Bee Friendly Gardening In The Pacific Northwest

Seems like some people insist on not knowing what they’ve got till it’s gone.

And that’s kinda how it is with bees, and pollinators in general. Most of what we think of as food is highly dependant on our pollinating insect friends.* All fruit, tree nuts, squash, seeds for most vegetables, chocolate… Oh, never mind, I don’t have the space. Here’s a giant list of crops that are pollinated by bees.

Like every important relationship, it makes sense to nurture our relationship to bees. So why, according to this USDA Report, are professional bee-keepers reporting that “total losses of managed honey bee colonies nationwide were 31.1 percent from all causes for the 2012/2013 winter.”

Bees

Nearly a third of managed hives – gone in one year. And that’s pretty typical. Over the last six years, annual losses of hives has averaged 30.5 percent.

joint report from the EPA and the USDA found that hives are collapsing because of parasites, lack of genetic diversity, poor nutrition, and poor communication between growers and bee-keepers.

Oh, and – almost as an afterthought, as the last bullet point in the synopsis – the report suggests that, “Additional Research is Needed to Determine Risks Presented by Pesticides.

Snark and Head-Smacking

Additional research is needed to determine risks presented by pesticides? Wait, there’s a possibility that chemicals designed to kill insects are…killing insects?!

No shit? For real? Hold on, the shock of this is too much for me. Yeah, maybe we should do additional research to…you know, determine the risks. Eventually.

Sometimes my tendency towards angry sarcasm gets the better of me. But I don’t think people who are concerned about the health of our insect pollinator partners should wait around for “someone” to make things better. “Someone” isn’t sure and needs to do more research.

In the meantime, you and I can take action.

Basic Steps To Help Bees

  • We can not use insecticides in our own garden. Duh.
  • We can plant things and provide habitat for bees (there are many kinds – not just honeybees! – and other pollinators.
  • We can support local, small scale honey producers, particularly those that demonstrate sustainable management practices with their hives.
  • Small and backyard beekeepers can encourage genetic diversity in their hives by using naturally-reared queens who mate with feral drones instead of pre-mated, purchased queens.
  • We can question the growers of our fruits and other produce about the steps they take to ensure bees aren’t contaminated with pesticides or fungicides from their crops. Remember that from the perspective of bees, the most important thing is what might be sprayed on the blossom.

I’ll be honest: some of this might seem just symbolic, because all we can really do is make our space a happy island for happy bees. The great ocean of commercially managed bee hives is still out there, getting trucked around to monocrop pollination jobs, and our happy islands and $10 jars of local honey aren’t going to change that any time soon.

But I think of it this way: the more I can do to provide refuge for strong native and feral pollinators, and for sustainably managed honeybees, the more diversity I’m supporting. And one day those little islands of healthy diversity may come in very handy indeed.

Bee Forage For The Pacific Northwest

If you are reading this, there’s a good chance you are a vegetable gardener and as such, you probably already grow a ton of bee-positive plants anyway. You are probably following my Simple Three Step Plan To Attract Beneficial Insects To Your Garden. And none of you are using broad spectrum insecticides, right?

Although we are currently non-bee-keepers, Homebrew Husband and I are likely to add bees to our homestead this year or next so I’ve been compiling a list of bee forage plants. I’m trying to ensure I have a consistent supply of blooming plants in my yard during the period of time when it’s likely to be warm enough for bees to fly.

My neighbor is a beekeeper and raw honey producer, so even if we never get bees, we’ll help add to the diversity available to his bees, as well as provide a nice place for feral bees to load up on pollen and nectar.

Here’s what I’ve got so far.

Bee Forage Plants, Spreadsheet Version

(Click through to embiggenate image.)

