Bee Foraging: Plants and Flowers Beneficial for Bees

Bee foraging is the process of collecting nectar and pollen from flowering plants to feed and nourish themselves and the rest of the colony. Bees are essential pollinators for many crops, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other plants that we rely on for food and medicine. Bees also contribute to the biodiversity and beauty of our environment by helping plants reproduce and flourish. However, bees face many threats and challenges, such as habitat loss, pesticides, diseases, and predators. Their numbers have been declining rapidly in recent years, posing a serious risk to our food security and ecosystem health. One of the ways we can help bees is by planting bee-friendly plants and flowers in our garden or landscape. These are plants and flowers that provide a rich and diverse supply of nectar and pollen for bees throughout the year, and that are attractive and accessible to them.

Key takeaways:

  • Bee foraging is the process of collecting nectar and pollen from flowering plants to feed and nourish themselves and the rest of the colony.
  • Bees have different foraging habits and preferences depending on the species, season, and availability of food sources.
  • Bees can see the colour purple more clearly than any other colour, and some of the best bee plants, such as lavender, alliums, buddleia and catmint, have purple flowers.
  • Planting a variety of single, open flowers that bloom from late winter to autumn can provide a wealth of nectar and pollen for a wide range of bee species.
  • Planting bee-friendly plants and flowers can help bees thrive, improve crop pollination, enhance biodiversity, and beautify your garden or landscape.

Bee Foraging

How Do Bees Forage?

Bees forage by flying from flower to flower, collecting nectar and pollen with their mouthparts and legs. Nectar is a sugary liquid that provides energy for bees, while pollen is a protein-rich powder that provides nutrients for bees and their larvae. Bees store nectar and pollen in special sacs or baskets on their bodies, and bring them back to the hive, where they are processed into honey and bee bread. Diverse Foraging is very beneficial for the health of a hive.

Bees communicate with each other to find the best food sources, using a complex system of signals, such as dances, sounds, and scents. For example, the honey bee performs a waggle dance to indicate the direction and distance of a rich nectar source, and emits a buzzing sound to alert other bees to a good flower. Bees also mark flowers with their scent glands, to let other bees know that they have visited them.

Bees have different foraging habits and preferences depending on the species, season, and availability of food sources. Some bees are generalists, meaning that they can collect nectar and pollen from a wide range of plants and flowers. These bees are called polylectic, and they include honey bees, bumblebees, and some solitary bees. Other bees are specialists, meaning that they can only collect nectar and pollen from a specific group of plants and flowers. These bees are called oligolectic, and they include mason bees, leafcutter bees, and some solitary bees. Some bees are even more specialized, meaning that they can only collect nectar and pollen from a single species of plant or flower. These bees are called monolectic, and they include squash bees, sunflower bees, and some solitary bees.

Some examples of bee species that exhibit each type of foraging habit and preference are:

  • Polylectic: Honey bee (Apis mellifera), bumblebee (Bombus spp.), carpenter bee (Xylocopa spp.), mining bee (Andrena spp.), sweat bee (Halictus spp.)
  • Oligolectic: Mason bee (Osmia spp.), leafcutter bee (Megachile spp.), blueberry bee (Habropoda laboriosa), cactus bee (Diadasia spp.), long-horned bee (Eucera spp.)
  • Monolectic: Squash bee (Peponapis spp.), sunflower bee (Svastra spp.), orchid bee (Euglossa spp.), fig bee (Blastophaga spp.), alfalfa leafcutter bee (Megachile rotundata)

Bees have complex foraging patterns that can be difficult to study due to their small body size and the long distances they fly. However, scientists have developed methods such as tracking foraging patterns with radar to gain insights into these behaviors.

What Types of Plants and Flowers Are Beneficial for Bees?

There are many types of plants and flowers that are beneficial for bees, providing them with a rich and diverse supply of nectar and pollen throughout the year. Some of the main categories of plants and flowers that bees are known to enjoy are:

    • Garden plants: These are plants and flowers that are commonly grown in gardens, such as annuals, perennials, bulbs, and grasses. Some examples of garden plants that are beneficial for bees are:
      • Lavender (Lavandula spp.): This is a perennial plant that has fragrant purple flowers that bloom from late spring to early autumn. Lavender is one of the best plants for bees, as it attracts a wide range of bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, mason bees, and leafcutter bees. Lavender also provides a high-quality nectar that bees use to make a delicious honey.
      • Allium (Allium spp.): This is a bulb plant that has spherical clusters of purple, pink, white, or yellow flowers that bloom from late spring to early summer. Allium is another excellent plant for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, mining bees, and sweat bees. Allium also provides a large amount of pollen that bees use to feed their larvae.
      • Sunflower (Helianthus spp.): This is an annual plant that has large, bright yellow flowers that bloom from late summer to early autumn. Sunflower is a favourite plant for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, sunflower bees, and long-horned bees. Sunflower also provides a generous amount of nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread.
      • Cosmos (Cosmos spp.): This is an annual plant that has daisy-like flowers that come in various colours, such as pink, white, red, or orange. Cosmos is a wonderful plant for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, and mining bees. Cosmos also provides a steady source of nectar and pollen that bees use to sustain themselves and their colony.

