Better habitat for bees

In general, herbs and garden perennials are good for bees, while most annual bedding plants are less attractive to them.

May 1, 2019 - Author: , MSU Entomology; Diane Brown, and Erwin Elsner, ; , MSU IPM; Paula Shrewsbury, Univ. of MD Entomology; Daniel Herms, The Davey Tree Expert Company, Kent, OH; and Cristi L. Palmer, IR-4 Project-Rutgers

Pipevine swallowtail butterfly.
Pipevine swallowtail butterfly on bee balm. Photo by Erwin Elsner, MSU Extension.

Better habitat for bees

Annuals attractive to bees

In general, herbs and garden perennials are good for bees, while most annual bedding plants are less attractive to them. Annual flowers like impatiens are readily available at the garden center, but most have been bred for showy flowers or vigorous growth and do not produce enough pollen and nectar to be good food plants for bees or butterflies. Some annuals such as marigold and moss rose are valuable for pollinators and these provide summer-long pollen and nectar.

Below are some annuals that are good food plants for pollinators. Please note that some of these, like garden heliotrope, lantana and pentas, are considered annuals in northern states but are perennials in more southern states. Because some cultivars may be more attractive to pollinators than other cultivars in the same species, you may want to try several cultivars and observe which ones attract the most bees.

Annuals attractive to bees table

Common name

Genus species
(scientific name)

Ageratum
(floss flower)

Ageratum houstonianum

Anise-scented sage

Salvia guaranitica

Aster

Callistephus chinensis

Baby’s breath

Gypsophila paniculata

Beeblossom

Gaura lindheimeri, Gaura spp.

Bidens

Bidens laevis

Black-eyed Susan or
gloriosa daisy

Rudbeckia hirta

Bluestar

Amsonia illustris, other native Amsonia spp.

Blue-eyed grass

Sisyrinchium lucerne

Blue salvia
(mealycup sage)

Salvia farinacea

Borage or starflower

Borago officinalis

Calendula

Calendula officinalis

Calibrachoa

Calibrachoa spp.

Campion

Lychnis chalcedonica,
L. flos-cuculi

Catnip or catmint

Nepeta sp.
(annuals and perennials)

Chives

Allium altaicum, A. ampeloprasum, A. cernum, etc.

Clary sage

Salvia sclarea (biennial)

Cockscomb or woolflower

Celosia plumose, argentia, pristada

Common lantana

Lantana camara

Common sunflower

Helianthus annuus

Cornflower

Centaurea cyanus

Cosmos

Cosmos bipinnatus

Crane’s bill

Geranium bicknellii, G. x cantabrigiense, G. himalayense,
G. maculatum, G. phaeum,
G. pretense, G. sanguinea,
G. viscosissimum

Dahlia (open types)

Dahlia cv.

Dead-nettle

Lamium album, L. amplexicaule, L. galeobdolon, L. purpureum

Dianthus

Dianthus barbatus, D. giganteus

Garden heliotrope

Heliotrope arborescens

Gentians

Gentiana andrewsii, G. clausa, G. dahurica

Lantana

Lantana camara

Lobelia

Lobelia cardinalis,
L. siphilitica

Marigold

Tagetes spp.

Mignonette

Reseda odorata

Moss rose

Portulaca grandiflora

Nasturtium

Tropaeolum

Oxeye

Heliopsis helianthus

Pentas

Pentas spp.

Pineapple sage

Salvia elegans

Rattlesnake master, Sea holly or Eryngo

Eryngium bourgatii,
E. gigantium, E. maritimum,
E. yuccifolium.

Red-hot poker

Kniphofia typhoides

Salvia

Salvia spp.
(annuals and perennials)

Snapdragon

Antirrhinum majus

Sneezeweed

Helenium autumnale

Spider flower or
bee plant

Cleome hassleriana, C. lutea,
C. serrulata

Sunflowers

Helianthus annuus, H. divaricatus, H. maximiliani, H. mollis,
H. petiolaris, H. strumosus

Sweet William (biennial in southern parts of north central region)

Dianthus barbatus

Sweet alyssum

Lobularia maritima

Verbena

Verbena bonariensis, V. hybrida, V. hastata, V. stricta, V. urticifolia

Vervain

Verbena bonariensis

Yellowcress

Rorippa palustris, R. sylvestris

Zinnia

Zinnia elegans

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Herbaceous perennials attractive to bees

Researchers have identified that perennial flowers tend to be far more attractive to bees than annuals. Many different types of perennials are good for bees, from showy flowers to herbs. Herb gardens are an excellent resource for bees because they flower over a long period of time, and herbs grow fairly large and produce lots of flowers. The perennials and herbs listed below can be purchased from nurseries and garden centers in the North Central United States.

