Planting flowers for bees so that they bloom sequentially throughout the growing season will ensure that both honey bees and wild pollinators have a consistent supply of both nectar and pollen to prepare for winter survival.
My field is full of dandelions. My crab apple trees are in full bloom and the varietal apple trees are beginning to open their blossoms. But I noticed that there aren’t too many native pollinators around, compared to other years. I’ve seen a handful of bumblebees, some hover flies, a few butterflies. But not the abundance of native pollinators that we’ve had in other years.
All the usual culprits of pollinator dearth don’t apply here. We’ve got 140 acres of native habitat. Our neighbors here in this little valley are all growing organically. We’ve had a cold wet spring though, so it could be that the pollinators are slow to wake up and get to work.
Bumblebees, for instance, don’t overwinter as a hive, as honey bees do. Instead, a solitary queen burrows into a safe hiding spot in leaf litter or just under the soil surface, and sleeps till spring, sometimes as long as nine months. When she emerges, she finds a nesting spot, usually in the ground, and starts to lay her eggs and build her colony. I did see a bumblebee looking for a nesting spot last week, in one of my raised garden beds, so maybe we’re just getting a late start.
Generally, native pollinators are threatened by:
- Lack of habitat
- Lack of nectar and pollen sources throughout the summer months
- Indiscriminate pesticide and herbicide use
- Mechanical injury to their nesting spot from lawnmowers, leaf blowers, chipper shredders or tractors.
- Sudden changes in the weather
Noticing the dearth in pollinators though, made me take a look at the nectar/pollen cycle here. It’s important when supporting both native pollinators and honey bees, to ensure that there are blooming flowers for the bees with pollen and nectar during the full season from Spring to Fall freeze, to support their brood population, and give them the best chance of being healthy going into winter.
I wondered if there was a period during the season when there was nothing in bloom to feed their growing populations. What I found was that while I had willow blossoms opening in early March to feed the wild bees, before the dandelions opened two weeks ago, we didn’t have any flowers for the bees ready, except a handful of grape hyacinth (Muscari). No wonder the bumblebees weren’t at their peak in time for my blooming fruit trees.
As I write this there is an abundance of flowers for bees with dandelions, wild violets, wild black cherry, hawthorn, pansies, wild strawberries, and my blooming fruit trees. Then the daisies, lilacs, brambles, and wild roses will be blooming before the St. John’s wort, motherwort, anise hyssop, and echinacea come on in mid July. This sequential bloom period is important not just for garden aesthetics, but also for pollinator health. Bees need a continuous supply of both pollen and nectar from flowers to maintain their health, raise their young, and prepare for winter survival.
Don’t forget, many flowers are also edible and can be used for medicine, and gourmet food!
While some commercial beekeepers get over the dearth of blossoming plants by artificially feeding sugar to their bees, sugar syrup is not an adequate substitute for flower nectar. It prevents starvation, but it doesn’t contribute to bee health in the same way that flower nectar does.
Bloom Times for Pollinator Flowers
Early spring: Willow, maple, pussy willow, crocus, grape hyacinth, snow drops, Honeyberry/haskap,
Late Spring: Dandelion, Cornelian Cherry, Crab Apple, Violet, Honeysuckle, Apple, Pear, strawberry, currants, gooseberries
Early summer: Daisy, Columbine, Late apples, Mustard family plants, Queen Anne’s Lace, Dauca, Chives, Onion, Oregon grape, hawthorn, borage, Perennial Poppy,
Mid summer: Yarrow, St. Johns Wort, Elder, Motherwort, Rose, Anise hyssop, Lupine, sweet pea, clover, self-heal, day lily, raspberry, blackberry, mallow, Annual Poppy,
Late summer: Bee Balm, Monarda, Oregano, Thyme, Dill, Squash, Cucumber, Melon, Tomato, Peppers, Mint, Lemon Balm, Echinacea, Thyme, Basil, broccoli, knap weed, Hollyhock, Marshmallow, Corn flower or Batchelor buttons, California poppy, Heather, Mullein
Early fall: Black Eyed Susan, Sunflower, Chrysanthemum, Calendula, Marigold, Golden rod, Heather,
Mid fall to killing frost: Sunflower, Calendula, Golden rod, Hellebore, Zinnia, Aster, Pineapple Sage,
Two things I’m changing this year to help wild pollinators and honey bees:
1) I have added spring flowers for the bees like crocus, snowdrops, and grape hyacinth to my fall bulb shopping list to help both my honey bees and those wild pollinators have a better chance at survival in the cold, damp days of early spring. That will help to provide nectar sources in early spring.
2) I’m changing some of my gardening practices by building more raised beds and leaving heavy mulch over the soil surface to inhibit weeds. While I’ve done that in previous years, it’s been slowly building the raised beds we needed, so some of my gardens have always been tilled — not good for bumblebees. In early May I saw a queen bumblebee laying eggs in one of those raised beds, under the straw mulch, so I’m hoping she found a safe nesting site.
Having more pollinators means getting higher yields in your vegetable garden, your orchard space, and your small fruit garden. These fruiting plants are the ones that rely on pollinators, with the exception of grapes which can be wind pollinated.
While it’s important to have a sequence of flowering and nectar bearing plants for pollinators throughout the growing season, you also want to avoid using herbicides and insecticides in your garden. Hibernating bumble bees are killed by herbicides, applied to kill weeds in lawns and gardens.
What to plant for sequential blooms for bees
If you are finding a lack of pollinators in your fruit trees this spring, these pollinator herbs are also companion plants for your vegetable garden, offering you herbs for tea, medicine, or culinary use, too. They pack a triple benefit! Also, check out these posts to get more ideas for flowers for bees.
For later in the season when the fruiting shrubs are ripening their summer fruit, pollinators still need nectar and pollen sources like echinacea, sunflowers, bee balm, and anise hyssop, which will bloom till frost. Annual sunflowers should be the old fashioned kind with abundant pollen, not the florist hybrids grown for the cut flower market. These sunflowers while being a source of nectar, lack the pollen necessary for raising brood.
If that doesn’t solve your pollinator problem you might consider investing in honey bees as I did. Our bees arrived this week, and they are settled in bringing back pale yellow pollen from those crab apple blossoms as I write. But while a honey bee hive might offer you an abundance of foraging bees, they are not as efficient in pollinating as bumblebees, which can forage earlier in the day and at lower temperatures than honey bees, so it’s important when you are planning your garden to make space for both honey bees and wild pollinators by planting flowers for bees.
Helping pollinators help YOU grow more food for your family, can make you a better gardener. But it goes deeper than that. There is a human-creature relationship that connects you to your land and garden in a profound, almost spiritual way. Anyone who has felt the tickle of a bumble bee’s wings in the palm of their hand, when they accidentally picked a flower that a bumblebee was sipping from, will understand that providing for pollinators is more than just getting more fruit for you. It’s about treasuring life and ensuring that life continues for future generations, both theirs and ours.