Plants for Bees and other Pollinators

By Mikl Brawner

“You can join the fight to save the honeybees by planting a pollinator-supporting garden.” This is a recommendation made by a Penn. State Master Gardener program. Is this weird? Not at all. The European Parliament has approved creating bee “recovery zones” across the Continent. These recovery zones will provide bees with nectar and pollen in areas that are free from pesticides. Why is it a big deal that honeybee populations around the world are declining? One reason is that one third of the human diet comes from plants that are pollinated by honeybees. Another reason is that honeybees may be the “canary in the coal mine”; just the first to show that there is a problem that hasn’t yet surfaced in other pollinators and other beings.

We have been told that the problem is “colony-collapse disorder”, and that this is related to pesticides and stress-induced weaknesses. Besides writing to the EPA and local governments to restrict or ban the use of chemicals that harm bees, what else can we do? We can provide nectar and pollen-producing gardens that support pollinators without poisoning them.

Some suggestions to help you create pollinator-friendly gardens are: 1) plant patches of the same flowering plant, 4’x4’ is a good size. This will make a visual impact and make it easier for bees to locate. 2) put out water in shallow dishes or bird baths with gravel and sand 3) leave cleanup of the garden until spring to help non-honeybee pollinators overwinter 4) plant natives that have evolved with local native pollinators 5) plant different varieties that bloom from early spring to late fall  6) avoid the use of many hybrid varieties with double flowers that lack pollen and nectar, and 7) do not apply toxic pesticides.

Here are a few bee-friendly plants that love growing in Colorado:

The Mahonia tribe offer nectar, pollen and support for brood-rearing for bees, as well as a wide variety of forms for the gardener. All are evergreen, well-adapted to Colorado’s soils and climate and tolerant of drought. Their holly-like foliage is thick and waxy, helping them to tolerate wind and even winter sun. Our native Mahonia repens grows to only 8”-16” tall and makes a usually loose groundcover under pines or in filtered shade. Mahonia aquifolium, the Oregon Grape Holly is one of our easiest-to-grow broad-leafed evergreen shrubs. Besides having deep-green Holly-like leaves with purple winter color, it also produces blue berries that are preceded by fragrant yellow flowers in April and May. This 5’ spreading shrub is very tough and drought tolerant, and can grow in sun or shade, clay or gravel, moist or dry, once established. There is a compact variety that only grows to two and half feet high.

Even the more unusual Desert Mahonias, Mahonia fremontii and M. haematocarpa are well-adapted here and are very popular with bees for their abundant, sweet-scented yellow flowers which can perfume a garden to the delight of gardeners, as well.

Fruit trees depend on honeybees and other bee species for pollination, and, in turn, provide important support for bees. Apricots, with their very early pink blooms are important for bee brood-rearing, even if they seldom make apricots. At 30’ they are one of the largest and longest-lived of the stone-fruits, and they are drought tolerant. Early this April, my wife, Eve, and I watched a hummingbird feeding ecstatically in a blooming Apricot. Another blooming Apricot was so full of bees you could hear the tree humming form a distance. (Maybe we’ll get some apricots this year.)

Cherries and plums are also valuable for early nectar and brood-rearing. The wild plum is especially valuable because of its colony-forming habit and strong sweet fragrance which bees find very attractive. Apples and Crab Apples also provide great masses of blooms for bees. Make sure you buy Fireblight-resistant varieties because the bacteria that causes this very damaging disease is spread by bees from flower to flower.

For summer bloom, the Blue Mist Spirea, Caryopteris x clandonensis, has great appeal to bees, butterflies and gardeners. There are several cultivars ranging from two feet to four feet high and wide. All provide profuse lavender to rich blue flowers that bloom for a long time in mid to late summer. ‘Dark Knight’ is 4’x4’ with gray-green leaves and dark blue flowers, ‘Longwood’ is 2’-3’ high and 3’ wide with bluish-violet flowers and may die to the ground in a cold winter. ‘First Choice’ blooms earlier than the others with dark purple-blue flowers. There are a couple gold-leaved cultivars; one is ‘Worcester Gold’ with lavender-blue flowers and is only 2’ high. Every spring cut them back by one third or more.

The Blue Mist Spireas are not  true Spireas, but the flowers have a resemblance to Spirea. They are very useful deer-resistant, xeriscape shrubs that can make a good single specimen, can be lined up to make a hedge or massed to simply fill and weed-smother a large area. Beware of their seedlings which can be numerous, but easy to dig in their first year. The beautiful blue flowers in the heat of the summer are a welcome sight and the bees really appreciate them when little else is in bloom.

People often ask at our nursery for one of those magical plants that expresses its sexuality all season long by blooming continuously. Besides the boring explanation that we must plant different varieties with over-lapping bloom-times, another answer is “catmints.” Catmints provide “continuous” bloom if flowering stems are sheared off when they are nearly spent. Then they will provide nectar and pollen over a very long season. Catmint is not the same as Catnip, Nepeta cataria, which is a self-sustaining plant of weedy habit beloved by cats. The catmints are much better garden plants. In 2007 Nepeta x faassenii (N. racemosa) ‘Walker’s Low’ was named Perennial Plant of the Year for its lovely gray-green foliage and lavender-blue flowers that keep on coming. It has no disease or pest problems, is resistant to both deer and rabbits and is sterile so it doesn’t make a nuisance of itself (like Nepeta mussinii which seeds a lot). It is not, however, very low; it can grow 18”-30” high and wide. Similar to ‘Walker’s Low’ but lower and seeding some is the also beautiful Nepeta x fassinii. “Little Trudy” is a dwarf catmint that was found at Little Valley Nursery in Denver, and was chosen in 2008 for the Plant Select Program. It has silvery foliage with lavender blooms that continue for a long time. ‘Little Trudy’ is only 8”-10” high and 12”-16” wide. ‘Six Hills Giant’ is another popular cultivar that grows 2’-3’ tall and wide, and ‘Souvenir d’ Andre Chaudron’ is a Nepeta siberica variety that is very beautiful, long blooming, grows to 18” and requires moderate water.

Support the honeybees, and plan for a long season of blooms both for the bees and other pollinators, the beneficial insects and for yourself and the neighbors.

Other good bee plants are:
Veronicas, Thymes, Winter Savories, the Mints, Basil, Lavender, Roses, Borage, Hyssop, Rosemary, Yarrows, Gaillardias, Asters, Campanulas, Mums, Coreopsis, Erigerons, Bee Balm, Dandelion, Sumac, Sand Cherry, Mock Orange, Maples, Redbud, Lilacs, Serviceberries, Cotoneasters, Hawthorns, Willows, Squash, Corn, Cucumbers, Melons

See our Pollinator Plant List and our List by Flowering Season