Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bee Friendly, Play Nice!

A miracle happened the other day in the form of two little bee hives perched solidly in the overgrown backyard.  Steven, of swarm catching fame, delivered them last week and I've been sitting a few feet away from the entrances on sunny days like a silent air traffic control, watching them zoom this way and that.  I also check on them in the morning to see if they've begun their day's work (even before I start the coffee!).  Oddly enough, my responsibilities regarding these hives end here, as Steven comes once a month or so to check on them, add a story to their hive, or harvest their honey.  This is the miracle part.  The bees pollinate my cucumbers and in return I take their honey and give a jar or two to the skeptic neighbors.  (Well, Steven harvests the honey, I just eat it and give it away.)  Could I be any happier?!

Since they've arrived, I find myself thinking of plants they and their native counterparts prefer and am considering planting a few things to keep them busy in my own garden before they must venture out beyond.  I pulled out my copy of the Pollinator Conservation Handbook (review here) and refreshed my memory.

-Like many folks I know, bees seem to have a favorite color:  blue.  Now not all blue-flowered plants support bees and not all bees only go for blue flowers, but as a starting point this can be helpful.

-In mild climates like ours, bees need a constant source of nectar.  Planning the garden based on year-round flowers not only makes it look prettier to you, but it's also tastier to the bees.

-Those showy hybridized plants at the big-box store typically don't produce much or any pollen or nectar.  Best to stick with the classics.

-Pesticides kill those bugs ruining your plants.  They also kill every other bug that comes in contact with it.  Try to use pesticide as a last-resort (or not at all).

-Planting the same plant close together is more effective than spacing them out in various parts of the garden.

Here's a plant list I've put together of CA native plants that bees seem to like very much:

for Sun:
Ceanothus, any Ceanothus
Manzanitas give yummy soft pink flowers just after Christmas.
Rhus ovata or integrifolia (ovata's leaves and habit fit better in a garden setting)
Rhamnus californica or Coffeeberry
Trictostema lanatum, Wooly Blue Curls

Manzanita 'St. Helena'
for Shade:

Manzanitas give yummy soft pink flowers just after Christmas. (some are more shade tolerant than others)
Rhus ovata or integrifolia (ovata's leaves and habit fit better in a garden setting)
Rhamnus californica or Coffeeberry
Cream Bush or Holodiscus discolor

for Sun:
All the Salvias (Sages), although spathacea or Hummingbird Sage markets to a different audience
All the Eriogonums, or Buckwheats.  Honeybees love the grande rubescens while the hoverflies and smaller native bees are big fans of St. Catherine's lace.
Penstemon heterophyllus for the bumbles
Erigeron glaucus W.R. attracts all sorts of lovely creatures, bees included
Grindelia's provide late season sources of nectar (Gumplant)

 Heuchera flowering away

for Shade:
Scrophularia (Common name is Bee Plant.  Hmm....)
Heucheras or Alum Roots
Oxalis oregana, or Redwood Sorrel
Prunella vulgaris, or Self Heal
Salvia 'Bee's Bliss' will grow in part shade

Carpenter Bee snacking on a Collinsia heterophylla

for Sun:
Collinsia heterophylla, Chinese Houses (Carpenter bees especially love this one)
Phacelia (seriously, tanacetifolia's common name is "Bee's Friend."), but other Phacelias help just as well.
Clarkias, or Farewell to Summer might bring you the Clarkia bee
California poppies give the Bumble bees something to do
Gilia capitata, Globe Gilia is a bee magnet! 
Lupines!  Lots of Lupines!
You've heard of Clover honey, right?
for Shade:
Collinsia heterophylla, Chinese Houses (Carpenter bees especially love this one)
Limnanthes douglasii or Meadowfoam or Poached Egg Plant

If anyone has others, please add them to the comments.  Also, here's a few links that could be quite helpful or will at least help you procrastinate a little longer:

Urban Bee Gardens- a guide for planting to help out the bees in the Bay Area

Pollinator Pathway in Seattle- cool corridor planting project!

Las Pilitas' bumblebee page- they're such helpful folks!


  1. Ooooh...you have bees! I'm so jealous, but how fun! Great list of plants too, I'm going to scribble down some those for future reference. I can certainly attest to Ceanothus as a favorite. With ours blooming right now, the bees seem to favor that over our lavender! The Scrophularia I picked up at the SF F&G show isn't blooming yet, but I'll be curious to see how the bees go for it when it does. Geez...now I want bees...although I shouldn't complain, as at least our Mason Bees are nesting.

  2. my favorite large shrub for bees is napa false indigo - an endangered shrub from napa/sonoma/marin counties. it's a tall and pretty shrub which looks very tropical from a distance and has these strange flowers which are total bumblebee magnets. it grows in partial shade to mostly sun, and does well in alleys or narrow spaces between buildings. i've seen the bees fighting over them. Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'Tom's Point' is my favorite kinnickinnick and it flowers twice in my garden and at the nursery - once in early spring and again in midsummer. it's also one of the prettiest short manzanitas and can take a fair amount of shade too. for full-sun, it' hard to beat coyote mint or monardellas. for both sun and shade, zauschnerias also attract bees.

  3. Bees are in the air it seems - Lisa and Robb are also enjoying setting up bee hives. And Town Mouse got a swarm before the garden tour. Yes, our local native ceanothus are buzzing with bees too. Thanks for the very useful lists!

  4. How sweet of you to help the bees. I wish I could attract bees here too. I should look up what they love here. You have any idea as to what the carpenter bees like, besides trees? I've seen them hovering about in my garden but were never interested in my plants.

  5. Hi Clare- Mason bees are pretty darn cool so I wouldn't despair over the lack of honeybees just yet!

    Pete-thanks so much for adding to the list. I'm absolutely fascinated by the False Indigo (Amorpha californica var. napensis) now and I see you have some on your current inventory list! Save one for me, would ya? Host plant for our state insect, the Dogface Butterfly!

    CM- I know- they're in the air! (Har, har). Is it that there's more swarms this year or are we just more in the know?

    Hey Chandramouli- not sure what kind of Carpenter bees hang out in your neck of the woods, but I've seen them enjoy Lupines and Collinsia heterophylla (Chinese Houses). I'm sure they love all those white flowers you've got!

  6. I've got scrophularia right next to one of my hives, and the bees are totally ignoring it. I'm not sold on the merits of this rather weedy looking plant.

  7. Darn, Lisa and/or Robb- I really like Scrophularia, but it's the bumble bees that are really attracted to it. The shape of the flower is uniquely shaped to attract them. For honeybees, I might stick to Gilia, Salvias, or Meadow Foams. It's amazing how specialized the pollinators and their plants are! Clare directed me to this awesome page on Yerba Buena's site that specifies the plants that attract each species (although honeybees aren't included):