Wildflowers for Pollinators/Bees
No matter where you may see a honey bee, whether visiting a flower or zipping past your head, chances are high she’s on a mission to find food. Once loaded with her stash, she’ll carry the food back to her hive to be processed into honey or bee bread to be fed to her nestmates at a later date. But where will this forager find her food source? How long of a flight will she have to endure? Will it be from a sugar jar? Or a farm or garden located three miles from her home? Or will it be a pollinator-friendly habitat situated within proximity of her hive, loaded with a diversity of wildflowers to meet the dietary needs of her family? While it is true that much of beekeeping is far from our control, providing a local food source in the form of wildflowers for pollinators is doable with a little planning — despite what the naysayers may tell you.
Can I make a difference?
Yes, you can. Every time I attend a beekeeping conference, I’m appalled when “experts” inform eager beekeepers that they are wasting their time planting wildflowers for pollinators because they “cannot plant enough.” Yet, every time I attend a master gardener event, read (or contribute to) a gardening publication, those “experts” tell the gardeners, “YES, you CAN make a difference! Plant those wildflowers!”
So, which group of experts should you listen to? BOTH.
Honey bee foragers travel upwards of three full miles from their hive in their quest for suitable nectar and pollen sources. This translates to a foraging territory of more than 28 square miles or over 18,000 acres! So, if planting sufficient forage is viewed within this astronomical format, then no one single person is capable of making a difference for even a single honey bee colony.
This argument inadvertently voids the mantra heard in most gardening circles that celebrates gardening, native wildflowers, helping pollinators and the general ecosystem. Talk about being discouraged! I remember well the first time I heard these things at a state beekeeping conference. And about two seconds later, I decided to look at this situation through a more optimistic lens.
Think like the honeybees.
Sometimes we humans would do well to take our lessons from nature. A typical honey bee colony consists of upwards of 60,000 individuals. A single, solitary bee is the queen. Without this single queen, the colony dies. This ONE queen does make a difference. However, to enable this single queen to do her work of laying eggs nearly around the clock to keep the colony growing, many workers are required to feed the queen and keep her growing brood — and all of the adults — fed as well. A single forager cannot keep the colony fed. So, what does she do? She enlists the help of thousands, all with the same mission in mind: feed the bees. And with teamwork, the colony is fed year-round.
Did you catch that? A single individual can and does make a difference. But, for the individual to succeed in the mission, the individual requires the support and assistance of many others. So, if a single individual plants their available space in wildflowers, and the next individual does the same — if enough folks plant these wildflower spaces — then pollinators will have places to go in addition to native food sources and farmland. And here’s what that looks like from a practical POV:
Diversity Is Good.
Bees are generalists feeding on a variety of pollen and nectar-producing plants. When planting wildflowers for pollinators, consider your space. Is there enough space for flowering trees? Or is it better suited for clumps of short, low-growing plants? Maybe your space allows for the inclusion of a multitude of native trees, bushes, and flowering vines in addition to the more common wildflowers found in meadows, abandoned fields, and roadsides. Despite the space, ample wildflower options exist for any location, whether potted plants only or large enough for robust trees and bushes.
Bigger is Better.
Honey bees are efficient foragers, preferring to travel further for higher quality food sources rather than sticking around home for low-quality sources. Foragers also prefer large swaths of single types of flowers, forgoing those with only a handful of flowers available. This translates to the need for more significant swaths of high-quality food sources from a single type of flower rather than a buffet of flower types within the same location. For instance, bees will visit a space filled with 30 passionflower vines before a garden box with only two vines. That is not to say pollinators won’t visit a single specimen. However, to encourage the most pollinators, group plantings of the same type rather than mix two or more species.
When possible, select varieties with varying bloom times, paying particular attention to varieties that bloom during your area’s dearth of nectar/pollen-producing flowers. Dearth often occurs between the seasons — between spring flowering and summer flower production, between row crop flowering and fall, and most of the winter in many regions — so any food-producing plants you can offer during these times is better than nothing at all.
A significant area of contention is the status of nativity. A native plant in one area is invasive in another. Suffice it to say, many gardeners do their best to incorporate natives whenever possible. However, the avoidance of non-natives is not always black and white. For instance, beekeepers have found the non-native Chinese tallow significant to their honey production. Yet, APHIS intends to release two NON-NATIVE insects into the ecosystem to eradicate the tallow. (By the way, the European honey bee that we keep as beekeepers is also a non-native, so the situation is a bit more complicated than a black and white presentation.) This act alone may destroy many beekeeping operations. (More info may be found at https://www.ahpanet.com/tallowinfo.) When deciding between native and non-native, consider all angles and not just a single ideal. The decision is an individual one, at best, that requires careful research and consideration.
While no one individual can plant sufficient forage for the honey bees and other pollinators, if we work together, we can network and create ample forage over a vast area for the pollinators to include with other foraging options such as farmland, wetlands, and the like. Like the honey bee, one individual is more than capable of making a significant impact when efforts combine with others.’
Sample Wildflower and Tree Selections
(Check for native status in your area.)
- Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.)
- Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
- Smartweed (Polygonum spp.)
- Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
- Bee balm (Monarda spp.)
- Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
- Common blue violet (Viola sororia)
- Black cherry (Prunus serotina)
- Box elder (Acer negundo)
- Black locust (Gledistsia triacanthos)
- Willow (Salix spp.)
- Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
- White prairie clover (Dalea candida)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefoliu)
- American persimmon (Diospyros virginia)
- Linden (Tillia spp.)
- Sumac (Rhus spp.)
Originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.