Honey bee foraging

11 Best Plants For Honeybees
(And 5 To Avoid)

Honey bees require a balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fats, and water.

Nectar, a sugary plant secretion, and honey provide the bees with carbohydrates. Pollen provides protein, which breaks down into amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and most of the fats. Though nectar contains water, additional water is needed to dilute the sugar content of the nectar.

In a rural area, there may be plenty of plant diversity within the foraging range for your bees. In suburban and urban environments, this plant diversity may be hard to find. A honey bee garden that provides pollen and nectar-rich plants throughout the year may give your colonies the boost they need.

General guidelines for adding bee-friendly plants to your landscape:

  • Select a variety of plants appropriate for your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, that bloom at different times to provide nectar and pollen spring through fall.
  • Plant a species in a cluster to make it appealing to bees.
  • Avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. They are harmful to the bees (and humans). Also, avoid buying plants that have been treated (such as with neonicotinoids).
  • Provide a clean water source. Water in most containers is too deep for bees and can lead to drowning. Adding items like pebbles or marbles makes water depth more manageable.
  • Avoid hybridized plants. While hybridized plants don’t pose a particular threat to honey bees, they usually provide insufficient (if any) pollen and nectar.
  • Mow your lawn less frequently, giving bees better access to “weeds” like dandelions.
  • Beware of invasive plants that may overwhelm your garden.

You can find the study about lawn mowing in the journal Biological Conservation abstracted here. Dandelions can be a great early spring source of nectar and pollen.

A recent study showed ” results indicate that converting turf grass to a more florally-rich land cover would support increased supply of pollinators and urban agriculture.”

What is the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone?

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Research Service provides the Plant Hardiness Zone as “the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. “

Using the map here, enter your zip code or open your state map. You’ll find your zone (ours is Zone 5(b)) to will guide you in plant selection.

Outside the United States, various sources provide equivalent information using the USDA Zone numbers:

What Color Plants Are Best For Bees?

Before getting into specific plant recommendations, let’s talk about colors.

Bees and humans see colors a bit differently.

As shown on the nearby image, the light wavelengths visible to bees make red appear as black. Black is the absence of light. So bees will not be attracted to red flowers.

Bees will be most attracted to colors running from yellow through blue and purple, as shown on the chart along with white. These are the easiest for them to see.

Bees are also able to see ultraviolet colors that are invisible to humans. This ability helps guide the bees to pollen and nectar.

Bee Culture magazine even has an article solely about blue flowers for bees.

Bee vs Human visible color spectrum
Bee vs. Human visible color spectrum

Check out our article Why Are Beekeeping Suits White? (Hot Summers, Anyone?) where we also discuss the visibility of colors to honeybees.

Plants That Feed Your Bees

There is no way to cover all the specific plants you should consider for a bee garden.

For example, goldenrod is an excellent source of pollen and nectar in the fall. However, there are as many as 150 different species of goldenrod. Poppy, a spring bloomer, has about 70 species.

The USDA Zones are a general guideline. You may find a particular species of that plant for zones outside of these bands.

With limitations in mind, we’ve compiled a list of 11 common plants that can help your bees get nectar and pollen all season long. In addition to helping your honey bees, they’ll be a benefit to many other pollinators such as butterflies and bumblebees.

We’ve grouped things by time of year for simplicity. Within each season, we’ve listed flowering plants (including herbs, fruits, and vegetables) along with trees and shrubs. (We’ve also skipped a bunch of Latin names since you don’t really need them to find more information.)

Late Winter Into Early Spring

Maple

  • Perennial (tree)
  • USDA Zones 3 – 9
  • Full sun and well-drained soil
  • Late winter to early spring
  • Pollen and nectar
  • Variety of species

Maple trees can grow to a height of over 60 feet and over 30 feet in width. Planting a tree like this is part of your overall landscape and not a simple garden plant.

Red maples are among the most attractive to bees. With early blooms, they provide nectar and pollen to start the season as long as it’s warm enough for the bees to fly.

It’s unlikely that the nectar will be used much in honey production. Food from maples and other very early bloomers will probably be used up in brood production. That’s a good thing!

