bee forage

Planting for honey bees

A lot of people want to know what to plant for their honey bees, so they ask other beekeepers for a recommendation . . . and this is what happens.

Let’s say the beekeeper asking the question lives in Nebraska. He gets several responses: one from South Carolina suggesting a plant named SC, one from New Mexico suggesting a plant named NM, and one from Oregon suggesting plant named OR. Eager to watch his new bees forage, the beekeeper in Nebraska buys 3 packets of seed—one each of SC, NM, and OR.

Nebraska beekeeper meticulously follows the directions on the seed packets and the plants grow lushly and burst into bloom. Nebraska beekeeper catches the scent of his crop wafting through his open window and knows the bees will be pleased. He crouches down on the ground with camera in hand and waits beside his carefully tended offerings. But nothing happens. Although the flowers are heavy with various native pollinators, the honey bees are not impressed. What happened? Did those other beekeepers set him up?

Of course not, but a number of other things may be going on. Here is a partial list of possibilities:

  • The most likely problem is competition from other nectar sources. Let’s say you go out for dessert. At the restaurant you have a choice of red jello, chocolate ice cream, or apple pie. Which do you choose? Chances are, you pick your favorite—the one that tastes best to you. Personally, I go for ice cream every time. Bees are no different. If something in the area is more attractive to your bees than what you planted, they will go to that other thing first. In this case, the beekeepers in South Carolina, New Mexico, and Oregon had a different selection of plants in bloom than the guy in Nebraska. In other words, the bees had a different menu to pick from.
  • The local climate and soil type can affect both the amount of nectar a plant produces and the composition of the nectar, including its sweetness. The same seed grown in different climates or on different soils will taste different to the bees.
  • Yearly weather patterns also make a difference. A good nectar-producing plant one year may fail the next. You can think of nectar like fruit—there are good production years and bad ones, even though other factors, such as soil type and rainfall, remain the same.
  • Different varieties of the same species produce different nectar. While you may have selected the right genus and species, you may have purchased the wrong variety, and gotten vastly different results.
  • Honey bees have floral fidelity which means they collect from only one type of flower on one foraging trip or on one whole day. If you planted just little patches of flowers, it may not be enough to attract honey bees.
  • Competition from other pollinators makes a difference too. If the flowers have been sucked dry by early risers such as mason bees, the honey bees may be forced to forage elsewhere.
  • If you only watch your bees at certain times of the day, you may miss the hours when they forage on your plants. Different plants exude nectar at different times. A good example is buckwheat, which yields lots of nectar in the morning and virtually none in the afternoon. So if you don’t watch your buckwheat until mid-afternoon, you may miss your bees completely.

As you can see, the issues are complex, so trial-and-error planting may be the most reliable way to discover the best plants for your area. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with all those recommendations, but don’t be disappointed if they don’t pan out. Nature works in strange and wondrous ways.


Lapping it up. Honey bee on blackberry.


  • Rusty, I live in southwest Louisiana and have 3 top-bar hives, two of which I have had for 3 years. In my front yard are two bottle brush plants. While blooming the bees cover the flowers. Everything I have read says that bees don’t like the color red. I am guessing that they smell the nectar and ignore the color?

    • Blane,

      It’s not that the bees don’t like red, it’s that they can’t see it. It appears black as if nothing is there. I don’t know about bottlebrush in particular, but many plants have ultraviolet patterns on their flowers. Ultraviolet patterns are the ones we can’t see, but bees can. In those cases, the bees are attracted to the patterns, not the red.

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