Growing up, I never saw myself becoming a beekeeper. Like most people, all I knew about bees is that they make honey and sting people. However, now that I have taken on the hobby of beekeeping, I realize there is so much more to the honeybee.
Since I am a beekeeper by weekend and work at a native seed company during the week, I often get asked by fellow beekeepers, “What are the best native plants for my honeybees?” When I was first asked this question, I pondered this because I know that the European honey bee is not native to the United States of America. Would the honey bee use plants that are native?? So, I began to watch while working with the native plants to see if the honey bee visits native plants.
Favorite Spring Wildflowers for Honeybees
Early spring is the time the bees are waking up from a long winter and need a good source of pollen and nectar. The spring months are extremely important for the bees because they set the pace for the rest of the year. It is recommended to plant or maintain one acre of flowers in constant bloom per hive. A fresh water source nearby is also critical. Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans) is a shade loving plant that blooms early and is easily spread by seed. It grows to be 9”-12” tall and likes average to moist soil. Jacob’s Ladder is a great pollen source, and the honey bees find it to be quite attractive. Ohio Spiderwort, (Tradescantia ohiensis), Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis), Creamy Indigo (Baptisia bracteata), and Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) are also good spring native plants for the honeybee.
Favorite Summer Wildflowers for Honeybees
Summer is the time for the beekeeper. If there is not enough nectar for the bees, there will not be a fall honey harvest for the beekeeper. Native plants are amazing plants even in the hottest and driest part of the year. They always seem to bloom, which is very important for the honeybee because they need plants in bloom throughout the entire growing season; just like us, they don’t like to miss a meal. Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) is a very versatile annual plant that can handle dry soil. During a drought, Partridge Pea will drop all its leaves to put energy into the bloom, and it is a great source of pollen and nectar. Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Plains Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) and Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) are also highly favored summer plants of the honeybee.
Favorite Fall Wildflowers for Honeybees
Fall is the time for the honey bees to get ready for a long winter. The bees need an abundance of nectar to have enough honey to get through the winter. Rigid Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) is a bright yellow flat-topped flower that is a great source of pollen and nectar. Relatives of Rigid Goldenrod, including Gray and Showy Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis and speciosa) are good choices as well. Other fall favorites include the native asters (the Symphyothichums) and Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana). Many native bees over-winter in the hollow stems of natives or burrow into the soil, so it is important to leave at least 1/3 of the established flowers or thatch, even when burning.
Native Wildflowers Provide for Honeybees and Native Bees
My answer to the common question of “What native plants do honeybees use?” is that the honeybee doesn’t use all the native plants, but it sure does have some that it loves. So, by planting these plants and others like them we can provide pollen and nectar for our native and honeybee populations alike.
A special thanks to our bee enthusiast, Dawson Smith, for sharing his observations about the honeybee’s usage of native plants and writing this article.