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Grow Native Plants for Bees

By Dr. Leo Sharashkin

The moment you get your first honeybees, you start noticing all the flowers around you and begin to ponder the potential plants you could grow to support pollinator health.

You become acutely aware of hives’ surroundings for a mile in every direction. This is the effective flight range of the bee—the distance she is prepared to travel to collect nectar, pollen, water and other necessities for her colony. This represents three square miles—2,000 acres of terrain—that the bees have at their disposal.

The Omniscient Bee

Using hundreds of scouts, the colony’s collective intelligence tracks in real time the location of all significant sources of nectar and pollen, their abundance, the exact times of day when a particular plant secretes nectar, and even its nutritional value. They know there’s a single basswood tree in bloom three-quarters of a mile south-southwest of their nest. They know the location of a small patch of buckwheat that you planted as a cover crop in your garden, and that they better get to it in the morning before the afternoon heat cuts the nectar flow. Foraging maps are updated daily, new blooms are promptly discovered, and fading flowers immediately abandoned.

Blazing star (Liatris)
Blazing star (Liatris) blooms late in the season when few other nectar sources are available.

When nectar is abundant, bees do not have to travel far from their hive. If forage is scarce, though, they can fly two miles (sometimes even farther) from the nest to feed themselves, procure food for their young, and store survival packs for the winter. In this case, we are talking about some 12 square miles, or 8,000 acres, that they rely upon for their livelihood.

Bees, of course, are not aware of any property lines.

As the Ukrainian beekeeper Illarion Kullanda put it in his Bees for Everyone (1882), “The bee enriches a keeper both rich and poor, for she never asks if the blossoms belong to her master or to a neighbor.” They still live in the world of freedom and plenty. All the fields and meadows and forests they can fly to are part of their domain, which they readily share with other creatures.

Bees will fearlessly defend their own nest from intrusion, but their “private ownership” ends with the walls of their hive. If a bee is visiting a flower and is disturbed by a bird, another insect, or a human, she will simply fly on to another bloom rather than striking back. Why fight when there is enough for everyone? To me, this lesson is just as valuable as the honey and wax I get from my bees.

From their knowledge of every corner of their kingdom comes bees’ great strength and, in our times, their great vulnerability. You see a few foragers dying in convulsions at the hive entrance and become concerned: did they visit some poisonous plant (of which there are a small number), or perhaps the neighbor sprayed something on his fields? Will this honey be safe for my children to eat? What can we do to help the bees? I keep hearing this question over and over again. It is heartwarming that so many people are concerned about the welfare of bees and other pollinators.

Fortunately, there is a good answer, and it is very important, because by helping the bees we can also help ourselves.

Fly for Your Life

Honeybees are an indicator species. Just as caged canaries that alert miners to the presence of deadly gases or rats that give sailors the first warning of a sinking ship, bees are a very sensitive gauge of ecosystem health.

I remember my uncle telling me as a boy to never fish in a stream where I couldn’t see “a happy crawdad family.” No crawdads meant something was seriously wrong with the water quality, indicating either industrial pollution or pesticide runoff from the fields (they were still using DDT back then).

Bees are indicator species
Bees are indicator species.

By being so intricately linked to the flowers over such a large area, bees can signal environmental issues better than any man-made equipment.

Many beekeepers, doctors and philosophers marvel at the ancient observation that what is good for the bees is also good for humans, including flowers, fresh air, sunshine, community, movement and all the healing products of the hive: honey, pollen, propolis (bee resin), beeswax and royal jelly.

Conversely, what damages bees (dampness, cold, inhumane treatment or pesticides) will be very detrimental to humans, too. This is why I would not deem it safe to live in a place where honeybees are not thriving.

It is a well-known fact that bees working only one floral source (e.g., an endless field of rape) become much more aggressive than colonies that have access to a wide variety of flowers.

This manifestation of anger is a sure indication that bees perceive lack of biodiversity as deeply unsettling. After all, biodiversity literally means “diversity of life.” When there is no diversity, life itself is in danger. I think every ecological farmer can relate to this on a very deep level as they witness it over and over in the field.

