wild bees and native bees

Should I grow native plants for honey bees?

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

Plant introduced or native plants for honey bees, like this white Dutch clover.
Honey bee on white Dutch clover. Pixabay photo.

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.

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  • Non native plants attractive to honey bees. There is an interesting marketing ploy afoot where honey, around here anyway, is marketed as “Star Thistle” honey. In fact, this is just a socially acceptable way of labeling one of the most insidious, toxic invasives, Spotted Knapweed (centaurea maculosa). While this is not the forum for a discussion on invasive plant species, but I would encourage native plants, and if you can get the genotype specific to your region, so much the better. Ditch the exotics and invasives. Because of the reproductive nature of the honey bee, there is a native plant component that is irrelevant to them thus, does not address a larger issue. Honey bees build a nest in the hive and brood are tended. If you are a monarch butterfly however, you need to find yourself hatching on a milkweed species of some type or you don’t eat. In fact, you might not even become an egg if the adult female cannot find a suitable host plant upon which to lay eggs. (Milkweed are a host plant for Monarchs; caterpillars need these plants for food). Honey bees don’t need a host plant because of their reproduction style, but they do need nectar plants. While the non-native honey bee isn’t choosy about food sources, the native insects are, especially when that plant is directly tied to their reproduction. Native plant restoration in the ecosystem, including neighborhoods, is about function and aesthetic. Further, it serves the needs of honey bees AND native insects simultaneously. You really cannot go wrong. For an excellent discussion about this issue, I would recommend Dr. Doug Tallamy’s (University of Delaware entomology professor) book, Bringing Nature Home. If he shows up in a town near you to speak, go listen. He is a delight. My little mini rant and plug for native plants. In the final analysis, it all gets back to the plants.

    • So Sharon, I don’t understand. You call the labeling of star thistle honey a “marketing ploy.” If a beekeeper has a crop of honey that is predominantly star thistle, what on earth is he supposed to call it? It is what it is.

      I can certainly understand being opposed to this or any other invasive plant, but I also believe in truth in labeling.

      • What I am saying is that if the honey were labeled Spotted Knapweed Honey people (who know) would have an adverse reaction to it bc it is a noxious invasive. Calling it Star Thistle Honey takes the sting out. Sort of like the movement afoot to “rebrand” carp so that your average American will eat it. It is what it is, but what you call it can change everything.

  • I cannot stop myself. One plant out there that is particularly attractive to bumbles, and other bees as well, is Mondarda Fistulosa, otherwise known as Bee Balm or wild bergamot. It is a member of the mint family so it likes to spread out, but it does not become invasive.

  • I bought a multitude of gladioli bulbs/multi corms to plant for our bees. I have another 3 weeks before I can plant without worry of frost in my zone. I bought these bulbs/corms specifically because they grow very fast and bloom prolifically-many blooms per stalk. Was this a good choice for late summer pollen?

    Thanks so much for taking a moment to read my question!

    • Shelly,

      It’s been many years since I had gladiolus and I honestly don’t remember whether they were popular with bees. Maybe someone else reading this has some insight.

  • “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.”

    Sure does! NZ has a wide range of excellent honeys from natives. The best known is manuka honey, which has become very expensive, because it is said to cure everything from “hair loss to impotence”. Manuka, among other natives, is planted for honey production.

    • Debbie,

      In this post I’m talking about the physical health of the bee. Do honey bees, that are not native, need native plants to stay healthy? You’re talking about the financial health of the beekeeper—an entirely different subject.

      Honey production should not be confused with bee health.

  • Rusty,

    Very thoughtful.

    May I add a mention of trees? One reason yards are “bee deserts” is that trees are picked for pretty much not being “messy.” Not to tell anyone how to spend their time, but if you’re truly concerned about bees, it should be worth half an hour a week of raking and picking up twigs.

    In the Midwest, native trees that are especially helpful to honey bees and natives are Tulip Poplar, Black Locust, Sourwood, “Silver” (actually Water) Maple, Hawthorn, Redbud, Willow & Slippery Elm.

    As for native vs non-native, one of our bees’ favorites, just now finished blooming, is a naturalized Russet Apple of an old English variety! Rather scrubby trees, with small, hard, grainy fruit, but approaching one in bloom you HEAR the bees.