Bee Foraging

  • Herbs: These are plants that have aromatic leaves, stems, or flowers that are used for culinary, medicinal, or cosmetic purposes. Herbs are also great sources of nectar and pollen for bees, especially in summer, when they are in full bloom. Some examples of herbs that are beneficial for bees are:
    • Mint (Mentha spp.): This is a perennial herb that has small, purple, pink, or white flowers that bloom from mid to late summer. Mint is a refreshing herb for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, leafcutter bees, and sweat bees. Mint also provides a minty nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread, and that also has a cooling effect on their bodies.
    • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): This is a perennial herb that has needle-like leaves and blue flowers that bloom from late winter to early spring. Rosemary is a stimulating herb for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, mason bees, and mining bees. Rosemary also provides a aromatic nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread, and that also has a antiseptic and antioxidant properties.
    • Thyme (Thymus spp.): This is a perennial herb that has tiny, green leaves and pink, purple, or white flowers that bloom from late spring to early summer. Thyme is a medicinal herb for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, mining bees, and sweat bees. Thyme also provides a savory nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread, and that also has a antibacterial and antifungal properties.
    • Basil (Ocimum spp.): This is an annual herb that has oval, green leaves and white, purple, or pink flowers that bloom from mid to late summer. Basil is a culinary herb for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, and leafcutter bees. Basil also provides a spicy nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread, and that also has a flavourful and nutritious value.
  • Trees:  Both Trees and Shrugs are important sources of nectar and pollen for bees, especially in early spring, when other flowers are scarce. Some examples of trees that are beneficial for bees are:
    • Willow (Salix spp.): This is a deciduous tree that has catkins, which are cylindrical clusters of tiny flowers that come in various colours, such as yellow, green, or red. Willow is a vital tree for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, mason bees, and mining bees. Willow also provides a high-quality nectar and pollen that bees use to start their spring foraging and breeding.
    • Cherry (Prunus spp.): This is a deciduous tree that has beautiful white or pink flowers that bloom in early spring. Cherry is a popular tree for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, orchard bees, and mining bees. Cherry also provides a sweet nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread.
    • Apple (Malus spp.): This is a deciduous tree that has fragrant white or pink flowers that bloom in late spring. Apple is a beneficial tree for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, orchard bees, and mason bees. Apple also provides a rich nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread, and that also helps pollinate the apple fruits.
    • Lime (Tilia spp.): This is a deciduous tree that has small, yellowish-green flowers that bloom in early summer. Lime is a valuable tree for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, leafcutter bees, and mining bees. Lime also provides a plentiful nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread, and that also has a pleasant aroma and flavour.
  • Shrubs: Shrubs are also reliable sources of nectar and pollen for bees, especially in late summer and autumn, when other flowers are fading. Some examples of shrubs that are beneficial for bees are:
    • Buddleia (Buddleja spp.): This is a deciduous shrub that has long, cone-shaped clusters of purple, pink, white, or yellow flowers that bloom from late summer to early autumn. Buddleia is also known as the butterfly bush, but it is also a magnet for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, and mining bees. Buddleia also provides a abundant nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread, and that also has a sweet and fruity aroma.
    • Heather (Calluna spp.): This is an evergreen shrub that has small, pink, purple, or white flowers that bloom from late summer to early winter. Heather is also known as the ling, but it is also a favourite for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, mining bees, and sweat bees. Heather also provides a plentiful nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread, and that also has a distinctive and rich flavour.
    • Hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.): This is a deciduous shrub that has large, round clusters of blue, pink, white, or green flowers that bloom from late spring to early autumn. Hydrangea is also known as the hortensia, but it is also a attraction for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, and leafcutter bees. Hydrangea also provides a moderate nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread, and that also has a colourful and elegant appearance.
    • Ceanothus (Ceanothus spp.): This is an evergreen shrub that has small, blue, purple, or white flowers that bloom from late spring to early summer. Ceanothus is also known as the California lilac, but it is also a delight for bees, as it attracts many bee species, such as honey bees, bumblebees, mason bees, and mining bees. Ceanothus also provides a high-quality nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey and bee bread, and that also has a fragrant and soothing scent.

In addition to garden plants, trees, herbs, and shrubs, consider incorporating a variety of wildflowers and meadows into your landscape to create diverse bee habitats. Learn more about this in our guide on Creating habitats with wildflowers and meadows. These are just some of the types and examples of plants and flowers that are beneficial for bees. There are many more plants and flowers that bees love, some bees are even specialized for rare Plants , you can find them in various sources, such as books, websites, or nurseries.  For a deep dive into the topic you should read our seasonal flower guide for bee nutrition.

