Whether you are a beekeeper, gardener, property owner or just want to help our struggling bees, planting or growing flowers for bees is one of the best things that you can do to help them. As a bonus, most of the flowers I discuss here are great flowers for butterflies as well.
If you have paid any attention to the news the past few years, you know the bees are in trouble. Why not plant some flowers to help save the bees?
Learn which flowers to plant to not only beautify your property but to feed the bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators.
Buying and Growing Flowers for Bees
Before you jump into buying or growing flowers for the bees, a word of caution is in order.
Pesticides, especially neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics) on supposedly bee-friendly plants and flowers, will harm or kill bees instead of helping them. Neonic pesticides are watered in, taken up by the plant and later show up in the pollen.
The word is out that neonics have been linked to massive bee die-offs. Outdoor use of neonics has been banned in the European Union to protect bees. Despite retailers making efforts to sell plants without neonicotinoid pesticides, many still do.
Be aware that some seeds are also treated with neonics. This toxin has been found in the pollen of plants grown from treated seeds. When you are shopping for seeds, look for seeds that are labeled organic or untreated.
Favorite Flowers for Bees and Butterflies that will Grow Almost Anywhere
These plants are hardy and will grow in almost any climate and will help bees and other pollinators thrive. Bees and beekeepers alike will thank you!
So here is a list of beneficial flowers for bees that will attract them to your garden or property. This list is by no means all-inclusive but are some of the best for helping out the bees.
Russian Sage – Perovskia atriplicifolia. Hardy Perennial Flowers for Bees
Russian sage is an extremely hardy perennial plant and a favorite of honeybees and native bees as well. It’s an ideal plant for a pollinator garden, blooming throughout the summer. The foliage is silvery gray, and flowers are a lavender blue or purple color.
The plant is not really from Russia; it is native to southwest and central Asia. It is also not a sage, but a member of the mint family. Russian sage thrives in full sun, dry soil, and both hot and very cold climates. Another bonus is that deer and rabbits don’t eat the plant.
Russian Sage can be grown from seed but getting seeds to germinate can be challenging. Most nurseries sell Russian Sage, which can also be propagated from cuttings in late spring or early summer.
Russian Sage does well in alkaline soil and is pest free. Planting in full sun is recommended. Seeds available here. USDA zones 4-9.
Borage – Borago officinalis. One of the Best Nectar Producers.
When considering flowers for bees, Borage should be near the top of your list. This beautiful annual plant grows well throughout North America. Borage prefers fertile soil, plenty of sunshine, and requires average soil moisture.
Borage blooms in the spring and summer but will continue to yield nectar when the weather turns chilly. Stagger seeding times for longer blooming times. Borage produces abundant sugar-rich nectar that makes for dark-colored honey. Borage is an annual, but readily self-seeds. You probably won’t have to worry about doing anything to get it to come up every year.
Borage has a deep taproot and does better started outdoors. Start seeds outdoors a month before the last frost date in 1/2 inch of soil or compost. Plant 3 or 4 seeds in a group, 15″ apart and then thin once plants are 2″ tall. Borage seeds available here.
Penstemon (Beardtounges) – Penstemon, Gorgeous Flowers for Bees, Hummingbirds and Butterflies
The approximately 250 varieties of penstemon are very attractive to bees that feed on its nectar and pollen. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and hummingbird moths also regularly visit penstemon flowers to feed. These flowers are native and grow throughout North America.
Common flower colors for penstemon are white, blue, pink, purple, and red. Penstemons prefer dry or well-drained, nutrient-poor soil and full sun. They are very drought resistant once established.
Flowering times range from March through August, depending on the variety and the climate. In the eastern U.S., recommended varieties are smooth penstemon and large-flowered penstemon. In the west, try planting Palmer’s penstemon, Eaton Penstemon, or Rocky Mountain penstemon. USDA zones 3-9.
Note: Penstemon seed for colder climates (zone 5 and below) require cold stratification to germinate properly.
Cold Stratification means the seed needs a period of cold and moisture before it will germinate. You can do this by planting outdoors in the fall. Or, you can also keep the seed in the refrigerator in some moist sand or a folded in a damp paper towel in a Ziplock type bag for at least 4 to 5 weeks before germinating.
Aster – Symphyotrichum, Colorful Flowers that can Survive Frost and Freeze
There are over 200 species of asters, including annuals, perennials, biennials, and subshrubs (a perennial plant having woody stems). Asters are in the daisy family and are native to the United States.
Vibrant blue and purple are predominant colors, but there are also white, pink, and red varieties. Asters prefer sun to partial shade (in hotter climates) and need well-drained soil. You frequently find aster’s growing on rocky ground and roadsides in the fall.
Asters are vital late-season flowers for bees; they are among the last food sources for the bees before winter. New England Aster is native to almost every area in the continental U.S., east of the Rocky Mountains. Prairie Aster grows throughout most of the western United States.USDA zones 4-8.
