The Best Flowers For Bees When Gardening

Did you know bees are called the world’s star pollinators because they pollinate one-third of the earth’s food crops? In California, the almond crop is actually entirely dependent on honey bees for pollination, and our state is home to over 1,600 species of native bees! Native bees are the most important group of pollinators we have, and with their habitat dwindling, now is a more important time than ever for us to lend a helping hand and plant the best flowers for bees in our gardens.

daisy being pollinated

The Urban California Native Bee Survey demonstrated that, “With the right bee plants, one small urban garden can attract forty to fifty species of native bees.” When gardening, you can invite native bees by providing plentiful and varied resources for pollen, nectar and nesting.

Do’s and Don’ts of Gardening for Bees

When gardening for bees, there are three primary best practices to follow:

  1. Plant in Large Patches
  2. Plant each species in large clusters that are at least three feet wide. This encourages bees to forage for longer periods of time in your garden.

  3. Plant a Wide Variety of Species
  4. Experts recommend using at least 20 different plant varieties in your yard when gardening for bees. It’s important to include a wide range of species that will attract bees, including many plants that will flower at different times throughout California’s extremely long growing season. This will provide plentiful pollen and nectar sources for diverse bee species in all seasons. Like plants, various bee species have different seasons, and every season in your garden will welcome a different group of bees.

  5. Don’t Use Pesticides
  6. When gardening for bees, it’s important to avoid using pesticides. No insecticides of any kind are safe for bees.

Which Plants and Trees Will Attract Bees in Your Garden?

There are many flowering plants and trees that can provide food for native bees, and research has shown the insects are four times more likely to be drawn to native plants.

When it comes to choosing ideal plants, top trees and best flowers for bees, according to the LA County Bee Keepers Association, any that require pollination are a good bet for your garden, including many that produce fruits and vegetables such as:

fruit being pollinated
  • Stone fruits
  • Citrus fruits
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Avocados
  • Onions
  • Mustard greens
  • Potatoes
  • Beets
  • Celery
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Watermelon

Wikipedia has a list of fruits and vegetables that need pollination, however, be aware that plants that self-pollinate such as tomatoes, roses, grasses/grains, etc. are less helpful.

Also, it’s a good idea to let some of your vegetables bolt and go to seed instead of harvesting them at the end of the growing season; it’s great way to help the bees. Leaving a few veggies like carrots, beets, radishes, onions and broccoli plants just for the bees will assist them, and might even result in some of your crops reseeding on their own next year.

Which Plants Should You Grow? These Are the 10 Best Flowers for Bees

These 10 flowering plants, chosen by the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, were selected because they provide bee-friendly blooms in your garden throughout the spring, summer and fall. Convenient for gardening, they all have minimal watering and maintenance requirements and will attract a wide variety of bee species.

  1. Frikart’s Aster is a herbaceous perennial that flowers throughout summer. Its lavender-blue daisies pair well with silver foliage plants. An absolute butterfly magnet, it also attracts many types of native bees and provides them with both pollen and nectar. Deadheading spent flowers will extend its flowering season.
  2. bee on california lilac
  3. Ray Hartman’s California Lilacs are native to California and an excellent source of pollen for early spring bees. ‘Ray Hartman’ is an upright large shrub that can be trained as a small tree and is covered with blue flowers in March. Unlike some other California lilacs, it tolerates summer irrigation and is relatively long-lived.
  4. Western Redbud is native to the foothills of California’s valley floor. It blooms in spring with magenta-pink pea-shaped flowers that are popular with a variety of native bees. If you see curious scoops on the edges of its leaves, you are doing a good job encouraging diversity in your pollinator garden because it means a population of leafcutter bees are living close by.
  5. bees on poppy
  6. California Poppies aretechnically an annual, but they will “perennial-ize” by sprouting the following year from their roots and lower stems, or by re-seeding. Look for sweat bees scrambling around the bottom of the flower and covering themselves with pollen.
  7. Blanket Flower is a colorful daisy-type of flower popular with a number of native bees. In California’s central valley they attract long-horned bees like Melissodes, which can be easily observed collecting nectar and pollen from the showy orange and yellow flowers. Keep in mind this plant may be short-lived in heavy soils.
  8. Catmint is a tough, herbaceous and spreading perennial that blooms from spring to early summer. Cut this one back after its first bloom to promote reblooming. In California, catmint is sought by a wide variety of bees (like leafcutters, digger bees and blue orchard bees) for its nectar, while some of the smaller bees also use it for pollen.
  9. Russian Sage is a plant visited by many types of native bees as well as honey bees. This upright deciduous perennial is tough and heat tolerant, and thrives in harsh environments. This variety will also reward you with vertical spikes of showy purple blooms late into the summer season. Cut it back to the base in winter.
  10. bee on lavender
  11. Goodwin Creek Lavender, also known as ‘Goodwin Creek Grey,’ is a tough and long-blooming sub-shrub hybrid lavender that can be used to provide winter structure to your pollinator planting. Blooming early and lasting into summer, it is popular with large carpenter bees and a range of other smaller bees for its nectar. It can be pruned to shape to increase branching, or to keep a compact form.
  12. Germander Sage blooms with beautiful dark blue flowers from late spring to early summer and again in fall; it is a primary nectar source for a number of bee types. Male carder bees may be most noticeable as they set up territories around flowering patches and knock into other bees that enter their area. Deadheading spent flowers in early summer will help the blossoms (and the bees) return in fall.
  13. Cascade Creek Goldenrod Solidago blooms from summer into fall. Its flame-shaped yellow spikes of flower clusters are attractive to small bees and butterflies. Tough and drought tolerant, it is perfect in a native garden with other drought tolerant plants. Cut flower spikes to the ground after they bloom to encourage reblooming. This plant will overwinter as a small mat of green leaves.
provide water for your bees

