Planting a Bee-Friendly Garden
The first time someone asked me what they should plant to keep the bees out of their garden, I was dumbstruck. I thought ‘Why would you want to do that?’ But within moments, I realized that it was a very important teachable moment. I don’t claim to be a scientist, but I did pay attention in biology classes throughout my school years, and I’ve paid particular attention to the ongoing bee predicament. I think everyone should be able to agree that planting flowers and vegetables that support bees and bee health is important to humans and human health.
Bees are a necessary part of life, and your garden is a place where you can help keep them happy. If you didn’t pay attention in high school Biology class, here’s a brief summary of why bees are important.
They pollinate the flowers that turn into fruits and vegetables for us to eat. Simple really. A dramatic reduction in the bee population will result in a dramatic decrease in quantity and dramatic increase in price of food in geneeral.
Bee friendly landscapes are areas where bees can live happily. They need a place to build nests to raise their young and lots of room to forage safely. Urban landscapes make this particularly difficult for bees. But here on Nantucket, with only 50% of the island developed, bees have it good!
Known for making delicious honey, the most familiar bee in the European Honeybee. But there are so many more pollinators than the honeybee. There are more than 4000 species of native bees in the United States. The most common ones are found throughout North America.
Bumblebees nest in the ground and are important pollinators of both cultivated crops and wild plants. They are partial to plants in the nightshade family, like eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. They also are important for two key New England crops – blueberries and cranberries. Certain bumblebees are raised for tomato production because of their specific approach to pollination called ‘buzz pollination’ by which they vibrate their wing muscles to shake the pollen off the anthers. Different species of bumblebees are tolerant to varying elevations and temperatures making them one of the more widespread pollinators.
Carpenter bees are pollinators that also happen to be wood borers. These too are widely distributed throughout North America. If you aren’t sure whether you are seeing a bumblebee or a carpenter bee, think “does this bee look like it is on steroids?” If the answer is yes, it’s probably a carpenter bee. The females of all American carpenter bees are solid black with robust bodies and black wings. The males always have white or yellow faces and their bodies can range from yellow to solid black. If you see perfectly round holes in the cedar trim of your house, you have carpenter bees.
So what can you plant to provide a good environment for bees? Well, bees are like most of us in that they like plants that bloom. They particularly like flowers with lots of pollen. By no means is this a complete list, but rather a place to start if you want to grow a bee-friendly garden.
Agastache (Purple Giant Hyssop) is a very long bloomer. Its purple flowers make great cuts and are very attractive to native and non-native bees. Plant in full sun to part shade in moist, rich soil.
All types of Asclepias have a very high pollinator value. Monarch butterfly lovers will know that A. incarnata and A. syriaca are their favorite egg-laying hosts, but Asclepias will attract other beneficial insects like honeybees, wasps, digger bees, bumblebees and Greater Fritillaries. A. syriaca (Common Milkweed) loves to root itself in disturbed soil, like roadsides and fallow fields. They prefer moist soil, but can tolerate a fairly dry summer. The flowers mature to fluff-filled pods that explode in late fall, sending their seeds airborne on the wind. Other Milkweeds attract long-tongued bees, other varieties of butterflies and hummingbirds. The disappearance of Asclepias species has been identified as a contributor to the drop in population of our beloved Monarch butterflies, so planting this helps support the butterflies, too.
Solidago juncea (Early Goldenrod) is a later bloomer, with beautiful yellow flowers from July-September. Many people associate Goldenrod with hay fever, or summer allergies, but this wildflower doesn’t produce very much pollen. It is actually CommonRagweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) that is the sneeze inducer. Ragweed has an insignificant bloom and produces tons of pollen. It just happens to be in bloom at the same time as the showier Goldenrod. Solidago is available in named cultivars, and they are all good choices for attracting pollinators.
Coreopsis lanceolata makes a great garden plant, and is also found in plenty of open habitats like meadows, pastures and open woodlands. Butterflies are attracted to Coreopsis as well.
Echinacea purpurea is an old-fashioned garden perennial that at least 5 species of bees and 8 species of butterflies adore. I often see bumblebees sitting atop the spiky center of Purple Coneflower. And the four monarchs I’ve seen in the last two years have been in the Echincea flowers in my garden. That alone is the biggest reason to grow them in my book. They can be a little tough to get established, but after a year or so, they will become reliable bloomers. AND there are lots of new bright cultivars to make your garden even brighter!
One of my favorite wildflowers is Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum.) It is found in wet areas like swamps and around the edges of ponds and vernal pools. The pink/purple flowers are classics for August and they are very attractive in a large stand. They also make great cut flowers.
Gardens are great, but if they're just not your thing, try leaving an area of your property wild. Areas that are left to their own devices like this often make great habitats for pollinators and butterflies.