Growing Early Flowering Plants for Bees
Plus Tips for Planting Spring Flowers for Bees
For most gardeners, fall is the time to bring in the last of the harvest, preserve and store what you’ve harvested, and put the garden to bed for the winter. But fall is also a good time to plant early flowering plants for bees. When bees emerge in the early spring, they’re hungry and there’s very little for them to forage.
What and when you plant will depend on your climate and growing conditions; what grows in my area might not grow well in yours and vice versa. One thing I like to do is to observe and make notes of what flowers I see bees visiting regularly and when. I encourage you to do the same.
In the heat of the summer, I notice that a lot of bees visit our native heather and salvia. These plants bloom almost year round here but it’s not until the dead of summer when most other plants are no longer flowering that bees really start visiting them.
The same thing happens in the early spring. When there’s not a lot to choose from, bees will collect whatever pollen and nectar they can. Planting flowers that attract bees and bloom in early spring will help the bees get off to a good start.
Tips for Planting Spring Flowers for Bees
Some of the earliest flowering plants are often bulbs that overwinter in the ground. Bulbs are usually planted in the fall; and as a general rule, bulbs are planted at a depth of three times their height with the pointy side up.
Fall can also be a good time to sow seeds that you would need to be stratified for spring planting. Many flowering perennials can also be planted in the fall.
If you’re buying seeds or plants, make sure they are not treated with neonicotinoids (neonics), which are a group of insecticides that are related to nicotine. The insecticide is absorbed by all parts of the plants to ward off sucking insects such as aphids. However, the insecticide is also found in the pollen and nectar of the plant making it harmful to bees and other pollinators. Studies have shown that it can take up to months or even years for plants to break down this insecticide and that the insecticide can contaminate the soil.
At this time, many nurseries are phasing out plants and seeds that are treated with neonicotinoids and most are clearly labeled. So, check the label on all plants but especially the plants that attract bees to be sure you’re not planting plants that will harm pollinators.
Early Flowering Plants for Bees
Snake’s Head Fritillary Bulbs (Fritilliaria melegris) These are some of the first pollen sources available to bees. Snake’s head fritillary can be grown in USDA cold hardiness zones three to 10 and will grow to about 10 inches tall. They like full sun but will tolerate partial shade. Deer and squirrels don’t care for them, so they’re a great option if deer and squirrels like to eat your plants.
Grape Hyacinth Bulbs (Muscari armeniacum) This plant supplies much-needed early spring nectar for bees. They grow best in zones four to eight but can be grown in zones three and nine. They like full sun but will tolerate partial shade. They’ll also tolerate black walnuts so they make a great understory for black walnut trees. They are deer resistant and will tolerate clay soil which is something most bulbs will not tolerate. Grape hyacinth will send their leaves up in the fall but not flower until the spring.
Snowdrops Bulbs (Galanthus nivalis) These early bloomers will grow in zones three to seven; they do not really like warm winters. They like full sun but will tolerate light shade. They grow to about four to six inches tall. Rabbits and deer tend to leave snowdrops alone so this is another great choice if wildlife likes to eat your plants. Like most other bulbs snowdrops like well-drained soil with a lot of hummus.
Winter Aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) Aconites grow well in zones three to seven, in full sun or partial shade. They prefer slightly alkaline soil but will grow in any reasonably fertile soil. They only grow to a height of about three to four inches so they are a great addition to the edges of flower beds or walkways. They are somewhat fussy to germinate; the tubers can be soaked overnight before planting to improve germination rate.
Crocus (Crocus sp) These beauties grow well in zones three to eight; they prefer full sun but will tolerate partial shade. They grow to about three to six inches tall. Squirrels like to dig up crocus corms, so consider covering the ground with hardware cloth or chicken wire for the first month or two after planting. Rabbits also like to feast on crocus so if you have a large rabbit problem crocus might not be the best plants for bees for you to grow.
Flowering Hellebores (Helleborus sp) These are some of the earliest flowering plants for bees and will sometimes bloom while there is still snow on the ground. While they’ll grow in zones three to nine, they do need 60 days of chilling so they might not grow in all zone nine areas. If sowing seeds expect to wait two to three years before they bloom. This is one plant that is better to purchase than to grow from seed. They can be propagated by dividing each fall so you don’t need many plants to start with.
Lungwort (Pulmonaria sp) Lungwort grows in zones three to eight and prefers moist, shady soil. It grows to a height of about 12 inches. The leaves are interesting as they are spotted and one plant will have more than one flower color. They can add visual interest to flower beds while supplying bees with an early nectar source.
Native Primroses (Oenothera speciosa) These natives are related to evening primrose although they look different, bloom during the day, and are usually pink. They’re often called pink buttercups. They love full sun and can often be found growing in vacant lots and pastures. They can be propagated by seed, root divisions, and cuttings. They grow wild and have been cultivated across much of North America. Be warned, they’re considered a weed in some areas.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) Although considered a weed, dandelions are another plant that is an early food for bees. You can purchase dandelion seeds from wildflower or herb seed companies. Or just don’t mow the pretty yellow flowers when they pop up on your property and let them reseed themselves. Dandelions grow wild over almost all of North America.
This is just a short list of early flowering plants for bees; there are many more to choose from. It’s important to pick plants that will grow in your climate and are not treated with neonicotinoids. Your local county extension office or local nursery can help you pick plants that will provide both pollen and nectar for early spring bees.
What early flowering plants for bees are you planting this fall?