Bee-Friendly Plants for Your Yard or Garden

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What would happen if one day 80% of flowering plants disappeared? If bees and pollinators die out, that’s exactly what would happen. Bee-friendly garden plants are a simple way to save the honey bees and make the world a better (and more beautiful) place.

Why Are Bees So Important?

In recent years there’s been more awareness to save the dying bee populations. But how important are bees really? Although they’re tiny, bees play a big role in our ecosystem.

According to the USDA Forest Service, over 80% of flowering plants need bees and pollinators to reproduce. This includes flowers, fruit trees, and many other fruits and vegetables. Bees also help pollinate flowers and plants other animals rely on for food.

Basically without bees… there is no us!

The Time to Act Is Yesterday

The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service releases their honeybee surveys and reports every year. They’ve found bee colonies took a nosedive in the early 90s, but there’s been a slow uphill climb the past few years. While bees are still at risk of becoming endangered, it seems more people are addressing the issue. We need a whole lot more though!

We’re losing about 30% of bee colonies every single year. There’s only so much time before the clock runs out and we’ve lost our most important pollinators for good.

Build a Bee-Friendly Yard

One of the biggest changes we can make is to create a bee-friendly environment in our own backyards (and front yard, and side yard…). It may not seem like much, but the more people chip in the more of a difference we can make.

Here are some simple ways to create a haven for bees:

Get Lazy with the Lawnmower

Flowering “weeds” like dandelion and clover are food for hungry pollinators. A picture-perfect patch of green grass may look good in a magazine, but for a bee it’s like an empty buffet. Keeping grass higher and ditching the weed killer means more flowers and wild plants have a chance to grow.

Filling your yard with bee-friendly plants and not mowing wildflowers is a big first step. When a neighbor makes a comment about the “weeds,” that’s a golden opportunity to spread the bee-saving message.

Variety Show

Just like we don’t want to eat only broccoli all day every day, bees also need a variety of foods. Diverse plant life also makes for healthier soil and attracts beneficial insects that feed on the bad bugs.

GMO monocrops, like corn and soy, rely on pesticides that kill wildflowers and decimate friendly insects. Other farms rely on bees to pollinate, but unfortunately many of them still use bee damaging/killing pesticides. Almond groves are a prime example.

We can advocate for better forms of bug control by voting with our dollars and supporting organic farms. Some small farmers don’t use pesticides but aren’t certified organic. It’s worth asking around at the local farmer’s market!

We can also use natural, pollinator-friendly pest control methods in our home gardens.

Not All Plants Are Created Equal

There’s more to making a pollinator garden than setting out some flowers. Certain bees prefer certain plants, and some colors are more attractive than others. Bright colored flowers, especially purple, are more likely to bring bees.

Avoid Neonics

Aka neonicotinoids, this class of pesticides was developed in the 1990s and is widely used. Unfortunately there’s evidence neonics are harming our eco-system, including the bee population. Seeds are coated in the neonicotinoids and as the plant grows the pesticide becomes part of the plant. The pollen and nectar are then poisonous to bees and other pollinators.

Plants and seeds treated with neonics should be clearly marked, so be sure to carefully read any labels before purchase.

A Pollinator Garden for Every Season

While dandelions and purple dead nettle are great for spring and early summer bee food, there’s the rest of the year to think about. It helps to plant different flowers that will be in bloom throughout the summer and into the fall.

In the plant lists below, many are marked with when they’re in bloom. By planting a variety, bees can eat throughout the seasons before they go dormant in winter.

Plant by Zone

Many plants work in most growing zones, but if possible, native plants are the way to go. This website has details on native species for pollinators tailored to each area of the US.

Best Plants for Bees and Other Pollinators

Flowers usually come to mind when we think about food for bees. However, flowering trees are the biggest food source for pollinators. The Arbor Day Foundation recommends the following trees for a pollinator garden.

Trees

  • Maple
  • Serviceberry – prefers areas with cold winters
  • Koelreuteria – a popular variety is the goldenraintree
  • Fruit trees – plums, apples, crabapples, peaches, cherries, and pears are good options.
  • Crapemyrtle – Flowers late spring through summer
  • Liquidamber – a popular variety is American Sweetgum
  • Black tumelo – Native to eastern states and yields especially good honey for honey bees.
  • Sourwood – native to eastern states and produces seed capsules into winter.
  • Linden – Silver linden and littleleaf linden are popular species
  • Hawthorn
  • Tulip trees
  • Southern magnolia
  • Privets

Pollinator Garden Flowers

Here are some flowers bees, butterflies, and other pollinators rely on. Not every plant will grow in every area. Be sure to check which growing conditions a plant prefers before planting.

  • Columbine – blooms mid spring to early summer
  • Lupine – spring
  • Dandelion – spring through fall.
  • Clover – early spring through summer, depending on the variety
  • Irises – early summer
  • Milkweed – blooms throughout the summer
  • Marigold  –   blooms throughout the summer
  • Rocky mountain iris – summer
  • Aspen fleabane – summer through fall
  • Gentian – mid summer to fall
  • Sunflowers – summer and into fall
  • Wild bergamot (also known as bee balm) – blooms late summer through early fall
  • Rose – begins blooming in May. Depending on the variety it may only bloom once per season.
  • Goldenrod – end of summer through fall
  • Joe pye weed – blooms late summer through fall

Fruits and Vegetables

  • Blueberry
  • Eggplant
  • Legumes
  • Watermelon
  • Tomatoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Strawberry

Edible and Medicinal Herbs

Where to Buy Pollinator Plants

Check your local garden store, neighborhood plant swap, or grow them from seed!

Our pollinator friends still may be in danger, but there’s plenty we can do to help them out! You can read lots more about gardening and get tons of tips for how to grow and maintain a garden here. 

Sources:

  1. Anderson, C. (2020, April, 21). 7 Flowering Herbs for Bees. Carolina Honey Bees. https://carolinahoneybees.com/best-herbs-for-bees-and-homesteading/
  2. Arbor Day Foundation. (N.D.). Trees for Bees and Other Pollinators. Arbor Day. https://www.arborday.org/trees/health/pests/article-trees-for-bees.cfm
  3. Kaplan, K. (2020, March 13). Fact Sheet: Survey of Bee Losses During Winter of 2012/2013. USDA. https://www.ars.usda.gov/oc/br/beelosses/index/
  4. Pollinator Partnership. (N.D.). List of Pollinated Food. Pollinator. https://pollinator.org/list-of-pollinated-food
  5. USDA. (2020, April, 4). Surveys. United States Department of Agriculture
  6. National Agricultural Statistics Service. https://www.nass.usda.gov/Surveys/Guide_to_NASS_Surveys/Bee_and_Honey/