May 1, 2015

Bee Plants: Expanding My Definition of Edible

When we first started discussing plans for our homestead, one of the promises I made to myself was that I would only plant edible, medicinal, and otherwise useful plants. Basically that meant no ornamentals. That has grown to include things like companion plants which might not be directly useful to us, but support other plants which are useful. Now that I have an extra 10,000 mouths to feed (give or take), I need to include plants that will make my honeybees happy. Technically called nectary plants, these provide pollen and nectar for insects, including honeybees. Here's my list so far. It's neither complete nor categorized, but it's a start.
  • alfalfa
  • almond
  • American Holly
  • angelica
  • anise hyssop
  • apple
  • apricot
  • aronia
  • aster
  • basil
  • basswood
  • Bermudagrass
  • blackberry
  • black haw (Viburnum prunifolium)
  • blueberry
  • borage
  • buckwheat
  • bugleweed
  • candytuft
  • caraway 
  • catnip
  • cherry
  • chickweed
  • chicory
  • chives
  • clover
  • corn
  • cowpea
  • crab apple
  • cranberry
  • cucumber
  • currant
  • dandelion
  • goldenrod
  • gooseberry
  • gourds
  • grape
  • hazelnut
  • Honey Locust
  • honeysuckle
  • Joe-Pye weed
  • lavender
  • lemon balm
  • maple
  • marigold
  • meadowsweet
  • melons
  • mulberry
  • mustard
  • oak
  • oregano
  • peach
  • pear
  • peppermint
  • persimmon
  • plum 
  • poison ivy
  • poppy
  • raspberry
  • redbud
  • rosemary
  • sage
  • selfheal
  • sorghum
  • squash, summer and winter
  • strawberry
  • sumac
  • sunflowers
  • thyme
  • tulip popular
  • vervain
  • vetch
  • wild carrot
  • wild rose
  • willow

Happily, I already have a lot of plants on this list and many are included on my list for our forest garden hedgerows.  Quite a few have already bloomed, but knowing I have them feels like a step in the right direction. Eventually I'll categorize this list by month of bloom and aim toward having something blooming for our bees as many months as possible.

Interestingly, one site ( lists poisonous honey plants. In other words, plants known to damage colonies which collect nectar from it. The ones that caught my attention are common ornamentals in these parts: rhododendron, mountain laurel, and azalea. Rhododendron is a killer for goats too, so not a plant I want around, but we do have azaleas in the yard. All of these are naturalized plants in these parts. However, I also read bees will naturally avoid these plants unless they are starving, so hopefully it will never be a problem.

One more link. I recently found this one, "Plants that Bees Love". Rusty Burlew at Honey Bee Suite has compiled the most extensive lists I've seen, and as handy downloadable PDFs. His is overall a great bee website with excellent information and how-to articles. Highly recommended

Next - Second Hive Check


Karen@ said...

"an extra 10,000 mouths to feed". It is a good problem to have. I'm in talks with my honey lady and she likes goat cheese so maybe we can barter.

Mike Yukon said...

Once again you taught me something I never thought about, if you have bee's you need to feed them. Thanks for another useful post! :-)

Leigh said...

That would be a perfect barter!

Leigh said...

At least I don't have to cook for them too, LOL Well, I did have to make sugar syrup since they didn't know their way around the neighborhood at first, but it's wonderful that bees do such a good job of taking care of themselves.

Mama Mess said...

Hi Leigh,
You've got azalea on the top list and on the bottom poisonous list. I wonder if keeping plenty of bee friendly plants around helps to prevent swarms? Our neighbor has several hives on their place. They don't belong to them, the gentleman who owns them just sets them up at their place. I'm very much enjoying learning about your bees!

Leigh said...

Thank you for catching that! I removed it from the top list. I'm guessing not everyone knows it can be a harmful plant, and i did compile a list from various internet sources. Not sure which one, which is unusual for me because I usually list my resources.

Daphne Gould said...

Last year I think the bees loved the mustard flowers the best. Well the honeybees that is. I don't have a hive so I plant flowers for all the bees. The bumble bees really love the zinnias, but I don't see a lot of honey bees on those.