The toxic cocktails of agrochemicals that poison bees may only be one of the reasons for bees’ recent decline. Wild habitat loss and very low biodiversity in agricultural landscapes must also be having a major impact.

Bees are adapted to a mind-boggling diversity of flowering plants, and each source of nectar and pollen offers a unique mix of nutrients and other substances. When this diversity is absent, bees are bound to suffer. Imagine your diet suddenly reduced to only a couple of ingredients.

The early accounts of honeybees in America paint a picture of vigor and abundance. Brought over by European settlers, bees became more prosperous here than in the Old World—to the point that wild honey was so plentiful that there was little incentive to “keep” them. They were first seen in Illinois around 1800, and only 18 years later there was “more honey available than elsewhere in the world.”

In Missouri, a man could locate 30 new bee trees in a week. No wonder 19th-century authors talk about “seas of nectar” that the Lord instructed the bees to gather “to sweeten man’s life with honey and free mead.”

But this all-you-can-eat bonanza was extremely short-lived. A century later, the principal sources of nectar were clover and alfalfa—forage crops native to Eurasia. Today, on a per-acre basis, the United States has eleven times fewer hives than Europe, and up to three-fourths of the honey consumed in this country is imported.

Apiculture or Apiforestry?

Where has the old-time bounty gone? Just as in Europe, the emergence of hive beekeeping and dependence on agricultural nectar sources went hand in hand with the destruction of wild ecosystems that provided a virtually limitless supply of nectar from thousands of species of flowering plants. Basswood forests were logged out, meadows were converted to pasture or plowed up, and old-growth trees with spacious hollows for bee nests became exceedingly rare.

The agricultural landscapes that succeeded the primeval ecosystems lacked several key traits that are essential for honeybee survival and productivity. In northern climates, bees thrive in dense forests that protect nests from windchill. With this protection in place, tree beekeeping in medieval Russia extended as far north as Archangel, which is on the same latitude as Fairbanks, Alaska. But the thin-walled hives that modern beekeepers leave in the open to withstand winter winds means that bees now have trouble surviving even in much warmer climates.

Large Linden tree and meadow
Basswood (American Linden) forests

Secondly, monoculture fields and orchards have none of the continuity of nectar flow and pollen available in the wild. For example, in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, where I live, a broadleaf forest near a stream will have native plants in bloom continuously from early spring (redbuds, willows, wild plum, dandelions, maples, then oaks), through the summer (blackberry, sumac, basswood, blazing star), and into the fall (asters and goldenrods).

And even when it’s extremely dry and hot, we get honeydew honey from oaks and black walnuts. This of course is totally different from an orange orchard or a field of buckwheat, where you have a deluge of nectar over a two-week period and then nothing for the rest of the year.

Today’s beekeepers get around this problem by hauling their hives from place to place—either locally (a blueberry farm, then a clover field, then a wilderness area full of sumacs) or even across the country (California almond plantations, apple orchards in Washington, sunflowers in North Dakota, then Arizona for the winter).

But migratory beekeeping creates another host of problems. Thousands of bee colonies from all over the country converging on a plantation spread disease, get doused in pesticide and—their honey “robbed”—survive as best they can on mega-doses of sugar syrup.

Faced with the honeybee decline, what should we do? Should we be using “the best of science” to devise new chemical drugs to prop bees up and help them survive in the most unnatural of environments? Or should we restore living landscapes that would make migrating for our honey unnecessary, and return to the bees the resilience and health for which they were once famous? To me, this is the only sensible alternative.

Bee Pasture

So let’s plant some bee pastures. What plants should we seed? Would a 10-foot by 10-foot patch of buckwheat be enough for a hive or two?

When I started writing this article, I thought I would include descriptions of a dozen of my favorite honey plants with pretty pictures and encourage every grower to plant a border of wildflowers.

Bee visiting buckwheat flower
Bees love buckwheat flowers but thrive with variety.

What could be simpler? But I realized that if I did that, I would not be completely truthful with my readers. This is because, in many cases, the single best option is to allow ecosystems to revert to their semi-natural state.

One of my neighbors is an absentee landowner living in a large city. His pastureland has not been used or brush hogged for some 20 years, and this is where I get most of my honey! The luxurious mix of sumacs, prickly pear cacti, mints, thistles and other delicacies create a veritable honeybee paradise.

