Planting a pollinator garden and caring for the ecosystem is a top priority for any beekeeper. Keeping land healthy and full of plant material ensures that the bees will be well fed and produce honey.
What is a pollinator garden?
Not a single bee has ever sent you an invoice. And that is part of the problem - because most of what comes to us from nature is free, because it is not invoiced, because it is not priced, because it is not traded in markets, we tend to ignore it.Pavan Sukhdev
Bees are dying.
In the United States, bee populations have dramatically fallen. Bees face daily struggles. A combination of starvation, parasites, pesticide exposure, climate change, and a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder actively disrupts the apiary. Until we find success combating these attackers, it is up to us to help support the bees so that they have a chance to thrive.
A basic problem to solve is honeybee starvation.
Monoculture Farming vs. the Pollinator Garden
Farming has become a big business. When driving along any rural farming community, when you see acres upon acres of corn or soy that is called monoculture farming. These crops are often genetically modified and don't provide food for the bees. Some have been modified to contain pesticides, so when the bees forage within these crops, they are exposed. This sort of farming doesn’t help bees. It actually hurts bees.
Maintaining the land for native pollinators is essential. The plantings should include diverse hybrid and heirloom indigenous crops. Without healthy soil and plant material, butterflies, hummingbirds, and many types of insects cannot sustain. Their lives depend on foraging from flower to flower providing pollination while being fed.
Another problem is sprawl, ya'all!
Globally, millions of acres of natural land are cleared for industrial agricultural, commercial and residential use each year. In losing vast acreage, we lose naturally occurring wildlife habitats that offer diverse and healthy ecosystems.
By planting a chemical-free pollinator garden, you create a haven for bees and other insects in your own backyard.
In setting aside a small patch of native plants for pollinators, you’re providing a place for them to be protected from human activities. Pollinator gardens are also beautiful, low-maintenance, and easy to care for after they become established. It just so happens that a pollinator garden will produce a large amount of food for insects like bees, who then make delicious honey from your wildflowers. It's a mutually beneficial relationship. Read more about a gardener's guide to protecting bees.
If you prefer to feed pollinators with a vegetable garden, that is also helpful. Here you can learn how to start a vegetable garden for beginners.
Let’s explore a pollinator garden design.
In a nutshell-- pollination is a reciprocal relationship in nature between pollinators and flowers needing pollination. Where the male and female parts of plants are introduced and combined by a third party. In this case, the mighty honeybee is the much-needed intermediary.
Pollination is a little different when provided by other insects. While many flies, moths, and even ants can carry pollen and nectar from plant to plant, bees are the only insects who take it home with them to process into a different food source.
How can we motivate you to plant a Pollinator Garden?
As bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers, they bring it back to the hive, where it is stored and incorporated into honey. The bees get protein from pollen. Honey is a food source for the bees during times of nectar scarcity and is especially important over the winter. Providing bees a pollinator garden provides a safe space for honeybees in an otherwise dangerous industrial world.
Let’s do more thinking outside the hive about where food comes from. Let's start with the pollinator garden.
Here are our favorite pollinator-friendly plants, and our tips and tricks for growing a beautiful pollinator garden.
We've learned a lot about the best plants for bees, and what will grow well in certain locations. Our farm is on an island on the Chesapeake, providing a humid subtropical climate. The warm, wet summers allow for plenty of plant growth, especially of the native species we’ve replanted on the property. In the dryer sections of the meadows, sunflowers, wild bergamot, beardtongue, butterfly weed, mountain mint, and asters are particularly prolific. Areas that are a bit wetter see loads of milkweed and buttercups. Some plants don’t do particularly well, so we test what works and what doesn't and modify each year.
In addition to these native flowers, we’ve planted huge swaths of lavender, along with salvia, red shiso and gooseneck loosestrife. These plants aren’t endemic to the area, but they provide a huge source of food for insects and other pollinators. Confederate jasmine, another non-native species, has recently sprung up on the farm, giving us a fragrant surprise. At any rate, the best plants for bees are the ones that make the most nectar, and native plants tend to fit that bill perfectly.
Native Plants for Damp Soil
Spiderwort (Tradescantia) features bright blue and purple flowers that brighten up the partially shady, damp areas in the meadows. These plants can rapidly spread to form large clumps, so if you’re looking for spreading perennial, this is ideal! Spiderwort will bloom all summer and provides a healthy source of nectar in our pollinator garden.
Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) spreads beautifully in damp areas. The tall stems, dark leaves, and bright white flowers provide a stunning show in early summer. These plants spread through the fields, giving us patches of cheery flowers among the grasses. Bees and hummingbirds absolutely adore this native plant. It also comes in various shades of pink, and other hybrids appear in red and orange shades, so mix it up for interest. Hands down, this is one of the most prolific plants for bees on the farm.
Irises (Iris) love damp feet, and will happily form clumps among the reeds and grasses. Native irises are different in appearance than the showy garden irises that bloom with peonies and lilacs. The leaves are shinier, more upright, and the flowers are not as large and ruffled as bearded irises. You can find irises potted up, or you can buy and plant rhizomes.
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) are some of the most beautiful plants for your pollinator garden. Common milkweed sometimes grows in areas that have been disturbed, such as near roadways and overgrown fields. Butterfly weed creates very showy orange and yellow blossoms and is a bit shorter in stature than common milkweed. Common and swamp will happily grow in just about any bright, sunny location, whether the soil is wet or dry. Typically, milkweeds will arrive via their floating seeds, but once a colony is established they will spread on their own. Milkweeds provide the sole food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars.
