Ever since colony collapse disorder struck the honeybee population, backyard gardeners have sought ways to promote the activity of native pollinators. Unfortunately, native-bee populations are also increasingly threatened by habitat destruction, pesticides, and disease. Luckily, there are bee-friendly plants that you can grow to help bees flourish.

Rob Keller, founder and owner of Napa Valley Bee Co., which does hive management, swarm and extraction services, and beekeeping consulting, shares what bees need to thrive.

Rob Keller names all his hives. Here he inspects a frame from his “Speedway” colony at a private vineyard in the Conn Valley outside of St. Helena, California. He doesn’t wear the cumbersome beekeeping suit and veil. “If I get stung, I get stung,” he says. Photo by: Meg Smith.

1. Provide lots of forage— especially in early spring when few plants are blooming.

The Sonoma County Beekeepers’ Association (sonomabees.org) recommends planting the “foolproof five”:

  • Borage
  • Lavender
  • Salvia
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme

In addition, crocus, hyacinth, primrose, and hellebore are good choices, as are willows, maples, redbud, and fruit trees such as apples and cherries. Dandelions are a major early source.

2. Plant multiples. Honeybees will travel up to 3 miles to find food. The less distance a bee has to fly, the less stressed it is, and the healthier the colony. If space allows, consider planting in tens and twenties instead of twos and threes of the same plant.

3. A variety of pollen and nectar sources. This includes perennials and annuals but also trees, shrubs, vines, groundcovers, herbs, and vegetables gone to flower, such as kale and lettuce.

4. Organically grown, untreated, pesticide- and fungicide-free gardens. If using organic treatments, do so in the early morning or at dusk when there are few bees around.

5. Water. Keep a basin of clean water available. Bees drown easily, so make it easier for them to alight and drink by putting cork “landing pads” in the water. Stones and light wooden blocks work, too.

6. Habitat for solitary bees. The dead twigs of hollow-stemmed plants provide winter shelter for native bees. Ground-dwelling bees can’t dig through mulch, so leave an area of soil unmulched.

Honey varies in color and flavor depending on the sources of nectar. Darker honey has a more intense flavor. The lighter honey in this photo is from the Carneros region of Napa Valley in California; the darker is from the rural hills. Photo by Meg Smith.

BEES 101:

Generalist bees seek pollen from a wide range of flowers.

Specialist bees prefer specific plant species.

Social bees live in hives with a queen and gather in swarms. They are very susceptible to colony collapse disorder.

Solitary bees establish individual nests. They don’t swarm and rarely sting.

Honeybees were brought to the Americas from Europe. They are generalist, social bees.

Native bees include ground nesting, carpenter, mason, and sweat bees.

If you want your garden to support bees, avoid:

  • Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides
  • Double blossomed flowers, which produce little or no pollen and nectar

Instead, grow plants that:

  • Offer both pollen and nectar
  • Bloom for a long time
  • Are intensely fragrant
  • Have vivid colors

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