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Garden Choices That Will Support Bees

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According to research there is estimated to be close to 20,000 different species of bees in the world, only one of which is the honeybee. More recent investigation shows that this large group of insects is primarily attracted to plants that produce blue, purple, violet, white or yellow flowers. 

A half-black bumble bee (Bombus vagans) visits blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) at Minnesota's Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

A half-black bumble bee (Bombus vagans) visits blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) at Minnesota's Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

While the decline in bee populations can be attributed to many factors, including pesticide use, mites and viruses, one of the major players is the loss of native plants due to encroachment by agriculture, and urbanization into habitats that once supported myriads of wildflowers. You can help in no small way by planting some bee-friendly plants in your yard and garden each and every year.

What to plant

Two of the best trees for attracting a multitude of bees are black cherry trees and apple trees, and both give you fruit to eat, too! Black cherry grows best in USDA Zones 2 though 8 and it does well in all but the rockiest and heaviest clay soils. (As with many plants, though, the better the soil, the better they will grow.) There are flowering cherries that do not grow fruit, so make sure that you purchase fruit-bearing trees if you want cherries to eat.

There are close to 7,500 apple trees currently grown worldwide, and some 100 varieties are grown commercially in the US. When tree shopping, make sure the variety you choose does well in your climate zone, as varieties can differ greatly. In general, apple trees do best in fertile, sandy soils and loams. Do not plant them in soil that does not drain well, and likewise for cherries.

Three of the best bee-attracting annuals are borage (Borago officinalis), pot marigold (Calendula) and violets (Viola). All have edible flowers and leaves, and all are classified as herbs. All three prefer full sun, but violets will need some shade in hot climates. All three prefer well-drained soil high in organic matter. Violets and borage prefer to be kept moist, but calendulas need only occasional watering to do their best once they’re established. 

Some of the top bee-friendly perennials are asters, milkweeds and beebalms. 

Asters (Symphyotrichum) prefer full sun and tolerate most soils, and the flowers and leaves are edible. They’re more commonly added to tea blends. Most asters are native to North America. Once they’re established give them a deep soak once or twice a week for best results. 

Milkweeds (Asclepias) are all time favorites of bees, which will ditch other flowering plants in the garden for them. Milkweeds, also, are native to North America, and most take average garden soil and average water. Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) thrives in moist to wet conditions. Plant milkweed in the sunniest part of your garden. Parts of the milkweed plants are edible if cooked, but if eaten raw they are poisonous. Be careful. And yes, they are the mainstay of our declining monarch butterfly populations. 

Beebalms (Monarda), also native to North America, prefer well-drained and rich soil. This plant does not like it wet, and it requires full sun to part shade in warm climates. Leaves are edible cooked or raw, and they make a great aromatic tea. 

So why bother planting bee-friendly plants? Consider this: the majority of cherry trees require another variety of cherry to cross-pollinate with or they will not set fruit. What performs that pollination? Bees. Therefore without bees there would be no cherries—or apples or pears or many other kinds of fruits and edible plants. According to some, bees pollinate around 84 percent of our crops. Other researchers predict that our own species would survive only another four years if all the bees disappeared. 

We can help avert this calamity. Simply be sure to plant some bee-friendly plants around your yard and garden every year. As of this date it is estimated that there are about 250,000 flowering plants in the world that attract bees, so get busy!

Helpful hints for attracting a multitude of bees to your garden:

Use locally native plants if you can. Research suggests that native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic plants.

Choose different colors of flowers, bearing in mind that purples and blues are most noticeable to bees.

Use flowers of different shapes and sizes. Bee species grow to different sizes and have different tongue lengths. They will feed on flowers that are suited to their particular characteristics.

Plant bee-friendly plants that flower at different times of the year to keep the bees coming around from season to season.

Plant flowers in clusters of the same type to attract more bees. A patch four feet or more in diameter is recommended.

More advice on choosing flowers for a bee-friendly garden:

Choosing flowers of different shapes, sizes, colors and bloom times helps create a garden that will feed a range of bee species. This advice may make it seems like a grab-bag approach will work, but there are a couple of key parameters that narrow the options. 

First, choose simple, single-petaled flowers rather than fancier double-petaled flowers. “Dense, double-petaled selections may not accommodate a pollinator since the nectar glands and pollen-laden stamens are more difficult to locate,” writes Rebecca Finneran in “Gardening for Pollinators,” an article from Michigan State University Extension. The Bee Conservancy corroborates this advice and adds that if you’re considering a cultivar, be certain it is not sterile, since sterile flowers will have little or no pollen. 

This brings up the question of whether cultivars are ever a good choice when planting for pollinators. A cultivar is a variation of a plant species that has been intentionally bred to play up a certain trait, such as growth habit, flower color or duration of bloom, among others. (A variety, meanwhile, is a variation of a species that has happened naturally.) In the Xerces Society blog post “Picking Plants for Pollinators: The Cultivar Conundrum,” Justin Wheeler advises gardeners to “try to figure out what the plant was bred for…If (the) cultivated trait is just a larger flower or shorter habit, (it) may be okay.” 

Studies performed or evaluated by Annie White back this up; in “From Nursery to Nature: Evaluating Native Herbaceous Flowering Plants Versus Native Cultivars for Pollinator Habitat Restoration,” her 2016 graduate dissertation at the University of Vermont, she writes: “Typically, the higher the degree of horticultural modifications, the less likely it is to be as valuable to pollinators as the unmodified native species.” 

White does not suggest limiting the palette to native plants, however. “Pollinator gardens should include a (diversity) of flowering plants, biased toward native and near-native species but also incorporating a (choice) of non-native species that potentially provide resources for specialist pollinator groups or help extend the flowering season,” she writes.

Recommended related reading:

The Pollinator Victory Garden by ecological-landscape designer and horticulturist Kim Eiermann, who offers advice on plant choice as well as design and maintenance details that will support various kinds of pollinators through all stages of life.

Attracting Native Pollinators by The Xerces Society, which gives a great overview of pollinators and how pollination works, plus plenty of advice on protecting or creating habitats providing food and more.

Image credit: Courtney Celley/USFWS Midwest Region/Public Domain.