Bee Plants

I often am asked for plant recommendation so here is a list of a few favorites and the season they bloom (I added the months for Seattle/Puget Sound area).  In general when looking for flowers that the bees will like, look for heritage varieties that have simple structures that are easy to identify (petals, pollen on anther, stigma, easy access to nectar).  Once you find a plant you like you can check to see if it is good melliferous plant, which means the bees can collect the pollen and turn the nectar into honey.  It's also good to cross reference your local noxious weeds list, however I will warn you that many of the best plants (nutritional and honey yield) for honey bees ARE the troublemakers.

Winter -  Spring - Summer - Fall

Winter (Dec-Feb)

Winter Camellia: One source of that winter pollen coming into the hives is from the Winter Blooming Camellia.  Finding one in the heart of winter must be like winning the bee-lotto with their large rain resistant flowers and sweet scent.  Winter blooming varieties of Camellias prefer partial shade and do well under taller trees or next to buildings, and you will want to give them enough space to grow and have air flow to prevent disease. There are several colors available from white to red, and as always when buying pollinator friendly plants remember to look for single form flowers that allow easy access to the pollen.  Camellias are evergreen providing attractive foliage year round and require well drained soil that is slightly acidic.  If you have been looking for a nice container plant for a patio, balcony or entrance way this might be the one for you.


Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica): This small evergreen tree adds an exotic look to our Northwestern gardens with it's large glossy leaves.  This plant is a native to south-central China and while it does need slightly warmer weather than our area can provide to produce mature fruit, it will still flourish as an ornamental.  New leaves will be fuzzy red to yellowish in color and slowly mature to a dark green.  Stems of the tree are light brown and also slightly fuzzy and while it looks delicate is actually pretty tough in our climate.  In December it will produce clusters of whitish flowers that give off a sweet scent that can smelled for a distance.  Once established trees will show a degree of drought tolerance, however they have a shallow root system and care should be taken to not disturb the soil under the canopy.


Viburnum tinus (Laurustinus):  An evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean with a long winter blooming period that starts in November and can last until late spring.  They produce slightly fragrant clusters of white and light pink flowers that stand out against their dark glossy green leaves.  These shrubs are fairly versatile and bloom best when given a sunny or partially sunny location with regular watering.  When plants become established they can even show drought tolerance qualities during our long dry summers.  They need minimal pruning to maintain shape over time and can be a good pick for low maintenance hedges.  Their shiny dark blue berries are a food source that attracts birds and other wildlife.


Hellebore: While there aren't many pollen sources available in January there are a few non natives planted in abundance around the city to provide food for the girls on those occasional nice days.  Hellebore is one of these plants that will provide long lasting blooms full of pollen.  This European native is hardy here in the Northwest and some varieties keep their foliage year round.  They also grow well in shady locations with little to no care which makes them appealing to gardeners.


Western Hazelnut: A common pacific northwest native that blooms in February is the Western Hazelnut (or Filbert).  This is one of the earliest bloomers in the area and produces a good amount of pollen from "male" blooms called catkins.  Being a native plant these trees do well in full sun or part shade and grow very long roots that enables them to handle our dry summers extremely well.  Due to their long roots these trees are very difficult to transplant and do best when planted from seed.  You can find these trees all over the city thanks to the tasty nuts they produce that the squirrels will devour or hide before letting you get even one.


Sarcococca ruscifolia:  While it may not be a native to the area this small shrub fits right into our woodland gardens here in the Northwest.  This slow growing evergreen needs a shady spot and has low water requirements once established.  The late winter blooms of this plant are fairly insignificant, however the sweet fragrance those tiny flowers make leaves a lasting impression that will make you want to run out and buy one for your yard.  If there is winter sun the bees will find this one wherever you put it, however to get the most enjoyment from their scent you will ideally want to plant several near a walkway.  They also produce non-editable berries that are red or black that are often still on the plant the following season.


Winter Heather:  This plant can add color and versatility to your winter gardens as well as supply food for pollinators on those occasional nice winter days.  Heather comes in several colors and depending on the variety can grow as a ground-cover or upright in mounds.  They do particularly well in rock gardens with acidic soils and like full sun but can tolerate some shade.  A common problem with Heather is they can get lanky and for winter varieties they need early summer pruning to keep their shape.


