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.