Attracting Bees

Nancy Helms, UM Extension Master Gardener in Anoka County, June 25, 2015

Great flowers start with pollination, and for that you need bees. While many things have contributed to the declining bee population, we can do our part and help bring back the bees.  Without pollinators, we would be hard pressed to find an early summer tomato or crisp cucumber. Three fourths of the plants we eat cannot reproduce without pollen carried to them by bees or other pollinators. If you're serious about growing vegetables, plan now to mix in some flowers to attract pollinators.

Purple CONEFlowers

Purple CONEFlowers

Plant flowers that are rich in nectar and pollen. Start by choosing plants that are native to Minnesota. Native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers. Wide daisy-like flowers like Brown Eyed Susan's, sunflowers and purple coneflowers are good examples.

Choose plants that pollinators love by planting a variety of different colors. Bees have good color vision and are particularly attracted to the colors blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow. Plant a smorgasbord of color, variety and shapes. Anise hyssop, lupine and aster are go-to meals for bees.

Select single flowers like daisies and marigolds, rather than double flowers like double impatiens. Double flowers are showy but produce much less nectar and make it more difficult for bees to access pollen. Avoid hybridized flowers that have been bred not to seed and produce very little pollen.

Plant in clumps rather than individually. Flowers clustered into clumps of one species will attract more bees than individual plants. Plant a single species in an area roughly 3 by 3 feet or larger for the best chance of getting a pollinator's attention. Although a mixed flower border is attractive, it may not attract bees unless you chose bee-friendly plants.

Plant your flowers where bees visit. Bees favor sunny spots over shade and need some shelter from strong winds.  Flowers known to attract bees are Joe Pye weed, lavender, rhododendron, poppy, monarda (bee balm), Russian sage, hyssop, salvia, and stonecrop sedums. Planting annuals? Try alyssum, bachelor button, cosmos, lantana, larkspur, sunflower, and zinnia. Plant flowers that bloom at different times to attract bees throughout the growing season.

Create a 'bee bath'. Bees need a place to get fresh, clean water but can't land in a conventional bird bath without crashing. They need pebbles or twigs to land on while drinking.  Line a shallow bowl or plate with rocks and place at ground level in your garden. Add water, but leave the rocks as dry islands to serve as landing pads. Make sure to refresh with water daily to compensate for evaporation.

Even weeds like dandelions provide valuable nectar early in the season for bees. Wait to pluck the dandelion flowers until just before they are ready to burst into seed. Don't use pesticides; the same spray that kills aphids, squash bugs and stink bugs will kill bees. By planting bee-friendly plants we can all help reverse the declining bee population while increasing our vegetable bounty. Put the bees to work for you.