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) spreads like a wildflower in the meadows-this is perfectly ok with us, though! The blooms resemble creations from Dr. Seuss's books, with odd little tufts and whiskers that bend and arch around. Our bergamot blooms in shades of lavender, but you can find varieties of Monarda didyma in a range of colors. Bee balm is in the mint family and can be used in teas for a lemon-like flavor. A favorite of hummingbirds and bees.
Pollinator Garden beauty Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium)
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium) is easy to cultivate in almost any garden setting, so long as the soil is rich, well-drained, and damp. Eupatorium will spread to most areas with the exception of hot, dry soils. Joe Pye weed typically springs up naturally in wet areas, such as stream banks, marshes, and roadside gullies. See more perennials for wet soil.
Pollinator Plants for Sunny Areas
Coneflower (Echinacea)really comes in a wide range of colors, from red to orange to green. Coneflowers form hardy clumps of plants and provide food sources to insects and songbirds. Native coneflowers show up in shades of purple and pink, but the hybrids also make a great bee food source. Add a few clumps of coneflowers to your pollinator garden, and you'll really make the birds and bees happy.
False sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides)
False sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) give us bright yellow blooms on tall shrubby plants. Ideal for areas in the bright sun and moist soil, false sunflowers attract butterflies and bees. Like milkweeds, these plants often grow wild in meadows and open woodlands with moist soils and spread via seed.
New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) bloom through the late summer-fall, giving us a burst of color before the plants go dormant for the winter. Asters provide a late-season source of food for our honeybees and migrating butterflies that pass through the area. Asters can be quite lanky in the garden, so trim them up until June to keep the plants compact. Varieties of this plant are typically available at nurseries and are easy to grow in most soil types, including clay.
Pollinator Garden hero Goldenrod (Solidago)
Goldenrod (Solidago) is a sunny cousin of the aster that also blooms late in the season. Ideal for attracting butterflies to the garden and feeding bees later in the summer. To control the spread of this plant, select hybrid varieties from your nursery that are more well behaved. Goldenrod honey can be produced by bees if the plants are available in large enough quantities. The seeds also act as a food source for songbirds, so maybe a large clump isn't so bad!
Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)
Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) is a native legume of the east coast. With small yellow flowers that attract hordes of bees and butterflies, this annual is a showy addition to the garden. Partridge peas will grow in almost any soil, crawling through the undergrowth of the other plants. A close relative of this pea, Chamaecrista nicitans has the nickname “sleeping plant” as the leaves fold in when touched.
Oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) is a short-lived European perennial. These flowers produce a large amount of nectar for the bees, but they can be invasive in some areas. On our farm, they only pop up in little patches here and there. You can easily find daisies at your local garden center, in numerous varieties that will bloom all summer.
Showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense)
Showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense) is a tall, branching legume with beautiful orchid colored blooms. Trefoil produces a large amount of nectar for pollinators, making it ideal for attracting bees and hummingbirds. Trefoil is best started by seed, which allows it to form large showy groups in your fields. In our meadows, trefoil prefers soil that doesn’t get too dry or hot.
Coreopsis (Coreopsis) is native to the east coast of North America, and produces bright yellow daisy-like flowers through the summer and fall. Different varieties can add interest to the meadow landscape, with various sizes of flowers and interesting foliage shapes. Lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) features singular bright yellow flowers atop of long stems. This plant prefers to stay dry, but will happily grow in just about any soil-look for them around old farms. Plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) is a native to the midwest but is commonly found all over the east coast as well. This annual has showy yellow blooms with rust-colored splotches that dot dry areas of fields. Most forms of coreopsis will spread thanks to a large number of seeds the blooms produce.
Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis)
Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) features beautiful spikes of lavender, blue, and purple flowers in the late spring season. Lupines provide an early nectar source for butterflies and bees once they get moving out of the hives. These plants go dormant in the heat of the summer and prefer loose, sandy soil that is a little dry. You can start lupine by seed, or use young plants to form clumps in your gardens or meadows. Lupine looks excellent in rocky areas as well.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) acts as an annual or short-lived perennial, depending on how harsh your winters are. On the farm, these don’t do well in our clay soil, so make sure that your ground is well-drained. Black-eyed Susans will spread in good conditions, forming big swaths of yellow that attracts hordes of bees and butterflies.
Tips and Tricks on Growing Plants for Bees
At the farm, we really don’t try to curate our gardens. Our flower garden plans have gone out the window over the years! What grows where and with what happens. Everything mixes together, and what shows up without our help is always a happy surprise. While we do typically replant sections of the fields every year, we still see large areas of unplanned wildflowers. These are the best plants for bees: the ones that come back without us putting in any effort, and the ones that are strong enough to show themselves.
To give your wildflowers a strong start, make sure you give them ample water and room. Keep pace with weeds and grasses that spread and choke out young plants. If need be, cover the soil with a layer of seed-free straw to choke out unwanted invasives. Your pollinator garden may also come under attack by deer and rabbits; if this is the case, use chicken wire or netting to keep pests out.
Allow some of your plants to go to seed. This will increase the size of your plant colonies without you needing to spend more money on potted plants!
Most plants in your pollinator garden will probably be hearty enough to take on a few pests, but every once in a while you might have to fight back. Don’t use pesticides on your plants-you’ll end up killing your pollinators with the chemicals. If you have an infestation, try simple solutions made with eco-friendly dish soap, water, salts, or lemon juice and garlic.
If you need help finding what plants are best suited for your area, do some research with The Xerces Society.
This article was written by Stephen Schlegel of Waxing Kara with consultation from ecologist Jeff Wolinski.
Resources and blogs about pollinators and wildflowers:
Farming for Bees Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms
Native Plants for Bee Forage
Plant lists by region
Search for wildflower lists by region
Trees and shrubs Chart
How Bees Make Wax