The brilliant foliage in the fall will more than compensate for lack of bee food. And, if you have enough maples, you might want to add maple syrup to your outdoor repertoire.

Maple tree in fall
Our maple trees help bees in spring and add brilliant color in the fall
Maple Syrup Season
How we started making maple syrup

Pussy Willow

  • Perennial
  • USDA Zones 4 – 8
  • Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil
  • Late winter into early spring
  • Pollen and nectar
  • Brown branches with gray catkins (those furry buds)

Pussy willows may bloom as early as February, which may be too cold for the bees to fly.

But if it’s warm enough, these plants can be a great source of nectar and pollen early in the year. Like other very early blooms, their product will be mostly used for wax building and brood rearing.

Bees on weeping pussy willow
Bees on weeping pussy willow

Spring

Poppy (Papaver)

  • Perennial, biennial or annual
  • USDA Zones 3 – 8
  • Prefers full sun in well-drained soil
  • Early spring and spring blooms
  • Pollen only
  • Wide variety of colors

Poppies offer spectacular flowers and brilliant colors in your spring garden. We find them easy to grow and maintain.

If you leave the blooms on annual poppies, they will drop their seeds, giving you a new growth the following year.

Poppies provide only pollen for your honey bees, which is great in the spring as the colony makes bee bread to feed the brood.

Our honey bees love our poppies

Also, see Bee Culture’s article Treat Your Bees To A Banquet Of Poppies

Alternatively, you can harvest the seeds yourself to plant next spring in the location of your choosing. BBC’s Gardeners’ World has a short video on collecting and storing poppy seeds. It’s super easy to do.

Late Spring Into Early Summer

Tulip Tree (Yellow Poplar)

  • Perennial (tree)
  • USDA Zones 4 – 9
  • Full sun
  • Late spring to early summer
  • Nectar and pollen
  • Greenish-yellow tulip-shaped blooms; bright yellow fall color

The aptly named tulip tree can be over 70 feet tall and 40 feet wide at maturity. This fast-growing tree is an excellent nectar and pollen source just as your colonies are hitting full stride.

Tulip tree flowers
Tulip tree flowers

Red Flowering Thyme

  • Perennial
  • USDA Zones 4 – 9
  • Partial to full sun; moist soil
  • Early summer
  • Nectar and pollen
  • Pink or magenta flowers

Red flowering thyme is a creeping herb ground cover plant. It’s often used as filler in stone paths because it tolerates light foot traffic.

Only a few inches high, creeping thyme might replace part of a lawn giving your bees a brilliant source of food in June and July.

Mountain Bluet (Perennial Cornflower)

Red flowering thyme
Creeping thyme is an excellent ground cover
  • Perennial
  • USDA Zones 3 – 8
  • Full sun to partial shade; moist well-drained soil conditions
  • Nectar and pollen
  • Late spring into summer
  • Blue flower with reddish centers

Mountain bluet’s unusual, colorful flowers are relatively short-lived. They provide a great source of nectar into midsummer,

Growing to about 2 feet high, they are excellent border plants. They will self-seed for the next year.

Honey bee on mountain bluet
Honey bee on mountain bluet

Midsummer

Milkweed

  • Perennial
  • USDA Hardiness Zones 4 – 9
  • Prefers full sun
  • Summer (may last to early fall)
  • Nectar
  • Wide variety of colors

Milkweed provides an excellent source of nectar for honey bees. However, its design makes it a poor source of pollen. Bees can become trapped, risking the loss of limbs. (See the nearby video from Iowa PBS for details.)

Besides providing nectar for a host of insects, according to The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, ” Milkweeds…are the required host plants for caterpillars of the monarch butterfly and thus play a critical role in the monarch’s life cycle.”

There are many types of milkweed. Common milkweed may be a little too aggressive in your garden setting and require more management.

In selecting milkweed for your area, check out The Xerces Society’s Regional Milkweed Guides. There is also a milkweed seed finder on Xerces Society’s website.

