Gardening for the bees in the Southeast: Part II

With no effort on our part, we are already blessed with some feed for the bees, especially in the spring, either on our property or nearby.  To these we have also been adding plants as we could.  We want to help fill in the major gap that occurs during hot weather.

Here are some of the plants that help take care of our bees, along with our thoughts on their value:

Winter

Dandelion, henbit and charlock in nearby fields will bloom throughout winter except in the coldest spells. In the dead of winter, I usually see only honeybees working these, but toward spring, other species join them. (No we do not herbicide our lawn “weeds,” as these are important forage plants – and we don’t want to contaminate our ground water. Plus their blossoms are pretty in their own right!)  All three of these plants are introductions, but so far as we know, there are no native plants that fulfil the same function

Spring

Red maple trees bloom nearby in February, and willow trees soon after. Both provide forage (food) for honeybees. Tupelo adds a major nectar source in April. There are a few flowering quinces in the neighborhood; bees love these. Crocus and daffidils also get bee attention.

Redbud trees also bloom early, usually by the end of March. Carpenter bees and honeybees tackle redbuds furiously. Chickasaw plum and some domestic plums in the neighborhood are the first of the fruit blossoms that supply lots of nectar. Dogwood is NOT a significant bee plant; bees rarely visit their blossoms.

Oaks, pecans, hickories and pines shed a lot of pollen, which bees sometimes gather, but it is of low nutritional value. An occasional black locust is highly favored by the bees, as is Carolina cherry.

Dewberry is a major pollen source in March and early April, followed closely by blackberry which gives both pollen and nectar. Apples, crabapples, and pears usually feed the first queen bumblebees, though I have occasionally seen queens on plums earlier. Apples are very important for orchard mason bees, carpenter bees and honeybees. We have planted low-chill apple varieties which are suited to the South.

Wisteria and azaleas explode with blooms in April and are important feed for bumblebees. The first tiny Lasioglossom bees are often found on the stamens of azalea blossoms.

Carolina jessamine yields toxic nectar that kills honeybee brood. Photina (red tip) is a good feeder, if it is not trimmed for hedges.

Dahoon holly and boxwood are practically attacked by a variety of bee species. A few years ago, bradford pears were likewise covered with thousands of andrena bees when they bloomed. Today these bees are very scarce; you’d be lucky to see a half dozen on a tree, along with a couple honeybees and a bumblebee or two.

By the end of April, spiderwort is worked by a variety of bee species, especially Lasioglossum. Plantain also begins to feed Lasioglossum bees. A variety of blueberry and huckleberry species bloom from early April to early June, giving the blueberry bees good forage. Carpenter bees love these as well, but do not pollinate them, as they cut slits at the base of the petals to steal the nectar. Carpenter bees will also do this for honeysuckle, buckeye, and other flowers with a deep corolla.

Megachilid bee on privit

Privit is regarded as invasive, but this megachilid bee doesn't care. Privits that are kept trimmed for hedges do not bloom, but when they go wild, become small trees which provide excellent bee forage.

By late spring we have more garden flowers, including vegetables like squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, butter beans, and okra. Marigolds do feed a few bees, but do not seem to be of major interest. Likewise zinnia seems to be of some small use. Cosmos has been a major hit with the bees. Bee balm is significant, but only blooms for a short time. Its wild relative, horsemint is much better for bees. Cultivated morning glories are a big bust, as bees show little interest, though their wild (and highly invasive) relatives are much more attended, by bumblebees and megachilids.

Passion flowers are very good, and clematis attracts a few bumblebees. Lantana and butterfly bush seem to only be important to butterflies. Lasioglossum seems to love parsley blooms.

Sunflowers are a major hit with melissodes bees and honeybees. We plan to plant more of these – our only complaint being the relatively short bloom period for each planting.

A halictid bee on sunflower blossom

A halictid bee loads up on sunflower pollen.

Summer

When the hot weather of summer comes, there is a dearth of flowers. A few trumpet vines help feed bumblebees. An invasive plant, Brazillian vervain, supplies nectar through the hottest periods. Bitterweed begins to bloom in the heat, and is heavily worked by megachilid bees. Butterfly weed is present in sparse amounts; we aim to increase the supply of this. There are also occasional pine hibiscuses, which bees seem to love.

Sumac is also present around in spotty amounts – the southern variety blooming in midsummer, unlike in the north, where it is a spring flower. Sometimes sumac will be literally covered with bees. too bad it’s not a common plant.

Caryopteris – a plant we brought from Tennessee – gets wild applause from the bumblebees.

Another hot weather plant is crape myrtle, which does get a steady, though small amount of attention from bees.  Once cotton begins to bloom, honeybees and bumblebees will concentrate there, and of course, they frequently get poisoned.

Fall

By late August, we begin to see more fall flowers which bloom in a progression through the end of November. Joe Pye weed is wonderful for the bees, as are any of the various goldenrod species. Many asters, such as mistflower, also bloom through the fall, with frostweed continuing after frost many years.

Rudbeckia and Bidens are extremely important wildflowers, through the fall, feeding a variety of bee species.

We’ve listed quite a number of forage plants on or near our home. We could list a lot more, within driving distance.  But many of them, though important, are quite sparse in occurance. Roadside mowing and herbicide use, hedgerow removal, pine plantations and the chemlawn mentality have removed many of the wild bee forage plants.

Flower gardens can help, but many of the showiest flowers are overbred and of little value to bees. We tore out our roses, when we found that the bees had no interest in them and they were prone to fungus diseases and needed lots of spraying to keep them pretty.

In another post, we’ll be talking about native vs alien plants, and some of our use of each. Your thoughts (on the topic) are always appreciated.


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