Bees play an essential role in nature. Buzzing from flower to flower to feed on nectar, they also spread pollen as they go, helping plants to produce vital fruit and seeds. But bee numbers are falling as a result of a deadly mix of insecticides and loss of habitat to urban sprawl. Growing bee-friendly plants will help out these vital insects and add interest to your garden at the same time.
Borage has served as a “honey plant” for millennia, purposefully grown near bee colonies to increase their yields since Ancient Greek times — and it's just as worthwhile to grow it today. The delicate blue flowers are bee magnets but also make a great drink garnish in summer, adding a refreshingly cool cucumber flavor. Borage is tolerant of some shade, has a long flowering season between frosts, and will self-seed to return each year.
Bee balm, also known as wild bergamot, is worth adding to your garden for its alluring scent alone. But its clusters of purple, red, pink, or white tubular flowers are also powerful bee attractors. As a bonus, butterflies, and perhaps hummingbirds, will also flock to your garden for this plant. Bee balm is forgiving to grow, able to withstand both freezing winter temperatures and partial shade during summer.
Gardeners value cosmos for its wide, open flowers in a range of vibrant colors. The open shape also makes it easy for bees to collect the generous amounts of nectar those flowers provide. As an added benefit, growing cosmos couldn't be easier. It's highly tolerant of poor soil and dry conditions but will reward full sun and careful watering with an impressive display of blooms for bees and people alike. To provide an extra-long bee banquet, remove the flowers as they fade to prolong their season deep into fall.
It's no mystery why lavender has been such a highly prized herb through the ages. Its masses of purple or pink flowers smell as good as they look and lure bees like few other plants. Lavender also has a long history of use in folk medicine, with its dried flowers said to aid relaxation and sleep when placed in the bedroom. The flowers can also be used in the kitchen, although not everyone enjoys their unique flavor. The one downside of lavender is that it's only really happy in warm, sunny, and dry conditions, so if you live in a cooler, wetter area you could be out of luck.
Black-eyed Susan brings a cheerful look to a garden with its bright yellow daisy-like flowers. The contrasting dark centers are a bullseye target for bees, where they'll find plenty of nectar to keep them coming back. Black-eyed Susan is a hardy perennial that will reward gardeners with an effortless display year after year, surviving all but the harshest of winters.
Crocuses are one of the best plants for bringing early color to a garden, and the spring flowers are a vital source of nectar when there's not a lot of bee food around. Crocuses will happily grow in a shady corner thanks to their woodland heritage but will produce more flowers and bee-fueling nectar if grown in full sun. In both cases, keeping the soil relatively moist is a must.
At the other end of the growing season, goldenrod provides a valuable source of nectar and pollen from late summer into mid fall. Goldenrod might not produce the most dramatic flowers, but the plant's great advantage is its versatility. Native species are spread across North America, so you're sure to find a variety that will thrive in your area.
A row of nodding sunflowers is a glorious summer sight, but even a single plant provides plenty of nectar in its impressively large flower head. Most varieties have whorls of vibrant yellow petals, but you can also find orange, white, and pale lemon cultivars to add variety. Sunflowers grow best in an open spot, where they'll turn to follow the sun across the sky. What's more, when fall arrives, the huge seedheads provide a welcome, fat-heavy food source for birds as they prepare for winter.
Mint is well known for its distinctive smell and taste and less for its underwhelming floral display. However, the small, white flowers are surprisingly attractive to bees, which often bypass more spectacular blooms in favor of mint. For the gardener, mint is easy to grow, asking only for reasonably fertile soil, some sun, and occasional watering. In fact, it's almost too easy — mint is a highly invasive plant that can run rampant through a garden. Because of this, it's most often grown in pots to keep the root systems in check.
Echinacea's wide, open flowers make an attractive landing place for foraging bees, and the petals' blueish tinge makes them prominent to a bee's color vision. Echinacea also produces healthy amounts of nectar and pollen, ensuring return visits once a plant is discovered. To grow echinacea, choose a sunny spot with well-draining soil, and bear in mind that the plants can reach over 3 feet high, forming large self-seeding clumps as the years pass.