Once upon a time I wasn't a gardener. I got my start as a beekeeper and one year I had the idea to plant some flowers for my bees to help them out. So I drove down to the nursery, bought whatever looked good, came home, and planted the two gardens you see below.
Honeybees do work Butterfly Bush, however, it's rarely worth the number of foragers for the size of the plant. People who have 10' tall hedges of several plants though tell me they get swarmed with Honeybees. That's great and all but it's really not a plant I recommend. I've noticed around the neighborhood, it's rare that people keep them planted in their landscape for more than a few years. They just grow too quickly. People who plant Lilac on the other hand tend to keep them around. The problem is they're fast growing and want to grow into an enormous 10' by 10' shrubs. The flowers smell like rotting fruit (but somehow lack the repelling qualities), also they spread prolifically in wetland areas. Dead heading is always an option but you'll be trimming them every day into ever less appealing shapes.
In the Butterfly Bush's defense, there are dwarf varieties, and I'm at a complete loss to think of a better nectar source for butterflies that flower as long as this plant does. So it's worth a try but irresponsible to plant one near a wetland area. They seem more like a novelty plant; something one buys because the kids or mom want to have a butterfly garden.
So I got rid of the Butterfly Bush as I wasn't willing to commit to it. While hacking away at the branches though I realized one shoot wasn't attached at all. The leaves were very similar but different somehow. So I kept that one and later that Autumn I found out what it was.
The Amazing Goldenrod, Solidago altissima, that started out as a single timid 7' cane emerging from the ground.
Why Plant Native
Honeybees, Apis mellifera, are not native to North America so why should a beekeeper care about native plants? This is a valid question and one that I like to sum up by saying "Nectar." If we honestly judged how healthy an ecosystem was based on the sources of nectar available then all we'd have to do is fill our socks with apple sauce and hang them out to dry. Think of how many nature preserve we could replace by doing that! Whether it's nectar from a flower, the carbohydrates of a fruit, or soda spilled along the street, honeybees consider these food and don't care much about the source or quality of where it's coming from.
The local Pepsi Plant one summer spilled an entire vat of High Fructose Corn Syrup that filled the parking lot and loading bay area with the sweet sugar. It wasn't long before every bee, wasp, and house fly in a five mile radios blacked the sky to get at it. There were so many bees there in fact that an employee called the president of the south chapter of the New Jersey Beekeeping Association in as a consultant. There were so many bees flying around that their employees were afraid to go out there. Generally he told them to wash it all away (then regretted not going there in person to charge thousands of dollars just so he could hose down a parking lot).
On a small scale if you spill a soda on the street, or load up a dumpster with half full cans of cat food, and such, bees are going to find it! They're going to sip it up as though it were nectar and mix it in right with the honey. This is why I tell people to wash out their recycled cans once before placing it in the bin.
|Designed With Guards|
|Designed Without Guards|
Even with a fair amount of the foragers working none flower sources for food, the majority of the hives foragers are still out collecting food from these places. Public feeding of bees should be discouraged, especially later in the year when Yellow Jackets and Bald Faced Hornet populations start to peak. Instead we should be planting more flowering plants that the bees enjoy.
Honeybee hives are perennial, maintain populations of 20,000 to 80,000 bees year round. That means they need to forage all year long. An issue faced by most species of bee is the fact that flowers vary in size and color from plant to plant.
Now with so much flower diversity going on, and the need for a constant food source, evolution has shaped the honeybee into an all around generalist pollinator. They tend to work best on simple flowers. You will occasionally find them working Bee Balm, or Monarda, but both of these require the bee to pry open the flower to get at the nectar and that's a task more suited for a Bumblebee. Stick with flowers in the Composite/Aster, Rose, and Mint Family for the best results.
But now we come to an environmental issue. Nonnative plants don't fit into the environment as well as their native counterparts. Fewer insects eat their leaves, and in places where nonnatives dominate that can be a major part of the food chain missing. Honeybees are notorious pollinators of Japanese Knotweed, Purple Loosestrife, Popcorn Trees, Catmint, Vitex, Bradford Pears, and dozens of other imported plants who's status varies from invasive to on watch lists from state to state. It's likely because honeybees evolved with these plants from Asia, Africa, and Europe that they are actually better at pollinating them than our native bees. As none of these are food crops though beekeepers shouldn't view the incoming nectar as a real benefit. As far as the environment is concerned, you might as well have fed them sugar water.
