A honey bee’s visit to a flower benefits both plant and bee and is a joy to behold. As beekeepers, we can promote this marvelous symbiosis by planting and cultivating herb and flower gardens, ground covers, shrubs and small trees that provide forage for bees most of the year round. These natural food sources can augment forage provided by our native and cultivated trees that are important for bees here in central Virginia such as Apple (Malus domestica) and Japanese Crabapple (Malus floribunda), Basswood (Tilia americana), Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Black Gum/Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), Red Maple (Acer rubum), Redbud (Cercis canadensis), Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta), and Tulip Poplar (Liriodendrum tulipifera).
An herb garden, located in a sunny, well-drained, and protected spot, can provide excellent forage for bees. Herbs typically are rich in nectar and have flowers that are amenable for access by bees. Annual, biennial and perennial herbs that are highly attractive to honey bees include the following.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) flowers June through October and is high in nectar;
Bee balm (Monarda didyma) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) flower July, August, and September;
Borage (Borago officinalis) flowers midsummer until frost and is a wonderful source of both nectar and pollen; closely related Viper’s bulgoss (Echium vulgare) flowers from June to October;
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) flowers June through September;
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), a member of the parsley/carrot family, flowers July through October;
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) flowers June through August and is a bee plant extraordinaire that beekeepers once rubbed their hives with to encourage bees to stay put;
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis - from the Greek Melisophyllon “beloved by bees”) flowers from July through September. Elizabethan beekeepers once rubbed lemon balm inside a hive because it “causeth the Bees to keepe together, and causeth other to come unto them”;
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) blooms December through spring;
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) flowers in July through October is a good source of nectar;
Sage (Salvia officinalis) flowers in June as does Blue Sage/Fragrant Sage (Salvia clevelandii);
Spearmint (Mentha spicata) flowers July and August; note: some mints such as peppermint are sterile hybrids that do not produce seeds and thus may not be a source of pollen;
Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata/Osmorhiza berteroi) flowers in May and June;
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) flowers in June and July;
Winter Savory (Satureja montana) flowers in abundance midsummer to fall;
Many ornamental flowers also are good sources of food for bees. When selecting these plants, two considerations should be kept in mind. First, bees are attracted by color, especially by blues, violets, and yellows. Second, many cultivated flowers such as most daffodils are sterile, scentless hybrids that do not provide pollen or nectar for bees.
In late winter/early spring the crocus (Crocus vernus) and the English wallflower (Erysimum cheiri) bloom. Regarding the wallflower, Gervase Markham wrote in the early seventeenth century “The Husbandman preserves it most in his Bee-garden, for it is wondrous sweet and affordeth much honey.” Winter Daphne (Daphne odora) also bursts forth with fragrant flowers in late winter/early spring. Rudbeckia and Echinacea cone flowers (e.g. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Eastern Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)) and other members of the aster family (e.g. Alpine Aster (Aster alpines), French Marigold (Tagetes patula)) afford bees excellent sources of pollen and nectar from May through October. Zinnia blooms (such as Zinnia angustifolia and Zinnia elegans) can last until the first frost.
Ground covers can be a wonderful source of forage for bees. Clovers, which are legumes that bloom in the spring and summer, include Alsike (Trifolium hybridum), White Dutch/Ladino (Trifolium repens), and Red (Trifolium pratense), Yellow sweet (Melilotus officinalis, a source of coumarin) and White sweet (Melilotus alba). They all are loved by bees (the genus name Melilotus is derived from the Latin for honey, ‘mel’).
Other ground covers such as Carpet Bugle (Ajuga reptans), Grape Hyacinth, (Muscari botryoides), and the yellow flowers of Marsh Marigolds (Caltha palustris) are frequented by bees in the spring.
