Gardening for Beekeepers: Flowers that Honeybees Love

Gardening for Beekeepers: Flowers that Honeybees Love

Last week, we discussed various educational resources available to new beekeepers.  Hopefully, those resources will be as useful to you as they have been to me.  This week, we are going to explore one of my other passions, gardening, specifically flowers, shrubs and trees.  But before we talk about honeybee-friendly plants, let’s talk about some news from the apiary.

Hive Updates

Much has happened this week in the apiary.  There were some great developments this week.  However, Hive Rome’s issues with robbing attacks returned with a vengeance.  So to quote Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Hive Acquitaine

Marked Queen
Eleanor in Hive Acquitaine

For a few weeks now, I haven’t had a sighting of Eleanor.  This week, I finally managed to see her.  She continues to be a busy girl as we move into fall.  This week I performed an experiment with Hive Acquitaine, Hive Olympus, and Hive Florence.

I have been concerned for a while about the lack of a honey dome in my medium box for Hive Acquitaine.  The workers have been drawing comb in the medium box but did not seem concerned to kick production into high gear.  Early this week I decided to give them a bit of assistance.

My experiment consisted of transferring two frames of honey from the medium boxes of both Hive Olympus and Hive Florence.  These colonies are both strong and draw comb quite quickly. I was curious if the addition of four frames full of honey in the medium box might jump start the workers comb drawing and honey storing activities.

The experiment seems to be working incredibly well.  The workers have picked up their efforts drawing comb on the empty six frames and started to store honey in that comb.  So, this colony is now catching up with Hive Olympus and Hive Florence.

Examining the Brood Boxes

Examining the upper brood box, I found really significant amounts of honey stores.  The outer four deep frames are heavy with honey stores. There was also significant amounts of brood including capped brood, eggs, and larvae.

When you are treating with Apivar, it is important to reposition the strips as the brood pattern moves around in the brood boxes.  This week I had to reposition the strips so that I would get maximal benefit from the treatment.

Since I didn’t find Eleanor in the upper brood box, I decided I needed to check the lower brood box.  Working the box from the opposite direction from my normal procedure, I noted that the four outer frames again are replete with honey stores.  As is usually the case, significant amounts of brood were in the center frames of the lower deep box.

As I was looking at the brood pattern, I located Eleanor near the very center of the box.  It always makes me feel good to see my queens.  I have a real phobia about crushing my queens inadvertently.

After completing my inspection, I reassembled the hive and closed it up.  As I have noted, the bees are getting ornery as we get along closer to cold weather.

Hive Olympus

This hive was part of my experiment with transferring frames of honey  to Hive Acquitaine.  I took two medium frames of honey from this colony last week and transferred them to Hive Acquitaine.   So, there was definitely curiosity concerning the empty frames that replaced the full frames.

When I opened the hive, I noted that the workers had not yet completely drained the top hive feeder. Removing it from the hive, it was time to discover the results of my experiment.

The workers met and exceeded my expectations.  Not only had these hard working honeybees built some beautiful new comb on both of the empty frames, but they also had begun to fill that comb with honey. Thrilling discovery!

Last week, I had to deal with significant amounts of burr comb in this hive.  I hoped that the empty frames would discourage lots of burr comb.  That seemed to work as well as there were only a couple of pieces of burr comb to clear from the hive.

Examining the Upper Brood Box

Like Hive Acquitaine, the upper brood box contained plenty of honey.  The outer frames are so full of honey that are heavy and difficult to lift.  Moving to the center of the brood box reveals significant quantities of brood including eggs, larvae, and capped brood.

As the defensiveness of the colony was increasing with each passing minute, I decided that moving on to examine the lower brood box would probably only lead to workers dying from stinging my gloves.  Since I had found eggs, I decided that going deeper to find Athena wasn’t necessary.

Even though the bees were irritable, their irritability was defensive and not anything like when they were queenless.  Since the colony is queenright, there was no need to do anything more.  I reassembled and closed up the hive.

Hive Florence

This colony is overflowing with both bees and honey! Hive Florence participated in my transfer experiment this week as well.  When I opened the hive, the bees had drained the top hive feeder.  In less than three days, the workers managed to drink it dry.