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 9.43.58 PM

Bee Forage Plants, List Version

February

  • Winter Heather
  • Pieris

March

  • Maples
  • Oregon Grape
  • Indian Plum
  • Earliest Asian Plums
  • Willow
  • Chickweed
  • Hazelnut

April

  • Overwintering Brassicas
  • Flowering Currant
  • Maples
  • Pacific Dogwood
  • Peaches
  • Crab Apple
  • Apple
  • Pear
  • Cherry
  • Plums
  • Rosemary
  • Dandelion

May

  • Mustard
  • Serviceberry
  • Thyme
  • Strawberry
  • Raspberry
  • Blackberry
  • Blueberry
  • Clover
  • Chives

June

  • Mock Orange
  • Huckleberry
  • Mint
  • Angelica
  • Hyssop
  • Honeysuckle
  • Clover
  • Borage
  • Calendula

July

  • Cucumber
  • Summer Squash
  • Winter Squash
  • Oregano
  • Mints
  • Lavender
  • Buckwheat
  • Borage
  • Russian Sage

August

  • Lemon Balm
  • Basil
  • Clover
  • Anise Hyssop
  • Echinacea
  • Bee Balm
  • Salvia
  • Shasta Daisies
  • Rudbekia

September

  • Sun Flower
  • Joe Pye Weed
  • Lobelia
  • October
  • Artichoke
  • Yarrow

A Few Notes

*The original version of this post included tomatoes and peppers and legumes in the list of pollinator-dependant crops. A few astute readers pointed out that these crops are primarily self-pollinating. Which is a mistake I should never have made, so thanks, guys! If you click through to the linked-to spreadsheet, you can sort by how dependant various crops are on bees and other pollinators. It’s pretty neat.

Many – probably most – of these plants bloom over a longer period than indicated, and obviously weather has more pull with Mama Nature than a calendar. I tried to keep the spreadsheet simple.

I’d love to expand to this list and get a nice database of bee/pollinator forage plants together for people to reference. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment and let me know what you’d recommend and when it blooms and I’ll periodically update this list. Super bonus points given for edible/medicinal/useful plants.

What are your tips to help bees and other pollinators thrive?

To Do In The Northwest Edible Garden: April 2014
The Hemingway Daiquiri

Comments

  1. Hello Erica.
    This is such an important subject and yet grrrr.. no Governmental Dept. here in the Uk is actively doing anything about the dramatic drop in the Bee population.

    I garden land near to the Botanical Gardens at Kew and it is horrifying how sometimes there is not a Bee seen ALL day. I now count them in single digits and yet when I started working this land in 2001, at this time of year, each Rosemary bush would have at least 20 Bees buzzing on it.

    Pharmaceutical / Fertiliser / Genetic Modification companies say it is nothing to do with them, but as Mandy Rice-Davies said so famously ” Well, he (they) would say that, wouldn’t he (they).

    Awareness.. I find it really scarily frightening that a huge amount of people are incredibly ignorant and do not seem to realise that these dreaded pesticides etc kill more than what they aim for and have the knock-on effect of having a hugely damaging effect on the natural world upon which we depend.

    Best wishes from London which is suffering from 10 out of 10 pollution caused by sand coming up from Morocco and the Sahara.
    Sara.

  2. Angela Lorio says:

    I am in Texas and having some difficulty finding a good list of bee garden plants… thanks for a great blog. I read your stuff daily!

    • Angela, check in with the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. My brother recently started working there and they might the resources you’re looking for.

  3. Betsy True says:

    Yes, important bee forage is disappearing. In Wisconsin, intensive farming of corn, soy and lawns are depriving honey bees of important forage. You can have a larger impact on nutrition for bees if you can enter into a partnership with a municipality to plant native forbes and other honey bee favorites. Some cities are happy to sign you up for an Adopt A Boulevard, or some such so they can plant prairie with community support. Public Works departments are happy to not have the expense of mowing and to send pesky questions to an advocate about the benefits to bees. This can have a large impact if applied to road banks, median strips, and parks. Benefits: Improved forage for bees, outreach to educate public on topic, reduced mowing expense to municipality. Win, win, win.

  4. Kristen M. says:

    If there is a local beekeeping organization, definitely look into joining or taking an introductory beekeeping course. My husband and I took the beginners course this past January and joined the one in our area. The vast amount of knowledge and experience of the members has been a tremendous asset. Another option would be to check with your local cooperative extension. Sometimes they will have a good list of bee-friendly plants that do well in your area.

    I have some more plants you might want to consider. I don’t think I saw any of these on your list but there might be a couple of repeats. I’m also not sure if all these can grow in the PacNW (I’m in NC) but here goes anyway: holly, privet, asters, tupelo (typically found in the south east), cotton (this honey tends to crystalize/sugar quickly but its awesome for making creamed honey), poplar, buckwheat, and sourwood. There is a bigger list but this is just what I can remember off the top of my head.

