gardening for bees

Disappointing pollinator garden?


A beekeeper friend in Seattle said she was disappointed that the pollinator garden she planted didn’t attracted her honey bees. I know the feeling. I too have felt chagrined when my bees have failed to show up for a feast I prepared. All that work for nothing.

But I think we have to be philosophical about pollinator gardens. Many times, what one beekeeper plants does not work for another, even if the garden is just across town or across the street.

Bees make menu choices

Of all the possible reasons for “failure,” I think competition from other flowers is the most common. Think of it this way: if I offer a child a choice between green beans, broccoli, and mashed potatoes, the child probably will take the mashed potatoes. But if I offer the same child ice cream, green beans, or mashed potatoes, I can imagine the child saying, “The heck with potatoes, I’ll take the ice cream!” It’s not that he suddenly doesn’t like potatoes—it’s just that something better was offered.

So even if you plant something honey bees really like, if something else flowers at the same time, the bees will go to the one they like the best. Another beekeeper in a different location who doesn’t have the same floral competition may get a different result.

Sometimes you can change the outcome by changing the timing. For example, if I plant Phacelia too early, the honey bees ignore it, probably because they are busy with blackberries. If I hold off and plant Phacelia a few weeks later, the honey bees will climb all over it. The only difference is the selection of flowers in bloom at a particular time.

Nectar quality and quantity are not constant

Growing conditions also change from year to year. Soil chemistry, temperature, hours of sun, inches of rainfall, relative humidity, and other environmental variables can have large effects on nectar flow. One year my honey bees were so obsessed with Agastache (Apricot Sprite) the stems were pressed to the ground under their weight. The plants hummed as if an entire colony lived in there. So the following year I planted twice as many. And the year after. I still try, but the honey bees couldn’t care less. Aga-what?

Another factor is quantity. Honey bees display a high degree of floral fidelity, which simply means that on any one foraging trip, they want to stick with the same flower type. In fact, they would rather spend the entire day on one flower type. So unless you have a lot of something, the honey bees may ignore it in favor of mega quantities of something else. At this time of year, I see very few honey bees that aren’t working the blackberries. Not only are blackberries good nectar producers, but they are everywhere. Perfect for a honey bee.

Bees report on the best restaurants

Another influence on foraging choice is the way honey bees communicate with each other. A scout coming back to the hive and dancing madly may simply be more persuasive than another. Her excitement may be so compelling that other scouts are ignored. We know for a fact that two adjacent colonies sitting side-by-side on a hive stand may be foraging in two entirely different locations. Why they chose one spot over another may have a lot to do with the scout’s enthusiasm for her find.

Later on in the season, when flowers are scarce and vast quantities of a single type are even rarer, the honey bees become less picky. Your fall-flowering plants, even in small quantities, are more likely to be sampled by your bees and perhaps even “favorited” by some. Too bad they don’t come with “like” buttons.

As a beekeeper or gardener, you simply cannot be disappointed if your bees don’t show. We have little control over bee decisions, but if you planted a garden and provided them with flowers, you have done your part. Enjoy the flowers in their own right and remember that we bee lovers are always learning, experimenting, or devising a new plan. It’s all part of the process . . . and there’s always next year.



The flowers are lovely in their own right. © Jesslyn Howgate.


Most likely these flowers were in direct competition with blackberries. © Jesslyn Howgate.



  • All to often we forget Aristotle and his observation Re: Floral Fidelity. Rusty I too have a similar situation, in my garden: Rosemary, basil, sage, bee balm, butterfly bush, Black-eyed Susans, yellow clover, buckwheat, German camomile, habanero, cayenne, Datil peppers, wildflower, etc… And yet I see my bees all over white clover a few blocks away!!!
    Like you said, towards late summer, they’re in my garden. The menu has changed, choices are limited 🙂

  • I too have been bitterly disappointed with my honey bees not foraging on the plants I have raised (apart from one that I have seen and she may not have been one of mine!) Instead, I get immense pleasure in knowing that I am helping the other bees, the bumble bees and the solitary bees just aren’t so picky – my tiny garden is full of them and so is the solitary bee house that I’ve installed!!!

