Some plants are not just pretty to look at, but also provide vital food and habitats for bees and other beneficial insects. Read on to discover our top 10 most bee-friendly plants for your garden or balcony.
We have put together a list of the 10 most bee-friendly plants to help you create a nourishing environment for bees throughout the flowering season. Seeing bees in the garden conjures up a romantic picture of cottage life. However, bees are so much more, they are essential for our ecosystems, and it is important for us to give them all the help we can.
There are many plants that attract bees, however, at the same time, not all plants are as bee-friendly as you might think. With the help of or our list, you can ensure your garden or balcony is full of the right plants for bees. Below you will also find a useful planting calendar, so you know exactly how to make your garden or balcony as bee-friendly as possible throughout the flowering season.
Apples (Malus) are not only delicious and healthy; their beautiful blossom puts them at the top of our list of bee-friendly plants. Most of us are familiar with the cultivated apple varieties of Malus domestica, but many forget that we also have crab apples (Malus sylvestris). Although people tend not to eat the sour fruits, crab apple blossom is one of the best plants for bees and other pollinators. The blossoms are so rich in nectar and pollen during the flowering period (from April to June), that bees produce a large surplus of honey and beekeepers can usually secure their first harvest of the year. Apple trees are often infested by aphids, which produce large amounts of honeydew that attracts wild bees and other insects too.
Dandelions (Taraxacum) have gained a reputation for being an annoying weed that ruins the look of a well-tended lawn. However, this wild plant should be considered a real enrichment to any garden. Did you know that all parts of the plant are edible from the roots up to the bright yellow flowers? The particularly high nectar and pollen value make them a valuable food source for many industrious insects including honeybees and wild bees.
This bee-friendly plant provides food in abundance from April to June – and sometimes even well into autumn. The fact that the bright yellow flowers bloom so early and for so long, makes the dandelion plant a favourite among beekeepers who can harvest honey for longer. A good crop of dandelions also helps bee colonies to build back up after the winter.
All types of willow (Salix) are popular with our favourite nectar collectors. Willow blooms between March and June making it the one of the first plants to offer a source of nourishment after the cold winter months. Honeybees are particularly sensitive to cold, wet or windy conditions early in the year, so the nectar and pollen supply that willows have to offer is better suited to hardier bumblebees and wild bees. There is great diversity to choose from among willow species: from the mighty white willow (Salix alba), which can grow up to 20 metres high, to the pussy willow (Salix caprea) that will grow between 5 and 8 metres tall and the shrubby Swiss willow (Salix helvetica), which will only grow up to about 1 metre high. All willow species prefer moist, nutrient-rich soils in a sunny to partially shaded location.
4. Autumn sneezeweed
Autumn sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) flowers late and for a long period, making it a super bee-friendly plant. You can enjoy sneezeweed in all its splendour from July through until October. The pretty yellow-red flowers are not just a delight for humans to look at, they are also a favourite among all sorts of insects including wild bees, butterflies and bumblebees. The abundant supply of nectar and pollen found in sneezeweed provide bees with an excellent source to replenish their stores ready for winter.
Ivy (Hedera helix) is one of the few plants to flower in autumn. These flowers provide bees and butterflies with a very important source of food late into autumn, while the dense tangle of shoots and evergreen leaves offer shelter to all kinds of insects and small animals. The yellow-green, spherical umbels offer easily accessible nectar and pollen for wasps, beetles, flies and bees from September to October.
It should be noted that ivy plants are slow to establish, only flowering when they have reached about 8 to 10 years old and have climbed up a support. Ivy grows in all soils – apart from pure peat – and in shady to sunny locations. However, it does not cope well with full exposure to the sun in winter.
6. Common sainfoin
Common sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) is a perennial plant with exceptionally rich supplies of nectar and pollen. As it is packed with protein and, as a deep-rooting legume, sainfoin improves less fertile soils. This is why it is often used as a forage plant and as green manure. The plant is also quite beautiful to look at with pink butterfly-like flowers that appear from May to June. Coupled with delightfully feathery leaves on the upright stems, sainfoin can fit very well into a classic perennial border or embellish dry and difficult-to-plant areas of the garden. Sainfoin grows best when planted in sunny, warm locations.
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) gets its name from its thorny, dark shoots. As an early bloomer, it is considered a very valuable source of food for bees. From April to May, when temperatures warm up and bees become more active, blackthorn bushes provide an important supply of nectar and pollen to both honeybees and wild bees, as well as butterflies. The bushes are often infested with aphids, which excrete honeydew that offers an extra food source for lots of other beneficial insects. The white flowers smell fabulous to us humans too, and when harvested after the first frost, the sloe fruits can be eaten raw or processed. Alternatively, you can also leave the sloe berries to provide winter food for birds. The blackthorn plant is not fussy in terms of location and will thrive almost everywhere – except in flood plains.
Melilot (Melilotus officinalis), also known as sweet-clover, flowers from July to September. The yellow blossom, which is very rich in nectar, is of great value to honeybees. Wild bees also benefit from sweet clover, which has a particularly long, four-month flowering period. As a pioneer plant, sweet-clover is very hardy, and thrives well both in sunny locations and poor soils. It is well suited to “wild corners” of the garden and, as a nitrogen fixer, will work to improve the soil in which it grows.
9. Balcony plants
Insects are grateful for every source of nectar and pollen they can get, especially in heavily built-up areas. There are plenty of bee friendly plants for pots that you can keep on your balcony. The most bee-friendly balcony plants are oregano (Origanum vulgare), sunflowers (Helianthus spec.) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), globe flowers (Trollius europaeus), all lily species (Lilium spec.) and winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are also valuable stopping places for honeybees and wild bees. Indeed, if you were to keep this combination on your balcony, you would be covering the needs of a whole range of insects.
Expert tip: Unfortunately, classical balcony flowers such as geraniums (Pelargoinum) are often of little help. Whilst they may look beautiful, they sadly have nothing to offer insects.
Raspberry plants (Rubus idaeus) have a long flowering period that extends from May to August. They produce a good amount of nectar and pollen and are an important food source for wild bees. Raspberry plants grow in gardens, woodland areas and along paths in partially-shaded to sunny areas. They spread widely through shoots above ground and underground roots so regular maintenance, or the installation of a root barrier, is essential to keep them in check.
Tip: Sweet cherry (Prunus avium), sour cherry (Prunus cerasus) and plum (Prunus domestica) trees also work as exceptionally good bee pastures. The only reason why they did not make our Top 10 is because there just wasn’t enough space!
Summary: The best bee-friendly plants for your garden or balcony
With the help of the table below, you can plan your planting schedule so that bees and insects have a food source available for every month of the flowering season.
Tip: If you find you do not have time to cut back your plants come winter just leave them! Keep your faded perennials standing so that wild bees can find somewhere to shelter for the winter.
Additionally, if you’ve got the space, set up a “wild corner” in your garden. Sow whatever flower seeds you want to grow there and just leave it to establish itself – you may be surprised at the interesting and ornamental wild plants that settle there. You will also be promoting overall biodiversity and species diversity in your garden. Seed mixes are a great way to help bees (and other pollinators) in your garden. With a variety of bee-friendly flowers and herbs, you can provide food for these essential pollinators for many months.
Bees are not the only insects in need of support in the garden. You will find the 10 best butterfly-friendly plants here.