Not only that, but the great diversity of flowering plants in this semi-wild tract results in honey with such a rich and complex flavors that I sell it for $20 per pound, and I have my full year’s crop spoken for before the first bee gets out of the hive in the spring.

The most conservative of calculations show that these dry and rocky south-facing slopes would never offer nearly as much value to the owner if used for cattle pasture or hay.

Letting the land lie fallow or “unused” sounds almost like bad husbandry today and is often looked down upon. But, as an example, in 19th-century Russia, the long-rotation agriculture that allowed fields to revert to woody vegetation before being put into field crops was seen as a highly progressive method of restorative farming.

Plants for Bees: Which Species to Plant?

To decide which trees, shrubs and flowers you can plant, visit a natural spot or an old field abuzz with bees. Not only will it give you clear indication of what native plants thrive in your location, but you will have a readily available and free source of seeds for planting.

early-blooming redbud
The nectar of the early-blooming redbud fuels bee colony buildup in the spring.

Plants of the same species in different locations can produce very different nectars, so no written source will ever be completely reliable. For example, I’ve never seen a single bee visit the blooms of my catalpa trees or even black locusts, but farther north these are important nectar producers.

There are several excellent sources of information on American nectar plants. The basic plant list, by geographic region, can be found in USDA Agriculture Handbook 335: Beekeeping in the United States. Frank Pellett’s American Honey Plants is another wonderful reference that includes not only plant descriptions but also plant listings by state. Both of these sources can be downloaded for free from my website.

The task of selecting the right plants from hundreds of available species is often daunting. Lest the reality be bleaker than the pretty pictures in nursery catalogs, let us consider several points to help you choose the right plants to best suit your bees’ needs.

Native Linden tree flowers
The American Linden tree is great for native bees thanks to its flowers.

A single bee colony deploys over 100,000 foragers over the season, and each forager can visit up to 3,000 blooms a day. Fedor Lazutin, one of Europe’s leading natural beekeepers and author of Keeping Bees with a Smile, planted up to two acres of wildflowers per hive.

But if land is at a premium, shrubs and trees are the way to go. A single mature basswood tree can produce a gallon of honey in a good season. The area that you have to plant, of course, depends on the surrounding vegetation.

If you border a wilderness area with an abundance of flowering plants, you may not need to plant additional forage, but if your five acres are surrounded by fields under conventional row crops, you will want to provide your bees as much forage on your land as possible.

Plants for Bees: An ‘A’ for Bee Effort

Consider the amount of effort that you want to devote to planting trees and flowers. I was once driving to a conference and daydreaming about what I would do with my life if I had no mortgage bills to worry about. Planting trees for bees was the answer. I got so excited with this vision that I missed my exit.

Many types of trees, however, are relatively difficult to establish; in my location, basswood would require individual cages against deer for three years and irrigation during the first two. Some species are much less demanding, though: planting a stream bank of willows comes down to spreading a weed barrier and sticking cuttings through it.

Biannual Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare)
Bee-friendly Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) flower

Annuals, of course, require yearly replanting, but you can cut that effort in half by planting a mixture of annuals and biannuals. During the first year, the annual plant produces nectar while the biannual puts down roots and gets established. In the second year, the annual is gone and the biannual produces nectar. I gleaned this technique from Lazutin. His favorite mixture in Zone 4 consists of phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), the annual native to California, and viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a prodigiously productive biannual from Europe.

Many shrubs offer a ragged walkaway alternative: you plant a root cutting of sumac (Rhus glabra) in the spring and it forms a huge coppice that occupies all of the nearby sunny space.

Female plants yield lots of nectar, and males produce loads of pollen. According to John Harvey Lovell’s Honey Plants of North America, “strong colonies [working sumac] will bring in 20 pounds of honey during an ideal day, and will store from 40 to 100 pounds each.”

Sumac is very easy to propagate, is highly ornamental with its scarlet foliage and berry clusters, spreads easily, grows great on poor rocky soil and could not care less about drought. The berries come in large, easy-to-harvest clusters and are intensely sour due to the malic acid they contain. Native Americans used them for healing and making lemonade, and we do as well. The honey has a wonderful citrusy flavor with overtones of lemon zest.

