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12 Herbs and Flowering Plants to Grow for the Bees

With bee populations declining, I feel like it’s more important than ever to dedicate space in our gardens to growing plants for them. This year, I’ve planted certain varieties especially for them and I’ve spent a lot of time observing what they’re most drawn to in the garden. These twelve easy-to-grow plants seem to be among their favorites.

Passionflower

The species I grow is Passiflora incarnata and the bees love it so much that I find them hanging out in the flowers at dusk, long after the rest of the bees have gone home for the evening. I can see why! It’s such a special, fascinating plant. Hardy to zone 7, this vining plant will grow tall when trellised and it will even produce fruit for you if you leave the pollinated flowers on the vine! There are also ornamental varieties that are hardier than the species – I’ve seen some hardy down to zone 5.

If you’re growing it for the bees and for your apothecary, try harvesting in the evening after the bees have had a chance to feast on the flowers all throughout the day. This way, you both get to benefit from the blooms.

Woolly Lamb's Ear

I planted a 4″ seedling of woolly lamb’s ear last year and by this spring, it had spread to at least 3′ square! It’s a mint-family plant that likes to fill in the spaces around it, so if you don’t want it to spread, you’ll want to contain it. In its second year, it sends up soft, fuzzy, square flower spikes filled with lilac-pink flowers that the bumblebees, mason bees and native bees go crazy for. My patch is constantly abuzz! Neighbors tend to be drawn to the downy leaves as well, so it makes a fun plant to divide and share in early spring.

Calendula

Calendula blooms so prolifically when it’s happy where it’s planted that you’ll find you have more than enough for your apothecary and for the bees. I like to leave a few plants unharvested just for the bees, but if you do this, make sure to deadhead the flowers every couple days during the blooming season to keep the plants from going to seed. Once they go to seed, they’ll stop producing flowers. Harvesting or deadheading, however, will keep your plants producing new blooms all season long and the native bees and honeybees all love them.

Roses

I’ve found that the bees prefer my Rosa rugosa and Rosa gallica species over my “boutique” roses. The honeybees and tiny native bee species will spend hours bathing in the pollen, buzzing from bloom to bloom and then going back again for another round. These are also the species that I harvest for the apothecary, so I tend to harvest only the petals so the pollen-filled centers are still there for the bees and I’ve found this to work well. The bees still spend just as much time in the rose bed and I’ll also have the bonus rose hip harvest in late fall / winter!

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Self Heal

I’ve found that the bumblebees tend to like the self heal patch more than the other bee species, both in my garden and when I find self heal whilst out foraging. It spreads quickly and makes itself at home pretty much anywhere you plant it, but mine seems to like an area that gets part shade during the heat of the day. I’ve seen it growing in the lawn and at the edges of forested areas – it’s not very picky and its flowers and leaves are both edible and medicinal.

Sunflowers

Another bumblebee favorite is the sunflower. I see honeybees frequenting them too, but the bumblebees love them so much that I’ll often find them still sleeping in the flower centers early in the morning. I’ve only ever seen bumblebees sleep in two kinds of flowers – sunflowers and lavender, so they must really be on the bees’ favorites list. Plus, they are undeniably cheery at the back of the garden!

Borage

Plant borage in a place where you won’t mind if it spreads because it sends out seeds like there’s no tomorrow and you’ll soon have borage plants all over the place. It can be a bit prickly, but the bees absolutely love it. It’s almost dizzying to see them all feasting in the borage in early spring. It’s one of the first plants to start flowering in my spring garden and is thus one of the first spring food sources for the bees, so I definitely think it’s a good one to grow.

Pineapple Sage

Pineapple sage tends to bloom later on in the summer, but bees and hummingbirds both love it! The leaves are refreshing infused in your water bottle or included in teas and the long, tubular flowers are edible as well.

Milkweed

Common milkweed, narrow leaf milkweed, showy milkweed and swan plant milkweed are all definitely bee favorites in my garden. Once the area where I have them planted is fully lit by the sun, the bees are practically fighting over the flowers! It’s one of the noisiest areas of the garden because the plants are always filled with pollinators – both honeybees and native bees love these plants.

Bee Balm

Any of the bee balms (Monarda species) will do – the bees aren’t picky. I’ve found that the honeybees and bumblebees tend to frequent mine the most.

Fennel

I allowed my fennel to flower this year so I could collect seed for tea and I couldn’t believe how popular it ended up being with the pollinators! The plants are huge, filled with so many flower spikes that I continually have to cut them back because they keep wanting to spill over into the pathways. I should have expected that because I’m accustomed to the wild fennels that grow quite large, but I normally harvest my garden fennel quite a bit earlier. Honeybees, native bees and bumblebees are all crazy about it! During the sunny part of the day, it’s covered in dozens of happy little pollinators.

Lavender

Lavender is the other plant that I’ve seen bumblebees sleep on. It’s the sweetest thing – they sure are smart! Bumblebees, honeybees, native bees, and other pollinators love lavender. I’ve noticed that they aren’t picky about the species – the angustifolias, intermedias, stoechas, allardiis and others are all equally as popular.

While these 12 are some of the most popular plants in my garden (with the pollinators, anyway), most flowering plants are just as loved by the bees. The most important thing to do is to commit to gardening organically since the chemicals that are used to deter other pests also harm our bee populations.

I hope you’ve set aside some space in your garden to grow some flowers for the bees. Even if you only have a small space, there is so much you can grow in containers and every little bit helps our precious pollinators! Are you already growing pollinator plants in your garden? Which plants have you found to be most popular with the pollinator species in your area? Let me know in the comments below. I’m looking forward to hearing from you. =)

Much love,
Erin

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Erin Stewart is an herbalist, NAHA certified aromatherapist, organic gardener and urban homesteader. She grows over 150 kinds of aromatic and medicinal plants for her own apothecary and distills essential oils and hydrosols in her PNW garden. Erin is the founder of Floranella and of AromaCulture’s herbalism + aromatherapy magazine.

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