Because species and cultivars vary in cold-hardiness, be sure to check the acceptable hardiness zones list­ed on the plant label and match it to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone where you live. Some of the plants listed below are also available as seeds in commercial “wildflower” mixes. If you are looking for native wildflower seed, a good source of information is the Xerces Society, which gives a list of plants and a supplier for each region.

Herbaceous perennials attractive to bees

Common name

Genus species (scientific name)

Allium (many varieties)

Allium

Anise hyssop

Agastache foeniculum

Aromatic aster

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium

Aster

Symphyotrichum
novae-angliae – ‘
Purple Done’

Astilbe, false spirea

Astilbe spp.

Basil, sweet basil (annual)

Ocimum basilicum

Bee balm

Monarda spp.

Bellflower

Campanula spp.

Betony

Stachys monieri

Bigleaf ligularia

Ligularia dentate

Black-eyed Susan, coneflower

Rudbeckia spp.

Blanket flower

Gaillardia

Blazing star

Liatris spicata

Butterfly bush

Buddleja or Buddleia spp.

Butterfly weed

Asclepias tuberosa

Calamint

Calamintha nepeta

Cardoon

Cynara cardunculus

Carolina lupine

Thermopsis villosa

Catmint

Nepeta spp.

Chrysanthemum
(open types)

Chrysanthemum

Chocolate flower

Berlandiera lyrata

Clematis

Clematis spp.

Common poppy,
red poppy

Papaver rhoeas

Common yarrow

Achillea millefolium

Coral bells

Heuchera spp.

Cornflower

Centaurea spp.

Crown vetch
(ground cover)

Securigera (= Coronilla) varia

Cut-leaf mallow

Malva alcea

Eryngo, rattlesnack master (various names)

Eryngium spp.

English ivy

Hedera sp.

Fennel

Foeniculum vulgare

Foxglove or beardtongues

Penstemon spp.

Garden speedwell

Veronica longifolia

Globe thistle

Echinops ritro

Glory-of-the-snow

Chinodoxa

Hardy geranium,
blue cranesbill

Geranium ibericum x
(Geranium himalayense)

Hosta

Hosta spp.

Hyssop (naturalized in North America)

Hyssopus officinalis

Inula, Himalayan elecampane

Inula royleana

Japanese anemone

Anemone hupehensis ‘Robutissima’

Large-leaved aster

Eurybia macrophylla

Lavender

Lavandula

Lemon balm

Melissa officinalis

Leucanthemella

Leucanthemella serotine

Lupine

Lupinus spp.

Mints

Mentha spp.

Mullein or velvet plant

Verbascum

Narrow-leaved foxtail lily

Eremurus stenophyllus

New England aster

Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

Ornamental onion, garlic, chives, leek, scallion

Allium spp., including Allium ‘mellenium’ and ‘christophii’

Oregano

Origanum vulgare

Pachysandra

Pachysandra terminalis

Parasol whitetop

Doellingeria umbellate

Pentas

Pentas spp.

Peony

Paeonia spp.

Pincushion flower

Scabiosa caucasica

Purple burkheya

Berkheya purpurea

Purple coneflower

Echinacea purpurea

Rosemary

Rosmarinus officinalis

Russian sage

Perovskia atriplicifolia

Salvia

Salvia ‘Victoria blue’, Salvia nemorosa ‘Black and Blue’, others

Sea holly

Eryngium maritimum

Sedum

Sedum spp.

Sedum, stonecrop

Hylotelephium spectabile and telephium and cvs.

Snakeroot

Cimicifuga famose

Sneezeweed

Helenium

Squill

Drimia maritima

Stiff-leaved aster

Ionactus linariifolius

Striped squill

Punchkinia

Stokes aster

Stokesia laevis

Sunflower

Helianthus

Swamp milkweed

Asclepias incarnata

Sweet alyssum

Lobularia maritima

Sweet clover

Melilotus spp.

Thyme

Thymus spp.

Tickseed

Coreopsis

Trout lily

Erythronium americanum

White wood aster

Eurybia divarcata

Anise hyssop. Photo: Diane Brown, MSU Extension
Anise hyssop
Butterfly weed. Photo: Erwin Elsner, MSU Extension.
Butterfly weed
Butterfly bush. Photo: Diane Brown, MSU Extension.
Butterfly bush
Bee balm. Photo: Erwin Elsner, 2016.
Bee balm
Lupine. Photo: Erwin Elsner, 2016.
Lupine
Sunflower. Photo: Diane Brown, 2016.
Sunflower

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Shrubs attractive to bees

Flowering shrubs can be an excellent food source for bees because they tend to grow larger than herbaceous perennials, and therefore produce a larger number of flowers. Some species, like Rosa rugosa, bloom all summer. 

