If you live in a place where honey bees are not native—such as the Americas, Australia, or New Zealand—then planting native species specifically for honey bees doesn’t make much sense. After all, honey bees did not evolve to live on those plants.
The best reason for growing native plants is to provide forage, building materials, and shelter for the native bees in your area. This is a vital consideration if we are to conserve those species. Some of the native bees have very specific requirements. Sometimes they need one particular plant to survive, in other cases they may need plants in a specific genus or family. Requirements differ widely from bee to bee.
Honey bees are not choosy
Honey bees are easily adaptable to many regions of the world partly because of their eclectic diet. As any beekeeper knows, honey bees will feed on a large variety of flowers, taking nectar, pollen, or both from many types over the course of one season. If this were not true, honey bees could not live wild in the fields and meadows of these adopted lands.
Bees that forage on a wide variety of plants are called polylectic, and honey bees are certainly not the only ones with this characteristic. But when it comes to planting, it’s helpful to remember that bees range from those that are very picky to those that are happy with just about anything.
Luckily for beekeepers, honey bees will forage on both native plants and the non-native ones as well–a fact that gives us a choice. Because honey bees are so flexible, beekeepers can plant in a way that will help all bees.
Native plants for native bees
I believe it is best to encourage native plants wherever possible so we can care for our native bees. But there is nothing wrong with also planting the species that honey bees particularly enjoy. Many of these plants can co-exist.
Remember, too, that honey bees are not the only introduced bees. Here in North America there are many, including important pollinators such as some of the mason bees and the alfalfa leafcutting bee.
Some introduced plants are great for bees
Some introduced plant species, like white Dutch clover, are extremely attractive to a wide range of bees, including both honey bees and native bees. You can turn a lawn, which is normally a bee desert, into a cafeteria by sprinkling clover throughout and letting it flower before you mow. The added benefit to you is an extra-green lawn without fertilizer, since clover harbors nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
Another introduced species with a wide following is dandelion. Depending on your tolerance for this cheery flower, you can feed many bee species with both pollen and nectar. And in most places, dandelions bloom more than once a year.
Bees compete with each other for resources, but because different bees have different preferences, planting a wide selection of plants assures that many bee species get the type of food they need. Pear trees are a perfect example. Most honey bees won’t have anything to do with a pear tree, but native Osmia, Andrena, and others happily feast on these early blooms.
Don’t forget summer dearth
Another thing to consider is summer dearth. Most native species are well-adapted to the cycles in their area, being active when flowers are available and completing their reproductive cycles between dearths and bad weather. However, our climate is changing and sometimes the bees get out of sync with the flowers that support them.
You can help all bees, both native and introduced, by providing flowers during your dearthy period. This is most often late summer when most things have finished blooming or are awaiting autumn rainfall. Plants that bloom in this between-time are scarce and eagerly sought by all bees. Late bloomers like golden rod are often covered with bees of many types, each one preparing for winter in its own way.
What’s good for one is good for all
One final reminder: What is good for one bee species is good for another. Lots of flower diversity, a source of water, judicious use of pesticides, and patches of undisturbed landscape are necessary for all bees and beneficial insects.
What one person plants won’t make much difference, but collectively our efforts can surpass our imagination. Even a few blooms in a flower pot can add to the feeding corridors that keep bees alive from year to year. So, if nothing else, tread lightly on the land and plant flowers. The bees will reward you with hard work and a healthy environment for many years to come.
Honey Bee Suite