gardening for bees

Seed catalogs bring the promise of spring

The best thing about the dark months of winter is the truckload of seed catalogs that comes in the mail. I don’t know how it works, but if you order seeds from just one company, about 105 others will somehow obtain your mailing address. Someone must collect and sell this information because it happens like magic, and the catalogs arrive whether you want them or not. Each winter my husband jokes (I think he’s joking) about building a warehouse for these unsolicited documents.

But the glossy photos of flowers and vegetables in mid-winter awakens a primal desire to grow stuff. I’m sure of it. Never mind that the things I grow never look like the pictures. For example, my radishes have serious holes in the leaves, assuring the radish on the other end is no wider than a toothpick. My potatoes have tunnels, compliments of the moles. And if I plant long carrots, I get medium ones, medium ones turn out short, and short ones? Well, I can’t even find them.

No one watching me would think I have a four-year degree in agronomy. I’m supposed to advise other people on how to grow things, but fat chance. Instead, I keep it under wraps, sort of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of thing.

Sorting through the icons

In this age of pollinator-friendly gardening, seed catalogs have gotten infinitely more interesting. The different cultivars used to have little icons of deer and rabbits with slashes through them, or icons of hummingbirds without. Others had pictograms of the sun and a raindrop, partially filled to indicate how much of each you need. Those symbols were fun, but now we have icons of bees and butterflies! People like me are suckers for a seed packet with a bee stamped on it.

Unfortunately, the retailers of seeds know all this. They could draw bees next to lawns of Kentucky blue grass and we’d go out and buy it. Right? I’m now looking at a catalog showing a bee icon on a lettuce packet. Now, I’m sure a bee could find some pollen in a lettuce flower, but how many people who plant lettuce let it flower? Let’s just say that some of the symbols are subject to interpretation.

Still, don’t let that spoil your fun: you can eat the lettuce even if the bees don’t. I’ve spent the last several weeks drooling over colorful collages of perfectly photoshopped produce even though I know what my garden will look like. It always turns out the same—weedy and unkempt, too shady by far, and brimming with all sorts of insect life that consumes more than its fair share. But that’s okay. Bugs gotta eat too.

Sticking to the list

Nowadays, I try to resist all the icons and write-ups and stick to my list. All during the growing season I take down names of pollinator plants. Sometimes I see a plant loaded with bees and write it down. Other times, people tell me about such a plant, or I read about one in a pollinator book. By the time the catalogs arrive, I’m ready.

But I’ve winnowed my purchasing down to basically one company—Prairie Moon Nursery. They don’t have the biggest selection or the best pictures, but whether you choose seeds or starts, they are neonicotinoid free. This is important to me because my garden is my photo studio, a place where bees come for portrait work. The last thing I want is for the bees to keel over dead before they’ve paid the bill, so I’m happier to forego the neonics.

Honestly, I don’t know how much effect neonicotinoid treatment has on bees and other pollinators. Whether the danger is overstated or not, I don’t know. But I don’t use pesticides at home, and I especially don’t like the idea of treating a plant before a problem exists, so this company works for me. It’s true that every new plant comes with its own set of bug problems, but they don’t come with the plants, they come because of the plants. You just have to deal with it.

Choices for the coming year

In case you’re wondering, my list this year includes mountain mint, wild geranium, motherwort, phacelia, hairy beardtongue, blue sage and spotted bee balm. Other seeds have arrived from friends, and some I was able to harvest on my own. I’ve also added a couple of dahlias to my collection because they are such great backdrops for those portraits.

Until now, I’ve concentrated mostly on fall-flowering plants, but this year I want to include more spring flowers. Spring, after all, is the best time to see a wide variety of bees. I’m not quite finished ordering, so if you have any gotta-have-it pollinator favorites, please let me know.

Honey Bee Suite

Seed catalogs: bell-shaped flowers attract a wide variety of bees.

Bell-shaped flowers attract a wide variety of bees. Pixabay photo.


  • Catmint (not to be confused with catnip) is extremely honey bee attractive here in Oklahoma and once established very tolerant to our extremes. Same goes for vitex negundo. Blooms on negundo variety of vitex are smaller but more bee accessible. Both prolific bloomers all summer into fall.

  • My bees love my anise and lavender hyssop (agastache) and even though I think the little flowers must be sucked dry, they are always tasting the figwort flowers. Sedum should be on this list too. I fall planted several hundred spring flowering bulbs so I’ll have to update you on those. I dream of having so many flowers that my bees will all want to stay home! (Northern Illinois). Thanks for all that you do, Rusty!

    • Jill,

      Yes, those are great choices. I have several different Agastache, figwort, and sedum. And I too planted spring bulbs this year, crocus and allium, and hope they bring lots of photo ops.