    A couple of things that might do well for those in the PacNW to checkout include fireweed (not sure if it is the right climatic zone) and meadow foam. Meadow foam honey is fantastically dark and tastes like marshmallows! Its typically grown in England but there are some areas in Washington and Oregon that can grow it successfully.

    I hope all this helps!

  5. Margaret says:

    One of the best things you can do as a gardener is do NOT buy plants or seeds which have been treated with neonicotinides! These systemic pesticides remain in the plant long after they were treated, and can remain in the soil for years. The pesticide is expressed in the pollen and nectar and then kills bees. Getting neonicotinide free plants is hard. A certain orange themed big box store treats almost all their plants with it! The hard part is a nursery might put this on long before you or even your local place gets the plant, but even if you feed the plant a diet of decomposing kale and organic fish meal the pesticide is still there. Take the time to be nosey and figure out where your plants come from. I and my bees thank you!

    • Thank you for this Margaret. My rule is no systemic pesticides, ever. EVER. But your point about the pre-treating of plants and how hard it can be to know what might be oozing out is so important.

  6. Heather says:

    Here in the Midwest, any of the prairie plants are good – coneflower, Black-eyed Susans, liatris. In my flower garden, bees love Russian sage and hollyhocks, and the veronicas. Ornamental and culinary sages are also excellent, as are thyme and lavender. Milkweed is good for monarch butterflies and Malva sylvestris for painted ladies. I don’t see many honeybees anymore, mainly bumblebees and yellow jackets and butterflies. I am planting buckwheat this year around my veggies for bee habitat and beneficial insect attraction. I think it’s important to note that some of these plants are sacrifices – Malva sylvestris is where painted ladies lay their eggs, so it’s going to get eaten by voracious little caterpillars and you can’t freak out when that happens and spray the bananas out of it. Nor can you go all medieval on the squash bugs because if you do, you’re going to take out the pollinators as collateral damage. Hand pick bugs, use row cover, or let them go towards the light rather than resorting to sprays.

  7. I don’t want to downplay the importance of this topic, or our dependence on bees in food production, but I did want to let you know that tomatoes, peppers, and peas are mainly self-pollinated/wind-pollinated. I guess its time to edit Wikipendia :)

  8. Here in Northern California, the bees are in love with our lemon and orange trees, and ceanothus (California lilac – non-edible, but bonus points for being native). They attract our neighbors’ honeybees, plus a couple kinds of bumblebees and carpenter bees.

    • Ceanothus in my garden in Seattle is an awesome multi-species bee attractant. And, it’s an evergreen nitrogen fixer with tiny beautiful blue flowers. There are several cultivars of ceanothus with over-lapping blooming times in Seattle, from April-May.

  9. We have several of the months covered with our current established plants, however I see a couple I would like to add for more help to the bees. We have a Mason Bee house up and our next plan is a bee hive, we are going to build one from The Barefoot Bee Keeper. It is a simple design with less stress to the bees during harvest, which will not be our primary reason to build one, but some honey will be fun as well.

  10. I am in Puget Sound, and have had honey bees in the past. I know they get something from the Maple trees in early spring — you can taste it in the honey. And they cover our Autumn Joy Sedum blooms in late summer. Also bronze fennel attracts all kinds of bees all summer long, I have seen so many varieties on them that I have never seen before. I love the constant hum from the plants as I work outside! I am sorry I don’t know the actual bloom times.

  11. Hawthornes (Crataegus) and little leaf lindens (Tilia) are huge bee attractors in our garden. You can literally hear the hawthorn’s humming– as if they are getting ready to take flight.

  12. Where does that image originally come from? I can’t make out the organizations (or whatever) at the bottom.

  13. Yay for bees! I’m in my first year properly beekeeping, and it’s overwhelming to say the least, but amazingly rewarding. To add to your list (and I’m in Vancouver, so it’s pretty much the same climate): crocuses and hellebores for early season. Also, our bees went crazy for our raspberries last year. Our bees started flying around mid-February, which is much earlier than I had thought they would make an appearance.

    I also wanted to mention water sources. Pollinators of all kinds need to drink, and providing clean and safe water sources is really helpful so they don’t land in kid pools, water fountains, on hoses, etc and get squashed by scared people. A pot filled up with water and a couple of water plants for landing on, or even floating wines corks, is great.