I was curious what they did with all that sugar water.  Examining the medium box, I found that the two empty frames were no longer empty. The workers have drawn comb on both frames and are already stocking that comb with honey stores.  This colony quickly draws comb so finding the two frames already completely drawn was not really a surprise.  So that sugar water went to a good use!!

Moving into the upper brood box, I found quite significant honey stores.  The outer frames are heavy with winter honey stores.  Even some of the inner frames are heavy with honey.  In fact, the colony has so much honey that they can spare two frames of honey to assist Hive Rome. Likely, I will also transfer one frame of capped brood.  I found plenty of brood in this colony with four frames containing significant quantities of eggs, larvae, and capped brood.

Since I did not examine the lower brood box last week, I spent some time thoroughly examining it this week.  Just like the upper brood box, I found quite significant honey stores throughout the box as well as plenty of brood.  Beatrice II was in the center of the lower brood box. Seeing no problems, I concluded my inspection by reassembling the hive.

I also refilled the top hive feeder and closed up the hive.  This colony really has put on an impressive population explosion in just the past month.  This colony has prepared well for winter.

Hive Rome

New Queen in Nuc
This New Queen was released on Friday of last week.

To say that this nucleus colony’s experience has been the cause of much consternation lately is a monumental understatement.  Unending robbing has been the watchword for this colony regardless of where I have moved it.

The robbing and moving screen slowed down the robbing but it didn’t confuse the bees long enough for them to give up.  With no honey stores, a dwindling population, and a new young queen, the situation is critical.

When I began my inspection, I found all of the frames devoid of honey but did find a few cells with some honey stores in them.  It is just a small cluster of cells but that is an improvement. Cornelia has been busy laying eggs on two frames.  But, I fear there are not enough nurse bees to care for them all.

To attempt to stop the robbing attacks, I will be removing the top hive feeder and feeding with quart bottles in a second nuc body atop the bottom body.  I figure even with that there will be robbing attacks.

My focus is to fill the nuc box with as large a population of bees as possible in the nuc box prior to the start of colder weather.  I will be transferring a couple of frames of honey and a frame or two of brood to the nuc to increase the amount of workers in the hive and to try to stop the robbing attacks.

I will likely leave the colony locked up for a day or two as well in hopes that they will start storing some honey.  This colony has been my most frustrating experience in my first year.

Some Thoughts About the Robbing Attacks

I had first thought that my robbers were my own bees.  I do see plenty of the remaining Carniolan workers from Hecate’s brood and from her daughter, Athena.  But, I have been noticing in the last two weeks a differently marked bee that does not match any of my own bees.

One of my neighbors just started two hives a few weeks ago.  When I passed by her house, I noticed that she has no top hive feeder on the hive nor an entrance feeder either.  So I have a feeling that the fact that she is not feeding her bees has caused them to come visit my hives.

I noticed some robbed cells in one of my stronger hives.  I am trying to figure out a good way to approach her and discuss about the importance of feeding at this time of year.

Gardening for Honeybees – Flowers that Feed the Bees

Pink Aster
Asters make great fall blooming plants for bees.

As an avid gardener, I love the variety of flowers that make their appearance in my yard.  When I moved into my home, it was largely devoid of any landscaping and was woefully lacking in beautiful blooming flowers.  So I have gone on a four year process of building gardens into the landscaping surrounding the house.

Now that I am keeping honeybees, I wanted to find flowers that are great for honeybees.  I can’t provide you an exhaustive list (we would be here for weeks covering all the varieties).  But, I will focus on some bee favorites.  I will break my suggestions into Spring, early Summer, Summer, and late Summer and Fall.

If you want to successfully assist your bees in feeding, plant borders or clusters of flowers so that you will attract more pollinators.  A lone flower dispersed a number of places in your garden will not gain the attention of pollinators.  For both annuals and perennials, you should cut back the flowers after their first bloom to encourage them to continue to bloom during the summer.

