinators. Bees simply cannot make their way through all those layers of petals to find the nectar. And, to top it off, some double flowers don’t even produce any nectar at all.
Two other ways to please the bees
In addition to including a broad diversity of plants with these traits, there are two other things you can do to create a quality pollinator garden.
- Don’t mulch everywhere: Yes, I know all the reasons why gardeners should mulch, but many species of native bees nest in small holes in the ground. If you cover every square inch of bare ground with mulch, they’ll have nowhere to set up their brood chambers. Leave some exposed soil and keep a sharp eye out for small holes in the ground. Though they’re solitary nesters, individuals of some species dig holes very close together to form a sort of colony. On sunny days, when the bees are flying in and out of the holes, it’s great fun to watch them work.
- Learn to ID the bees: Because there’s a great diversity of bees out there, do yourself a favor and learn to identify as many species as you can so you can easily spot them in your garden and teach others about these important insects. You can plant a plethora of the best bee plants, but if you can’t identify who’s feeding on them, you’re missing half the fun!
A big THANK YOU to Nature Hills Nursery for helping us share this important information on how to provide native pollinators with quality nectar and habitat plants. Do you have a pollinator garden? Please tell us about it in the comment section below.