One of our honey bees on milkweed
One of our honey bees on milkweed
The Unique Pollination System of the Swamp Milkweed | Iowa Land and Sky
Milkweed has an unusual pollination system

For additional reading, see Bee Culture’s article Milkweeds As Honey Plants

Sunflower

  • Annual (there are perennial species)
  • USDA Zones 4 – 9
  • Full sun (c’mon, it’s a SUNflower) and can tolerate poor soil conditions
  • Midsummer into fall
  • Pollen and nectar
  • Yellow colors primarily

Sunflower is the only seed crop in the world that was domesticated in North America, as described in Sunflower: An American Native from the University of Missouri.

A honey bee visits a gorgeous sunflower
A honey bee visits a gorgeous sunflower

Be careful in selecting sunflowers for a bee garden as many of the non-yellow colors and multi-head plants are hybrids that may be less attractive and beneficial to bees.

Also, sunflowers can grow rather tall, which is another factor to consider. The sunflowers we usually plant get up to about 8 feet in height.

Sunflowers not only help all pollinators (butterflies and all kinds of bees), but their seeds are feasted on by birds late in the season.

Panicle Hydrangea (Paniculata)

  • Perennial
  • USDA Zones 3 – 8
  • Sun to shade in the hottest part of the day; moist, well-drained soil
  • Midsummer into fall; long bloom period
  • Nectar and pollen
  • Variety of light colors

The panicle hydrangea is a large plant growing up to 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide.

With its long bloom time and large size, the paniculata gives your bees a long season to enjoy them. I cannot imagine our bees without it.

Bee on our panicle hydrangea
Bee on our panicle hydrangea – note the pollen bag on her leg

We have one of these next to the house, and it’s full of bees in the early fall. I walk out the door and can hear the buzzing immediately. In addition to honey bees, it hosts bumblebees, yellow jackets, and butterflies.

Late Summer Into Fall

Goldenrod (Solidago)

  • Perennial
  • USDA Hardiness Zones 5 – 9
  • Prefers full sun
  • Late summer to fall
  • Nectar and pollen
  • Golden yellow colors

After a summer nectar dearth, goldenrod can be a key source of pollen and nectar in the fall. The end-of-season blooms help your colony build up stores for the coming winter (especially after you’ve harvested your share).

Goldenrod and a honey bee
Goldenrod and a honey bee

See our article Summer Nectar Dearth (What To Do) for more information

Honey from goldenrod has a different smell and taste from your summer honey, and it may not be to your liking. If it’s not, just leave it all for the bees to consume in winter and next spring. They’ll love it.

Goldenrod is a weed and can be very invasive. You may find it most suitable in wild gardens.

Most of the over 100 species of goldenrod are native to North America. If you want to add it to your garden, Plant Evaluation Notes: An Evaluation Report of Goldenrods for the Garden (by Richard G. Hawke, Manager of Plant Evaluation Programs for Chicago Botanic Garden) can help you narrow down the choices.

Aster

  • Perennial, biennial or annual
  • USDA Zones 4 – 8
  • Full to partial sun and a variety of growing conditions
  • Late summer into fall
  • Pollen and nectar
  • Wide variety of colors

Like goldenrod, asters provide late-season pollen and nectar to help honey bees prepare for winter. Unlike goldenrod, asters can add a lot of different colors to your fall garden.

Honey bee on blue aster
Honey bee on blue aster

According to the American Horticultural Society A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (available here on Amazon), “Asters have varying cultivation requirements.” Look for species appropriate for your USDA Zone, sun, and soil conditions.

5 Plants To Avoid In Your Bee Garden

Viper’s bugloss (Blueweed)

Viper’s bugloss (also called blueweed) is an invasive plant that is reputed to be an excellent source of nectar. Viper’s bugloss is native to Europe and parts of Asia. However, many US states list it as a “noxious weed.” Washington State includes it on a quarantine list of prohibited plants.

Blueweed is typically a wildflower found on roadsides or in pastures that provide little competing vegetation. According to the Montana State University Extension, ” Blueweed can infest pasture and rangeland, causing potential impact to livestock.”

Rhododendron

Rhododendrons and related plants produce grayanotoxin, a natural compound that has toxic effects. Toxic effects can include nausea and vomiting.

Grayanotoxin makes its way into honey via nectar foraged by bees. The result is known as “mad honey.”