Witch Hazel (Hamamelis): There are several different species that are native to Eastern North America, China, and Japan ranging in colors from yellow to red that bloom during winter on bare branches after the leaves have fallen.  Looking around our northwest gardens the species we typically find are from Japan (H. japonica) and China (H. mollis) or crosses between the two.  The American species start blooming in late fall between October and December, and the Asian species typically bloom between January and March.  They start blooming while the previous years seeds are still on the branches and thus get the Latin name hamamelis which means "together with fruit".  The seed pods contain two black seeds and will pop when mature throwing the seeds a short distance away.  When not showing off their impressive winter blooms, they have attractive soft green leaves in summer.  They need to be planted in a sunny or mostly sunny spot that has fertile soil, and will also need regular watering during dry summer months.


Crocus: Appearing at the end of winter Crocus blooms are a sign that spring is on the way and are an excellent pollen food source.  They are easy to grow and like well drained soils that get a good amount of sunlight.  If you are relaxed about your lawn care, Crocus can even be naturalized into yards for a splash of early spring color.  Crocus come in a variety of colors and they bloom from fall to spring.  If you are a fan of saffron, it is made from the dried stigmas of the fall blooming Crocus sativus.  Unlike bulb flowers the Crocus corms gets completely absorbed into the flower and leaves during the bloom cycle and then will make new corms as the plant goes dormant again, so be careful not to destroy the plant during the growing cycle.


Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis):  This is one of my favorite bee friendly herbs with flower colors varying from white, blue, pink and purple.  Around here they usually have a robust bloom coming out of winter lasting into spring, but they also tend to bloom whenever they want any month of the year.  On a spring day in the sunshine these bushes will be covered in bees working them for pollen.  I've observed the flowers leaving a white/pale pollen mark along the thorax of workers which isn't quickly cleaned off and can be found during inspections. These evergreens are usually hardy enough to survive our winters, but can be damaged by deep freezes or extended winter storms over time.  Plant in a well drained sunny spot and they will thrive.  They also respond well to hedging and can be easily propagated from cuttings.


Winter Daphne (Daphne odora): This delicate shrub starts budding during the peak of our winter and is in full bloom by early spring.  These evergreens have thick waxy looking leaves with varieties ranging from either solid dark green, or yellow variegated.  The long lasting pink/white flowers are sweetly scented and tough enough to hold up in our late winter storms.  Plant in well-drained soil that can fully dry out between watering as they will quickly die in soggy or deeply watered locations which is why they have a reputation for being short lived plants.  A key to getting great blooms is to plant them in a location that gets morning sunlight and afternoon shade.  Pruning should be minimal and focused on removing diseased or dead branches keeping in mind that this is an open branched bush that needs airflow.  They can be easily started from cuttings, but will not transplant.


Some other good winter plants:
  • Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica)
  • Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox)

Spring (March - May)

Indian-Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis): Native to the Pacific Northwest the Indian Plum is a perennial deciduous shrub with soft lime green leaves in spring.  I've always heard that this is our earliest blooming spring plant native to the Pacific Northwest lowlands and it is my indicator plant for the start of spring blooms.  While anyone that follows my blogs knows I can find nectar or pollen producing plant just about any day of the year in city neighborhoods, it's much harder to find native plants that are in blooming this early.  The Indian Plum is a nectar producer and can tolerate a variety of soil conditions from slightly shady damp areas to dry sunny spots, however sunnier spots will help them bloom more aggressively.  They can be grown relatively easily from cuttings or seeds and have been known to reach 16 feet tall with most around 6-8 feet.  In addition to the nectar producing flowers that attract a variety of pollinators it produces small editable purple fruits "plums" in fall that many animals eat.  While these shrubs are not very compact in shape they can still make for a nice addition to our woodland gardens. 




Mahonia: Oregon Grape (Mahonia) is an attractive evergreen shrub with holly like leaves is a native to the northwest.   Different species of Mahonia can be found throughout North and Central America and in Asia, which are also planted around the city and may be hard to distinguish from our native varieties.  The Oregon grape has clusters of long lasting yellow blooms in early spring that are very attractive to honey bees and other pollinators (especially bumble bees - if you are lucky you will likely see the queens flying).  They do well in full sun to part shade and make good accent plants for gardens or even as hedges.  They get their common name form the clumps of small "editable" bluish berries that form late summer.


Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis): The Northwest is a great place for bulbs to grow and they provide are an excellent source of early Spring pollen to help hives build up.  There are so many commercial options available to choose from for your landscape that it's easy for one to forget about the native options.  One of our natives is the Chocolate lily with a long grass like stem and hanging brown speckled flowers. Today these lilies are rare to find in the wild, but they were once more common and even cultivated.  Local tribes grew them as a food source that was either cooked right away or dried and eaten later or used for trade.  These lilies do best in open dry wooded areas or meadows that have rich organic soils that stay moist but never in areas that have standing water.  They can be grown from seed or you can start new bulbs from the small rice sized bulblets that grow around the main bulb.


