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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
High summer into fall plants include Agastache, Allium, Asclepias, 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.
Planting annuals favored by honey bees will give quick results and offer food this season, well into autumn. Early flowering annuals such as Honeywort (Cerinthe) and 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.
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.