Imagine tomorrow you wake up having traveled 100 million years back in time to the late Cretaceous period. Depending on where you live in North America, you could be on the Island of Appalachia (present-day East Coast), the Island of Laramidia (present-day West Coast), or underwater in the Western Interior Seaway (my house in Montana would be at one of the deepest points).
Much of the fauna might seem familiar; Vegavis, a genus of an extinct bird, would look much like a goose or a duck paddling around in the water, and the ancestors of modern-day sharks might be lurking right beneath them. The flora would be vaguely recognizable as well with the recent evolution and diversification of the first flowers. However, there will be no honeybees on that muggy summer day and no fuzzy bumblebees visiting those blooms. Instead, you may find a Pemphredonine wasp, one of the oldest relatives of modern bees, covered in pollen and preying on small insects.
In the ensuing millions of years, as that Pemphredonine wasp and others like it began to adapt to the new flowers evolving around them, they began to grow longer hair on their bodies which simultaneously made it more difficult to catch small insects and allowed for the collection of pollen. It was that slow transition from carnivore to omnivore, and eventually to herbivore, that ultimately distinguished wasps from bees and led to the evolution of our hairy modern-day pollinators. As bees co-evolved with flowers, they adapted certain characteristics specific to individual flowers, such as longer tongues to reach hidden nectar or hairy legs to collect and carry pollen. A symbiotic relationship was formed. The flowers found on tomato and pepper plants, for instance, can only be pollinated by bumblebees whose large, furry bodies buzz at a frequency that effectively shakes pollen loose and distributes it to other nearby blooms.
Now imagine that you’ve traveled a mere 600 years back in time. No matter where you are on the North American continent, you won’t find a single honeybee. You might see mason bees such as the solitary Osmia avosetta building a nest out of flower petals or the carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica cutting into a stem to steal nectar. Every flower endemic to North America relies on these native bees for pollination. Honeybees (Apis mellifera) only arrived on the East Coast with European colonizers in 1622 and finally reached the West Coast by the 1850s (there may have been an ancient honeybee, Apis nearctica, in North America during the mid-Miocene 14 million years ago, but it is now extinct).
Native Bees vs. Honeybees All of this is to say that planting a garden for bees becomes less complicated if you understand a little bit of the history and biology of the pollinators you’re trying to attract. The honeybee’s plight is well-known these days as colony collapse disorder and conventional chemical agriculture are more prevalent and more deadly than ever before. But the less familiar story is that of the 4,000 bees native to North America whose numbers are also in steep decline. Native bees are arguably more essential to the pollination and perpetuation of our plants and crops than honeybees are, but they are rarely part of the conversation about saving pollinators.
This is where you, the home gardener, come in. We love to champion public lands, but in the fight to save bees and other pollinators, both private land and urban spaces will be essential as well. If you have outdoor space, whether it’s 10 acres, an apartment balcony, or access to a public garden, here are some tips on what, where, and when to plant flowers for bees, native and non-native alike.
Planting for Bees and Pollinators Bees range in size from the 2-millimeter-long Perdita minima to the enormous Xylocopa genus (carpenter bees), and their flower preference is determined by their body size and the length of their tongue. Planting a wide variety of flower shapes and sizes will create a diverse buffet for all types of bees and other pollinators. Honeysuckle and columbine are perfect for hummingbirds and bees with long tongues, while broader, more open flowers such as cornflower and daisies are more easily accessible to small, short-tongued bees. Be sure to plant your garden near a water source and some open ground where bees can rehydrate, rest, and potentially build a safe nesting site.
Surprisingly, bees cannot see the color red and are thus less likely to visit red flowers (although hummingbirds and butterflies like them). However, thanks to the seminal work of Karl von Frisch, we know that they can see ultraviolet light, which allows their eyes pick up on color patterns in flowers that humans cannot see. Bees can differentiate between purple, blue, yellow, or white blooms, but what we perceive a simple blue flower, a bee might see a bullseye pattern or streaks of color radiating from the center.
Bees need a consistent food source from spring through autumn, and planting flowers that bloom multiple times or that stay in bloom for an extended period is helpful to bees that rely on your garden as a food source. Summer is generally an easier time for bees to find food, so look for flowers that bloom either early or late in the year for a succession of different flowers throughout the growing season. The first flowers to bloom in the spring are usually bulbs that have overwintered underground, such as crocus, grape hyacinth, and winter aconites. And those little yellow dandelions peppering your lawn are a fantastic early source of pollen. During the hot mid-summer months, flowers like bee balm and anise hyssop tend to stay in bloom after other flowers have died off. This is also the same time that many vegetable gardens tend to bolt or go to seed. Allowing a few herb plants to flower will provide a hearty pollinator food source. As summer starts to wind down, hardier plants such as lavender, Russian sage, sunflowers, and purple aster will maintain nectar production even as the temperature drops.
When choosing where and what to plant, it is crucial to look for plants that will grow in your climate. Native flowers are best adapted to a specific climate and geography, and they’re also much more attractive and palatable to the native bees that evolved with them. The USDA’s hardiness zone map is an excellent resource when deciding which seeds to sow, and your local nursery or garden store should be able to provide similar information along with plants native to the area. Be sure to check out these great resources that provide specific information on what you should plant based on your geographic location.
It is also crucial that those flowers not be treated with neonicotinoids, an herbicide now know to be fatal to individual bees as well as entire hives or colonies. Bees collecting pollen from plants treated with chemicals of any kind will ingest those chemicals and bring them back into their homes, thereby feeding them to the rest of their community.
Bees, native and non-native alike, pollinate over 80% of the world’s crops. As hunters and ranchers, even the animals we eat are reliant on forbs and flowers pollinated by bees (elk and deer often compete with bees for the same plants). Bees provide us with nearly every bite we eat, so it’s our responsibility to return the favor.