Asters are easily started from seed indoors or outside after the last frost. Plant seeds 3″ apart and cover with 1/8″ of soil and keep moist. After plants emerge, thin to 12″ apart.
Prairie aster seed and other cold region aster seeds may benefit from cold stratification.
Catmint – Nepeta mussinii, “Thrives on Neglect”
Catmint is a perennial mint that has a long average blooming season of May through September. It is a favorite source of pollen and nectar for bees and other pollinators. Some say catmint, “Thrives on neglect.” It is easy to grow, hardy, and does well in full sun or partial shade.
Unlike some other mints, catmint tolerates dry soil and is drought resistant once it is established. Catmint does not require fertile soil and will grow in sandy, loamy, and clay soil. Catmint seed should be cold stratified before planting. Get our favorite Cat mint seeds here. USDA zones 4-8.
Purple Prairie Clover– Dalea purpurea, An Excellent Native Legume for Bees.
The Purple Prairie Clover is a perennial native across much of the United States. Honeybees have been reported to all but ignore all other food sources where Prairie Clover is abundant.
These long-blooming plants have beautiful, bright, almost florescent purple blooms that are a high-value food source for bees. Purple prairie clover is easily grown from seed in sand, loam, and clay. It prefers average to dry moisture content and sunny locations. Get purple prairie clover seeds here.
Prairie clover seed requires fall planting or cold stratification. Plant seed outdoors after last frost and cover with only a dusting of soil. Keep moist until germination, which occurs in 2 to 4 weeks. Plant in full sun.
In addition to honeybees and bumblebees, Prairie Clover is host to several varieties of polyester bees (specialist bees that only feed on a few or even one family or genus of plants). Many species of butterflies also feed on the nectar of the Prairie Clover. Much of the historical habitat of the Prairie Clover has been lost to development.
Lambs Ear – Stachys Byzantina Lanata, Hard to find a Better Bee Plant.
Where I live, I can hardly find a lamb’s ear in bloom that isn’t covered with bees. Honeybees seem to prefer it over many other food sources.
As the name suggests, the leaves of this plant are shaped like a lamb’s ear and are velvety soft. Pink to purple colored flowers grow on long spikes. There is a nonflowering variety of lamb’s ear, so make sure you get the flowering type. You can start lamb’s ear indoors from seed, but make sure to do it 8-10 weeks before the last frost. The seeds take about a month to germinate. Get our favorite Lamb’s ear seeds here.
Lamb’s ear likes well-drained soil with a fair amount of organic matter. It can be grown in full sun but does better with partial shade in hotter climates. You can propagate lamb’s ear by division, and it also self seeds well. USDA zones 4-8.
Chicory – Cichorium intybus, One of My Favorite Flowers for Bees
Chicory is one of my favorite flowers for bees. It’s one of the bees’ favorite flowers also. The plant produces gorgeous blue flowers lasting only a day. Flowers begin opening at sunrise, and bees arrive to work them by late morning.
Blooms start closing by early afternoon but will remain open longer if the weather is overcast. New flowers appear daily. Chicory is valuable to bees because it continues this cycle for March through October in much of the country.
Chicory offers itself to the bees when other food sources are scarce. Bees and other pollinators visit the fleeting flowers for their nectar (which produces yellow honey with a slight coffee flavor) and their abundant white pollen.
Chicory can grow in the harshest of conditions but does much better if grown in moderately fertile, well-drained soil, full sun or partial shade.
Plant chicory by breaking up the ground to at least 8″ deep and mix in compost. Plant seeds about 1 1/2 feet apart for perennial growth and cover seed with 1/4″ of soil. Chicory doesn’t do well in hard clay soil. If starting seed indoors, start them six to eight weeks prior to yout last frost date. Water plants once or twice a week, depending on conditions. Zones 3-9.
Oregano – Oregano vulgare, A Great Herb for Bees.
A well-known commercial beekeeper I follow says that oregano is his favorite plant to grow for bees. Oregano truly is a bee magnet! It is probably so popular with the bees because its nectar has one of the highest sugar concentrations of any plant, up to 76%!
In warmer climates, oregano is a perennial. It is pest free due to the pungent oils that repel insects. It will also grow in colder climates as an annual.
Oregano does well in well-drained, sandy to loamy soil. Consider amending soil with sand and compost before planting outside, after your last frost date. Start seeds 8 weeks before the last frost. Buy Oregano seeds here.
Plant in full sun, in well-drained soil, 8″ to 10″ apart. Oregano doesn’t like wet soil and should only be watered after the soil is thoroughly dry to the touch.
Cosmos – Cosmos bipinnatus, Elegant and Colorful Flowers for Bees
These colorful summer and fall-blooming annuals are easy to grow, drought-tolerant, and aren’t picky about soil conditions. However, they can be susceptible to gray mold, powdery mildew, and aphids. Cosmos are members of the sunflower family and attract a variety of bees and butterflies.