Flowering shrubs and small trees are an important food source for bees. On a warm day in the first week of February, the creamy white flowers of the Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) can be seen covered with hungry, eager bees. Most species of Pussy Willow (Salix) bloom early as well and are good forage for bees. Other spring blooming shrubs that bees visit include the American Barberry (Berberis canadensis), and the Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica), Pieris (Pieris japonica), and Privet (Ligustrum japonicum). The little flowers of Hollies, especially Nellie Stevens (Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’), Burford (Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’), and Kurogane (Ilex rotunda), are frequented by bees seeking nectar in spring. The Lilac Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus) has aromatic foliage and flowers with blooms most of the summer.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Preservation, http://www.xerces.org/, especially
Conserving Pollinators: A Primer for Gardeners, Eric Mader, University of Minnesota, http://www.extension.org/pages/Conserving_Pollinators:_A_Primer_for_Gardeners
Basingstoke & District Beekeepers’ Association http://www.basingstoke-beekeepers.org.uk/, especially Plants for Bees, http://www.basingstoke-beekeepers.org.uk/plants.html
HoneyBeeNet, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, http://honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov/Honeybees/Orgs.htm; especially http://honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov/Honeybees/ForageRegion.php?StReg=VA_11 which provides a table of honey bee forage species for Virginia and their blooming dates
Insect Pollination Of Cultivated Crop Plants by S.E. McGregor, USDA, Originally published 1976, http://www.beeculture.com/content/pollination_handbook
Improving Forage for Native Bee Crop Pollinators, USDA National Agroforestry Center, AF Note – 33, http://www.unl.edu/nac/agroforestrynotes/an33g07.pdf
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, The PLANTS Database, http://plants.usda.gov/
North Carolina State Beekeepers Association, http://www.ncbeekeepers.org/index.htm; especially North Carolina honey plants, http://www.ncbeekeepers.org/piedmont.php which provides a listing of important plants and their blooming dates.
An Herb Garden for the Bees Note 1.05 by W. G. Lord, Research Technician, North Carolina State Department of Entomology, http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/entomology/apiculture/PDF%20files/1.05.pdf
Beekeeping Insect Note 2B, Landscape Planting for Bees, S. Bambara, North Carolina Extension Specialist, http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/ent/notes/Beekeeping/bee2b.html
Bee Gardening in Maryland: Providing Forage Plants for Honey Bees in Maryland 2008 By Christopher R. Costa, http://www.msbeea.org/sub/bee_gardening.pdf?extraParam=&now=964&chkMSBA=&chkInsp=&chkLinks=&chkPapers=
Some Ohio Nectar and Pollen Producing Plants, Both Major and Minor Sources, HYG-2168-98, Dr. James E. Tew Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet, OARDC/Entomology, Honey Bee Lab,1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691-4096, http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/2000/2168.html
University of Georgia Honeybee Program, http://www.ent.uga.edu/bees/; especially, Plants for Year-Round Bee Forage, http://www.ent.uga.edu/bees/pollination/Plants_Forage.htm
Bee Plants, Attracting More Bees and Pollinators to Your Garden, By Marie Iannotti, About.com, http://gardening.about.com/od/attractingwildlife/a/Bee_Plants.htm
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, Editors, Rhodale Press, PA, 1987.
The Herb Garden, Sarah Garland, Penguin Books, 1984.
Herbs - How to Select, Grow and Enjoy, Norma Jean Lathrop, HPBooks, 1981.
The Southern Living Garden Book, Steve Bender Editor, Oxmoor House, Book Division of Southern Press Corporation, 2004.
Plants of Colonial Williamsburg, Joan Parry Dutton, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1979.
A Field to Wildflowers of the Northeastern and North-Central North America, Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1968.
Wildflowers of The Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains, Oscar W. Gupton and Fred C. Swope, The University Press of Virginia, 1979.
Trees & Shrubs of Virginia, Oscar W. Gupton and Fred C. Swope The University Press of Virginia, 1981.
Field guide to the Mid-Atlantic States, National Audubon Society, Peter Alden and Brian Cassie, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1999.
Dirk and Carmen Nies Page of April 2, 2009 Version 1