Gardening for Native Bees in North America
by James H. Cane
with contributions from Linda Kervin, Robbin Thorp, Tim Miklasiewicz and Liz Day
Bees need pollen and nectar from flowers. The sugars in sweet nectar power bee flight; females also mix some nectar with pollen, the latter providing the protein, oils and minerals needed by their grub-like larvae. In the countryside, dark forests and many agricultural crops offer our native bees little food.
In our cities and towns, where most of the native plant communities have been displaced by pavement, buildings and lawns, our flower gardens can become important cafeterias for local populations of native bees. Because bees find their favorite flowers by their color or scent, a native bee garden can be attractive to the gardener too. The purpose of the following tabulation of garden plants for native beesis to help guide home gardeners in North American to genera of flowering plants whose species will please gardener and bee alike. In turn, bees can provide bumper crops in our orchards and vegetable gardens, plus providing hours of pleasant entertainment and distraction as you follow their foraging travels or amorous behaviors at your flowers.
The list consists of plant genera whose species are both attractive to native bees and can be obtained from standard or native seed companies or plant nurseries. In a few cases, particularly attractive native plants have been listed that are not yet available commercially. Twenty of the genera have been highlighted (blue or boldface). These represent broadly available, adaptable and attractive plant genera that can be recommended as more foolproof if beginning your bee garden. Many of the genera in the list will not be universally adaptable to all climates, soils, and irrigation regimes; you will need to make informed decisions from among the genera in the list for your local use. If in doubt as to a species’ weediness in you locale, please check with your local extension agent or your state’s/province’s conservation or agriculture departments. The bachelor’s button, for instance, is a lovely well-behaved garden plant across much of the U.S., but in parts of the Pacific Northwest, it has become a naturalized weed. I encourage you to adapt the list to your region’s soils, climate and other criteria for use by you and your fellow gardeners.
The list has been alphabetically sorted in three different ways for you: by genus name, by family name and by common name. You will notice that some popular garden flowers are missing from the list, such as petunias and marigolds. These and some other garden flowers have, though years of artificial breeding and selection, lost whatever attraction they may have had for bees. Some of these are listed in a separate paragraph.
Some people express a fear of being stung by native bees if they attract them to their yard. In my 25 years of watching bees foraging at flowers, I have not yet been stung by any of the 4000 species of bees native to North America. I have been stung handling honey bee and bumble bee colonies, or on rare occasions, handling individual bees in my collection net using my fingers. These social bees are the ones that deliver the most painful stings. But I’ve never been stung even by these, if just watching them at flowers.
The list is a work in progress. If you find errors, oversights or useful refinements, I will be happy to entertain your suggestions for modification so long as it retains its current form. Feel free to disseminate the list or modify your copy of it for local needs or your personal preferences as you see fit.
*Please note that the information and opinions presented in this bee gardening section are not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
You may also be interested in the Pollinator of the Month articles.