Plants to set bees abuzz

Posted: August 24, 2007

Just because you plant things honeybees like doesn't mean they'll show up.

In fact, says beekeeper and gardener Bruce Gill, "if you planted 100 things in front of your house and the scout says there's something better a half-mile down the road, they'll just fly right over your stuff."

A honeybee scout scopes out a two-to-five-mile radius from the hive, returns home, and performs a wing-fluttering, figure-8 jig that lets the other bees know how far, in what direction, and how rich a new source of nectar might be.

"And if there's nothing around, they'll end up sucking on a Coke can by the side of the road," Gill says.

So how do you maximize your chances of attracting honeybees?

Plant a variety of flowering trees, shrubs, ornamentals, fruits and vegetables, and plant them in groups. One zinnia won't cut it.

Don't get hung up on native or nonnative, desired plant or "weed." Honeybees, which were imported from England in the 1600s, care only about shallow, cup-shaped flowers that are easy to access.

And toss some herbs in there, especially honeybee favorites like mint and lavender.

Provide water in a birdbath or pond, don't use pesticides or herbicides, and remember: A bee-friendly garden is good for birds and butterflies, too.

Here are some plant suggestions:

From Mona Bawgus, of the Rutgers cooperative extension in Atlantic County: raspberries, blackberries and fruit trees, coreopsis, coneflower, Russian sage, crocus and hyacinth bulbs, Washington hawthorn tree.

From Jeff Bryer, president of the Chester County Beekeepers Association: anise hyssop, bee balm, New York ironweed, aster, black cohosh, pussy willow, skunk cabbage, joe-pye.

From beekeeper Warren Graham Jr.: fringe, tulip poplar and redbud trees; butterfly weed, Queen Anne's lace, mahonia, viburnum, cleome, sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia).

Not so good are rhododendron, laurel and buttercup. Their nectar is slightly toxic to honeybees.

By planting what honeybees like, you'll help keep these valuable Earth citizens in the landscape. And you'll have a ball watching them work.

"It's pressure-reducing, for sure," Gill says.

- Virginia A. Smith

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