    Here in Kentucky the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative uses funds mandated to be spent by coal companies on strip-mine recovery, to replant native trees. Some recovery sites now host bee yards: how’s that for a win-win?
    Locust is blooming next week: I’ll send pics!

    Corinth, KY

    • Nancy,

      Good points. I’ve heard/read a lot about the strip mine recovery programs and I think they’re awesome.

      Please do send pics of your black locust!

  • I attended a state beekeepers’ meeting and one of the speakers had an interesting blurb attributed to the Honey Bee Conservancy: “one tree with a 15′ radius offers the equivalent of nearly 2 acres of blooms.”

    I tell people who ask about planting flowers for the pollinators: plant a tree if you can, if you can’t plant a tree then plant a shrub, if you can’t plant a shrub, then plant flowers. People greatly underestimate the value of trees and shrubs for the native pollinators. Everyone seems to focus on the flowering perennial plants. And if they want to plant flowers for the pollinators then they need to plant the right ones and lots of them–one or 2 just isn’t going to cut it.

    • Hi Anna,

      When I give my talks about planting for pollinators I always mention trees as “vertical forage,” sort of like vertical storage. And you’re right: one tree can provide so much more than scads of flowering forbs.

      But some interesting studies were done in Europe that showed flowers, even onesies and twosies, can make a difference, especially with the smaller pollinators and especially when many people do it. I call them corridors because they allow pollinators to travel to find mates, etc. They can stop and rest on a flower, have a drink, and move on. So I would encourage someone who only has a small area to plant a pot or two. When my daughter lived in a condo with just an outside balcony, the best she could do was three flower pots. One had oregano, and when I visited, I couldn’t believe the number of bees and butterflies that stopped by to spend a few minutes on the oregano blooms.

      I think we beekeepers sometimes forget that honey bees are the outliers in the bee world, and most bees take only enough nectar to keep themselves fueled during the day. They don’t collect massive amounts the way honey bees do and, therefore, small plantings do help.

    • Amen to this, Anna. One of the tree species that people don’t think of about as being beneficial to the insect world are the oaks. I agree with your comment about planting lots of perennial flowering plants. I just read something where it is not only the plants themselves that are important, but the planting strategy. Planting them in groups helps the pollinators out in that they don’t have to travel as far to get from flower to flower if they happen to be working, let’s say purple coneflower, that day.

      • Sharon,

        Just one point: very few bees display floral fidelity while foraging. That is really a honey bee thing. So instead of going from one purple coneflower to another the way honey bees do, most go from flower to flower regardless of species. This difference is one reason honey bees are prized as crop pollinators. If an orchard has dandelions in the median areas, each honey bee forager will visit only the crop or only the dandelions. Most other bees will visit both. Look closely at a bumble bee pollen pellet: you will often see layers and striations of different colors. This never happens in honey bees.

        • Aha, and without knowing it you answered a question I had about marketing and labeling. How do we know we can call something clover honey and the answer is right here. Thanks for that.

  • 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.””

    Maybe it is a Kiwi thing, but like Debbie above I fail to see the logic in the opening paragraph.
    Yes, it is true commercial beekeepers here use exotic bee species to harvest native nectar for financial reward, but why wouldn’t they? Our native nectar sources are most often in the form of tree flowers, plant one tree and it can provide more nectar (once mature) than several acres of clover (which is also a very important exotic honey crop here). Pohutakawa trees can produce so much nectar that it has been known to drip on to the ground from the flowers in peak periods. Many of our native trees have evolved to flower at differing times of the year so that they were not all competing for what was a VERY limited amount of native pollinators pre exotic honey bee importations and with careful planning a small area planted with the correct natives can produce nectar and pollen almost year around here in NZ.
    Personally, I plant natives for my honey bees and I do not produce commercial honey crops. Those same native plantings are appealing to other introduced bee species such as the Bumbles, the limited number of small solitary native bees and many of our native birds, as well as being aesthetically pleasing to the eye and the mind in knowing you are doing your own small bit of helping to reestablish natives in a country that has seen, in the past 200 years, huge native deforestation. I imagine many Australian keepers could think along the same lines with Eucalyptus plantings, one tree can provide huge nectar and pollen reserves, different sub species flower at different times and provide excellent forage for honey bees as well as providing for native species (Australia had a native species of honey bee prior to European imports, NZ did not).
    So personally, I think planting native species for honey bee forage makes perfect sense in NZ and Australia. There are enough exotics planted in the farmlands of both countries that reseeding your lawn with clover is not necessary.
    I do not know enough about the Americas, the native species nor the varying climate to be able to comment, but if you live in Aussie or NZ, plant our natives for bee forage and you will not go far wrong. Forage will be plenty, bees will be healthy, both native and your hive housed exotics.

