Hello, honey! Do the bees say that when they see your garden?
Growing an abundance of nectar-rich plants throughout the season makes for a bountiful and bee-friendly garden, but the plants that have a profusion of nectar might surprise you.
Wild About Nectar
Why are bees wild about nectar? In North America, the honeybee is an introduced species that works well with many of our introduced crops.
Honeybees make honey from nectar that they collect from flowers. Of course, not all bees are honeybees: There are also many other local species of bees. Of these, the bumblebee and mason bee species are relatively common.
Different bees do different things with the nectar that they collect:
- A honeybee returns to the hive, where it regurgitates nectar. The bees add enzymes to the nectar and also fan it to help the water evaporate, gradually turning the substance into honey.
- Bumblebees also store nectar for food, but they store much less than honeybees do. In cool climates, only the queen bumblebee survives the winter, and when she emerges she secretes wax and makes a nectar pot, collecting and placing nectar in the pot for her to eat and feed to her new growing colony.
- Mason bees earned their name because they create small nests using mud. They not only lay their eggs in the holes where they nest, but they also provide food for their future babies. The female bee deposits both nectar and pollen in the hole as well, providing food for the bee larva that will hatch in each individual hole. You might think that you’re busy, but a female mason bee has to visit over 1800 blossoms every day to collect the pollen and nectar that she needs when she’s nesting.
When Bees Visit Flowers, Pollination Happens
This active food-seeking is of huge benefit to gardeners. As bees collect nectar and pollen, they move pollen from flower to flower in a garden, participating in the plant’s reproductive cycle and fertilizing the flowers, helping them create fruit and seeds. We call this process pollination.
As pollinator numbers drop, supporting your local pollinators is becoming more and more important. The free ecological service that bees and other pollinators provide is critical to the success of your food plants, since many of the fruits or seeds we eat have insect pollinators.
How can you support your hungry bees and help pollination happen in your garden beds? One way is to grow plants that attract pollinators throughout the seasons. What are the best nectar plants for bees?
Trees For the Bees
Some tree species are an excellent source of nectar for the bees. Maple and willow trees provide an early nectar flow for bees, if the weather is not too cold for them to fly. Sumac, basswood, and black locust trees flower later, and they are also major nectar plants.
Bee Food Throughout The Seasons
In the floral arena, dandelions are one of the first nectar flows for the bees. Yes, those happy-faced little plants that you’ve likely tried to eliminate are really doing your garden a favor by attracting scores of pollinating insects. Phacelia is pretty and it’s also helpful food as the bees rear their young.
As summer approaches, milkweed plants begin to blossom, and so do blue thistles (Echium vulgare). The blue thistle has a steady flow of nectar over the course of the day and over the course of the summer months.
As you move into the late summer, there’s more bounty on the road side as globe thistles, clover, and fireweed provide rich sources of nectar.
Clover is an excellent cover crop for your fallow garden beds.
Lemon balm also gives a strong nectar flow in the summer months, and its leaves provide a welcome lemony taste in your salads and teas.
Into the late summer and early fall, goldenrod provides a good source of nectar for honeybees who are stocking up for the winter, but if you’re planting it, be conscious of allergies.
The success of each nectar source depends on the weather. If it’s too cold or wet for the bees to fly, they won’t partake of the nectar, no matter how much of a plant might be around.
Feed Your Local Bees
As you can see, many of the key nectar plants for bees are ones that we’ve banished from our gardens. We call them weeds, and they grow by the roadside, but they serve an essential purpose: feeding our local bees. Bees need food as they move out of the winter months, raise their young, feed through the summer, and if they are honeybees, store honey for the fall.
Bringing back some of these plants in your garden or alleyway will help your local pollinators immensely. The humble dandelion and other weedy plants may seem undesirable to gardeners, but they’re a secret boon to bees.