A Bee’s Eye View of the Garden

Planning a Garden With Bees in Mind –

The sweeping vista of flower filled meadows is a sight to behold yet aesthetics are a side effect to the flowers true intent. Flowers are not seeking human admiration but seeking the attention of pollinators. Through visual cues, the flowers are shouting… “Pick me! Pick me!”   A closer look reveals that over evolutionary time flowers have gone to extreme lengths to get the attention of their preferred pollinators: whether insect, bird, bat or wind.    Many factors come into play in regards to attracting any pollinator including colorful (or not colorful) petals and sepals, nectar guides, good or bad smells (or lack of) and overall shape and size. These features are often characterized as pollinator syndromes and understanding them can clue you in as to who might be most likely to visit a particular flower. If you are planning a garden that caters to our native bees it important to understand the type of flowers that they are most attracted to. Here are a few pointers to understanding the bees-eye view of the world.


A World without Red!

Bees live in a reality absent of red and are most attracted to bright white, blue, yellow, and ultraviolet coloration.  With the sacrifice of red comes the gift of low ultraviolet. Present on bee pollinated flowers, low ultraviolet “nectar guides” act much like airport runway lights that guide the pilot to a safe landing, the ultraviolet markers guide the bee directly to where the flowers nectar reserves. Nectar is a reward for any pollinator who visits the flower and ensures that pollen is transported to other flowers.   Ironically, bees not only love nectar but also gather protein rich pollen as a food they feed their larvae. Red flowers are alluring to butterflies and/or hummingbirds with the nectar deeply hidden in long narrow tubes reachable with long tongues or proboscises.


A Sweet Scent!

Flowers come in a variety of odors from pleasant to foul. A flower with a fresh mild scent is advertising to bees. Bees adore the scent of rose blossoms and not the hybridized red floral roses of Valentines Day but the white wild roses with five petals and multiple yellow stamens. The rose family is a diverse group of flowering plants and includes: blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and a variety of fruit trees including apple and pear.  A variety of native bees can be found actively pollinating these flowers in the early spring, including the very efficient blue orchard bee. In contrast to the sweet smelling rose blossoms, the beautiful red trillium of early spring might be mistaken by sight for a butterfly flower but its foul smell is a dead giveaway that its preferred pollinators are flies: hence it’s nickname of Stinking Benjamin.

Sweat Bee on Fruit Tree Blossom

Sweat Bee on Fruit Tree Blossom

Nomada Cuckoo Bee

Nomada Cuckoo Bee on Apple Blossom





 A Good Place to Land

Bees are attracted to a variety of flower sizes and shapes. Many flowers that attract bees are radially symmetric, shallow and bowl shaped, that make for a good landing platform. A few popular favorites include: coneflower (Echinacea spp.), black-eyed Susan (rudbekia spp.), sunflowers and asters.   Bees are attracted to the many small flowers in the disc like flower head.  Bees are also attracted to non-radial symmetric flowers such as Dutchman’s Breeches, a spring ephemeral with its long spurs, are perfectly suited for the queen bumblebee whose long tongue is able to reach the deeply hidden nectar. The bottle gentian has closed petals that a bumblebee must pry open to gain access to the pollen and nectar. The tubular flowers of smooth beard-tongue attract many spring bees including the digger bees that line their brood cells with oil secreted by the plant. Native bees are also suited to “buzz pollinate” the bell like flowers of blueberries or the flowers of tomatoes where the pollen must literally be shaken out.

Queen Bumblebee on Dutchman's Breeches

Bumblebee on Dutchman’s Breeches

Leaf Cutter Bee on Black Eyed Susan


 Generalist or Specialist?

The 4,000 bee species in North America range in size from the very small yellow-faced bee to the very large carpenter bee and are attracted to the tiniest flowers and the largest flowers respectively thereby increasing the odds of pollination. Many bees are generalists and though they may have seasonal preferences are not specific to any one type of flower. The bees that are specific to one type of flower are called specialists. The squash bee as its name implies is a prime example emerging once flowers from the squash family are in full bloom, usually in mid-July.   This honeybee-sized bee can be found deep within the squash flowers supping on nectar early in the morning. Once the squash ceases to bloom the bees life cycle is finished.

Squash Bee on Pumpkin Flower

Squash Bee on Pumpkin Flower

When planning a garden to attract bees it is important to provide a wide diversity of flowers that bloom from early spring to late fall. This constant bouquet will provide a banquet that will cater to the diversity of bees that inhabit your gardens, lawns and farms. Once your garden blossoms sit back and enjoy the diversity of bees and other pollinators that come and visits throughout the growing season.

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