    • Jeff,

      Somehow, probably due to poor wording on my part, you seemed to have missed the point of the article. The point is simply that honey bees do not require native plant species to thrive, especially in a place where the native plants are not the ones that honey bees evolved with.

  • A note about trees. We have a surfeit of ornamental trees here (So Calif), which bloom prolifically but which are non-fruiting and seem to be completely lacking any bees. I suspect that if they don’t need pollinators, they don’t attract them. It’s very strange to walk up to a tree completely engulfed in blossoms and see no bees whatsoever.
    So check your variety before planting if you intend to feed the fliers.

    • Marian,

      This is a good reminder. Yesterday my husband and I were examining the ornamental trees planted in the downtown area. They are in full bloom with not a pollinator in sight. The more in-bred a variety is, the more likely it will be unattractive to pollinators. That’s because breeders select for things like flower color, number of flowers, length of bloom time, and disease resistance. They do not select for attractiveness to pollinators, so those characteristics (nectar and pollen quality) are quickly lost.

      • Then surely, this is the perfect reason to encourage native and heritage breed plantings?

        • Both wild and native bees do very well on introduced flowering trees, as long as the trees are not highly inbred. Most of the fruit trees in the US are imports, and the bees do fine on them.

  • One thing that many people tend to forget or perhaps never knew is that helping honey bees is not a conservation issue. It is an agricultural and economic issue.

    Those interested in conservation should set their priorities on protecting native bees. They should also care about protecting native plants.

    • Beatriz,

      Truer words were never written. However, it’s very hard to convince people of that and I think it’s not entirely their fault. Just yesterday I received (for about the 10th time) a fund-raising letter from the Sierra Club. It says “Buzz Kill” on the envelope and shows a picture of a honey bee. The inside asks for money saying honey bees are in danger and need to be protected, etc.

      The Sierra Club used to protect wild places, but now it seems they protect livestock. When I complained, they told me (in so many words) that the honey bee promotion brings in lots of money. Whatever.

    • Thank you Beatriz for clarifying that. I myself, selfishly am on the side of the bees, they were here first after all.

  • I was considering dutch clover but had images of running over bees with the lawn mower. Is this a valid concern?


    • Jerry,

      Usually the bees skedaddle when they hear you coming. But if you’re concerned, mow early in the morning or late in the afternoon after most bees are done foraging for the day.

    • Jerry,
      Thanks for thinking of the bees. Mowing in the evening works for me, and then there’s a new crop of clover blossoms in the morning!
      Corinth KY

  • As a hobby beekeeper in Victoria Australia, my observation is that the native plants such as all the different types of eucalyptus trees/flowering gums actually provide the bulk of the nectar flow in Australia.

    Yes it is not essential as you have highlighted in your article but having your hives in an area with lots of native flowering gums really does make things easier.

    • William, very true. Another of my favorite Aussie natives is Prostanthera- or Australian Bush Mint plant, to use the more common name. Great garden sized shrub, prolific flowerings and all nectar eaters love it.

  • Thanks Rusty & Nancy. I’ll give it a try. Now if the rain would stop.

    Portland OR

    • Jerry, I am a long way from Portland, but we do have a LOT of clover over here and as I stated above, it is a both prolific and important nectar provider here in NZ. Most established lawn/park areas in both main islands will have some form of clover growing among them, down here in the South it is extremely hard to keep out of ones lawn!
      The secret to mowing has much to do with what Rusty and Nancy stated, but rather than time of the day, think temperatures. I am not sure how it works in Portland, but here in NZ if the ground temperature is less than 12 deg C and/or air temperature less than 20 deg C, the white clover varieties hold their nectar in, so honey bees are less likely to be visiting the blooms. Bumbles can still be feeding on clovers as their “buzz pollinating” traits stimulate the clover blooms into giving up their bounty.
      This is the main reason honey bees can be observed flying over fields of seemingly perfect clover blooms to gather from other flowers, it is simply too cold for the clovers to be releasing viable nectar quantities.