  • Even if you don’t have honey bees on your forage, you most likely have bumble bees and other native pollinators visiting your flowers, so you’re still helping improve habitat.

  • Also remember that the flowers you plant help other pollinators. When I plant, it’s rarely just with the honey bees in mind, though I may try Phacelia.

    I went to the Maryland State Beekeepers Association meeting and someone there described holly as being extremely desirable to honey bees. Specifically he stated that “It sound as if they’re trying to fly off with the bush.” Needless to say, that got my attention.

    What Phacelia do you plant? My brief perusal shows many options.

    • Anna,

      The one I plant just says Phacelia tenacetifolia, but it doesn’t give a variety. I get it from Wildseed Farms.

      • Rusty, do you know if the seed or tissue of a plant that has been treated with systemic pesticides transfers that pesticide to its seedlings? I wonder now if the plants I’ve bought from some large nurseries and have spread via rhizomes or seeds, carry that pesticide in the new plant. I’m now focusing my purchases on nurseries that are either organic or do not use systemic pesticides.

        • Hey Anna,

          Hard question to answer because I don’t think the answer is black and white. I think it is possible for some of the systemic pesticide to transfer to a seedling, but I think the amount will be so small that it won’t affect the bees. Some of the worst effects are seen when plants grown from treated seed produce nectar (or guttation drops) and the bees drink these. The seed however is one generation removed, if you will, so only a small portion of toxin is left to go into each seed, and even a smaller portion goes into each flower grown from that one seed.

          Like you, I prefer to buy plants that are grown organically, but I don’t think the danger is high from those plants that came from conventionally-grown seed, as long as the seed itself is not treated before planting. The same applies to cuttings and for the same reason. As they used to say, “dilution is the solution to pollution.” Of course, we now know that’s not generally true. But in a case like this, I think you are okay.

  • A couple of years ago I happened to notice a large planting of Calamintha Nepita around a building in late fall. As I looked closer I also noticed the hundreds possibly thousands of honey bees and other pollinators working the tiny flower spikes. Wow was I excited. I found them online and purchased roughly 150 plugs and planted them behind my backyard fence. They flowered the following year with wonderful results and this year they have already started attracting every sort of fly and bee and blooming well into cold weather. I love them also because they smell good (mint). Oh by the way I keep a couple hives in my backyard as well. Always thinking about food for the late fall.

  • Rusty: My hives sit in right at the edge of a wildlife food plot containing rape, white and red clover varieties in abundance. There were blooming locust trees, blackberries and honeysuckle all along the edge. This is surrounded by woods and much of the mile radius is hardwood forest. Yet it seemed my bees were flying up and away. They were returning pollen-laden so I did not worry figuring they new far more than I about their business.

    The hives continue to fill in and multiply the numbers coming and going so I’m quite happy. I did notice my young mixed fruit orchard is much more laden this year. The rape is now all heavy in pods so it may be more of what I didn’t see that what I thought I saw that is bee reality.

    • Mike,

      The small native bees are probably working those plants as well. Some are really tiny and hard to see.

  • Since honey bees tend to seek out the best and the most available nectar or pollen source, I can see why small gardens are bypassed. Also, being floral constancy, there just isn’t enough to attract the honey bees. That’s my two cents for what it’s worth.

  • Last year I did not bother with planting and got a fair amount of honey. This year I did some planting and the supers are very low in capped honey. They look good on inspection. So far two splits are doing good. Hope they build up to survive the winter. Will start feeding in August. It is very hot in central Alabama. In the first of May one of my large hives had lots of bees and in mid June not a one. Plan to look again in mid to late July and see what can be taken and what I need to leave for winter.

  • Every good bee garden needs some flowering trees. Here in Australia the honey bees love any sort of gum when they bloom. The honey bees also love our 125 year old (and very large) Magnolia Grandiflora (Southern Magnolia or Bull Bay) when it flowers. As the flowers are so large you can get 3-6 bees in each flower at once.

  • Want to add berry bushes. Have a lot of wild blackberries already. What berries would be good compliment to bees and good for harvesting and serving at our school.