Water Sources Needed When Gardening for Bees

After you plant the best flowers for bees in your garden, make sure there’s water available for the bees in your yard. You can use a simple bucket of water with some water hyacinth and mosquito fish, or you can get more elaborate with something like a solar-powered waterfall with a rock streambed for the bees to land on. You could also choose a pretty birdbath with some sand mounded in the middle 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.

Making a Native Bee Nesting Box

Once you’ve sorted out the best flowers for bees as well as a good water source, it’s time to create nesting areas that will keep bees in your garden. Plant California provides some terrific information about creating nesting areas for bees, including a fun project of making a native bee nesting box.  

Native Bee Nesting Box Materials List

  1. Variety of native plants that will attract bees.
  2. A block of untreated wood (4” × 6” × 12”).
  3. A power drill with ¼” and 5/16” drill bits.
  4. Hardware to mount the wood block on a fence or wall.

To make a native bee nesting box follow these simple steps:

provide nesting space
  1. Drill Nesting Holes: Drill holes approximately 5” deep into one side of the wood block, making alternating rows of different sizes using the two different size drill bits.
  2. Attach Hardware: To mount the nesting box, attach hardware from which to hang the box, or drill a hole in the back of the box to hang it on a nail.
  3. Mount the Box: Attach the box securely on a fence or wall in a sunny location that’s sheltered from wind. Placing the box near flowers and trees will make it more inviting to the bees, and mounting it close to eye level will make it easier for you see that the bees are using the box.

Not all bee species will use a nesting box, as some are ground-nesters. To prepare space for ground-nesting varieties of bees, follow these two easy steps:

  1. Clear Ground for Nesting:

    Choose an open spot in a sunny location and clear an area up to two feet across so the soil is exposed, free of vegetation, fast-draining and lightly compacted. Clearing multiple areas of different sizes will draw different species of bees to nest.
  2. Prepare Sandpit for Nesting:

    Alternatively, you can dig a hole about two feet deep and fill it with a mixture of fine horticultural sand and loam. You can also fill a container with the sand and loam mixture for bees to nest in.

Let the Experts at SummerWinds Help

We carry a wide range of fruit trees, vegetable starts and flowering plants that will attract a large variety of bee species to your garden. Our helpful staff will gladly offer advice and recommendations of plant varieties that will look not only look beautiful, but bloom throughout the spring, summer and fall and attract multiple species of bees to your garden. Come visit us today!

About SummerWinds Nursery: SummerWinds Garden Centers is a leading high-end retailer of garden and nursery products. Headquartered in Boise, Idaho, SummerWinds operates retail nurseries in the greater Phoenix, Arizona area, and in Silicon Valley, California, making it one of the largest independent retail nursery companies in the west. SummerWinds appeals to both the serious and casual gardeners, with a broad selection of premium gardening products and a friendly and knowledgeable staff.