One of the best honey bee plants in the world is Echium vulgare, also known as viper’s bugloss, blueweed, blue thistle, blue devil, and snake flower. It produces copious amounts of both nectar and pollen for several months, May through September. The late flowering can provide plentiful nectar for much-needed winter stores.
The plant, in the same family as borage (Borago officinalis), sports vibrant blue flowers with contrasting red filaments, and anthers that produce brilliant blue pollen. It will grow in dry and barren wasteland and seems to prefer poor soil and inattention. Viper’s bugloss would be the beekeeper’s dream come true if it weren’t for the impressive list of demerits attached to it.
On the plus side
According to TheMelissaGarden.com, viper’s bugloss may produce 300 to 1000 pounds of honey per acre. The impressive yields are at least partly due to the structure of the flower. The nectaries are deep within the corolla, and the petals protect the nectar from both desiccation by the sun and dilution by rain. The result is a flower that produces a steady supply of rich nectar all day long, not just in the morning or evening. Depending on soil and rainfall, the sugar content ranges from 22% to 48%.
In Honey Plants of North America, Lovell describes the honey as light amber with a good flavor and body. Some say it bears a hint of lemon. Because the honey is high in fructose, it is slow to crystallize and may remain liquid for 9 to 15 months.
Viper’s bugloss is known as a major pollen crop as well, producing as much as 500 to 2000 pounds per acre of dark blue pollen. Besides honey bees, the plant is known to attract at least 50 species of pollinators in Canada alone, including bumble bees, sweat bees, mason bees (Hoplitis), at least eight species of butterfly, and the ruby-throated hummingbird (see “The Biology of Canadian Weeds” Klemow et al. 2001).
On the minus side
Viper’s bugloss is native to Europe, western Asia, and Central Asia, but the plant has been introduced to many parts of the world. In the United States, it is considered invasive, and in the state of Washington, it is considered a Class B noxious weed. It is also considered noxious in Australia, New Zealand, Alberta, Manitoba, Québec, Nova Scotia, and parts of British Columbia. Its ability to survive in poor soils and its resistance to deer aid its rapid spread.
According to Klemow et al. (2011), the plant contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which can cause liver damage in livestock and humans. The honey, too, contains these alkaloids and so it is not good for long-term consumption. Some sources recommend mixing the honey with other honeys to dilute the alkaloids. Other sources simply recommend the honey should not be eaten on a regular basis or for extended periods.
Skin irritation, too, can be a problem with viper’s bugloss. The plant is covered with prickly hairs that may cause itching and a rash, so gloves are a must when handling the plants.
A similar species
Of the roughly sixty species of Echium, E. plantagineum is nearly as problematic as E. vulgare. Known as purple viper’s bugloss or Patterson’s curse, this plant is also poisonous to livestock, and is especially troublesome in New Zealand.
It seems that E. plantagineum is not listed as a noxious weed in Washington, but it is listed as noxious in Oregon. Oddly enough, one of the big suppliers of E. plantagineum is Outsidepride, based in Oregon. Outsidepride carries a number of varieties including blue, white, and rose-tinted.
In any case, this plant seems to be nearly as attractive to pollinators as E. vulgare. So if you are interested in using Echium to build up winter stores for your honey bees, either one will work.
[line] Order Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) here: *100 VIPERS BUGLOSS Echium Vulgare Blue Flower Seeds *Comb S/H
Order Patterson’s curse (Echium plantagineum) here: *Outsidepride Echium Blue Bedder – 1000 Seeds
*This post contains affiliate links.