Mad honey intoxication doesn’t seem to be a significant problem in the United States. When provided with more suitable plants for foraging, bees may not gather much nectar from rhododendrons. But why tempt them?

Also, mad honey is most likely to be present in raw, unprocessed honey. As a backyard beekeeper, I assume your honey, like ours, is raw.

For more information on mad honey, see our article What Is Raw Honey? (Besides Delicious)

Mountain Laurel

Mountain Laurel, like rhododendron, produces grayanotoxin; we’d avoid planting them.

Yellow Jessamine

Yellow Jessamine is likely found in a stretch of the United States from Texas to Virginia. It is the state flower of South Carolina.

According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, ” The species nectar may also be toxic to honeybees if too much is consumed and honey made from Carolina Jessamine nectar may be toxic to humans.”

While I found limited scientific evidence supporting concerns about Yellow Jessamine, there seems to be a lot of observations by beekeepers online suggesting issues with this plant.

Azaleas

I think azaleas are beautiful, colorful spring flowers. But the National Capital Poison Center information on Poison Control says, ” Azaleas are very close relatives of rhododendrons and can cause the same type of toxicity.”

So What’s In Our Gardens

Living in the rural Hudson Valley, our gardens and other property represent only a small portion of what’s available to our honey bees. Within easy foraging distances are vast areas with a wide variety of trees, shrubs, weeds, and flowers. A stream provides wet areas for water (though we’ve had it run dry a couple of times in hot summers).

Here’s an incomplete of our trees and plants:

  • Maples (enough that we make some syrup), apple trees, black walnut, magnolia, and birch trees.
  • Various flowering trees and shrubs including, panticle hydrangea (a bee favorite in fall) and weeping cherry.
  • A perennial wildflower field with a variety of flowers that bloom at different times including Black-eyed Susans.
  • Clematis, dahlias, wisteria, forsythia, and lilacs.
  • A fruit and vegetable garden in need of pollinators with:
    • Raspberry
    • Blueberry
    • Squash (zucchini, yellow, patty pan)
    • Green, yellow, Asian and red-runner beans
    • Tomatoes
    • Cucumbers (not a bee favorite)
    • Various peppers
    • Garlic

More Information On Bee-Friendly Plants

We’ve outlined the plants we think are best for your bee-friendly garden. Since it’s impossible for us to cover all the hundreds of possible options here, and opinions can vary, you can find more information in the resources listed here.

Books

100 Plants to Feed the Bees: Provide a Healthy Habitat to Help Pollinators Thrive

Despite the title, this book covers more than feeding the bees. Each plant listed indicates which pollinators it attracts: honey bees, native bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, and moths.

A map shows where a plant does well in North America. Each description includes the plant’s uses, proper exposure, soil moisture, bloom time, flower color, and maximum height. There are also specific recommendations for species or variety of a plant.

You can find 100 Plants to Feed the Bees here on Amazon.

The Bee-Friendly Garden: Design an Abundant, Flower-Filled Yard that Nurtures Bees and Supports Biodiversity

The Bee-Friendly Garden delves into different kinds of bees, their needs, bee-friendly plants, and garden design. The book includes Regional Plant Lists for the United States’ Southeast, South Central, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and Northeast/Midwest/Mid-Atlantic Regions.

You can buy The Bee-Friendly Garden here on Amazon.

Pollinator Friendly Gardening: Gardening For Bees, Butterflies, And Other Pollinators

As the title suggests, this book is about all types of pollinators. Of specific interest to beekeepers are lists such as Perennials For Bees and Best Herbs For Bees. It also has excellent sections on how to rethink your lawn and weeds.

You can find Pollinator Friendly Gardening here on Amazon.

American Horticultural Society A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

This encyclopedia is a huge, comprehensive reference source with tons of detail. As such, it’s much more than you’ll need for beekeeping.

However, if gardening is another passion of yours, it’s worth checking into.

You can find American Horticultural Society A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants here on Amazon.

Recommended Websites

The Honeybee Conservancy

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

About Us

Melanie and Jim

I’m Melanie Howard. My husband, Jim, and I want to share with you everything we’ve learned about beekeeping since we were newbies 6 years ago. Maybe the the ups and downs we’ve experienced can help you along the way.

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