  • Last spring I visited a nursery to get my garden started. I found a pretty flowering plant, with honey bees all over it. I of course bought several plants & couldn’t wait to get them home for my garden. I never saw even ONE bee on the plants, after getting them home – not a bumble bee, not a honey bee or a native bee!! ?

    • Ann,

      I’ve had that happen, too! The choice of what to forage on is extremely dependent on what else is in bloom in your area. I’m sure you know this already, but for those who don’t, it’s a good thing to understand.

      I think of it this way: If you offer a child ice cream or mashed potatoes, he will probably take the ice cream. But if you offer brussel sprouts or mashed potatoes, he will probably take the potatoes. Everything is relative!

  • Hi Rusty, Give sun-chokes a try. They are a fall “flower” that looks a lot like a sunflower, tall yellow etc.
    They grow from an editable tuber. I planted a row of 12 then the next year had 100s. They are kinda like potatoes where one gets a lot more and each one next year grows. They do like full sun and a fair amount of moisture. But in a pinch you can eat them.


  • We grow Cleome (bee plant). It naturalizes for us. Bees love it well into the fall after everything else has quit blooming. Deer will not eat it because the foliage stinks. In Montana, where it’s a native, beekeepers say the honey doesn’t reek. In any case, I’ve already harvested the years honey by the time the Cleome blooms. I have collected a pint of seed and will share if you send me a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). My address: Dave Sabold, 17 Bean Road, Winthrop WA 98862. Rusty – If you want some let me know your address and I’ll pay postage. We appreciate your work!

    • Cleome hassleriana is the botanical name for the plant commonly known as spider flower, spider plant, pink queen and even grandfather’s whiskers. It is an annual plant that is native to southern South America in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and even parts of Brazil. It is not native to any part of the US. It is a prolific seeder anywhere there is moisture and sun. With just one plant you will have quite a few more the next year (providing it flowers and goes to seed). My honey bees rarely go to them unless there is nothing else for them. The moths do visit every night and I am a big fan of attracting all native insects and birds.

  • Borage, a fabulous bee magnet, and they will self seed all over the garden as well. Transplant the volunteers everywhere — the flowers and leaves are even edible!
    I also have a type of basil that draws them by the hundreds. I will see if I can find the marker, I bought plants for these, where normally I grow everything from seed.
    Garlic chives are preferred over regular ones, anise hyssop and tulsi basil are also winners.

  • Rusty, For the earliest I go with 10,000 snow drops followed by 3 million (hopefully 3 1/2 million this spring) purple dead nettles. The snow drops bloom before the bumble bees emerge, but the dead nettles, being earlier than the dandelions, often are the difference for both bumble bee queens and honey bee colonies. Since I’ve cultivated the wild purple dead nettles for 7 years, finally this past spring there were 17 sightings of yellow bumble bee queens (B. fervidus), whereas in previous years I never had more than two sightings. Mike

  • I planted catmint for the second year and it has been very popular with the tiny bumblebees and other small natives. I also have heuchera “palace purple” that has the tiniest flowers, but is attractive to my mason bees.

  • My favorite part of the new year is ordering seeds….such an investment and belief in a future sure to come.
    I also have a haphazard veggie garden, planted each spring with such good intentions but I never get all the beans picked, or the peas either….laughing at the carrot story..I forget to even check!! On to other things by that time of the summer I suppose.

    I did plant a large pollinator meadow last year, the annuals were fantastic, many native bees and the little skipper butterflies, and I am eagerly anticipating the perennials that should be coming along this coming year. I got the seed from Northwest Meadowscapes on Whidby Island. They have been wonderful and responsive to email questions. All species are Wa natives, no imports. Much more enjoyable than the veggies! Tarweed and Gumweed, Western Columbine..Gilia, too many to name.

    As for the bees, I trapped a mouse out of one of my hives, I neglected the mouse guards this year. I cant say I forgot..its like the beans, I knew it needed attention but never got to it. I hope it was the only one, my IR camera doesn’t show any more odd heat, crossing my fingers. Love your posts Rusty.

  • Rusty,

    Have you planted flower seed for pollinator forage where grass is also growing? I have a water-drainage ditch 100 ft wide I want to leave unmowed and plant perennial flowers in. Is competition too much between grasses and flowers to expect them to grow together?

    • Bruce,

      I think it will just depend on the individual situation. I grow things like crocuses in the lawn. By the time grass needs to be mowed in spring, the crocuses are done. But you would need different plants in a wet area, and if they are too short, the unmowed grasses will smother them. Tall-grass prairies contain both flowering plants and grass, so I’m sure there’s a way to do it.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I sat down this morning with the Prairie Moon catalog in my lap, getting ready to go through it, when I happened across your blog article. Seed catalogs in winter get me through, and PM is one of my faves. I’m glad to know your list of core flowering plants and would be interested in a follow-up article if you enlarge that selection.