Don't Waste Their Time
Honeybees are a victim of their own success.
have to constantly move their hives around, deal with pesticides, and god forbid the occasional car accident. If there aren't nectar sources or sugars to be exploited then it's a dead zone of activity for the bees. The answer to this problem is meeting somewhere in the middle. If we take that same field and fill it with an abundance of plant species that collectively flower all year long, while also grouping similar plants together, then we have a year round food source in a way for the bees.
For a more in depth look at the importances of native plants consider reading "Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded" by Doug Tallamy.
The Plant List
Honeybee hives spread by division and it's not surprising that this most often happens in the spring time when most trees flower. If you have a forest around you or live in a fairly wooded community then you don't need to plant a whole lot for the spring time. A single tree in bloom can get all the attention than whole slues of wildflowers growing beneath them. Many of these wildflower ephemerals get pollinated by flies, beetles, or native bees which are less picky about where their food comes from so long as they can work the flower. Towards the end of spring and start of summer the tables turn as most trees start to produce fruit or seed. Sun loving wildflowers take center stage from then on. However, during the transition from spring to summer there is a notable drought of nectar sources that I'm at a loss to fill in adequately at this time.
So let's begin.
Anyone interested in giving a home to a native tree that's extinct in the wild should consider the Franklinia, Franklinia alatamaha. Originally this plant was only native to Georgia, it's actually been found to be much more able to grow up north without much problem. They bloom over the summer time with great big Magnolia-like flowers that look very inviting and bee friendly in my opinion. I would sooner plant one of these over a Crape Myrtle, or Seven Son Tree, simple because it's at least native to North America, while the other two are imports from Asia.
Sumac Trees and Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia both flower around this transition time. Where I am in NJ Locust trees are a major source of nectar. Their blooming doesn't always line up with this transition time perfectly, so some years they're ahead while others they're behind.
Aster Yellows Disease. This infection causes the plant to make green monstrosities instead of real flowers, and sadly the only cure is to remove the entire plant. The disease is spread by aphids, and the common dandelion is a carrier. In the interest of flowers, effected plants should be weeded out immediately and their foliage put right in the trash.
They look great in the garden, and most days bees will be working the flowers from sunup to sundown. You couldn't ask for more of a bee plant.
Though technically I think they're a mint plant, they are not aggressive spreading at all which is surprising from a plant that gets this much attention!
|Heliopsis helianthoides 'Summer Nights'|
|Helianthus angustifolius, Narrow-Leaf Sunflower|
It's worth mentioning that there are also perennial sunflowers, however I've noticed most of them bloom in late summer, early autumn when Asters and Goldenrods seem to take center stage. Of ~50 species in the U.S. I'm sure one of them does a great job at getting honeybee attention, I just haven't found it yet.
Culver’s Root, Veronicastrum virginicum. I have this plant on order but so far I like what I see on youtube.
Varieties that flower later in the summer tend to be a big hit with Monarch Butterflies. Meadow Liatris, Liatris ligulistylis, is one such plant that blooms in late summer. Honeybees don't bother with it as much as other species though but the Monarchs sure cling to it.
I feel like this plant gets more environmental praise than it deserves. The leaves form little cups all along the stem and fill with a rather pitiful amount of water. While I have seen bees and birds drinking at these it doesn't happen anywhere near as often as you'd think. Reports of frogs laying eggs inside the leaves I'll believe when I see it in person, because the wells don't fill for much longer than two days. In truth these small pools of water are a defense against ants steal nectar from the flowers above. Other members of the Silphium genus don't have these cups but are equally good at attracting pollinators.
NOTE: Hypericum perforatum is an invasive nonnative plant. It's a herbaceous perennial form that spreads like the plague and is toxic to livestock.
Video 1, Video 2. Their only failing is that they grow too tall and sometimes fall over. I'm told you can trim them short toward the end of June, (really it's more like the end of July I think!) and they'll turn Mum-like with a neat dome of flowers. I've always been afraid to experiment with this though and have never done it.
Aromatic Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolius, is the most well behaved of them all. They have a natural dome forming habit and quickly fill out spaces around them. They have a very minor fragrance to them but it's nothing worth mentioning in my opinion. It's there if you look for it though.
Georgia Aster, Symphyotrichum georgianum, I like to think of as a messier form of Aromatic Aster. I think this is one of the latest flowering Asters in the US as it blooms after the New England Asters have finished.You can even see in my photo leaves from nearby trees have gotten caught in the foliage.