Shrubs attractive to bees

Common name

Genus species (scientific name)

Black chokeberry

Aronia melanocarpa

Bottlebrush buckeye

Aesculus parviflora

Buttonbush

Cephalanthus occidentalis

Common witch-hazel

Hamamelis virginiana

Cotoneaster

Cotoneaster

Dwarf fothergilla

Fothergilla gardenia

Eastern ninebark

Physocarpos opulifolius

Elderberry

Sambucus spp.

False indigo     

Amorpha fruticosa

Flowering quince

Chaenomeles spp.

Fuzzy deutzia

Deutzia scabra

Highbush blueberry

Vaccinium corymbosum

Holly: American, box-leaved, Merserve hybrid, winterberry

Ilex spp.

Japanese tree lilac

Syringa reticulata

Lacecap hydrangea

Hydrangea macrophylla

Mockorange

Philadelphus coronarius

Ninebark

Physocarpus opulifolius

Panicle hydrangea         

Hydrangea paniculate (many cultivars)

Potentilla (bush cinquefoil)

Potentilla fruiticosa

Privet

Ligustrum vulgare

Pussy willow

Salix discolor

Raspberry, blackberries

Rubus spp.

St. Johns-wort

Hypericum spp.

Silky dogwood, gray dogwood, redosier dogwood

Cornus spp.

Spicebush

Lindera benzoin

Spirea

Spiraea spp.

Staghorn sumac

Rhus typhina

Sumacs

Rhus spp.

Summersweet, sweet pepperbush

Clethra alnifolia

Viburnums

Viburnum spp.

White fringe-tree or American yellowwood

Cladrastis kentukea

Wild prairie rose

Rosa arkansana

Winter honeysuckle

Lonicera fragrantissima

Buttonbush. Photo: John D. Byrd, Mississippi State Univ., Bugwood.org
Buttonbush
Elderberry. Photo: Diane Brown, MSU Extension.
Elderberry
Bee on fragrant sumac. Photo: Jerry A. Payne, USDA Agric. Research Service, Bugwood.org.
A bee visits fragrant sumac, Rhus Aromatica.

Trees attractive to bees

Flowering trees are critical to providing an ample food source for bees because of their large size and thou­sands of flowers. A blooming linden or black locust produces so much pollen and nectar that it dwarfs the amount provided by most garden flowers in compari­son.

However, most trees only bloom for two to three weeks, so a succession of trees that bloom from early spring through summer is very helpful to bees. Trees in the North Central United States that are frequently mentioned as good food plants for bees are listed in the following table.

Trees attractive to bees

Common name

Genus species (scientific name)

Bloom

Eastern redbud

Cercis canadensis

April

Red maple

Acer rubrum

April

Alternate-leaved, pagoda or green osier dogwood

Cornus alternifolia

May

Black tupelo, blackgum

Nyssa sylvatica

May

Cherry, peach, plum, almond

Prunus spp. (many)

May

Crabapple, apple

Malus spp. (many)

May

Hawthorn

Crataegus spp. (many)

May

Winter king hawthorn

Crataegus viridis

May

Red horse chestnut

Aesculus X carnea

May

Serviceberry

Amelanchier spp.

May

Willow

Salix spp.

May

Honey locust

Gleditsia triacanthos

May to early June

Black locust

Robinia pseudoacacia

Late May-early June

Catalpa

Catalpa speciosa

June

Linden, basswood

Tilia spp.

June

Tulip-tree

Liriodendron tulipifera

June

Amur maackia

Maackia amurensis

July-August

Bee-bee tree

Tetradium (Evodia) daniellii

July-August

Japanese sophora, Japanese pagoda

Sophora japonica

July-September

Seven sons tree

Heptacodium miconioides

August-September

Source: Lovell 1926, Pellet 1947, Oertel 1980, Tew 2006, 
Mader et al. 2011, Mach and Potter 2016

Catalpa. Photo: T. Davis Sydnor, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org
Catalpa
Basswood. Photo: Diane Brown, MSU Extension.
Basswood

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Wind-pollinated trees attractive to bees

Wind-pollinated trees do not produce nectar, but bees may take advantage of them as an abundant source of pollen. Pines, spruces and nearly all gymnosperms are not usually visited by bees unless it is to gather sap used for propolis, a sticky substance used to fill crevices and seal hives. However, several genera of wind-pollinated angiosperms are routinely visited by bees to collect pollen.