  • I plant for bumblees, as they are my favorite bee. They are so cute and gentle. Anyway, last year I ran out to get a bee balm plant and I never even saww one bee on it all summer long. I won’t plant it again. However, my yard had a lot of purple nettle type plants and the honey bees swarmed over them. I was glad for that, but, as I said, I really plant for the bumbles.

  • I get what you’re saying about nectar quantity in one spot and nectar availability compared to what else is out there, but perhaps there is also something to be said for the physical structure of the flower along with the length of Apis mellifera’s tongue, and the general quality of a flower species nectar? What I find frustrating as a beekeeper is to plant “pollinator friendly” plants advertised to attract “bees” only to find that those plants draw only Bombus, suggesting that those flowers might never support honey bees as they cannot access the nectar.

    Anyone care to mention plantings that attract honey bees specifically and act as real bee magnets?

    ***Can anyone recommend a cultivar of Agastache foeniculum that makes nectar accessible to Apis mellifera?***

    When I see my ladies working something hard on my property (zone 5a) it is basswood (Tilia americana) (as evidenced by the capped super on July 4th full of basswood honey); Dutch white clover; and late in the season moonflowers and seven sons.

    • Robert,

      You write, “What I find frustrating as a beekeeper is to plant “pollinator friendly” plants advertised to attract “bees” only to find that those plants draw only Bombus, suggesting that those flowers might never support honey bees as they cannot access the nectar.”

      If I see a plant advertised to attract “bees,” I assume that means bees in general, not necessarily honey bees. If the packet says it attracts “pollinators,” I wouldn’t assume it attracts bees at all, but it might. It may also attract flower flies, solitary wasps, moths, or butterflies. When you shop, look for plants that attract honey bees specifically, if that’s what you want. Many people want to attract insects for pollination or for habit enhancement, but they don’t actually care which species do the work. If you want something aimed at beekeepers, you’ll need to look for that. Beekeepers don’t have a corner on the pollinator market.

      Whenever someone says or writes “bee” I think they mean “bee.” If they write, “honey bee,” I think they mean “honey bee.” See how that works?

      • Granny Roberta – I’m not sure that the bumblers are routinely outcompeted by Apis mellifera. For starters, Bombus don’t really make much honey. Also, there does seem to be some flower types that only attract them, and some that only attract honey bees. For example, I have never seen Apis mellifera on horse chestnut, but bumble bees are all over it!

        Sure, Rusty, that much should be obvious. However, I do not think it is so cut and dried. For example, if there is a wildflower that is listed specifically as yielding pounds and pounds of honey per acre (ie – Agastache foeniculum) one would assume that the bees attracted to that flower would include honey bees, no?
        Yet apparently there are several cultivars of this wildflower that may vary in the depth of the flower to the nectary. Having planted a sufficiently large patch of a no-name-Agastache (that was supposed to attract honey bees) as a trial and ONLY seeing Bombus visiting it over two years’ time makes me wonder about that cultivar.

        Does anyone know of a particular cultivar of anise hyssop that specifically attracts (or is at least visited by) honey bees? Possibly ‘Blue fortune’???

        Any there other honey bee magnets out there?

        As aforementioned, basswood (early), Dutch clover (early to mid), and moonflowers and Seven Sons (both late) are absolute honey bee magnets in Zone 5 of Wisconsin. Too early to tell about Buttonbush (entering 3rd season, no flowers yet), Lacy phacelia, and an old “Silverhusk” Japanese buckwheat (that hasn’t had the nectar bred out of it in favor of a high self-pollinating yield) that I just found at Fedco Seeds, but I am happy to update my fellow beeks as the growing seasons march on…

        • Robert,

          I never trust cultivars for bee forage. Most often, cultivars are selected with humans in mind, not bees. Go for the wild type instead.

  • As beekeepers, we want to see “our” bees in our flower gardens, but I remind myself that when I only see bumblers and not honey bees in my garden, at least the garden is helping a little bit to make up for how much the honey bees can out-forage the natives.

    • Roberta,

      Good thought. And bumble bees are very sensitive to environmental degradation, so when I see a bumble bee it makes me happy to think I might be doing something good.

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