  14. “Beekeeping for Poets” is an ebook by a local (Pacific NW) beekeeper available at smash words.com. It focuses on natural beekeeping and one section is an exhaustive list of plants for bees.

  15. I have to fight the bees off to harvest a little thyme or oregano, so I guess those must be good for bees. They are all over the cotoneaster as well.

  16. “Small and backyard beekeepers can encourage genetic diversity in their hives by using naturally-reared queens who mate with feral drones instead of pre-mated, purchased queens.”

    As a Seattle backyard beekeeper I find it very difficult to promote genetic diversity, because the area is saturated with California drones. Every year, thousands of packages of bees are trucked up here from the breeders in California, because there are basically no local bee or queen-rearing operations. The only one I know of is wildernessbees.com on the Olympic peninsula.

    A few backyard beekeepers are starting to attempt to raise local strains, but it’s extremely challenging under the circumstances. Hopefully, increasing awareness will eventually make it worthwhile for local breeders to start supplying the PNW with locally adapted bees.

  17. Other early blooming things not on your list or in the comments thus far, for us (northern-northern coastal California): candytuft, viburnum, borage, citrus (greenhouse), pittosporum (really buzzing this year), lilac, daphne, rhododendron, rugosa roses, tazetta/narcissus, daffodils, blooming kale, wild radish, hyacinth, Spanish lavender, trailing rosemary, and snow drops. I took a friend’s advice this year and used my webster extension duster to “pollinate” my earliest flowering stone fruit trees when I only saw one honey bee, one bumble bee, and one of those greenish flies on duty back in Feb/March. We’ve had a very dry winter and whether my duster had anything to do with it or not, the stone fruits are loaded with fruit for the first time in many years.

  18. Hi! Joining the cause here in Klamath Falls area, as in Pacific Northwest high desert area, south in the mountains towards CA border. To your list you can add sagebrush! It is up already, but blooms a little later. It grows everywhere here. It can be used for a number of medicinal purposes. We also have snowbrush, which blooms in later summer, a cousin of the lilac bush. Leaves are medicinal and blooms are saponic. When these bushes are in bloom, they are very heavy with all kinds of pollinators. We are small farmers and bee keepers. We had 5 hives and all died over the winter. Perhaps the 20 below snap we had? We will be working on a winter shelter for the 2 new hives we have purchased. Trying to spread the word here in Klamath, actually have a very active bee-keeper association! Now we just need to keep pesticides away from our bee-friendly islands!

  19. I don’t know really anything about bees, but I’ve been thinking about learning more and possibly putting up a hive or two in the yard. One plant that I’ve considered adding to our property in a few places is the “winter blooming” Oregon grape varieties…mainly because they are supposed to be great for overwintering hummingbirds, of which we seem to have a couple that I see throughout the winter. Here’s an article that talks more about them. I would assume the bees would probably like them too, and with the different varieties available, you could have blooms from October through February.

    http://www.portlandmonthlymag.com/home-and-garden/articles/winter-blooming-mahonia-january-2012

  20. It is primarily “managed” bees that are collapsing in such high numbers. Managed bees are comparable to factory farmed animals. They are kept from their natural behaviors, stressed beyond belief, and polluted with chemicals and pesticides right inside the hives. Honestly, it’s incredible any of them are surviving. In parts of the world where bees are not “managed”,they are not seeing these bee problems that we are – their bee numbers are actually rising in some cases! Check into the Warre method of beekeeping- it is perfect for the Pacific northwest in particular, since it naturally controls the biggest problems beekeepers here face.

  21. Not all for the Pacific NW, perhaps, but the bees here love citrus of all kinds, lavender, rosemary and jasmine. The jasmine bloomed the same time as our peach tree this year, so I’m hoping some of the bees stopped at both! Time will tell…
    Mason bee houses are on our list of projects for Easter break with the kids. My 3-yr-old got stung recently–he surprised a bee that had landed on his eyelid–so we’re working through that, trying to get back to “bees are our friends”… :/

  22. nancy sutton says:

    For the PNW, I’ll ditto lavender, and add comfrey (you may not want to let it go to seed) and lamb’s ear. Plus, an old-fashioned, early summer blooming shrub, beauty bush, kolwitzia amabilis, which is literally covered, for quite a long time, with smallish pale pink, sweetly fragrant flowers, and is always alive with bees. It increases in size by moderate suckers, so it is easy to share and pass around.

