Feeding the Bees: Creating a Bee Buffet!

Kim Eierman

Kim Eierman

Founder of EcoBeneficial!

Available for virtual and in-person landscape consulting, talks and classes.

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bee on hypericum2

Feeding the Bees: Creating a Bee Buffet!

We are hearing more and more about the challenges which honey bees and native bees are facing.  There are many things you can do in a landscape to help bees.  One thing we all can do is create an appealing and nutritious “bee buffet” to help our pollinator friends.

As you likely know, bees need both pollen and nectar. Let’s talk a bit about nectar and nectar sources.

Bees find flowers in many different ways: by color, “nectar guides” in flowers, the size and shape of flowers, the symmetry of flowers, the height of plants, where flowers are located on plants, and of course, by the fragrance of flowers.  Different bee species have different needs and preferences.

Bees do not see colors the way we do, they see in a UV spectrum.  How do you deal with this in a garden?  Emphasize plants which flower in shades of blue, purple, violet, yellow, and orange.  And, one important note – bees cannot see red unless the pigment in the red reflects UV light.

There is some research that indicates that the colors of hybridized plants are often less attractive to bees, presumably because “man-made” plants have been altered, making their colors less visible to bees.  Stick with native plants, and you’ll be fine.

Many plants have “nectar guides” to attract bees.  These are patterns on flowers, often invisible to humans, which serve as a runway for bees, guiding them to their nectar reward. The nectaries in flowers (where the good stuff is) are often more darkly colored than the rest of the flower.

Not all bees go to all flowers.  Certain flower shapes and sizes appeal to different bees, primarily because of the different sizes of a bee proboscis, the long, slender, hairy tongue which draws up nectar and water. The European honey bee has a proboscis which is typically 5.7 mm to 6.8 mm long, while a bumble bee typically has a longer tongue from 7.2mm to 6.6 mm.  Flowers with very long corollas (tubes) are inaccessible to honey bees, but are easy pickings for long-tongued bees.

There are quite a few plants which you might think are great nectar sources, but aren’t.  Two examples which might surprise you are roses and St. John’s Wort species.  These plants are good sources of pollen (unless excessively hybridized) but they don’t offer any nectar reward. By all means, do include native roses and St. John’s Wort in your garden, if they are native to your area, but do so for the pollen.

Here are some basic parameters for planting to support bees:

– Provide a wide diversity of plants with different flower shapes, sizes and bloom time to feed many different species of bees.

– Emphasize native plants for best overall ecological impact. Some native bees can only feed on a limited number of native plant species.

– Plant for a long sequence of bloom (early spring through late fall in most parts of the country).

– Stay pesticide-free. Even a broad-spectrum organic pesticide can be lethal to bees.

Start thinking about your fall planting from Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!

Photo: Hypericum frondosum (Golden St. John’s Wort) with pollen-seeking bumble bee
Photo credit: Kim Eierman

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