Plan the Perfect Garden for Honeybees

Provide honeybees and other pollinators with a rich source of nectar and pollen nearly year-round by following these steps for your garden.

by Susan Brackney
PHOTO: Kioshike/Flickr

Through gardening, you can help your own honeybees or, if you don’t have a hive, attract more pollinators to what you grow. With a thoughtful mix of flowering bulbs, annuals and perennials (not to mention some diligence) you’ll see good results.

That said, keeping a garden for honeybees does differ from regular flower gardening in some key ways. Understanding how will boost your success.

See Like a Bee

Because bees can detect ultraviolet light, some flowers that look perfectly plain to us feature all sorts of come-hither markings that honeybees find irresistible.

What’s more, although you might be drawn to the fanciest new hybrids, foraging bees might not be. That’s because, in exchange for that novel color combination or doubled set of petals, something else can be lost along the way—and sometimes that “something” is the quality or amount of pollen and nectar the flower can provide.

To grow garden flowers will offer honeybees the maximum benefit, choose open-pollinated, heirloom varieties whenever possible.

Come planting time, you should pack the same variety of flowers together in a single, large area, because flowers release floral compounds that create scent patches. These scent patches attract pollinators, and the larger the scent patch, the more attractive it can be.

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Sergiu Bacioiu/Flickr

Be Adaptable Regarding Plans

It’s worth noting, too, that installing any kind of garden isn’t quite as simple as it once was. More extreme weather events such as heavy spring flooding, summer heat, drought and increased storm activity have complicated matters, so even experienced gardeners must rethink some of their favorite, go-to plants because of global climate change.

“Climate change has caused a lot of unpredictability,” explains Moya Andrews, author of Perennials Short and Tall and host of “Focus on Flowers.” The Indiana-based gardener continues, “You once knew that by March you’d have daffodils and forsythia. And probably by late October you’d have your first killing frost, but, now, you can’t really be sure.”

How have your weather patterns changed? Visit the National Centers for Environmental Information to look up daily summaries during a specified date range for your ZIP Code or city.

Fortunately, although they require more work, there are ways to compensate for increasingly volatile weather patterns in the garden. These, in turn, can further insulate honeybees from the effects of a warming planet.

For example, in potentially water-logged sections, you could erect raised beds. And in dry zones? Add compost, use plants with deep tap roots such as coneflower, and mulch to preserve moisture.

honeybee garden bees diagram map
Susan Brackney

Map and Identify

To start your plan, draw an overhead sketch of your garden for honeybees. Do you lack confidence in your drafting skills? Print a geological survey image or Google Maps satellite view of your property instead. Include any trees, shrubs and flowerbeds you’ve already established, noting when and for how long these typically bloom. Transfer these bloom times to a calendar, and then list the months that include little to no nectar availability.

Also consider the size of additional planting areas you wish to add for your pollinator garden. Sketch these new areas onto your map. If your region is increasingly subject to hot, dry summers, you should also consider how much access to water you’ll need in order to keep your new pollinator plantings alive.

This is also the time to identify microclimates on your property. Does the area that will contain your new pollinator garden have low spots that flood, or extra hot, dry areas? Mark your map accordingly.

Know the Power of Flowers

As a rule, clusters of flowers comprising larger flower heads—think yarrow, lavender and some sunflower varieties—are especially attractive to bees. When choosing what to plant, remember that many hardiness zones have shifted over time. Examine seed packets and plant tags to ensure their requirements match your microclimate. Also, choose only pesticide-free products.

honeybee garden calendar
Susan Brackney

Check your list of months with little or no nectar availability and start filling in the gaps. Need winter-flowering plants? Try witch hazel, snowdrops and winter aconite. For spring? Consider lilacs, bluebells, daffodils, hyacinths, lily-of-the-valley, alliums, irises and poppies. In summer, black-eyed Susans, beebalm, catnip, mint, purple coneflower, salvia and verbena are invaluable. And try asters, Joe-pye weed, pineapple sage, sedum, stonecrop and zinnias for fall. Have volunteers such as goldenrod and ironweed? Let these weedy-but-wonderful honeybee resources flourish.

honeybee garden bee bath
Susan Brackney

Finally, bees also need water. Line a shallow saucer with pebbles and fill it with water to create a “bee bath.” Including a pollinator garden sign  to educate passers-by is also a nice touch.

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