      • Maybe it is time to dispense with the lawn altogether in favor of a clover lawn. There is zero productivity in a turf grass lawn and at least the clover is beneficial, even if not native. Also, retire the lawnmower too.

      • Clover is not buzz pollinated. The flower holds the anthers inside the keel and needs to be “tripped” to yield its pollen. Bumble bees are more efficient at this job. Honey bees don’t like being bumped by the tripping process and soon learn to get nectar from the side of the flower, robbing the flower without performing pollination.

      • I am in Auckland. My lawn is odious Kikuyu. I am thinking of replacing it with clover. What kind of clover makes for the most interesting honey? Does it make a difference?

        • Debbie, good old white clover would be your best bet. Our red clover is a bigger plant and bigger flower, more suited to cow pasture than lawn and unless there are perfect conditions, honey bees find it hard to gather nectar from the red flowers. Get in touch with a local seed supplier and they should be able to recommend a “lawn mix” suited to your climate and soil type (I would just be guessing from down here). Tell them you want a strong white clover mix. I am not sure if you can “topdress” clover seed over Kikuyu grass to add clover in to your existing lawn or if you need to eradicate the Kikuyu and start fresh. If you can simply scatter clover seed, now is the time to do it, sow in Autumn for flowers in spring/summer.

          You might have to reconsider walking barefoot on your lawn next summer……….

          There are other alternatives that might be of interest, like herb lawns. Or you could sow sections of your lawn in ground covering low growing herb type plantings that flower to attract/provide for nectar gathering insects.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I live next to a madrone forest and the trees are beginning to bloom. Do you know if the provide much sustenance for bees?


  • We live in N Central MT on an acreage that has never been tilled. High dry country. Lots of wildflowers, some shrubs. We have added plantings with habitat in mind. Even when I lived in town, I planted for the pollinators. Fortunately, this is a good strategy for the honey bees as well.

    Fortunately, *here* we have no neighbors practicing the weed and feed method of landscaping. Overplanting the “lawn area” around your house with mints and clovers is a low maintenance, fairly quick way to keep both native bees and honey bees and all the flutter-bys quite happy. Mints will spread easily, can survive mowing, clover (here anyway) needs a freeze cycle before it will germinate but is a nitrogen fixer. There’s nothing quite like getting a piece of comb and tasting lemon mint, or thyme, or white clover…. I have found it fascinating to observe how many different species might be working a planted area or a single bloom, at the same time. They have different needs, different feeding methods – it all works.

  • I would suggest native plants, there are native mints at least here in michigan, and native flowering ground covers before converting to yet another exotic. Ecosystem restoration is first about restoring function, aesthetic comes next. We need to benefit all of the native insects.

    • Sharon, please come to NZ and experience the mosquitoes, sandflies and especially the wetas. Meet a Giant Weta! Almost forgot, the house flies. Let me know when we can pick you up from the airport. You will enjoy our ocean view, citrus trees, beehives (2). We hope that we will have fly screens by then; we will be highly unusual in NZ, but will take off the screens for the windows in your room.

      • Trust me, Michigan has its fair share of mosquitos, biting black flies, midges and any , other type of insect whose sole existence seems to be one thing, make human lives a living hell. I urge you to consider the opposite, the uber, human sanitized world, and to enjoy it while you can as we won’t be around much longer once we eliminate everything that annoys us, and we are annoyed by everything. I stand by my way of thinking, restoration is for overall function, not just that which suits us. And by the way, I am fine with the nightmare you describe if that means having a life and planet to gripe about. This is why God made screens.

  • University of California San Diego. (2017, April 26). Common pesticide damages honey bees’ ability to fly. Science Daily.

    For those interested

  • For those with garden or field space to hand over to the bees, try planting mustard as a cover crop. Its a cheap 3- 4′ tall plant, blooms yellow flowers dusk to dawn, grows in most soils, chokes out weeds, re seeds itself, and no, the honey does not taste like mustard. You can even grab some leaves to mix into your salads.
    This is a great one to have established before the summer dearth as it keeps going, and here in central Maine it lasted until very late December.