PioneerPreppy said...

It's been my experience that bees often prefer quantity or quality when it comes to their forage plants. I didn't see you mention them but one plant I see the girls on non-stop each year are Cucumber or related blooms. Mine here LOVE them. Especially the old Lemon Cucumber variety.

The main stable bloom for my bees seems to be Dutch Clover though. As long as the Dutch Clover blooms the girls are always fine if it gets so hot and dry that the Dutch Clover dies or stops blooming. Well I am in trouble and better buy a truckload of sugar.

Melanie said...

Isn't it great how we change for our bees? I love herbalism and medicinal plants, but even some of those are harmful to bees, so I pulled them up when I got my hive (Feverfew in particular). I just got a bunch of seed packets to plant this week and every single one was based on bee-love. I'm so excited to see if the Milkweed will grow here. Your list is great, thanks for sharing it.

Mama Mess said...

I certainly had no idea there were plants that were actually harmful to bees!

kymber said...

Leigh - up here, our experience has been that the bees (wild, honey, solitary and mason) love the red and white clover. we don't raise bees - i just watch what plants the bees seem to love. we have to be careful walking around the yard because our yard is covered in wild red and white clover and there is always a bee in every single flower. but what i also noticed is that our oregano and marjoram always have bees in them. we have tons of self-seeded oregano and marjoram growing around the yard and i just leave the plants wherever they seed themselves as ornamentals. the 2 types of plants that are also constantly filled with bees and have big, beautiful flowers and tons of flowers on them is comfrey and lupins. if you are interested, i can send you seeds from all of these flowers. i love sharing seeds and i love knowing that bees are being fed healthy nectar. we live in the middle of nowhere and have never used pesticides or any kinds of chemicals in our gardens, nor anywhere on our land. you can send me an email to with your address and i can get you some seeds.

your friend,

Renee Nefe said...

I was so happy to see the bees enjoying my apple blossoms and a bumble bee at some tiny purple flowers yesterday. I love to watch them work.

Cdngardengirl said...

Don't forget lungwort. It's very early, selfseeds easily and bees appreciate the early snack.
2 valuable bulbs for bees are snowdrops and crocus - early nectar sources.

Chris said...

Two things put me off getting bees just yet, and that's being successful growing "enough" fodder for them, but also finding a protected enough area. It's great to see you taking these into consideration for your colony. I also thought my garden was going to be for more useful edible plants, but then discovered the ornaments often did better. I found the birds were using the ornamentals I was planting though, and they started building nests, having babies and controlling the pests. So a happy side-effect!

Having bees is another colony of living organisms which teaches us, what we eat and consider a useful garden, is not necessarily the only picture to consider. I like your search for practical design. Your environment will be all the better for it. :)

Leigh said...

Daphne, thank you for that! Good observation. It's funny but I haven't discovered yet where my bees are getting their pollen and nectar. They are very busy but I'm not seeing where!

Leigh said...

PP, I will definitely have to try lemon cucumbers now. Bees certainly do seem to like lemon! We have a lot of Dutch clover so I'm glad of that. It does dry up pretty easily however.

The Cranky said...

Thanks so much for this information Leigh, not only will be planting more things for the bees, we WON'T be getting that yellow azalea we'd been eying.

Leigh said...

Melanie I didn't know about the feverfew, so thank you for that. I'm not specifically growing it, but will have to see if it's naturalized here. Fortunately bees seem pretty smart about what to stay away from.

deb harvey said...

have read that mountain laurel honey is deadly to people.

Leigh said...

Kymber, those are excellent observations. I have comfrey but not lupins. I will be in touch! You sound like me when it comes to letting plants grow where they will. I sometimes think of it as my meandering herb garden. :)

Leigh said...

They are such amazing creatures. I go sit by the hive several times a day, just to watch.

Leigh said...

Gloria, I didn't know about lungwort so am glad to know that. I have crocuses, which will be a good early spring source. Have to see about getting snowdrops as well as lungwort!

Leigh said...