    • Heather,

      I can do that. Yesterday’s list contained just the seeds I didn’t already have, so there are more. I will try to make a complete list.

  • You mention lettuce being promoted as bee friendly and wonder who lets it flower. I do. If I don’t immediately need the space, I now tend to leave vegetables to go to flower for the insects. Particularly the brassicas such as lettuce, broccoli and kale usually overwhelm my capacity to eat them or give them away but I now see this as a positive. The flowers, particularly those of the black kale regularly get a lot of visitors; lettuce not so many.
    Asparagus flowers are popular too so that’s another reason to build up an asparagus patch.

    • Sue,

      I let some of veggies go to seed too, carrots and onions among others. I just think selling lettuce seed specifically as a pollinator plant is a little strange.

  • Has anybody had any experience with Manuka seeds to get Manuka honey? Everywhere I go, I am seeing $40 small bottles of manuka honey.

  • Hi Rusty,

    For early spring here in NE PA; snow drops, crocus, and squill make the “girls” & me happy. Also, later in the season and into fall, borage is a favorite with all the bees. Thanks for all your efforts to help all the keepers of bees! Always use your site as a back up mentor.

  • Rusty, I’ve read that since honey bees were originally tree dwellers, they prefer pollen from trees to pollen from flowers.

    As it is, in the spring we have flowering basswood (linden) trees & Black locust. Our spring honey is very golden light & beautiful. Our fall honey is darker. I know some prefer dark honey, but the spring honey is so beautiful, I prefer that. Do you believe that to be true, about bees preferring tree pollen? (Maybe I read it on your site. ??‍♀️)

    • Ann,

      You did not read it here. All the research I’ve read indicates that honey bees choose the sweetest nectar they can find. As for pollen, they are much less picky and will even collect things without much protein value. In any case, individual tress are only in bloom a short while. Most of the bees’ pollen collection would have to take place somewhere besides the tree they lived in.

  • We keep bees here at a wildlife refuge to help pollinate the crops we grow for the animals. Plan to add wildflower patches to help in this endeavor. All your blogs help greatly with our beekeeping effort, however your last blog on wildflower plants and seeds has me confused. You state that both plants and seeds from a certain nursery are neonicotinoids free, implying seeds from other nurseries may not be. I have been under the impression that neonics are used in certain insectisides applied after a plant is growing, not that they come with the seed. Could you elaborate on how neonics get into / come with some seeds.

    • RJ,

      Sure. Neonics, like certain other pesticides, are systemic. That means that once the plant absorbs it, it goes into all the plant tissues, including the roots, leaves, stems, flowers, nectar, pollen, ovaries, and newly-forming seeds. No part of the plant is free of the chemical. Not much gets into all the plant parts, but it is enough to kill insects that eat them, which is the whole point.

      Although not much will be deposited inside the seed’s endosperm, some people do not want that material moving from the seed up into the new seedling. Personally, I don’t think the dose from a seed is large enough to harm bees, but I certainly don’t know that for sure. If bees collected nectar from many plants that were grown from seed that contained neonics, it could possibly cause a sublethal effect that we know little about. Again, we are talking small dosages here, but these materials are designed to kill insects with small dosages.

      • Some seeds are now coated with neonics. Almost all corn seed, for example. A lot of GMO seeds are coated with it. There have been reports of pesticide kills of bees due to a nearby farm planting some of these crops. Planting huge fields with them will often throw a lot of dust into the air containing neonics.

        For you, I would suggest looking into “companion planting.” Some plants are natural repellents to the bugs that feed off of other plants. Others attract insects that are the enemy of insects that destroy another plant. Still others will put nutrients into the soil that help another plant grow. If you can get it all figured out, you can wind up with a garden that is almost free of pests and fertilizes itself. All naturally.

  • This past year I planted Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia) among other flowers for my bees (well, actually for me for opportunities to get pictures of bees on flowers). I used the “Torch” variety and as advertised, they grew about 7 feet tall in so-so soil with almost no attention from me. Scores of flowers that my honey bees couldn’t have cared less about, but … bumble bees loved them!! I could find a bumble bee on one just about every time I went outside to look. They are definitely on the list for this coming season.

  • Thank you so much for this site! Live a 2 hour drive south of Prairie Moon and really wish they had a retail store. I have mountain mint (hairy variety, I think) seeds that I would be happy to mail to you. No neonics on my seed either ?. I can count 10-12 different pollinators on it at any given time and it blooms for a month. Agree that tithonia is a magnet for bumble bees but haven’t seen a honey bee on it. Here it is also a magnet for monarchs as they fuel up for heading south in the fall. Figwort a bust here— but bee balm competed with it.