The good effort-saving news about nectar plants is that doing nothing is often the best way to establish them. Stop mowing your lawn, and it will be a carpet of dandelions in only two years’ time. Don’t brush hog your unused land, and five years later you’ll have eight-foot tall sumacs.

In the meantime, you can plant perennial flowers. Many mints spread by their roots and establish wonderfully fragrant low-maintenance patches. Horsemint (Mentha longifolia), while not an American native, is much adored by bees, and just walking through it would qualify as aromatherapy.

California native annual phacelia flower
California native annual phacelia

Finally, while planting trees that will become important sources of nectar in 20 or 30 years may seem impractical, every time I walk through a 150-year-old basswood alley I feel thankful that economic calculus is not the only driving force behind human actions. If anything, we need to start early. Imagine if school students devoted 10 percent of their biology curriculum to planting trees.

Plant for Nectar Continuity

Bees can harvest very large amounts of honey when there is continuous nectar flow from early spring till autumn. If the hive’s 50,000-strong workforce has no nectar to gather, not only is the potential crop is lost, but reserves start to dwindle as idle workers consume them mid-season. To save honey from being eaten by bees, many beekeepers pull it before the dearth period (say, dry flowerless August) and give bees sugar syrup.

Salvia flowers
Sage (salvia spp.) is easy to grow and a boon to bees.

Another alternative would be to plant additional bee forage to cover the gaps in existing honey flow. Annuals can be planted several times at four- or six-week intervals, or you can select plants that bloom and re-seed several times during the season. Borage is one of these. If you have plentiful nectar available during the spring and early summer but few natural sources later in the season, plant late-blooming species such as asters.

Multipurpose Plants

Many agricultural crops are good nectar producers. In fact, honeybees contribute more to world agriculture through pollination than by their production of honey and wax.

If you have a diversified farm with a variety of crops, you are probably already providing sufficient bee forage, to the great benefit of your crops. Buckwheat, rape, mustard, corn, fruit trees, berry bushes, beans, cucurbits, herbs and forage crops are all sources of nectar and pollen. You can also consider honey plants when planting a green manure, a windbreak, or a future source of firewood and timber.

Plants for Bees: Native vs. Non-native

Today’s agriculture is cosmopolitan, and most crops are not native to America. There is no arguing that clover, alfalfa, sainfoin, viper’s bugloss and borage (all European natives) are powerful and beautiful honey plants.

Borage plant/herb flower is great for bees
Borage flowers (Borago officinalis) keep bees happy.

Whenever I choose plants specifically for honeybees, I try to give preference to species native to where I live. This way the plantings also benefit a myriad of native pollinator species, and you get to taste honeys that are unique to your locale.

In Michigan I would plant fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), in California sages (Salvia spp.) and phacelia, and in Pennsylvania tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) and American basswood (Tilia Americana). If I had a waterlogged spot along a stream in Missouri, I would plant buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

There is something about buttonbush that I can describe with only one word: Love. It fills the space with a sweet tropical scent; the white globes of ornate flowers shine like stars; the working of bees shows a glimpse of a world without war. And I come to understand Illarion Kullanda’s words: “Look at all the forests and orchards and meadows and fields overflowing with sweetness and joy! This sweetness and joy are yours without industry or expense. The only thing asked of you is that you freely take it without destroying the source.”

Dr. Leo Sharashkin lives on a forest homestead in the Ozarks in southern Missouri where he catches swarms, propagates nectar plants and keeps bees in a variety of horizontal hives. He is editor of Keeping Bees With a Smile: A Vision and Practice of Natural Apiculture by Fedor Lazutin—a comprehensive resource on natural laid-back beekeeping, available from Acres U.S.A. Two other books in the same series, Growing Vegetables With a Smile and Growing Fruit With a Smile, by Nikolay Kurdyumov, are also available from Acres U.S.A. Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives is also a great resource for those interested in natural beekeeping. For more information on horizontal hives, free hive plans and nectar plant information, visit Dr. Leo’s website. This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.