Spring Blooming Flowers

Crocus, Snowdrop, and Hyacinth

Crocuses, Snowdrops, and Hyacinths are early blooming perennial bulbs with bloom dates ranging from January to March depending on your local climate zone.  These early blooming plants provide forage opportunities on warm days when your bees may break winter cluster due to warming temperatures.

Plant them in bulk quantities to give maximal opportunities for honeybees to forage for both nectar and pollen.  As perennial bulbs, all of these plants are easy to grow provided you have proper soil and drainage for the varieties you plant.

Hyacinth
Hyacinth, an early spring blooming flower grown from bulbs.
Crocus
Crocus, an early spring blooming flower grown from bulbs.
Snowdrop
Snowdrop, a late winter/early spring blooming flower grown from bulbs.

Bachelor’s Buttons, or Cornflower

The Bachelor’s Button, or Cornflower, is a hardy annual that self-seeds.  The beautiful, intensely blue flowers provide a great source of nectar for your bees.  They tend to bloom during the late spring and can continue blooming into November depending on the mildness of your climate.  The vivid blue will be a delight in your garden.

Bachelor's Button
Bachelor’s buttons are an annual that bees enjoy visiting.

Primrose

The Primrose is a hardy perennial that comes in a multitude of colors.  The leaves of the primrose are vividly green with bright flowers erupting on stalks from the central crown of the plant.

A mass of clustered primroses makes for a striking early season delight with blooms appearing as early as midwinter in some regions and certainly in early spring most everywhere.  Primrose likes a cool, well-drained growing area and certainly make a nice addition to a shade garden.  These flowers have been known to bloom a second time during the fall.

Primrose
The Primrose is a beautiful early blooming flower with vivid green foliage.

Early Summer Flowers

Echinacea pallida

Echinacea pallida is a member of the coneflower family of flowers.  Unlike the more commonly recognized purple coneflower, the petals of this variety are more miniscule.  But don’t let their simplicity fool you.

This flower blooms for up to three weeks from June to July.  It is a native of grasslands and savannahs across the Eastern United States.  As a perennial, it will provide interest in your garden for year after year.  It may even reward you by self-sowing and expanding in your garden.

Echinacea pallida
One of the many varieties of Echinacea this one has light purple petals.

Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

You have probably seen the common yarrow on any number of occassions but didn’t know what it was.  This perennial is covered with flat heads of daisy-like flowers that attract many different varieties of pollinators.  Yarrows come in a wide variety of colors ranging from white to vivid yellows, oranges, and reds.

Two of the better varieties for honeybees are the rich red ‘Strawberry Seduction’ and the pink fading to white ‘Wonderful Wampee’.  If you visit your garden center or local nursery, you’ll find a wide selection to choose from and these are near indestructable plants.

Yarrow 'Strawberry Seduction'
Common Yarrow is a long blooming, sun-loving perennial.

 

Yarrow 'Wonderful Wampee'
Yarrow ‘Wonderful Wampee’ is part of the Tuttii Frutti group of hybridized common yarrow.

Summer Flowers

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus)

Sunflowers are an annual plant, meaning that you have to replant seeds each season.  However, these annuals are absolutely adored by pollinators of all varieties including our beloved honeybees.  There are many options for sunflowers in your garden.  If you don’t want the gigantic varieties of sunflowers, you might opt for a couple of the dwarf varieties like:

  • ‘Little Becka’ – grows three to four feet tall with gold and brown flowers, or
  • ‘Big Smile’ – grows one to two feet tall with classic golden flowers with black centers.

If you have never seen a mass planting of sunflowers, put a small one in your garden and prepare to enjoy the bright sunshine you bring to the honeybees.

Helianthus annuus 'Little Becka'
There are many varieties of sunflowers. ‘Little Becka’ is a red variety.
Helianthus annuus 'Big Smile'
One of the dwarf varieties of sunflowers, ‘Big Smile’ will light up your garden.

Anise Hyssop, or Giant Hyssop (Agastache spp.)

There a numerous varieties of the Hyssop that will provide your garden with interesting and beautiful spires of blooms.  I discovered this plant for the first time this year and have populated it in multiple locations in my garden.

