Bee Gardens: Flowers, Fruits and Herbs for a Bee-Friendly Habitat

You can provide resident honeybees and other pollinators with year-round nourishment — even in urban areas — by planting flowers, fruits and herbs that are rich in nectar and pollen.

| April 11, 2011

The following is an excerpt from Keeping Bees and Making Honey by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum (F&W Media, 2008). This spectacular book offers an in-depth profile of nature’s most effective pollinator and covers all aspects of modern beekeeping, including where and when to get your bees, different types of hives, how to harvest and sell honey and beeswax, and even sensational recipes for Honey Cake, Mustard and Honey Salad Dressing, Spicy Chicken Wing Marinade, and more. This excerpt is from Chapter 7, “Gardening for Bees.” 

You may want to give your bees a helping hand when it comes to collecting pollen and nectar by planting bee-friendly flowers and shrubs in your garden or outside space. Even in a larger garden, you’ll unlikely have enough flowers to produce sufficient nectar to sustain a hive, so your bees will probably go farther afield — up to 3 miles — to find richer and denser sources of food. But the right flowers, fruit and vegetables in your garden will attract some of your own bees, as well as welcoming other visitors such as the bumblebee and solitary bee species. Above all, a garden or patch devoted to plants that are attractive to bees can be a source of great pleasure to any beekeeper, as much for the riot of color as for the activity of the bees.

Two other important factors contribute to a successful bee garden: The flowers should be in full sunlight and should be planted in groups. Flowers grown singularly or in twos and threes may fail to attract bees. A decent-sized clump of a suitable plant, such as lavender, is much more valuable. Likewise, bees often overlook flowers grown in shade even though they may produce nectar and pollen.

Don’t place the plants too close to the hive thinking you are helping the bees by reducing the distance they have to travel to find food. Flowers very near a hive are in the firing line when the bees go on their toilet trips, so they sensibly avoid them as a food source.

Unfortunately, some of the most spectacular-looking garden flowers are of no use whatsoever to the honeybee. Double-headed roses, chrysanthemums and dahlias, for example, provide no nectar and hardly any pollen. In contrast, many flowers that are often discounted as weeds, such as dandelions and forget-me-nots, provide a rich source of food. That is why one of the best and easiest things you can do to make your garden more bee-friendly is to throw away the weedkillers that maintain those immaculate-looking lawns and instead let your lawn and flower beds go wild.

If you are not quite ready to hand over your well-tended garden to the vagaries of nature, the next best thing is to leave just a patch to run wild. One way to get your wild garden started is to sow wildflower seed mixtures. The flowers will be a useful source of nectar and pollen, but your wild garden will not just attract bees — the tall grass will also provide a welcome habitat for a number of other creatures, and the berries, fruits and seeds produced by some of the plants will be food for birds and other animals. Soon this part of your garden will be teeming with life!

7/5/2011 2:42:52 AM

I planted Bee Balm in with my herbs this year. It is used specifically to attract honey bees, and I've also heard that making the leaves and flowers into a tea helps with gastric distress. I guess I'm going to have to give that one a try.

7/1/2011 2:02:07 PM

Upon a closer read of this article, I was alarmed to also find recommendations for Buddleia (butterfly bush) and honeysuckle. Avoid Buddleia - it is non-native and has become an invasive pest across much of the southeastern U.S., and its range will likely extend north as our climate continues to warm. Avoid Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) - the species with white and orange flowers - as it is a horrible invasive exotic almost everywhere. The native vining honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, flowers in reds and yellows and is wonderful for attracting hummingbirds.

7/1/2011 1:54:26 PM

I will present a workshop on Native Plants for Attracting Pollinators at the Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs, PA in September. But now, I must point out the following to readers of this article: 1. The majority of the plants listed here are NOT native to the United States (and certainly not to western PA). This matters a lot, for several reasons, including that studies show that native plants are up to 4X more effective at attracting pollinators than non-native plants; 2. Several of the plants listed are actually invasive and have become serious pests - cornflower, some knapweeds, most species of loosestrife, some bindweeds; 3. A very good reference for native plant lists for pollinators can be found on the Xerces Society website and in their excellent new book, Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies.

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: April 28-29, 2018
Asheville, NC

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!