Cosmos come in a variety of colors, including white, pink, purple, orange, yellow, and red. You should start seeds indoors, four to six weeks before the last frost. To sow outdoors, plant to 1/4″ after the last frost date. Cosmos does not require any special soil preparation, and it’s best to avoid overly fertile soil. Water so the soil is moist, but not wet. Grab Cosmos seeds here.
Anise Hyssop – Agastache foeniculum. Supercharged Flowers for Bees.
Where found, Anise Hyssop is one of the most bee attractive plants. Beekeepers in the 1800s claimed that one acre of Anise Hyssop could support 100 colonies of bees! This plant is a member of the mint family, not truely hyssop. Bees and butterflies love the fragrant violet and blue-violet flowers, with their high sugar content nectar.
Anise Hyssop is hardy and deer resistant. It prefers average to dry, well-drained soil, and blooms from summer to the first frost. You can start anise hyssop from seed in early spring. Grab the Anise Hyssop seeds we like here. Anise hyssop seeds need cold stratification.
Seeds need light to germinate so cover with a very thin layer of soil. Plant outside, 18″ apart after the last frost. Anise Hyssop tolerates a wide variety of soil conditions. You can also divide and transfer plants when mature. Perennial in zones 4-9.
Salvia – Salvia spp. A Sage for Bees
Salvia, also referred to as sage (not the same as sagebrush), are colorful and popular pollinator attractors that are beneficial to every bee garden.
A member of the mint family, there are hundreds of varieties of salvia/sage. Most salvias are better suited for warm and hot climates (zones 8-10), but there are several that will thrive in colder zones. A few salvias adapted to colder zones would be May Night Sage (Salvia nemorosa), for zones 4-8, and Purple Rain Salvia (Salvia verticillata), for zones 3-9. Use a cold stratification treatment for these cold zone varieties.
Salvia generally does best in full sun or partial shade, with average to dry moisture and well-drained soil. Use only a moderate amount of fertilizer. Sow directly into the soil after the last frost, or start indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost. Seeds need light to germinate so cover only with a thin layer of soil. Research the specific needs of the salvia that you choose.
Goldenrod – Solidago. Vital Fall Flowers for Bees
One of the most essential late-season flowers for bees in the fall is the goldenrod. Fall for bees is the last chance to stock their hives with resources for the upcoming long winter. An additional challenge for the bees is the reduced number of plants providing nectar and pollen in the late fall.
Goldenrod is hardy and aggressive but is considered an invasive species in some areas.
A few species of goldenrod commonly available at native nurseries include the stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida), showy goldenrod (Solidago Speciosa), and Riddell’s goldenrod (Solidago riddelli). Buy stiff goldenrod seeds here.
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is a hearty variety of goldenrod found throughout most of North America. Old Field Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) grows in zones 4-8 and thrives in dry, rocky and clay soil, where not much else will grow. Get Canada Goldenrod seeds here.
Goldenrod seed needs to be cold stratified for 4 to 5 weeks before germinating.
Sunflower – Helianthus annuus. A Classic Bee Flower that Follows the Sun
Sunflowers are excellent flowers for bees and a stand-out addition to the garden as well. They attract a diversity of many other insects as well, such as pollen feeding beetles, ladybugs, and butterflies.
Several pest species may also be tempted to sunflowers, including flies, aphids, wasps, slugs, and more. Birds, mice squirrels, bats, and chipmunks might also visit your sunflowers.
Sunflowers come in many varieties, but not all attract bees equally well. You will want to make sure you steer clear of pollenless and double petal ornamental sunflowers.
The lemon queen variety has a reputation for attracting large numbers of bees. We planted the mammoth variety last year; I was not impressed with the number of bees it attracted. I will be trying out lemon queens next season.
Sunflowers do best when directly planted outdoors. Plant seeds in a trench 1″ to 2″ deep and 6″ apart after the last frost. Thin to 2 feet apart after plants come up. If you have a short growing season, you can safely sow seeds outdoors two weeks prior to your last frost date.
Planting tips – Flowers throughout the season
Bees need a constant source of pollen and nectar from the time they become active in the spring until they hole up in the hive for the winter. In the warmest climates, bees may even be active all winter or most of the winter.
Provide different types of plants so that some bloom in spring, some in summer, and some in the fall. You can further help overlap blooming by succession planting. Instead of planting a particular flower all at once, start some plants, then more in two weeks, and perhaps again in another two weeks.
Plant the Same Flowers Together
I was surprised to learn that when bees forage, they are faithful to only a single flower species per trip. During a single foraging trip, the bee may visit over 100 flowers.
To make foraging trips more efficient for the bees, so they expend minimum energy to collect maximum food, plant flowers of the same type together, not spread out.
Enjoy the Bees!
Thanks for planting some flowers for the bees and other pollinators! Enjoy watching the native bees, honeybees, bumblebees, hummingbirds, and butterflies feast on the fruits of your labor!
Feel free to ask questions or list your own favorite bee flowers below in the comments below.
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