Tag Archives: pollinator plants

Planting for Honey Bees

Lindera benzoin, blooming in March,  is an early source of nectar.

We are about to begin our 4th season as beekeepers, and it has been fascinating, heartwarming and at times, devastating. It’s too early to be assured of our hives’ winter survival but there was a whole lot of action around all 3 hives during the recent 2-day warm spell. Off “the girls” went in search of food to replenish their winter stores. This brought up the question: which specific plants would the bees find around our property that might provide pollen and nectar? I knew our Witch Hazels (Hamamelis) were just beginning to open. What other plants could we introduce to ensure an early and sustained supply of bee nourishment in our northern climate?

Hamamelis ‘Arnold’s Promise’

There is much information for attracting pollinators, (a great source is Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden blog and podcast) but not so much specifically for the honey bee, Apis mellifica. I was able to get bits of info here and there, and finally found an online document, Gardening for Honey Bees by Kathleen M. Prough for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which was quite thorough and easy to follow.  It provided a lengthy list of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, notating their bloom period and whether they provided nectar  (for energy and honey production) or pollen (for protein) or both. Note to non-beekeepers: only certain plants provide nectar for bees, and when these begin to flower, beekeepers get ready for what we call the Honey Flow, a busy time for foraging bees to collect nectar to bring back to the hives. 

Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt Aso’

Here in the northeast, honeybees can forage from February through November, as warm temperatures permit. It is important for bees to have a steady supply of flowers to forage, and for the beekeeper to take note of when there is a dearth in her/his area. After referring to Kathleen Prough’s list, I checked off which plants we already had on or near our property and noted which bloom periods I needed to supplement with the right plants to fill the voids. It is important to plant groupings of pollen and nectar-producing perennials and shrubs.  Honeybees scout for sources and concentrate their efforts where there are ample stores. “Flower fidelity” is the phrase describing how honeybees focus collection efforts on one type of flower, as they single-mindedly collect pollen and nectar from one type of plant, ensuring good plant pollination.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in late February

Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’ with Iris ‘Kathryn Hodgkin’

I definitely knew I needed to add more late winter/early spring pollen and nectar sources. In the woodland behind our hives we have room to add Spicebush, Lindera benzoin and in our low wet area,  space for more Willows, Salix spp.  The early flowers of species Snowdrops (Galanthus) are sources of pollen. We already have a nice little stand of Crocus which provides pollen, but why not plant more?  Siberian Squill  (Scilla siberica) is another early bulb loved by bees and it has amazing blue pollen  Last year I noticed some honeybees on the early blooming  Helleborus niger, although I did not see it on the bee plant list. Hopefully, the nearby swamp maples and alders will provide a good supply of pollen in early April.

Pieris japonica

Enkianthus sikokianus

During April-May our gardens have a decent supply of bee loving flowering trees and shrubs: Apples (Malus)  Blueberries, (Vaccinium), Aronia,  Pieris, Enkianthus,  Hollies (Ilex) and Boxwood (Buxus).  Late spring/early summer perennial selections that offer pollen and nectar include  Baptisia, Crambe, Nepeta, Monarda, Phlox divaricata and stolonifera, Periscaria polymorpha and more.

Calamintha nepeta (Calamint)

Caryopteris x clandonensis Blue Empire

High summer into fall plants include Agastache, AlliumAsclepias, Calamintha, Echinacea, the perennial sunflowers Heliopsis and Helianthus, Lavender, Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum), Penstemon, Persicaria amplexicaulis, Rudbeckia, Salvia, Teucrium, Verbena, Vernonia and Veronicastrum. Oakleaf Hydrangea (H. quercifolia), Smooth Hydrangea (H. arborescens) and Blue Mist Shrub (Caryopteris) are summer blooming shrubs that I’ve noticed lots of bees visiting. We are fortunate to have a stand of Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) right near our hives, and its nectar makes the most delicate honey. I’m told the honey derived from the nectar of Sourwood (Oxydendron arboretum) is also to die for. In case you are unfamiliar with Sourwood it’s a native tree with drooping panicles of white bell flowers in mid-late summer with outstanding fall foliage color. 

Cerinthe purpurescens aka Honeywort

Honeybee visiting Salvia vanhoutii

Planting annuals favored by honey bees will give quick results and offer food this season, well into autumn.  Early flowering annuals such as Honeywort (Cerintheand Calendula can start your season. Top honeybee choices for summer are Alyssum, Basil, Borage, Cleome, Cosmos, Salvia, Sunflowers, Tithonia and Zinnias to name a few. These annuals, along with fall blooming perennials such as the various Asters, Goldenrod (Solidago), Sedum and Chrysanthemum will provide more end of the season pollen sources.

very late blooming Aster ageratoides ‘Ezo Murasaki’

Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield’ in early November

You don’t have to keep bees to support the honey bee population, but do consider planting more bee-friendly plants in your gardens. Please refrain from using harmful pesticides (neo-nicotinoids, once thought safe, are very bad!), herbicides (no Roundup!) and fungicides in your gardens. Allow wildflowers to establish and flourish on your property. Let those Dandelions, one of the first flowers that honey bees gather pollen and nectar from, bloom away in your lawn. In the fall, native asters and goldenrod are valuable late season food sources.

Above is a little clip of bee activity on the Mountain Mint. I plan to take more notes on which plants honey bees visit. Feel free to share which plants you have noticed honey bees on.

Summer Meadow Rues

As the 4th of July rolls around, the early June show of Baptisia, Peonies, Iris and Cranesbill is fading, and its time to focus on high summer performers. I could not be without the dreamy clouds of  the summer blooming Meadow Rues, or botanically speaking Thalictrum, with their sprays of dainty small blossoms on tall stems, creating a seductive haze above the knee high plants in the garden.

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Thalictrum ‘Splendide’

First there is ‘Splendide’, the first of the French breeder Thierry Delabroye’s introductions with its slightly larger soft lavender flowers. ‘Splendide’ is statuesque…it can reach 7′ in a rich soil, and may need staking when the branched stems are heavy with buds.

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Thalictrum ‘Splendide ‘White’

Thalictrum ‘Splendide Whiteis perhaps my favorite. Another selection from Thierry Delabroye, this white selection takes the place of Baby’s Breath in the border with its 3′ to 4 .5′ stems above delicate Columbine like foliage. Sprays of pearly buds  burst into 1/2″ 5 petaled blossoms with greenish white stamens. Blossoms continue for weeks, and make exquisite cut flowers.

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Thalcitrum delavayi ”Hewitt’s Double’

And then there is this older form of the species, T. delavayi,  ‘Hewitt’s Double’, which bears its inflorescence on 3-4′ stems above dainty Maidenhair fern like foliage. It has shown a preference for excellent soil drainage in winter, but enjoys an evenly moist soil during the summer months.

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Thalictrum rochebrunanium

Last but not least, is the most familiar form Thalictrum rochebrunanum ‘Lavender Mist’ which can easily grow 4-6′ tall in a rich somewhat moist soil.  Sprays of lavender buds open to show 4-5 petaled blossoms with prominent yellow stamens in July and August.  T. rochebrunianum can self sow where it is content.

Thalictrum are members of the Ranunculus family which includes, Anemones and Buttercups. They enjoy average to rich soil with ample moisture during the growing season and full or half day sun. T. delavayi is hardy in zones 5-8, and the rest are more cold tolerant and are hardy in zones 4-8.  And oh, yes, they are not favored by deer or bunnies.

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