Written by Ruth O’Neill.
Beyond their economic utility as pollinators, honey bees are fascinating animals to watch as they go about their daily routine of foraging for pollen and nectar. Here are four ways to create a sanctuary for honey bees.
1. Plant for abundance and diversity
Fortunately, honey bees are non-picky feeders on a broad diversity of flower types, and there are plenty of winter-hardy flowering plant selections available for our region. Honey bees are such feeding generalists that you don’t need to be overly concerned about exactly what flowering species you plant; your strategy can simply be to plant a lot of different things.
That said, some flowers don’t attract bees, either because they don’t contain sufficient nectar/pollen, or it is hard for them to reach. These include:
- grape flowers
- many cultivated roses
Special Note: Red flowers are not sought out by bees unless lighting is very intense. For bees, red has a gray or black tone that blends into the background foliage under most lighting conditions. Read this article for the science behind this.
2. Plant flowers in large groupings
You don’t have to have a large yard to attract honey bees, but it is a good idea to plant flowers of the same species in large clusters to the extent possible, given your property size. Honey bees have a sophisticated recruitment system (dance language) for communicating with each other about where flower patches are, and within a colony the workers prefer to focus on larger patches of flowers that are all the same species. Floral monocultures actually speed up worker recruitment. And, bees are smart enough to learn how best to handle each type of flower, increasing their efficiency.
3. Offer flowers throughout the growing season
Summertime blooms are normally plentiful if you have planted a diversity of flower species on your property. Commonly, however, there are not enough flowers available in early spring and in late summer / fall.
Some good bee-friendly flowers and plants for early spring flowering are:
- dandelion (unappreciated by us, but bees love them)
- pussy willow
Good fall choices include:
- Rocky Mountain bee plant
- Joe-pye weed
- blanket flower
- several native species of thistle
4. Consider including native plants in your landscaping
If you want to increase the species diversity of bees in your landscaping, incorporate native flowers in your garden. Honey bees as well as most of the garden flowers and vegetables they pollinate are imported, non-natives to North America. Native plants, on the other hand, have evolved here, and they have developed ecological relationships with indigenous solitary bees and bumble bees.
A diverse bee garden can include, for example, non-native small fruits, such as blueberries as well as native plants like strawberries, raspberries, currants, and gooseberries. You can offer patches of nectar-rich forages that are non-native such as sainfoin and alfalfa, as well as natives like bird’s-foot trefoil.
Many common garden herbs are non-native, yet they are visited frequently by native bee species. These include thyme, oregano, basil, lemon balm, mint, marjoram, and clary sage. Include a variety of flower sizes as well. Bees will naturally gravitate toward the types of flowers that are easiest for them to handle, according to their body size and how long their tongues are.
For more information on growing native plants in a variety of soil types and growing conditions, visit: http://www.nativeplantnetwork.org/
Written by Ruth O’Neill. Ruth is a Research Associate in the Wanner Extension Entomology Lab at Montana State University, who cooperates on a variety of projects related to insect pests of crops. She has experience as a hobbyist beekeeper, and has a special interest in honey bee health and protection.