Every garden needs pollinators and bees are among the best. Without them, there would be limited flowers and even fewer fruits and vegetables. Since bees add more than a soothing buzzing sound, it's worth putting some thought into making your garden inviting for them.
Bees are basically looking for two things when they visit your plants:
- Nectar: Nectar is loaded with sugars and it’s a bee’s main source of energy.
- Pollen: Pollen provides a balanced diet of proteins and fats.
Many popular flower varieties are hybridized for features that are valued by the gardener, like disease resistance, flower size or color, and bigger, longer blooms. Unfortunately, hybridization has reduced the production of nectar and pollen and sometimes leaves the resulting plant completely sterile and useless to bees and other pollinators. Another factor is that the amount of nectar secreted is dependent on climate conditions such as temperature, humidity, and moisture in the soil.
General Gardening Advice
Here is some advice from the Xerces Society on what to plant to attract more bees to your garden.
- Don’t use pesticides. Most pesticides are not selective. You are killing off the beneficial bugs along with the pests. If you must use a pesticide, start with the least toxic one and follow the label instructions to the letter.
- Use local native plants. Research suggests native plants are more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers. They are also usually well adapted to your growing conditions and can thrive with minimum attention. In gardens, heirloom varieties of herbs and perennials can also provide good foraging.
- Choose several colors of flowers. Bees have good color vision to help them find flowers and the nectar and pollen they offer. Flower colors that particularly attract bees are blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow.
- Plant flowers in clumps. Flowers clustered into clumps of one species will attract more pollinators than individual plants scattered through the habitat patch. Where space allows, make the clumps four feet or more in diameter.
- Include flowers of different shapes. There are 4,000 different species of bees in North America, and they are all different sizes, have different tongue lengths, and will feed on different shaped flowers. Consequently, providing a range of flower shapes means more bees can benefit.
- Have a diversity of plants flowering all season. Most bee species are generalists, feeding on a range of plants through their life cycle. By having several plant species flowering at once, and a sequence of plants flowering through spring, summer, and fall, you can support a range of bee species that fly at different times of the season.
- Plant where bees will visit. Bees favor sunny spots over shade and need some shelter from strong winds.
Choosing the Right Flowers
To help bees and other pollinator insects like butterflies, you should provide a range of plants that will offer a succession of flowers, and thus pollen and nectar, through the whole growing season. Patches of foraging habitat can be created in many different locations, from backyards and school grounds to golf courses and city parks. Even a small area planted with good flowers will be beneficial for local bees because each patch will add to the mosaic of habitat available to bees and other pollinators.
Native plants are usually best for native bees and can be used in both wild areas and gardens. There are also many garden plants—particularly older, heirloom varieties of perennials and herbs—that are good sources of nectar or pollen. Together with native plants, these will make a garden attractive to both pollinators and people.
Below are lists of native plants, the other cultivated garden plants. They are not an exhaustive listing of suitable plants for all areas and you may have to research which species are local to your area, but they provide a good starting point. These lists can help you choose the right plants for your area. A field guide will tell you which species from these lists are local to you. Your local chapter of the Native Plant Society and native plant nurseries are worthwhile contacts for advice on choosing, obtaining, and caring for local plant species.
Native Plants for Bees
Native plants should be your first choice to help our native bees. Listed below are some plants that are good sources of nectar or pollen for bees. Both the common and Latin names of the plant genus are given.
What Is a Plant Genus?
A group of related plant species forms a genus. There are multiple criteria used for such classification, including distinctive shared characteristics and descending from a common species.
This list is not exhaustive; there are many other plants that are good for bees. Individual species have not been included because the list is meant to be useful across the U.S. Not all of these genera will have species in your local area, but they do represent plants that will grow in a variety of environments. Use a wildflower guide or contact local nurseries to find your local species.
- Aster Aster
- Beardtongue Penstemon
- Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia
- Caltrop Kallstroemia
- Creosote bush Larrea
- Currant Ribes
- Elder Sambucus
- Goldenrod Solidago
- Huckleberry Vaccinium
- Joe pye weed Eutrochium
- Lupine Lupinus
- Oregon grape Berberis
- Purple coneflower Echinacea
- Rabbitbrush Chrysothamnus
- Rhododendron Rhododendron
- Sage Salvia
- Scorpion-weed Phacelia
- Snowberry Symphoricarpos
- Stonecrop Sedum
- Sunflower Helianthus
- Wild buckwheat Eriogonum
- Wild-lilac Ceanothus
- Willow Salix
Garden Plants for Bees
Flower beds in gardens, business campuses, and parks are great places to have bee-friendly plants. Native plants will create a beautiful garden but some people prefer "garden" plants. Many garden plants are varieties of native plants, so this list only includes plants from other countries—"exotic" plants—and should be used as a supplement to the native plant list. As with the native plants, this list is not exhaustive.
Goulet, Benjamin E., et al. Hybridization in Plants: Old Ideas, New Techniques. Plant Physiology, vol. 173, no. 1, 2017, pp. 65–78. doi:10.1104/pp.16.01340
Morandin, Lora A., and Claire Kremen. Bee Preference for Native versus Exotic Plants in Restored Agricultural Hedgerows. Restoration Ecology, vol. 21, no. 1, 2013, pp. 26–32. doi:10.1111/j.1526-100X.2012.00876.x
The Different Types of Honey Bees. NC State Extension, 2016.