Big Leaf Maple: The Big Leaf Maple is a fast growing northwest native found primarily between the Cascades and the coastline.  They will outgrow the native evergreen trees but at the cost of having brittle branches and a shorter life span.  Often home to a variety of wildlife and mosses they provide summer shade and an inescapable downpour of leaves in fall.  While there are many varieties of maples in the area the Big Leaf Maple is the largest and often grows into large twisted masterpiece of the landscape.  The blooms of these giant trees can create a minor flow if we are lucky enough to get several days of sunshine in a row.  If you find yourself under one of these trees on a sunny spring day be sure to listen for the hum of the bees.


Ceanothus thyrsiflorus:  Oregon Mist (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus) is native evergreen shrub to western North America and stands out for the vibrant blue flowers it makes in late spring.  There are about 50 varieties of Ceanothus with colors ranging from blue, white, and pink, but why would you not plant the bees favorite color?  Being a native plant these bushes are also amazing drought tolerant once established.  Over time they can grow into a small tree to about 15 feet high that provide privacy and color or to fill in that out of the way spot in the garden.  Once established these bushes can be a lazy gardeners dream because they do best when not fertilized or watered and put in a sunny location.


Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum): The Evergreen Huckleberry is a versatile native plant that has the ability to grow in either full sun or deep shade.  When in a full sun exposure these bushes can get to 10 feet tall, and in low light locations may only grow a few feet tall.  New leaves are initially reddish and will darken to thick green leaves that are evergreen year round.  These plants like acidic soils and are often seen growing out of nurse logs or stumps.  Spring flowers will produce editable berries that will turn dark blue/black when they are ripe.  Birds and wildlife love to eat the berries as well so be quick to harvest when they are ready.


Catmint (Nepeta): Nepeta produces long lasting flower spikes that are highly appealing to honey bees.  They are members of the mint family and do best in sunny locations with moderate water requirements and also show good drought tolerance once established.  Unlike many other perennials Nepeta is tough and can flourish even if neglected for many years.  Both the foliage scent and flowers will benefit from short dry periods between watering.  Trimming back spent flower spikes mid-summer will help keep new flowers forming all summer long.  Many of the newer varieties of Nepeta you will find are sterile hybrid crosses that need to be propagated from division or cuttings.  They are great plants for use in rock gardens, along pathway edges, or as companion plants in rose gardens.


Poppies: There is a shared love between gardeners and bees for poppies and they are a welcome sign that summer is just around the corner.  Poppies are considered an excellent pollen source and their open petals invite bees to come dance in their stamens to collect pollen.  Poppies can be found in most parts of the world and vary from being an annual or perennial depending on the species.  Papaver nudicaule (Iceland poppy) are usually considered biennials and have blue green foliage and long lasting papery flowers that hold up well during our rainy springs.  The seeds are very fine and can successfully reseed themselves between rocks and in cracks along sidewalks.  Papaver somniferum are bigger bulkier poppies that can survive for years and are also the source of poppy seeds.  Multiple bees can visit these these large flowers and depending on the variety may be collecting black pollen.  These poppies generally prefer full sun and well drained soils and will go dormant during our long dry summers only to reappear again in spring.

Papaver somniferum


Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule) 


Summer (June - Aug) 

Hebe: Hebe is a native New Zealand shrub that is low maintenance and adapts well to our Northwest climate.  Depending on the variety you can get blooms at various times between late spring and early winter.  Leaf color and structure varies greatly, and blooms colors include white, pink, purple and crimson.  Not all varieties overwinter well here, and optimal locations are well drained, sunny, and protected from winter winds.  These compact evergreens also make great container plants and only need occasional watering during droughts.  Propagate by seeds or late summer cuttings.


Japanese Snowbell Tree (Styrax japonicus): When thinking of bee plants it's easy to forget that flowering trees or shrubs can also be great food sources. Once established trees and shrubs generally hold up well during dry weather, when many flowers are wilting, and can reach water deeper in the ground which keeps their nectar output going. The Snowbell tree gets it's name from the snow white bell shaped flowers that hang downwards along it's branches.  This tree has a compact shape with dark green leaves and horizontally spreading branches.  The tree does well in partial sun and tolerates acidic soil and it does not complete with woodland plants in it's root area.  However it does need frequent watering if in a dry or high sun exposure location and also needs to be protected from wind.  You can propagate this tree using softwood cuttings in summer or from seed.


