By Sierra Tajen, HoneyColony Original
Whether gardening for beauty or gardening for food, bees are essential to a healthy garden. Plant selection, bloom times, color, and location are all factors that need to be taken into consideration to attract bees. By inviting them with the right plants, gardeners help honeybees forage more efficiently, which helps hives thrive.
Flowers are vital to a bee’s survival as they provide food sources through pollen and nectar. Since adult bees utilize the sugars in nectar for energy while protein-rich pollen is fed to their young, it is essential to populate a home garden with plants that bloom throughout different times of the year. This ensures a constant food source for bees and their young during various stages of their six-week life cycle.
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Spring bloomers include snapdragon and strawberries while summer bloomers include coreopsis, daisies, sunflowers, coneflowers, and zinnias. Fall bloomers include goldenrod and aster. Experts recommend sticking to heirloom varieties of plants and avoiding hybrids, which tend to produce less nectar and pollen.
Native plants such as sunflowers, coriander, and mint are also best for helping bees prosper because they are indigenous to a geographic region and weren’t introduced by man. Native varieties also tend to be easier to maintain and less prone to disease. Bees will often time their emergence from hibernation with the bloom times of native plants. Pollinator Partnership provides a feature that allows users to discover plants native to their region, and PlantNative provides a list of nurseries that supply native plants.
Avoiding the use of pesticides is also important to the survival of honeybees. Many well-intentioned gardeners may be introducing pesticides into their gardens unknowingly via contaminated plant and seed purchases. Plants purchased from large retailers and home improvement stores often come pretreated with pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, which are nicotine-based chemicals that are sublethal to bees. Sourcing plants and seeds from organic farms and nurseries can help prevent the unintentional introduction of pesticides into home gardens.
Color is another important factor to consider when attracting bees to a home garden. Honeybees see colors differently than humans. They do not process red and are most drawn to shades of purple, violet, and blue. Bright white and yellow, in addition to ultraviolet patterns imperceptible to the human eye, are also a delight to bees.
I can attest to their affinity for shades of purple and blue; the biggest bee magnets in my flowerbeds are a lavender bush, blue moon phlox, and purple dahlia. But flowers do not attract bees with their vibrant colors alone. Recent research from the University of Bristol has proven flowers use an electric field to lure bees which are drawn to the flower’s negative charge.
If gardening for beauty, intersperse flowerbeds with plants in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors to attract the widest variety of bees. Some bees are social and like to forage together while others are solitary and prefer foraging alone. Groundcover plants such as heather and phlox will attract social species while solitary types will migrate to tall-stemmed flowers such as foxglove and coneflower.
If gardening for food, honeybees are essential for production of many types of fruits and vegetables. Berries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, gourds, squash, zucchini, pumpkins, onions, beans, some nuts, and fruit trees are some of the plants that can’t produce food without pollination from bees.
In turn, letting a few vegetables or herbs bolt also helps extend the bees’ food supply. (Bolting is the period in a plant’s growth cycle when it begins to produce more flowers and seeds instead of leaf growth, usually becoming bitter and inedible.) Some vegetables and herbs prone to bolting are basil, cilantro, lettuce, cabbage, and broccoli.
While gardening in the suburbs affords more space, plants should still be grouped in clusters when possible. This allows bees to conserve energy while foraging in one place. Sunny spots with areas for nesting nearby will also draw in more bees. And maybe provide a fountain of sorts for drinking. Avoiding landscaping fabric and heavy layers of mulch around vegetables and flowers will enable native bees to nest nearby more easily.
City dwellers partaking in the urban gardening movement who are limited by space can grow bee-friendly herbs. Basil, oregano, mint, rosemary, and thyme are a few of the easy-to-grow and care-for varieties of herbs that bees love. Flowers such as verbena, geranium, and coreopsis also do well in containers and produce blooms in a variety of colors sure to please bees.
Whether on a rooftop deck or a suburban backyard, gardens big and small can be designed with the survival of bees in mind. Interspersing gardens with flowers and vegetables that bloom at different times throughout the year is important for providing bees a constant food source. Pesticide-free native plants that produce a variety of blooms and colors are the best home garden plants that will help bees thrive the most.
Sierra Tajen is a freelance writer and photographer. She enjoys covering a variety of topics including issues that improve the welfare of animals and the natural world.