Want Honey? Open a grocery store for the bees.


Like most species on this earth, bees love flowers, and, it would be safe to say that flowers love bees; after all, who else pays such intimate attention to them? Since humans love the products which bees freely give us, it only stands to reason that we would do whatever it takes to encourage them.

However, how do we encourage bees to multiply to stay around to grace our lives? Why do bees seem to like some flowers and not others? Is it a colour, a shape, a fragrance or does it matter?

Honey has been used as a sweetener for thousands of years; however, most people never contemplate why the bee would go to all the trouble to make honey in the first place. After all, this fascinating little creature makes 154 trips gathering nectar just for 1 (one) teaspoon of honey!

First and foremost honey is for the bees – literally - no honey no bees. Honey is their food stuff. So, how does that relate to flowers? Well, if you had to feed thousands of people, you’d want a very large grocery store with lots of variety. Same with bees… so, forget the little clump of marigolds by the driveway or the pot of hanging impatience or geraniums. Instead, incorporate them into a huge bouquet of fragrant blooms… think of a meadow and flowers with smells which you can inhale and get intoxicated by!

Bees are attracted to colour and fragrance. If you find the flower has a pleasant fragrance, likely, so will the bee. Unfortunately, most hybrid flowers won’t attract bees – many hybrids have been breed for looks only… they look interesting, but don’t have what it takes. Think of the gorgeous new roses – many simply have no smell. It's the old fashioned farm rose that the bees love.

Just like us, bees need groceries all season long, so, plant flowers which bloom in different months. Sounds daunting but really is quite simple with a little research into bloom times. In spring… plants like snow drops, grape hyacinth and forget-me-nots, are up. These are followed by perennial bachelor buttons, lilacs, spirea, apple, cherry and elderberry. Then comes borage and other herbs, cosmos, coreopsis, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries etc. In fall, yellow clematis, globe thistle, broccoli and mustard flowers, asters, zinnias etc. You get the wonderful display of blooms, bees get the groceries.

Some pollinators like tubular flowers – think of a butterfly, a butterfly moth or hummingbird with their long thin tongues sticking down a tube like a lilac or a honeysuckle. Bee’s tongues are too short.

Wild bees seem to like what I call "upside down" flowers, like monkshood and golden clematis. The flower has no real tube yet the insect has to crawl inside the flower to get what it wants.

Then there are honey bees, which like a landing platform. Thus, the flowers they tend to like are open blooms where they have a runway with the pollen bearing flower parts up where they can get them. So, think of a cosmos or a poppy, a dandelion, a coreopsis, echinacea – all flat topped. Or sedum and spirea which has multiple tiny flowers in a head – again, something for the bee to land on, it lands on one tiny flower while visiting the other ones.

You’d think it didn’t matter to the bee, but it seems to. I have a large clump of monkshood and the wild bees love it – but not my honey bees. I have a gorgeous golden clematis (Clematis tangutica) – which has millions of yellow blooms on it from mid summer to frost – however, only when there are less of the other flowers do I see honey bees partaking.

Colour? Well, apparently, from one source, honey bees can’t see red. But, they do like bright white(daisy), yellow (black-eyed susan) and blue flowers (forget me not or flax) and can see ultraviolet.

Other than lots of fragrant flowers in white, yellow, blue and ultraviolet, bees need water. Water can come from a creek. I've seen bees drink from a drop of rain on a leaf or by standing on the wet rock at my water fountain.

Bees also get lots of pollen from trees such as mountain ash, willow, saskatoons, poplar, highbush cranberry and black elderberry (edible type) and they love alfalfa. Wild flowers include Joe Pye Weed (grows all over our area), wild white violet (grows on my lawn), wild berries, kinnikinnick, burdock or thistle to name a few.

Following is a partial list of flowers, some I grow some I don’t. Some I grow for the wild bees, some for my honey bees and all because I like them. I have acquired seed and/or plants from local greenhouses and/or mail-order companies: borage (blue flowered herb), California poppy (orange), catnip, tansy, cosmos, asters, zinnia, monarda (bee balm), globe thistle (fall flower), lavender (grow in a pot to winter inside), calendula, nasturtiums, basil, thyme, sage, chives, coriander, daisies (wild and tame), coreopsis, delphinium, alfalfa, red clover (more wild bees), white clover (honey bees), lemon balm, mint, blueberry, dandelion, goldenrod (late summer), maples, poplar, willow, pine, raspberry, currant, gooseberry, strawberry, potatoe, cucumber, fruit trees, crocuses, snowdrops, clematis, marigolds, echinacea, spiderwort, rudbeckia, blue flags (iris), sweet William, highbush cranberry.

These flowers are suggestions, a starting point. Play around, plant a variety of flowers, leave exposed dirt for the wild bees, and enjoy your living bouquet. The rewards are immense and the bees will thank you!

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