One beautiful and easy to find variety is the Blue Giant Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).  The Blue Giant Hyssop produces spires of purple flowers and is native across the northern regions of North America.

A particularly beautiful variety has been produced by Terra Nova Nursery under the name, Agastache ‘Blue Boa’.  You will love these hardy plants especially if you plant them in large clumps together.  You will see pollinators of all varieties arrive to visit these flower.

Honeybees and bumblebees both seem to love the flowers.

Agastache 'Blue Boa'
Terra Nova Nursery’s Agastache ‘Blue Boa’
Agastache Kudos 'Ambrosia'
Part of the Kudos series of Agastaches, these flowers planted in bulk make a beautiful addition to the garden.

Horsemint (Monarda punctata)

Despite not having a particularly inviting common name, horsemint is a long-blooming efficient bee magnet.  It is a native plant of the United States so if you are into planting native plants this is one for your collection.

Horsemint produces tiers of unique pink to white bracted flowers through much of the summer and even into the fall.  Horsemint does not like to have wet feet so plant it in well-drained soil.

You will enjoy its long-lasting, fragrant blooms.  So plant it near where you can sit and enjoy its scent.

Horsemint
A native variety of bee balm, Horsemint is a favorite of native bees, bumblebees, and honeybees.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

In my opinion, no flower garden is complete without at least one purple coneflower in it.  This hardy perennial produces beautiful large purple blooms.  It will begin blooming in summer and continue blooming into the late summer and sometimes even into the fall.

All varieties of coneflowers are favorites of bees.  Plant them in bunches in different varieties throughout your garden.  In addition, if you leave the last blooms of the season, they will form seed that will attract birds looking for food during the winter months.  There are a couple of heavy blooming varieties that you might find interesting:

Purple Coneflower
The Eastern Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
Echinacea purpurea 'Dixie Belle'
Terra Nova Nursery’s Echinacea purpurea ‘Dixie Belle’
Echinacea purpurea 'Pica Bella'
Echinacea purpurea ‘Pica Bella’

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)

There are probably just as many varieties of the Black-eyed susan as there are of coneflowers.  These flowers are another favorite of mine with their bright yellow flowers and dark brown or black centers.  Planted in a cluster, they make a strikingly bright centerpiece in the garden.  These flowering plants are prolific bloomers.

If you like dwarf varieties of flowers, the heaviest blooming dwarf is ‘Little Goldstar’ (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii).  You can’t go wrong with this flower in your garden.

Black-eyed Susan
A favorite of gardeners, the Black-eyed Susan will brighten any garden.
Black-eyed Susan 'Little Goldstar'
One of the many varieties of these plants, Black-eyed Susan ‘Little Goldstar’.

Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)

Milkweeds are “among the most diverse and widely distributed native wildflowers in North America” (The Xerces Society).  The plants are critical because of the diversity and abundance of pollinators that they support.  In fact, they are the caterpillar host plant for monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), queen butterflies (D. gilippus), and soldier butterflies (D. eresimus).

There are many varieties of milkweed to choose from when planting these bright blooming flowers in your garden.  Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) produces bright orange blooms which your honeybees will gravitate to while swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) produces a light pink bloom and also likes to be planted in a damper environment.

The honey of milkweeds is almost white with a very mild flavor and reported yields of 50 to 100 pounds per colony are possible if enough of the plant is present.

Asclepias tuberosa
The most commonly recognized milkweed is the bright orange variety, Asclepias tuberosa.
Asclepias incarnata
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) likes a damper soil.
A bright yellow variety of milkweed, Asclepias ‘Hello Yellow’.

Late Summer and Fall Flowers

Asters (Symphotrichum spp.)

Asters are very simply one of my favorite perennials.  These small daisy-like flowers come in a multitude of colorful varieties.  There are dark purples, pinks, blues, pinks, and whites to name a few.

These little flowers form the backbone of forage for the late summer and deep into fall.  A particularly nice aster is named ‘October Skies’ (Symphotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’).  It is a wonderful late bloomer with lavendar-blue flowers with orange centers.