The most frequently visited wind-pollinated trees are listed in the following table. Red maple and willow are listed in both tables because they are wind-pollinated trees that are also considered important pollen or nectar sources for bees. Pollen from the wind-pollinated trees may be collected by bees because of a favorable nutritional value, the large amount of pollen produced, or because it is available at times when other food sources are scarce.

Wind-pollinated trees attractive to bees

Common name

Genus species (scientific name)

Attractiveness to bees1

Ash

Fraxinus spp.

Somewhat attractive

Birch

Betula spp.

Somewhat attractive

Elm

Ulmus spp.

Very attractive

Hickory

Carya spp.

Somewhat attractive

Oak

Quercus spp.

Very attractive

Poplar

Populus spp.

Very attractive

Maple

Acer spp.

Highly attractive

Willow

Salix spp.

Highly attractive

Source: Kraemer and Favi. 2005, MacIvor et al. 2014, Oertel 1980

1Level of attractiveness in this table is rated by number of reports of bees using pollen, level of bee activity, diversity of bee species observed and amount of pollen found in hives or nests.

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Wildflowers attractive to bees

Wildflower mixes often contain seed of several of the attractive perennials listed in this table. A good source for native wildflower seed is the Xerces Society, which gives a list of plants and a supplier for each region (http://www.xerces.org/pollinator-seed/). Another list of native plants and wildflowers available from nurseries and seed companies maintained by the American Horticultural Society is organized by state (https://www.ahsgardening.org/gardening-resources/societies-clubs-organizations/native-plant-societies). MSU Extension publication E2973, “Attracting Beneficial Insects with Native Flowering Plants,” provides photos and bloom time for many of the native flowers listed below. This publication is available for purchase at shop.msu.edu. Wildflowers described in E2973 are marked with an asterisk (*) in the following table.

Wildflowers attractive to bees

Common name

Genus species (scientific name)

American vervain, blue vervain

Verbena hastata*

Aromatic aster

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium*

Canadian milkvetch

Astragalus canadensis*

Clover

Melilotus spp.

Clover

Trifolium spp.

Coneflower

Ratibida columnifera*

Culver’s root

Veronicastrum virginicum*

Cup plant

Silphium perfoliatum*

Golden alexanders

Zizia aurea*

Goldenrod

Oligoneuron spp.

Goldenrod

Solidago speciosa

Great blue lobelia

Lobelia siphilitica

Horsemint, spotted beebalm

Monarda punctata*

Joe-Pye weed

Eupatorium fistulosum*

Late figwort

Scrophularia marilandica*

Meadowsweet (shrub)

Spirea alba*

Missouri ironweed

Vernonia missurica*

Mountain mints

Pycanthemum spp.*

Native milkweeds

Asclepias spp.*

Naturalized asters

Aster spp.

Nodding wild onion

Allium cernuum*

Obedient plant, false dragonhead

Physostegia virginiana*

Pale Indian plantain

Cacalia atriplicifolia*

Penstemon, hairy beardtongue

Penstemon hirsutus*

Prairie blazing star

Liatris pycnostachya

Rattlesnake master, eryngo

Eryngium spp.

Riddell’s goldenrod

Solidago riddellii*

Rough blazing star

Liatris aspera

Rough oxeye, false sunflower

Heliopsis helianthoides

Showy milkweed

Asclepias speciosa

Smooth aster

Aster laevis*

Thimbleweed herba­ceous perennial

Anemone cylindrica*

White wild indigo, false indigo

Baptisia alba

Wild quinine, American feverfew

Parthenium integrifolium

Yellow coneflower

Ratibida pinnata*

Yellow giant hyssop

Agastache nepetoides*

Weeds

Chickweed

Stellaria media

Clover

Trifolium spp.

Dandelion

Taraxacum officiniale

Knapweed (feral)

Centaurea montana

Smartweed

Polygonum sp.

*Wildflowers known to attract beneficial insects and described in MSUE publication E2973.

Goldenrod. Photo: Diane Brown, MSU Extension
Goldenrod
Joe-Pye weed. Photo: Diane Brown, MSU Extension
Joe-Pye weed

Read the next article in this publication series: Landscape plants and wildflowers attractive to butterflies for nectar feeding

Or return to the beginning of this publication: How to protect and increase pollinators in your landscape

Tags: attracting butterflies, attracting pollinators, bees, best plants for bees, best shrubs for bees, best trees for bees, better habitat for bees, dave smitley, msu extension, pollinator, protecting pollinators in urban landscapes


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