Rockrose (Cistus): This evergreen shrub puts on an impressive bloom in early summer that is loved by bees.  There are a variety of species and crosses with various flower sizes and colors from white, pink and purple.  These Mediterranean natives like full sun and form dense mounds over time that are wider than they are tall.  Thanks to a mycorrhizal relationship with their roots they are drought tolerant and can grow in poor soils.  This makes them good picks for planting on slopes and around rock gardens, however also be aware that this can inhibit other plants from growing nearby.  They grow quickly and do not like to be heavily pruned.  Seeds generally germinate after wild fires and my need to be heat treated to break dormancy.


Linden/Basswood Tree (Tilia americana): When June arrives in the Puget Sound area most beekeepers are thinking about the Blackberry flow.  However in other parts of the country the Basswood tree helps make up the major June flow.  While not native to the northwest they historically were planted as street trees around neighborhoods in Seattle.   Linden trees are slow growing upright trees that can get quite large over time providing summer shade.  Unfortunately they have become unpopular as they are susceptible to aphids which causes them drip sticky sap on sidewalks and cars.  However if you are fortunate enough to have some these now giant trees in your neighborhood the nectar produced from their tiny yellow flowers makes for an appealing light honey.


Privet: This a popular shrub produces clusters of small white flowers that are highly desirable to honey bees.  Most varieties of privet are evergreen, drought tolerant once established, and grow quickly making them an ideal shrub to use in hedges as a fence alternative.  Privet responds well to shaping but flowering may be compromised if hedged too aggressively.  Under ideal conditions they can grow into a small tree, and do well in full sun or partial shade.  The Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense) produces a clear colored honey with a light sweet taste.  However some varieties of privet have been known to add an undesirable flavor to honey crops.


Oregano: When thinking about July and plants that do well here, one of my bee favorites is Oregano and not just because I'm Greek.  Derived from the Greek words oros (mountain) and ganos (joy) the name translates to "joy of the mountain" and is reflective of the carpet of purplish-white flowers it creates over hilly Mediterranean landscapes.  Even before the flowers open it gets attention from the girls in anticipation.  Oregano is a hardy plant in the lowlands can even grown as a perennial around the city and reproduces easily from seed, by root spreading or even cuttings.  In Europe Oregano might also go by the name Wild Marjoram and it has been used for centuries in cooking for it's spicy, sweet or astringent flavors. Oregano doesn't need much water and once established can grow just about anywhere with well drained soil and also does great in pots.  It usually starts blooming early July and can continue for the entire month.


Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin):  Many gardeners are surprised when they hear that we don't have many late summer flowers blooming in this area.  Blooming bushes and trees make up a large portion of forage for city hives which many gardeners forget about when they think of flowers.  To counter this I encourage people to plant trees and shrubs with late summer blooms to help provide abundant food sources.  The Silk Tree is a good example of a late summer nectar source and can also be very appealing in the garden.  These trees can range from 15 to 30 feet tall and have wide arching branches with wide flat crowns.  The leaves are fern like that droop downwards at night and the wispy flowers have long silky treads that are white with pink or red colored tips.  Like many good honey bee food sources the trees can be invasive in some areas.  These trees can also be messy in fall and are also susceptible to several disease which can make them short lived, but fortunately they grow quickly.  They prefer full sun and produce nectar in the morning hours which is often why you won't see many pollinators on them in the afternoons.


Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus): The Rose of Sharon comes to life in late summer with a long lasting display of tropical looking flowers that last until fall.  This late summer blooming shrub provides both pollen and nectar for hungry bees trying to find food at the end of the summer dearth.  Mature plants can get to 10-12 feet tall and are hardy in the northwest if planted in a sunny location that gets regular water during dry stretches.  There are many varieties and colors available to pick from, but try to avoid the double petaled varieties that make it harder for bees to access the pollen and nectar.  Another plus is that blooms are produced on new growth so winter pruning isn't going to set them back for the season.  The only negative is that they are deciduous and often stay in a long dormancy period coming out of winter and may look dead until early summer.


Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro): This mid-summer flower will have bees falling over themselves to work, and it is not uncommon to see multiple types of bees, and butterflies working a single flower head in harmony.  Globe Thistle has spiked looking spherical blue/indigo flowers that are "hedgehog like" or Echinos in Greek.  While the common name says thistle this plant is actually in the aster family, and it's leaves do not have any spines that you would expect from a thistle.  However because the leaves are rough looking with deep cuts, and green on top with undersides that are slightly hairy and sliver green they can appear to resemble thistles.  This perennial is low maintenance, drought tolerant, and likes well drained soil which makes it well suited for local gardens.  Plant in full sun and water regularly to initially to establish plants.  New plants can be started from seed or root cuttings, while mature plants can be fussy when moved and do best when foliage is only cut back in spring.