  23. Just came across this article on Modern Farmer, which makes the same point: plant more wild flowers.
    http://modernfarmer.com/2014/04/bees/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bees

  24. Melissa says:

    The best bee attractor I have found in my garden (in Portland, where it doesn’t rain for three months straight in the summer) is water. Bees flock to the fine mist coming out of my hose spigot and congregate around any little puddle that is left behind. My neighbor has a little fountain in his yard that always has a solid ring of bees around the edge, sucking up water. Poor, thirsty, little bees.

  25. I thought tomatoes were dependent on pollination by insects?
    As seen here —>http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing

  26. The bees around my place love malva. Some people label it as a weed but I think it’s pretty (it’s in the same family as hollyhock). I recall it blooms July-Sept here in Portland. They also seem to like hardy fuschias too. ( They LOVE the oregano flowers but you’ve got that covered!)

  27. OSU has done a fair amount of research on bees/plants and herbs are at the top of the list for most pollinators. Aromatic herbs also help confuse the pests you don’t want in your gardens. Interplant lots of aromatic herbs in your vegetable gardens and you serve your garden, vegetables and the bees.

  28. Jason Sinclair says:

    Anybody have thoughts regarding packages of “Save The Bees” mix? For example, I have a big pack of this: https://botanicalinterests.com/products/view/7020/Save-the-Bees-Seeds

    Inside the pack are seeds for the following:
    Borage (A). . 16%
    Sunflower, Lemon Queen (A). . 13%
    Coriander/Cilantro (A). . 13%
    Siberian Wallflower (B/P). . 10%
    Dill (A). . 6%
    Coreopsis, Lance Leaf (P). . 6%
    California Poppy (A). . 6%
    Gaillardia, Annual (A). . 6%
    Zinnia, Lilliput (A). . 6%
    Basil, Sweet (A). . 5%
    Cosmos (A). . 3%
    Purple Prairie Clover (P). . 3%
    Globe Gilia (A). . 2%
    Catnip (P). . 1%
    Lemon Mint (A). . 1%
    Black-Eyed Susan (A/P). . 1%
    Goldenrod (P). . 1%
    Lavender Hyssop (P). . 0.5%
    Bergamot (P). . 0.5%

    My plan is to broadcast the seeds in the yard and to put it all around the edges of the veggie beds and whatever grows, grows…

    -Jason

    • Carolyne Thrasher says:

      I tried a beneficial insects seed mix packet 2 years ago and I was very disappointed. I think that the problem was/is that each seed has different germination requirements and so scatter and broadcast works for some but others need to be in the dark to germinate. Still others need to overwinter before they will germinate. I had been hoping for a mini wildflower meadow. I got a few straggly cosmos and some alyssum. I think you are better off buying 5 separate packets (that’s what I’m doing this year) and sowing them separately as per package directions.

  29. I have replaced much of my lawn with a sedum. It has a fairly short blooming season, but when it is in bloom it is thick with honey bees. They really love it.

  30. Ann Bastin says:

    Chives-started for the table, allowed to propagate for the bees and long lasting pretty flowers. May-Jun

  31. The one thing in my garden that’s always full of bees is catmint.

  32. Bienenfreund flower (phacelia tanacetifolia). That’s german for “bee friend”. We call it the buzzing bush.

  33. Peg Larson says:

    Hi,
    Our local bumble bees, and every other pollinator in the neighborhood, love fall blooming asters. I have early blooming and late blooming, short stemmed and long stemmed. The bees love them all. One can hear the buzzing from a few feet away!

  34. Here in my Molalla garden (about 35 mi SE of Portland), I grow;
    Rosemary–it begins blooming around February, giving the bees and Hummies some early foraging.
    Comfrey for the Bumbles. Hens and bunnies love the leaves too.
    Catmint (Nepeta). It is covered in a cloud of bees from dawn to dusk.
    I also grow Meyer Lemons and Kumquats, but they do have to move into shelter for the winter. Once they’re out and blooming though, it’s a bee-fest on the patio

  35. phacelia tanacetifolia… the bees love it! Great insectary plant that attracts the hover flies who consume the aphids. Reseeds easily. I found seed at Uprising Seeds.

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