bee forage

Open-centered dahlias, a pollinator favorite

Happy flowers

Trying to find plants that bloom in summer and fall can be a challenge. Not only do the honey bees have trouble finding forage, but even the native bees can come up short during the summer dearth. This is especially true in areas where native plants have largely been replaced with exotic species.

Last fall, Ellen Gehling, a beekeeper living here in Washington state, offered to send me a selection of open-centered dahlias which her bees love. I’ve never been a fan of big showy dahlias that look like garish dinner plates, but I had heard from other beekeepers that the simple, open-centered varieties were bee favorites. So “Yes!” I said. I was eager to try.

Tubers in the mail

Ellen sent a well-packed and labeled box of tubers along with detailed instructions about planting and growing. My husband built a raised bed just for the project, and I planted according to the instructions. Now, in the heat of August, I have a gorgeous display of flowers that the pollinators love. Not just bees, but also hover flies, skippers, and some solitary wasps have descended on the blooms. In fact, so many pollinators visit that the crab spiders have staked out their territory as well, taking advantage of anyone not paying attention.

For pollinators, the difference in dahlias has to do with the central disk. The central disk is where the pollen is produced and where the bees can access the nectar. Highly bred dahlias can have so many layers of florets that the pollinators cannot even find the central disk. Those varieties are of no interest to pollinators and are left alone in the garden.

I’m grateful to Ellen for showing me a new way to look at dahlias. Without her guidance and generosity, I would not have considered dahlias for my pollinator garden. Now they will be a regular feature.

Honey Bee Suite

Dahlia with central disk.

In this photo you can clearly see the central disk that is all-important to the pollinators. © Rusty Burlew.


Here a bumble bee, probably a male Bombus vosnesenskii, is sampling a flower.

Male bumble bee

This is also a male bumble bee. The bumbles were quite taken with these flowers, and some of the males are sleeping in them overnight. © Rusty Burlew.

Dahlia with skipper

This woodland skipper, a type of butterfly, is sampling the dahlias. © Rusty Burlew.

Dinner of various types

Lots of drama here. One bumble bee is eating dinner, while the other is dinner. Note the camouflage coloring of the crab spider. © Rusty Burlew.

Crab spider

It is easy to see why the crab spiders are so well fed. © Rusty Burlew.

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  • I have a dahlia garden behind my hives and have also enjoyed seeing the variety of pollinators that visit the flowers, including bees I still don’t know the names of. I will make sure to add more open centered ones next year. These are some great photos! Thanks for sharing!

  • My neighbor has every year planted a two foot wide row half a city lot long of Zinnias which the pollinators love, including my honey bees. These will bloom until a heavy frost providing pollin during the late summer.

    • John,

      You are not supposed to ask that! If Ellen knew that I got her carefully made labels and marked tubers all tangled up, I would be in serious trouble.

      • I’ve planted collarette dahlias for years, and yes the bees love them! You can mail order from in Canby, Oregon. Also, I planted cosmos in my garden for the first time this year and they are by far the favorite with bumble bees.

  • Did a Google search for open-centered dahlia tubers to buy but no luck. Any idea where to buy them? Thanks

  • Rusty,

    The 2 most awesome plants for late summer are heptacoduim, hasn’t bloomed yet, and ajania pacifica. Both are top notch bloomers that all pollinators, especially honeybees, abosolutely adore!!!! I will also mention that the dreaded climbing ivy is a miracle worker that provides abundant nectar and pollen in mid September for well over a week. These plants will turn a weak colony into a winter survivor!!!

    Bill Castro

  • Hi Rusty,
    The funny thing is that I see from your pictures that I had mislabeled one too! I don’t know what your observations are, and I haven’t considered it too carefully but it does seem that some varieties are visited more than others, and some more floriferous, which may be more desirable to someone wanting to plant them for pollinators.

    As always, your photos are fantastic, and I particularly like the dramatic one; two bumble bee species and one spider on a single bloom. I’ve also seen a Red Admiral butterfly and honey bee foraging on the same blossom.

    I thoroughly enjoy these colorful flowers, and I’m pleased that you and your invertebrate friends are enjoying them too. I don’t know what your policy is on this, but if anyone wants more information about open centered dahlias, they are welcome to contact me through email.

  • Try Cleome (Spider Flower) for the honey bees. They love it and the plant gives one a plethora of seeds for the next season if collected. Orjust let the seed fall to the ground for the next spring germination.

  • Love the pictures, I live in NM, high and dry, would the dahlias survive in this climate? Would love some, just don’t want them to perish.


  • Hi Shirley,

    I’m afraid that the demand way surpassed the supply. But to answer your question, I’m nearly certain that they would not do well there. To find out you could check your county extension office.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Old House Dahlias in Tillamook, Oregon, is a wonderful small-scale resource for obtaining dahlias. I believe that dahlias are all that Mark grows and he is happy to talk by phone to give advice.

    I was looking to plant something in May that could help with the nectar dearth that we have here in the Pacific Northwest in August and wanted to go with dahlia tubers. But I was having trouble finding them – I couldn’t find a local shop in Seattle that carried them and the large national gardening sites just seem to have the elaborate decorative dahlias that bees don’t seem to care for.

    Old House Dahlias recommend “orchid-type” and “peony-type” dahlias, along with a particular dahlia called Joy’s Joy (which is in the “single-type”) which he feels attracts bees the most strongly. As of May 14, he still had plenty of these types of dahlias. I placed an order on Thursday, he shipped on Friday and I received a box via USPS Priority Mail on Monday.

  • I plant the open-centered dahlias each year from seed — easily obtained, not that hard to grow. And I’m in the Northeast, where the last frost might be in May. The key is to have table space near a bright, perhaps south-facing window. Once the seedlings are established and we have transplanted out of the small pods into bigger pots, the dahlias do take up a lot of room in our kitchen. Then we start giving them “field trips,” trips outside onto a plastic table on our deck during the day when the weather permits. These are great producers, and the honey bees are having a heyday right now.