Gardening for Bees

LACBA Secretary, Stacy McKenna, an avid gardner and passionate beekeeper presented this report on Gardening for Bees to our members in the June 2011 meeting:

When planning a garden for bees, one of the first questions to ask is which bees you’re planting for. California has 1500 native species, and none of them are the commonly known apis mellifera, or honey bee. Now, it may seem like a silly question – bees are bees, right? As long as the flowers have pollen and nectar, they’ll be fine. Well, not exactly. When Kate Frey went to Japan and planted a pollinator garden, nothing came! She had planted flowers that none of the local pollinator species recognized or were specialized for, so her garden was a total flop and had to be redone from scratch using locally familiar plants.

We’ve got a bit more wiggle room here in SoCal where European bees, native bees, and even the Africanized variants all are on the lookout for viable food sources, so we’ve got a wider range of plants available. European and Africanized apis mellifera will do well with most of the familiar European varieties of plants, including most of your commercially available fruits and vegetables. Anything that requires a pollination contract or shows up on your Farmer’s Market honey table is a good bet (stone fruit, citrus, strawberries, blueberries, avocados, eucalyptus – Wikipedia has a list: Things that self-pollinate (tomatoes, roses, grasses/grains, etc.) are less helpful.

Another thing to consider is your definition of “weed." Many of the plants we commonly pull, poison, or mow down are actually great for pollinators – dandelions, tarweed, clover, mustard, etc. If we let them flower for the bees and then only remove them when they dry out and become a potential fire hazard, we’ll be doing the bees a favor. At my first CSBA convention Keith had spent all week trying to figure out why commercial guys spent $160-$200/hive every year to take them to almonds to earn maybe $150-$175 in pollination fees instead of leaving them all at home in their yards and making a living off the honey. At the final banquet night one of the migratory beekeepers finally heard the question and understood where we were missing a basic assumption. “We can’t leave them at home – they’d starve. There’s not even the dandelions we used to rely on for their off-season forage we used to have.” Just because a plant doesn’t offer an obvious commercial benefit doesn’t mean the plant isn’t important.

Also, letting some of your vegetables bolt and go to seed instead of harvesting them is a great way to help the bees – leaving a few carrots, beets, radishes, onions, and broccoli plants just for the bees will help them, and might even result in some of your crops reseeding on their own next year.

If you look into locally native or adaptive plants, you can make your gardening even easier. Local wildflowers are great for supporting local native species, and they require very little irrigation, making them cheaper and easier to maintain than many European plants accustomed to cooler climates. We live in a Mediterranean climate, so anything adapted to places like southern Italy will do well here. Basil, rosemary, bay laurel, pomegranate, etc. Many herbs are also drought-hardy and great for bees – parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme is not only a familiar tune, but a bee paradise. Many of the local bee-friendly plants are also attractive – poppies, sunflowers, mallow, sage, buckwheat, yarrow. Check out some local native gardens to see what you like and which plants the bees seem to enjoy most. Make sure to check at multiple times of year – the plants attractive now might have nothing to offer in three weeks and vice versa.

This brings up another important point – planting for all seasons. Try and make sure you have plants that bloom in spring, summer, and fall. The longer your garden is in bloom, the better it is for the bees, and the more attractive it will be.

Finally, make sure there’s water in your garden for the bees. It can be as simple as a bucket of water with some water hyacinth and mosquito fish. It can be a solar-powered waterfall with rock streambed for the bees to land on. It could be a birdbath with some sand mounded in it for the bees to stand on. Having a stable water source will mean your bees are less likely to annoy neighbors or harass swimmers in nearby pools.

In addition, members add these suggestions:

Madrona Marsh Native Plant Garden, Torrance (hosts a monthly “Out of the Wilds and Into your Garden” class, as well)

Spring – Yucca

Summer – Desert buckwheat, Laurel sumac, Toyon (California Holly), Deer weed

Summer/fall – Wireweed

Fall – Blue curl


California Poppy                 Eschscholzia californica

California Gilia                    Gilia achilleifolia

California Phacelia              Phacelia californica

CA Desert Bluebells           Phacelia campanularis

White Sage                         Salvia apiana

Black Sage                         Salvia apiana

California Hedgenettle         Stachys bullata


California buckwheat          Eriogonum fasciculatum

Coast Buckwheat               Eriogonum latifolium

Sunflower                           Helianthus annuus

Slender Sunflower              Helianthus gracilientus

Mountain Monardella          Monardella odoratissima

Coyote mint                        Monardella villosa

Germander Sage                 Salvia chamaedryoides

Bog Sage                           Salvia uliginosa

Planting native plants can help you save water, and support local native species of bees in addition to local honey bees. Try to plant varieties for all blooming seasons to keep your gardens beautiful and your bees well fed.

This list is by no means complete, just some of the most common or popular local plants bees enjoy. Other varieties in the same families, and some other plants not even mentioned here, can be excellent choices. Talk with your local nursery or search for California Native Plants online for more information. Many of these seeds/plants can be found online at (located in Sun Valley, CA).

Above data compiled from:

Other helpful sites: 

Create a pesticide free Honey Bee Haven in your yard.

The Bee-Pastures, Chapter 16 from The Mountains of California, by John Muir (1894):