An earlier blooming aster is the ‘Bluebird’.  This dusty sky blue aster (Symphotrichum laeve ‘Bluebird’) makes a beautiful cluster of in your garden.  Some of the hybrid varieties of asters do not make good bee forage so keep that in mind when selecting your asters.

Aster 'October Skies'
Aster ‘October Skies’
Aster 'Bluebird'
Aster ‘Bluebird’

Joe Pye Weeds (Eutrochium spp.)

Joe Pye Weeds are a native perennial of North America.  Like many of the native perennials, there are any number of varieties to choose from for your garden.  The Joe Pye Weed is a late-summer bloomer that produces big, fuzzy heads of purplish-red flowers filled with nectar and pollen.

This is a sun-loving plant with some varieties being adapted to moist ground.  One of the finest of the Joe Pye Weeds is Eutrochium purpereum ‘Little Red’.  This variety grows approximately four feet tal and produces pretty reddish-purple flowers.

Joe Pye Weed 'Little Red'
Joe Pye Weed ‘Little Red’

Goldenrods (Solidago spp.)

Another native perennial is the Goldenrod.  It is also one of the chief allergy producing flowers in the fall.  This plant is considered one of the best bee flowers for late summer and fall.  Goldenrod honey is considered a delicacy that is known to be darker and with a distinctive bite.

There are a couple of garden-worthy varieties including:

Solidago 'Golden Fleece'
Solidago ‘Golden Fleece’
Solidago 'Baby Gold'
Solidago ‘Baby Gold’

Other Flowers

Southern Living’s Top Twelve Flowers for Honeybees

Honeysuckle Vine
Honeysuckle Vine

For those of us who live in the Southeast, Southern Living has provided a list of twelve great plants for honeybees.

  • Lilacs (Syringa spp.),
  • Lavendar (Lavandula spp.),
  • Wisteria,
  • Mint (Mentha spp.),
  • Sunflowers,
  • Poppies (Papaveroideae spp.),
  • Black-eyed Susan,
  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.),
  • Lantana,
  • Snapdragons (Antirrhinum spp.),
  • Sedums, and
  • Pale Purple Conflowers.

Herbs that Honeybees Love

Rosemary
Rosemary

There are a number of herbs that you may grow in your garden that provide a great source of food for your honeybees.  These herbs include:

  • Basil (Ocimum spp.),
  • Borage (Borago officinalis),
  • Catnip (Nepeta spp.),
  • Coriander (Coriandum sativum),
  • Oregano (Origanum spp.),
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and
  • Thyme (Thymus spp.).

Some Concluding Thoughts on Flowers for Bees

I have very honestly only touched the tip of a very big iceberg concerning the possible foraging possibilities for honeybees.  I encourage you to do some research and plant some gardens to help feed your bees and other pollinators.  A couple of very useful resources include:

  • Lee-Mäder, Eric, Jarrod Fowler, Jillian Vento, and Jennifer Hopwood.  100 Plants to Feed the Bees:  Provide a Healthy Habitat to Help Pollinators Thrive.  The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.  North Adams:  Storey Publishing, 2016.  ISBN #978-1-61212-701-9.
  • Frey, Kate, and Gretchen LeBuhn.  The Bee-Friendly Garden:  Design an abundant flower-filled yard that nurtures bees and supports biodiversity.  Berkeley:  Ten Speed Press, 2016.  ISBN #978-1-60774-763-5.
  • Weidenhammer, Lori.  Victory Gardens for Bees:  A DIY Guide to Saving Bees.  Madeira Park:  Douglas and McIntyre, 2016.  ISBN #978-1-77162-053-6.

Coming Next Week

Next week, I will give you further updates on my ongoing battles with robbing bees and Hive Rome.  I’ll also give you more updates on progress towards winter with my larger colonies.  I haven’t yet settled on a topic for next week so stay tuned.

Until next time, Happy Beekeeping!

About Keith Stiles

Keith is a contributor to PerfectBee, documenting his story to the realm of beekeeper. A native of North Carolina, Keith travels the country working with colleges and universities implementing event scheduling software. When he's not on the computer and working with his clients, helikes to tend to his flowers, singing with the First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir and the Haywood County Community chorus and - of course - enjoy his bees!

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