Bee Foraging

How to Grow Plants and Flowers for Bees

Growing plants and flowers for bees in your garden or landscape is not only a rewarding and enjoyable activity, but also a meaningful and helpful one. By growing plants and flowers for bees, you are providing them with a vital food source, and also helping them pollinate other plants and flowers, which in turn benefits you and the environment.

However, growing plants and flowers for bees is not as simple as just planting any plant or flower that you like. You need to consider some factors and follow some guidelines to ensure that you are growing plants and flowers that are suitable and beneficial for bees, and that you are doing so in a safe and sustainable way.

Here are some tips and advice on how to grow plants and flowers for bees in your garden or landscape:

  • Choose the right location: You need to choose a location that is sunny, sheltered, and well-drained for your plants and flowers. Bees prefer to forage in sunny areas, as they are more active and efficient in warm and bright conditions. Bees also prefer to forage in sheltered areas, as they are more protected from strong winds, rain, and predators. Bees also prefer to forage in well-drained areas, as they are more comfortable and healthy in dry and clean conditions.
  • Choose the right soil: You need to choose a soil that is fertile, loose, and rich in organic matter for your plants and flowers. Bees prefer to forage in fertile soil, as it supports the growth and health of the plants and flowers that they feed on. Bees also prefer to forage in loose soil, as it allows the roots of the plants and flowers to breathe and absorb water and nutrients. Bees also prefer to forage in soil that is rich in organic matter, as it provides the plants and flowers with natural fertilizers and pest control.
  • Choose the right water: You need to choose a water that is clean, fresh, and accessible for your plants and flowers. Bees prefer to forage in water that is clean, as it prevents the spread of diseases and contaminants that can harm them and the plants and flowers that they feed on. Bees also prefer to forage in water that is fresh, as it replenishes their thirst and energy levels. Bees also prefer to forage in water that is accessible, as it saves them time and effort from flying too far or too high to find it.
  • Choose the right plants and flowers: You need to choose plants and flowers that are native, diverse, and continuous for your garden or landscape. Bees prefer to forage on plants and flowers that are native, as they are more adapted and compatible to the local climate, soil, and wildlife. Bees also prefer to forage on plants and flowers that are diverse, as they provide them with a variety of nectar and pollen that meet their different nutritional and seasonal needs. Bees also prefer to forage on plants and flowers that are continuous, as they provide them with a steady and reliable food source throughout the year.

Threats and Challenges in Breeding Honey Bees

How to Protect and Support Bees in Your Garden or Landscape

Growing plants and flowers for bees in your garden or landscape is not enough to help bees. You also need to protect and support bees in your garden or landscape, by creating a safe and comfortable habitat for them, and by avoiding or minimizing the use of harmful substances and practices that can endanger them.

Here are some tips and advice on how to protect and support bees in your garden or landscape:

  • Avoid or minimize the use of pesticides and toxic plants: Pesticides and toxic plants are substances that can harm or kill bees, either directly, by poisoning them, or indirectly, by contaminating their food sources or habitats1. Therefore, you should avoid or minimize the use of pesticides and toxic plants in your garden or landscape, and opt for natural or organic alternatives, such as companion planting, mulching, or biological control2. Some examples of toxic plants that you should avoid or limit for bees are: rhododendron, azalea, oleander, foxglove, and larkspur.
  • Provide water sources: Water is essential for bees, as they need it to drink, cool down, and dilute their honey. However, water can be scarce or inaccessible for bees, especially in hot and dry seasons or areas. Therefore, you should provide water sources for bees in your garden or landscape, such as birdbaths, ponds, fountains, or shallow dishes. You should also add some stones, pebbles, or twigs to the water sources, to provide landing and resting spots for bees, and to prevent them from drowning.
  • Create nesting habitats: Nesting habitats are places where bees live, breed, and store their food. However, nesting habitats can be rare or unsuitable for bees, especially in urban and suburban areas, where natural habitats are destroyed or disturbed by human activities. Therefore, you should create nesting habitats for bees in your garden or landscape, such as bee houses, bee hotels, or bee boxes. These are artificial structures that provide cavities, tubes, or holes for bees to nest in. You should also leave some areas of your garden or landscape undisturbed, such as piles of leaves, twigs, or stones, or patches of bare soil, for bees to dig or burrow in.
  • Suggest ways to attract and encourage more bees to visit and stay in your garden or landscape, such as planting bee-friendly plants and flowers, providing bee houses, and joining bee conservation initiatives.

Conclusion

Bees are amazing and important creatures that play a vital role in our food production and ecosystem health. However, bees are also facing many threats and challenges, such as habitat loss, pesticides, diseases, and predators, that are causing their numbers to decline rapidly. One of the ways we can help bees is by planting bee-friendly plants and flowers in our garden and thus create bee-friendly landscapes. These are plants and flowers that provide a rich and diverse supply of nectar and pollen for bees throughout the year, and that are attractive and accessible to them.

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