“What can I plant to help the bees?”

One of the questions that people often ask is “what can I plant to help the bees?”

It’s not an easy thing to answer because while a suggestion might be theoretically correct the results might be less dramatic than you had hoped for. It’s not they necessarily dislike that pretty wildflower seed mix that you planted this year, it’s just that there are a lot of other factors to consider. Some plants supply pollen, some supply nectar, and some supply both. Protein from pollen is crucial for early brood production after winter and bees will always go where they get the most bang for their buck in terms of energy output; the low-hanging fruit, if you will. So, factors like seasonality, preference, and abundance play an important part of what bees will forage for. And don’t forget that different bee species often prefer different plants.

Plant diversity definitely helps the bees and is probably one of the least appreciated aspects of bee health. Not all pollen is the same and the nutritional profile of one type of pollen might be very different than another (for example, pine pollen is plentiful for us Southerners but, even if the bees were interested, provides little in the way of nutrition). Like people, bees need a variety of forage to cover all their nutritional needs, bolster their immune system, and support their metabolism, etc. Another huge benefit of plant diversity is having staggered availability to sustain colonies through dearths. Non-beekeepers are often surprised to learn that there’s a big dearth in the middle of summer and having a wide variety of plants, some of which might bloom during this time, can be like a life-saver for your bees.

One of the harder ideas to sell is the one I like to call a “tolerance for vegetation.” One I mean by this is that we tend to gravitate towards some of the plants that we consider most desirable or most pretty while excluding many that we deem “weeds” or “invasive.” The bees may not always agree with our assessment. That’s why I like to encourage a tolerance for vegetation that might not seem as pretty to you as is does to the bees. A good example of this here in the South is tallow. Tallow trees, I think by anyone’s definition is invasive, yet it’s responsible for a large part of our honey every year. Another example might be golden rod which flowers much later in the year and isn’t always welcome to homeowners but is very important to various pollinators. All I can say is to try to think about it from a different perspective. You don’t have to let every weed grow with wild abandonment but maybe there’s a happy medium between a manicured golf-course and a jungle that both you and the pollinators can live with. Plus, if your dogs are like ours then golden rod is practically a canine salad bar.

So, I think the best answer to “what to plant” is to plant everything you can and see what happens. Just don’t be too heart-broken if they don’t show up and give it time. If you like what you plant then there’s no loss. On top of that, try to have some wild areas of things you notice bees foraging on and wait until after things bloom before cutting them down. One more thing; bring back clover. White dutch clover was ubiquitous to every lawn when I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s and it was always covered with bees. Over time, with the fashionable and detrimental obsession with manicured lawns, the clover faded into distance memory with the abundance of bees.  I’m not implying that the two things are exclusively related but I’m also not implying that they’re not related at all.

Take care!