Echinacea: They are a type of coneflower native to eastern and central North American forests and grasslands.  It has a distinctive spiked center with drooping petals and gets it's common name from Greek word "ekhinos" for sea urchin.  This perennial doesn't need much water and prefers airy dry soil and can take partial shade making it a good candidate for our northwest gardens.  They are often covered in bees when in bloom and produce ample nectar.  Where Echinacea is grown commercially a flavorful medium colored honey can be produced.


Some other good summer plants:
  • Bee Bee Tree (Tetradium daniellii, Evodia daniellii, or Euodia daniellii)
  • Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
  • Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
  • Chestnut (Castanea dentata)
  • Golden Rain (Koelreuteria paniculata)
  • Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)
  • Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)
  • Agapanthus (Has blue pollen)

Fall (Sept - Nov)

Asters: These are an autumn favorite for the bees with many native and hybrid options available to choose from.  When picking a variety remember that the bees prefer flowers with easy to access pollen.  Look for flowers with visible pollen at the center rather than a flower that is simply a mass of petals.  Some varieties grow in bushy clumps of various heights and others can grow a single long stem with multiple branches that may need to be staked up if not trimmed mid summer.  Asters range in colors from the shades of blue, pink and purple to even yellows so you have lots of different options for your fall garden.  While they can be grown from seed they also spread by root rhizomes in the ground and in just a few years a single plant will turn into a larger bee attracting clump.


Borage:  This is one of those plants every beekeeper should be familiar with.  It is a great producer of nectar and pollen and ranks pretty high on the list of favorite plants for honey bees.  Oh and don't forget that it is also their favorite color.  Borage is a self seeding annual and if you stagger the seeds you can produce crops in spring and fall at times when the bees are in need of good nectar and pollen sources.


Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia): These fast growing trees add a tropical look to our northwest gardens with their sweet smelling blooms at the end of summer.  The flowers of these trees range in colors from red to white, and have also evolved to attract pollinators by producing two types of pollen.  One is a false bee friendly pollen that is well suited for bee digestion, and that other pollen is used for fertilization.  These trees have also been known to produce honeydew if aphid infestations get out of control, which would also attract bees when nectar is scarce.  Originating from southeast Asia, they have moderate water requirements and some newer hybrid varieties are able to perform well here in the northwest if given a full sun location.  Crape myrtles produce flowers on new growth and will need light pruning to keep them in shape.  In addition to their late summer flowers they also have striking fall color when their leaves change as well as attractive multicolored pealing bark.


Seven Sons Tree (Heptacodium miconioides): This late summer bloomer that is desirable to both bees and gardeners.  Flowers are fragrant and typically found in small clusters of 7, which gives us the common name.  After the white flowers fade a berry forms surround by deep red calyces that last late into the fall.  This tree also has attractive tender looking curled green leaves and exfoliating grayish bark.  Typically multiple trunks will sprout, but they can be pruned back to a single trunk allowing the tree to reach 15-20 feet tall.  These delicate looking trees are actually fairly hardy and can survive in a variety of garden conditions, however they do best in full sun with moderate soil moisture.  New plants can sometimes found in nurseries, or propagated by seeds or cuttings.


English Ivy: I have heard that there are parts of the world that love ivy and patiently nurture it to grow on gardens walls and trellises.  Here in the Pacific Northwest it is like a creature from a bad Halloween movie slowly killing off native plants and consuming forests despite all efforts at eradication.  However ignoring the chaos it creates in our gardens and wild areas for a moment it does have a few benefits for wildlife and bees.  Ivy blooms provide both nectar and pollen from October to November in abundance for the bees to collect and backfill the broodnest.  Ivy doesn't get phased by rain or the chilly nights that will kill off that last of the late summer flowers.  Honey made form ivy nectar is known to crystallize quickly and while we may not like the taste the bees are happy to have something eat in those cooler fall and winter months and the pollen collected will be some of the last until spring.  The berries ivy produce are also eaten by birds which unfortunately just helps to further spread this plant.


Some other good fall plants:
  • Chaste (Vitex agnus-castus)
  • Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)
  • Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
  • Fall-Blooming Anemones
  • Hardy Fuchsia (pollen)