Enhancing Your Garden for Native and Honey Bees

Bumblebee on purple aster flower

The plants you keep and add to your garden can make a big difference to pollinators. Mason bees, sweat bees, and leafcutter bees are all species here in Vermont that live around us in unexpected places. An important (and fun!) first step in growing a garden for pollinators is identifying the plants that already live there. Do some research online or at your local library. Even better, ask an experienced gardener! Once you're ready to add to the landscape, consider not only food sources (pollen and nectar), but plants that support other elements of habitat critical to the survival of our pollinating insects. These features are what house and fuel future generations.

Important Habitat Qualities for Bees

Debris like leaves and sticks are cozy homes to many creatures so it is perfectly alright if the garden is a little messy. Eusocial bumblebees and other native, solitary bees live underground, in old nests, decaying wood, rock walls, and even gaps in patios. Naturally sandy soil is easier for them to move through. Leaving leaves and stalks from garden plants through the winter is best since hollow stems are favored winter shelter. Skip the fall cleanup and get down and dirty in the spring instead! Wait to rake and mow until late April/early May. And remember, raising the blade on the lawn mower is better for pollinators (as well as turf health).

Food Sources through the Seasons

Once you know the plants in your landscape, you can help fill in the gaps in bloom time. Having at least three blooms in the garden per season is ideal. Flowering trees and even dandelions in early spring are important. Golden rod (Solidago) in fall is another important nectar source before winter sets in.

 

The transitions in between seasons are when food sources are usually lacking. There are plenty of choices that will look great to humans and serve pollinators as well. Bees see white, yellow, blue and purple flowers best (as well as ultraviolet). Planting in masses helps pollinators conserve energy, and plants are more likely to have successful pollination. Native plants are ultimately preferred but some cultivars and non-native species are comparable.

 

Below are some suggestions for filling the gaps in your garden.

Spring

Pussy willow flowers in spring

Pussy willow (shrub)

Pussy willow is an overall pollinator powerhouse, serving as both an excellent food and host source. Tolerates urban environments, salt, and is deer and rabbit resistant. Helpful for erosion control and is low maintenance.

 

Sun: Full sun/part shade

Soil Types: Average/wet

Lowbush blueberry spring flowers and leaves

Lowbush blueberry (shrub)

Low-bush blueberry is fragrant, low maintenance, and yields edible berries for wildlife and humans! Can handle urban environments and is drought tolerant once established.

 

Sun: Full sun/part shade

Soil Types: Average/dry

White flowering serviceberry spring blooms

Serviceberry (deciduous tree)

Serviceberry checks all the boxes as a food and host plant, providing early season flowers and nutritious berries for birds and other wildlife. Beneficial to humans as well, it is a beautiful ornamental tree that is drought and salt tolerant, deer and rabbit resistant, and has beautiful fall foliage.

 

Sun: Full sun/part shade

Soil Types: Versatile - wet/average/dry

Yellow flowers on golden alexanders

Golden Alexanders (perennial)

Plant this host perennial in mass or in the native plant garden. Very low maintenance and beautiful fall foliage.

 

Sun: Full sun/part shade

Soil Types: Average/wet soils

Honey bee near white flowers on penstemon digitalis

Foxglove beardtongue (perennial)

This host plant attracts all types of pollinators and bees look pretty adorable hanging out of their trumpet-shaped flowers. Drought-tolerant once established and tough as nails.

 

Sun: Full Sun/part shade

Soil Types: Average/dry

Summer

Bee near evergreen foliage and pink bearberry flowers

Bearberry (ground cover)

This low-growing ground cover has evergreen foliage that persists through winter. Bees and songbirds enjoy the flowers and fruits. Helps control erosion, is salt and drought tolerant, and resistant to deer and rabbits.

 

Sun: Full sun

Soil Types: Average/dry

Pink geranium maculatum flower

Wild geranium (perennial)

Wild geranium blooms a long time, making it an excellent transition plant between the spring and summer seasons. A host plant for bees and butterflies. Low maintenance and deer and rabbit resistant.

 

Sun: Full sun/part shade

Soil Types: Average/wet

Bumblebee on purple lupine flower

Wild Lupine (perennial)

This late spring/early summer bloom looks beautiful in masses along roadsides, in meadows, and your garden.  Wild lupine is drought tolerant, deer and rabbit resistant, and attracts bees and butterflies alike. 

 

Sun: Full sun/part shade

Soil Types: Average/dry

Honey bee on orange butterfly weed flowers

Butterfly weed (perennial)

Brilliant orange flowers that bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies flock to. Doesn't mind an urban environment. Will reseed in sandy soils and meadow settings.

 

Sun: Full sun

Soil Types: Average/dry

White bottlebrush flower on black cohosh

Black Cohosh (perennial)

Fragrant and floral spikes add height to the shade garden and attract bees and other pollinators. Low maintenance and drought tolerant.

 

Sun: Part shade/shade

Soil Types: Average/dry

White spring flowers on chokeberry shrub

Chokeberry (shrub)

An excellent shrub that doesn't mind our local clay soils. There are low-growing and taller varieties for any spot in the garden. Petite white flowers are followed by nutritious berries.  Beautiful red fall foliage makes this a good alternative to burning bush.

 

Sun: Full sun

Soil Types: Average

Fall

Yellow fall flowers on witch hazel

Fall-blooming witch hazel (shrub)

This shrub alone is host to 68 species of butterflies and moths! We love its yellow flowers just as the garden is winding down for winter.

 

Sun: Full sun/part shade

Soil Types: Average/wet

Bumblebee on purple aster flowers

Smooth aster (perennial)

Pairs well with other meadow plants and is a pollinator powerhouse. Look for the aster planting at Horsford's behind the greenhouses. Asters are tough in urban environments and drought tolerant once established.

 

Sun: Full sun/part shade

Soil Types: Average/dry

Many bumblebees on white flowering canada burnet

Canada burnet (perennial)

Funky frilly blooms emerge over clumps of interesting foliage late summer into early fall.  Perfect for wet areas or rain gardens, this perennial is salt tolerant and thrills both bees and butterflies.

 

Sun: Full sun/part shade

Soil Types: Wet

White flowering turtlehead

Photo cropped for ratio. Photo by Charles de Mille-Isles from Mille-Isles, Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

White Turtlehead (perennial)

This perennial gets its common name from the shape of its fall bloom.  Attractive to bumblebees and other pollinators, white turtlehead is deer and rabbit resistant and will brighten up your part shade garden.

 

Sun: Full sun/part shade

Soil Types: Wet

Ecoregions and Native Plants

Many customers ask if a plant is native to our area. The EPA has an informative map that identifes ecoregions by geographic location. Vermont falls into the Eastern Great Lakes and Lowlands Region. All plants listed above are native to this and other ranges. Visit the map to learn about surrounding areas.

Written with contributions and photographs from Horsford Team Member Tori Hellwig. In addition to being an employee at the nursery, Tori is currently pursing a Master of Science in Natural Resources with the University of Vermont. Her Master's project aims to explore enhancement of habitat for wild bumblebees, where her passion for all native bees and honeybees has grown in the process.