Gardening for Bees


Gardening for Bees

Resources to Help You Plan Your Native Garden


Everyone knows that the European honeybee has taken terrible hits in recent years. What is less well known is that the 400+ species of native bees in Virginia are under serious threat from the actions of human beings. Not only are native bees important pollinators of many food crops, they play an essential role in our ecosystem as a whole. Bees and a whole array of less noticeable animals - including many species of flies, ants and beetles - pollinate the majority of the plants we see around us. In other words, they ensure the survival of most of the plant kingdom.

Want to save the bees? This task is far more complicated than you might guess.  We have the Gardening for Bees guide (prepared by


Want to save the bees? This task is far more complicated than you might guess. Here is the bottom line:

1. Humans cannot reproduce the vast and complicated biodiversity of natural areas, so the first priority has to be preservation of those areas and removal of invasives. Even small patches of invasive plant species have cascading effects on the insect population of a much greater area around them. Removing those invasive plants does wonders for biodiversity.
2. Where natural biodiversity has already been destroyed, humans can help by planting a wide variety of native species. You can’t prevent species extinctions by focusing on a single plant-pollinator interaction. You have to focus on the ecosystem as a whole. So add as many species of native plants as your growing conditions allow, and cram in as many plants as you can afford. Plan for a succession of blooms from early spring to late fall.


Different bee species need different types of nectar and pollen. The species that are in decline are the ones who need the most help. They specialize on certain plants and are more susceptible to the effects of insecticides.

Nectar: Adult bees use nectar for their own energy, and some bees are plant generalists. Many are specialists, though, requiring flowers of different shapes depending on the length of the bee’s tongue and other foraging factors.


Pollen: Not all pollen is the same. Bees get themselves covered with pollen accidentally and therefore help with pollination. But to feed their young, they need the pollen from specific plant species and seek it out deliberately, often “buzzing” the flowers to collect it. The population of many species of bees is limited by the availability of the right pollen. One strategy to provide needed food pollen from spring to late summer would be to plant native willows, native St. John’s Wort, Virginia Rose and Carolina Rose.

The problem of non-native plants: Even a small patch of non-native flowers may seriously distort the diversity of bee species in your garden. It is always best to stick to natives. Seeing a large number of bumblebee individuals in your yard does not necessarily mean you have created a healthy ecosystem. If you are trying to prevent the decline of threatened bee species, what counts is how many different bee species you are seeing.


The problem with insecticides:

Studies of the effect of pesticides on bees have focused on short term effects on those species that have immediate economic importance to human beings, namely the European honeybee and to a much lesser extent, the Common Eastern Bumblebee. Massive and heart-breaking die-offs of declining species of native bees is largely ignored, though studies have demonstrated that they are more susceptible to lower doses of insecticides.


Plants for bees

About 80% of bees are plant generalists - they can forage on a wide variety of flowers. To support these bees, provide a succession of blooms from early spring to late fall. Use locally native plants that fit into the ecosystem.

20% are specialists, requiring certain plant species. (An easy example is the Southeastern Blueberry Bee.) The life cycle of these bees is timed to the bloom time of their plants. One major determinant of which flowers they use is the shape of the bloom. For example, some bees have absurdly long tongues, others have short ones. All these bees (and their associated plants) are essential for a healthy ecosystem.

If you plant for the specialists, you will support the generalists automatically.


A list of 270 garden-worthy plants that are native to Northern Virginia can be found in the Plant NOVA Natives guide. To create a garden that will have flowers from early spring to late fall, check out this bloom time table.


Examples of plants for specialist bees (always choose the native varieties within these categories):



  • (Claytonia virginica)Spring beauty Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans)
  • Golden ragwort (Packera aurea)
  • Native wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana)
  • Violets (Viola sororia, labradorica, pedta, pubescens,                                          
  • triata, cucullata)
  • Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea)
  • Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
  • Sun drops (Oenothera fruticosa, biennis)
  • Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos)
  • Monarda (Monarda didyma, fistulosa, punctata)
  • Thistles (Cirsium discolor, muticum, carolinianum, altissimum)
  • Woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus, angustifolius, strumosus)
  • Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve, novae-angliae, novi-belgii, cordifolium, lateriflorum, oblongifolium; Eurybia divaricata)
  • Goldenrods (Solidago altissima, caesia, flexicaulis, graminifolia, juncea, nemoralis, odora, rugosa)

Trees and shrubs

  • New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
  • Hollies (Ilex verticillata, opaca, glabra)
  • Willows (Salix nigra, sericea)
  • Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum, pallidum, angustifolium)
  • Native roses (Rosa carolina, palustris)
  • Saint John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum)

Honey bees are generalists that prefer to forage on one plant species at a time, so trees and mass plantings of perennials work well for them, but of course there need to be multiple species within a mile or so to feed them all year. The main source of food in the spring is trees, so local woods do the work here. As those flowers finish, we need to provide summer and fall perennials. They prefer some species over others.

Native species which are particularly popular with honeybees include:


  • Blazing Star (Liatris species)
  • Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum species)
  • Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium species)
  • New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
  • Goldenrods (Solidago species)

Trees and shrubs

  • Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)
  • Maples (Acer rubrum)
  • Oaks (Quercus alba, bicolor, coccinea, falcata, marilandica, michauxii, montana, muehlenbergii, palustris, phellos, rubra, stellata, velutina)
  • Hazelnut (Cornus americana, cornuta)
  • Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Dogwoods (Cornus alternifolia,amomum, florida, racemosa)
  • Birch (Betula nigra)
  • Magnolias (Magnolia virginiana)
  • Sumacs (Rhus aromatica, copallinum, glabra)
  • Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
  • Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
  • Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)


Fascinating lecture on plant-pollinator interactions:

Learn more about creating and maintaining pollinator gardens: