8 Culinary Herbs For Bees To Feast On

Flowering herbs are some of the honeybees favorite forage.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Kristina Mercedes Urquhart

Honeybees are herbs are like peas and carrots—they just go together. For the honeybee, herbs offer potent nutritional value from the plant’s pollen, as well as a delicious source of nectar with which to make honey. For the gardener, herbs are almost always easy to grow, almost always neglect- and drought-tolerant, and almost always grow anywhere! And if you let your herbs flower, your honeybees will work diligently to pollinate them properly, ensuring strong plants year after year, especially if you grow perennial herbs. If you’re both a gardener and a beekeeper, you simply can’t go wrong growing these eight herbs.

1. Anise Hyssop

This easy, edible perennial herb is a favorite of honeybees. The flowers and leaves can be cut and dried for teas—after you’ve left some for your bee friends, of course—and used in the place of traditional mints. Anise hyssop is, after all, the first of herb in the mint family that we’ll look at in this list. This fragrant herb is easy to grow and maintain, making it a no-brainer for many gardeners. It looks great as a border plant, is easy to grow from seed or planted as a start, and will thrive in dry conditions.

2. Basil

Basil is the quintessential culinary herb. From salads to fruit toppings, and of course, marinara sauces and pizza toppings, basil is versatile in the kitchen and beloved by pollinators in the garden. Basil craves heat when growing, so in most parts of the country, this plant will be considered an annual. It’s easy to start from seed at home and is equally easy to find at plant sales or farmers markets in the spring. It grows vigorously with heat and plenty of water and is a happy companion plant for a variety of other garden vegetables and herbs, especially tomatoes.

3. Lavender

Ah, lavender. My association with this sweet, soothing herb is so strong, just saying the name calms my nerves. Lavender has potent healing properties when the dainty purple buds are harvested or essential oils are extracted from the plant. Honeybees simply adore it, and thankfully for them, most lavender varieties are cold-hardy perennials. When growing lavender, it’s important to note that it doesn’t compete well with weeds, so plant in containers or be prepared to weed often. Lavender also doesn’t like to have “wet feet,” so properly draining soil is a must, another reason that makes it a great container herb.

4. Lemon Balm

Technically part of the mint family, lemon balm is so special, it deserves it’s own spotlight. It’s said that lemon balm is so attractive to honeybees that beekeepers of old used to crush it and spread its oils around the inside newly hived swarm’s box, hoping to keep the new colony settled in their hive. Perhaps the lemony scent mimicked the pheromones of the queen, encouraging the bees to settle in for a spell. Whatever the reason, lemon balm is a delightful herb to grow and incredibly easy at that.

5. Mint

When it comes to a set-it-and-forget-it plant, nothing is quite as easy to grow as the herbs in the mint family. In fact, if you don’t curb mint’s appetite for seeking out new territory, it will likely take over your garden … and yard … and your neighbor’s yard … and their neighbor’s yard … in a few year’s time. Mint has an uncanny way of soothing stressed nerves and calming the physical body. It can be used to flavor dishes and spike refreshing summer lemonades, and it can be dried for winter teas, where it can ease an upset stomach and offer gastrointestinal comfort. There is a seemingly endless list of mint varieties to choose from, too, including spearmint, wintergreen, catmint and the infamous bee balm, one of the honeybee’s favorites. Generally speaking, mints will grow in poor soil, but in rich, fertile soil, it will take off with abandon. It’s best to keep this wild one contained to a pot.

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6. Oregano

Pungent and peppery, oregano offers a kick to the senses. The varieties are so vast: Some have tiny, dark-green leaves, and others, like Cuban oregano, have 2- to 3-inch-long, thick, fuzzy leaves, not unlike a puppy’s ear. Like the other mediterranean herbs listed here, oregano prefers to be hot and dry. It won’t tolerate cold, wet periods for very long, as it’s susceptible to fungus and rot. Even so, oregano is not fickle and does well in most locations with bright, direct sun. Be sure to get culinary oregano rather than ornamental if you’re planting for the bees. This perennial will come back year after year once it finds a place it likes.

7. Rosemary

Although it’s said that rosemary is not a cold-tolerant plant, many gardeners find they can encourage a mature specimen to overwinter in the ground in just the right spot. As you might have guessed, rosemary loves dry, warm locations and will be happy in full sun. In the height of the growing season, offer seaweed liquid fertilizer to boost its growth. Rosemary is good for the mind, enhancing memory. Its essential oil also naturally keeps pests off of cats and dogs.

8. Thyme

Just like oregano, thyme thrives in dry, hot climates. It’s a perfect herb to grow in containers or in the ground because it’s culinary uses are seemingly endless. If you cook with your herbs, you won’t regret planting thyme. Another easy perennial, don’t bother to fertilize thyme: It thrives in poorer soils, so save the compost for your veggies.

With each of the herbs listed here, it’s important to allow them to flower in order for your bees to enjoy their pollen and nectar. Honeybees won’t be the only attendees at the herbal feast; you’ll invite and host solitary bees, native bees, butterflies and many more with such a spread. Prepare now, and come summer, they’ll thank you for it!

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