Chris, it's funny but when we first put in our privacy hedge, I lamented that they weren't medicinal. Someone pointed out that they were for my mental health, LOL. I'm figuring out that what we call ornamentals are truly useful in ways we don't first think of.

Leigh said...

Jacqueline, good for you for planting for the bees!

Leigh said...

Deborah, yes, I think I remember reading that too. Strange to think it could be so. I'm glad we don't live near a lot of mountain laurel!

Unknown said...

I learn so much from you Leigh. I didnt know that some pollens were bad for bees either. The biggest enemy is man himself with all his pesticides. You have so much to teach us all. I foresee workshops in your future.

Chris said...

Too true! Mental health is often overlooked, lol.

Leigh said...

But it is so important! We aren't on a major road but there can be quite a bit of local traffic at times. It helps my sanity to not feel like we're in a reality show fishbowl, nor have folks yell and throw things at our animals as they drive by (which they do, unfortunately).

Leigh said...

Thanks Lynda! I just like to pass on what I learn. I can't see doing workshops, but I do like to write, and hope that is a useful resource and encouragement to others.

Woolly Bits said...

just one plant I didn't see on either of the lists:
it is a tree and flowers very late, so that most other trees are long finished. and it seems to attract bees madly - so much so, that in germany they sell the tree as "bee tree". not something for the average garden, but you have much more space, so it might be something for you - if you can get it? mine is still small and doesn't flower yet, but I hope it will, because there is so little on offer outside our garden later in the year:( I think the biggest problem is to have something in flower continuously for bees - not only at peak times!
I hope your bees will prosper - it'll be very valuable also for fruit crops to you!!

Cozy Thyme Cottage said...

I am glad that I don't have any of those plants that are poisonous to bees! Nancy

Leigh said...

Bettina, you set me off on another research project. I finally found seeds on eBay, which I plan to get. Also in my searching ran across The Beekeeping Wiki; a great find thanks to you. :) The common names here are Korean Evodia or Bee Bee Tree. I think it might make a nice addition to my forest garden hedgerow.

Leigh said...

Me too! Good job Nancy!

icebear said...

interesting about the rhodies.... i distinctly remember seeing bumblebees visiting my mom's huge rhododendrum flowers. the bee's stark yellow and black color made a pleasant contrast with the medium-light purple colored flowers. there were often other flowers around so it never occurred to me that the bumbles were desperate for nectar, do you suppose its not an issue for bumblebees? i can't say i remember seeing honeybees in there.

Sarah said...

Great list and resources! Thanks for sharing! This year we're not only planting to attract hummingbirds but butterflies and bees as well!

Kat said...

A couple of thoughts--
Planning for successional nectar/pollen flows is critical. As soon as my gals start flying, I hit the nursery to see what is blooming NOW, and what has bees on it. That doesn't mean I buy it from the nursery, but I start calling friends for starts or seeds for next year. I was in the hills a month ago, and native bumblebees were all over a type of willow I wasn't familiar with. It was the only thing "in bloom." I snipped several starts, and learned that it's Scoulers Willow. These are planted in a row now, and next year or the year after my bees will enjoy the early nectar flow.
I think diversity is important, as well. Plant lots of varieties so they can get the macro and the micro-nutrients each plant provides.
Finally, think vertically. One big tree can provide much more forage than the plants that could be planted there. I heard a single Linden tree is equal to 1/2 acre of other forage, but I don't know where that stat came from.

Leigh said...

I have absolutely no idea about bumblebees. That would make an interesting study!

Leigh said...

Sarah, it's great go plant for the birds, butterflies, and bees!

Leigh said...

Kat, that's a good idea about visiting nurseries. Might also be a good excuse to visit the state conservatory and gardens! I did make observations this spring because I knew the bees wree coming. Once my list is more complete I plan to organize it according to blooming time so I can fill in the gaps. Interesting about the willow. We recently put in an entire hedge of hybrid willow.

Once reader mentioned Tetradium tree. I tracked down some seeds and ordered 50. Not that I have room for 50 more trees, but i thought it would be a good addition to my fruit trees and bushes for the bees.