  • Rusty, the bees love the oregano I have in my herb garden. I let it flower and they are always working it, thru the fall. It will spread like crazy – it’s taken over half the garden but I plan to transplant some nearer to the hives.

  • Rusty, I laughed when you mentioned lettuce sold as a pollinator plant. But, then I remembered a red lettuce variety I grew last year was the must-stop watering hole for my bees. I had to be extra careful when harvesting those leaves!

    I wondered if perhaps the water became flavored, or some nutrient or other transferred to the water on the leaves that attracted them. Maybe it was the dark scarlet color? Curious.

    I’m not sure that’s what the seed company had in mind…but the bees sure did love it!

  • Rusty,

    I love reading your website – thank you! I hear borage is a good plant for our area (Southeastern Idaho) that the honey bees love. I believe I’ve read somewhere on your website about you also planting borage. Do you have a place you recommend buying the seeds from?



  • Here along the east slopes of the Cascades, early spring favorites are crocus and pussywillow catkins when they bloom out. Also maple flowers and shrubs like Oregon grape and any of the native currants. Others have mentioned catmint (Nepeta sp.), which blooms all summer and will tolerate partial shade. Mine is always full of bumble bees. A stand of zinnias is good for both bees and butterflies. Sunflowers too.

    Having tinkered with and observed my garden for 14 years, the thing I notice is that the more diversity I provide, the more bugs and birds show up. I’ve got a small patch, but part of it is native and tangled and part of it is structured and tended. It’s a mix of flowers and food plants, trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. It supports honey bees and an astonishing number of native insects. Every year I see something I haven’t seen before. Which I suppose is one of the reasons we garden.

    Enjoy those catalogs.

  • We have rosemary in a large mass. Fabulous for the bees. Lavender (of course), a 100 foot row. I think the best in late fall is onion. They love it. Makes a dark, strong honey but, they utilize it late in the year and we rarely get onion honey for ourselves. Bless you.

  • I moved into an older home (here in the frigid North East) 9 years ago. And when I started keeping bees that year, I found that they loved a very small naturalizing crocus that was planted throughout the front lawn. I later learned that it is called a Thomassen crocus. It blooms very early here (late March) and often has to put up with late season snows. But on those windless sunny days, the bees love it, I think that it is an excellent early season pollen source, probably why my bees start the seasons so strong (and ultimately swarm ). Any how, they are fairly inconspicuous flowers until you notice them, and when you do notice them, you realize that they are bee magnets. But not grown from seed, but bulbs in the fall.

    A bit later in the spring is when the pussy willow catkins explode with pollen.

  • Another very good native plant nursery for those who live further south is Missouri Wildflowers Nursery in Jefferson City, MO. Some of their offerings overlap with Prairie Moon but others do not. I am growing Dutchman’s Pipe-vine which is not native here in Iowa but have had Pipe-vine swallowtails find it to complete their life cycle. So some Missouri natives might do well further north now with our warmer weather.

  • Here in the Kittitas Valley in Central Washington, I’ve switched to growing shrubs. Faster than trees, much more bang-for-the-buck than flowers and shrubs seem to do best in our wind. The obvious honey bee favorite last year was bluebeard (Caryopteris sp.) and bumbles enjoyed it, too. Sedums, mints, salvias, motherwort, russian sage — these were winners as well.

    Thanks for all you do for us beeks! Looking forward to the future article on bee forages. 🙂

  • Rusty,

    Late last fall I purchased two nucs in medium containers and put them in medium Langstroth hive boxes. They have overwintered well and I want to eventually convert to two deeps with new foundation. Can I just put on deeps and start feeding 1:1 sugar water when the weather warms? How can I eventually get them out of the medium frames?
    I am so pleased with the insulating blankets. My bees are high and dry and happy with their sugar cakes this winter.

    Thank you for your expertise, you are much appreciated.

    • Linda,

      You can just put the medium frames in a deep box and the bees will extend the combs to fit the deep box. As the frames go empty in the fall, just pull the mediums out and replace them with deeps. It will happen first at the edges of the brood area.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Haven’t read your entire blog but I recently read where bees absolutely love a plant call African Blue basil. The article stated that it is an annual in areas that have cold weather but that it can be overwintered indoors. It can only be propagated through cuttings because any seed it might produce are sterile since the plant is a hybrid. It is said that it is a prolific bloomer, loves sun and heat, and I believe it blooms during the summer and into the fall. I’m trying to locate a source for this plant now.

    Enjoy your website and blog.

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