Best Native Plants for Honey Bees

By Mackenzie Younger. 4/3/17

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Native NY Gardens has composed a list of super-plants capable of sustaining large populations of honey bees that produce loads of high quality honey. All the plants selected originate from the Eastern United States and not only benefit honey bees but also hundreds of other species of native pollinators vital to a healthy ecosystem. 

Intro Notes:

  • Trees produce more pollen and nectar then perennials.
  • Honey bees stick to one plant or species until the bloom period ends.
  • The yield and characteristics of the honey in terms of flavor, color and texture is determined by the individual species of tree or groups of plants.
  • Honey bees can be active from late winer into the fall as long as it is warm enough to fly.
  • If allot of pollen and nectar can be found near the hive, your bees will save energy and avoid traveling long distances to forage. 

The plant we have selected bloom over six periods:

  1. Late Winter
  2. Early Spring
  3. Late Spring
  4. Early Summer
  5. Mid-Summer
  6. And Fall
 

1. Late Winter

Some of the earliest blooming trees are red maple and species in the willow family (black willowpussy willow, etc.) On warm days in March and early April your honey bees will begin to forage and these trees can be extremely important for them.

Despite the unlikelihood of consecutive warm days in late winter for your honey bees to reap the full potential of red maple and willow blooms, the nutrition they acquire from these species is enough to boosts the hive - allowing them to maximize on the next progression of flowering plants.

Its important to have your hives fully exposed to the sun during this period. The extra warmth will allow your bees to 'start their days earlier' and stay active longer to utilize both the red maple and willow.

 

Pussy willow in Bloom: Photo by Mackenzie Younger

Pussy willow in Bloom: Photo by Mackenzie Younger

Red maple blossom visited by Honeybee: Image source here

Red maple blossom visited by Honeybee: Image source here

 

2. Early Spring

Come mid-April through early May, many of your small flowering and fruiting trees will begin to bloom. The first will be serviceberry followed quickly by eastern redbud, flowering dogwood, American plum, chokecherry, native crab apples, native hawthorne's, Carolina silverbell and blackhaw viburnum. Larger flowering trees include Ohio buckeye and Yellow buckeye. Anyone of these would work well in a mass planting. Depending on the size of your property, we’d suggest planting groups or rows of individual species. For example: 5 service berries, 5 eastern redbuds, 5 plums… (the more the merrier). What trees you choose will largely depend on aesthetics; unfortunately there isn’t much information regarding honey yield and quality from many of these small flowering native trees. We need people like you to let us know!

 
Honeybee on American plum blossom: Image source here

Honeybee on American plum blossom: Image source here

Chickadee on eastern redbud: Image source here

Chickadee on eastern redbud: Image source here

This image of balled-and-burlapped serviceberries and redbuds illustrates their bloom progression very well. The serviceberries (on the left) are in peak bloom and the redbuds (on the right) are beginning to bloom. Rows of individual species like this create very compelling corridors for your bees to forage. Remember, they will stick to on type of tree till the flowering period ends - so formal rows or more naturalized groupings of trees will allow the bees to collect nectar and pollen without extra energy spend on traveling far distances: Source of image here

This image of balled-and-burlapped serviceberries and redbuds illustrates their bloom progression very well. The serviceberries (on the left) are in peak bloom and the redbuds (on the right) are beginning to bloom. Rows of individual species like this create very compelling corridors for your bees to forage. Remember, they will stick to on type of tree till the flowering period ends - so formal rows or more naturalized groupings of trees will allow the bees to collect nectar and pollen without extra energy spend on traveling far distances: Source of image here

 

3. Late Spring

Late Spring (May through early June) is a very productive time because many large flowering trees begin to bloom. These powerhouses include black locust, tulip tree, black cherry, northern catalpa and the American chestnut. Again, planting in groups is best but remember these species get really large - so provide enough space for each one to grow. 

 
Catalpa tree blooming: Image source here

Catalpa tree blooming: Image source here

The American chestnut once on the edge of extinction from the chestnut blight is coming back thanks to the efforts of the American Chestnut Fountain and other organizations to breed resistant trees. 

'Smoky Mountains Hiking Club rests at a large chestnut tree.' Image taken prior to the chestnut blights complete destruction the chestnut population in southern Appalachia: Image source here

'Smoky Mountains Hiking Club rests at a large chestnut tree.' Image taken prior to the chestnut blights complete destruction the chestnut population in southern Appalachia: Image source here

Example of honey made from black cherry, tulip tree and black locust: Image source here

Example of honey made from black cherry, tulip tree and black locust: Image source here

Tulip tree flower: Image source here

Tulip tree flower: Image source here

 

4. Early  Summer

Late Spring/early summer (June) is the bumper crop time thanks to two of the most productive and iconic honey trees in America: the American basswood tree and the sourwood tree. The basswood can produce 800-1,100 pounds of honey per acre. Honey from these two trees is world-renowned as the best you can get! 

American basswood in bloom: Image source here

American basswood in bloom: Image source here

Sourwood tree has breath taking fall color (note flower forms persist): Image source here

Sourwood tree has breath taking fall color (note flower forms persist): Image source here

By this time in the season, viable perennials will be producing for your bees, one of them being common milkweed. Common milkweed can often be found in old fields and roadsides – despite its ‘common’ nature they have been in decline and so has the monarch butterfly along with many other insects that rely solely on this plant. We’d suggest planting large patches of milkweed for your honey bees and to benefit the larger ecosystem which milkweed plays such an important role in.

Field of common milkweed with example of monarch butterfly caterpillar: Image of source of milkweed here, image source of caterpillar here

Field of common milkweed with example of monarch butterfly caterpillar: Image of source of milkweed here, image source of caterpillar here

Example of basswood honey (note the golden hue): Image source here

Example of basswood honey (note the golden hue): Image source here

Example of sourwood honey (note the bronze hue): Image source here

Example of sourwood honey (note the bronze hue): Image source here

 

5. Mid-Summer

Mid-Summer (July-August) the blooming trees will stop flowering and herbaceous plants will take over. Many of your milkweeds should still be in bloom and we highly advice incorporating loads of other wildflowers like: fireweed, early goldenrod, native mints (anise hyssop, mountain mint, horsemint, beebalm), native alliums (such as nodding onion), Liatrises (prairie blazing star), purple coneflower, joe pye weed and native sunflowers. 

Fireweed can be found across north American all the way up to Alaska where it makes great honey! This photo by Denis Fast of a polar bear laying in a field of fireweed is both striking and beautiful. 

Fireweed can be found across north American all the way up to Alaska where it makes great honey! This photo by Denis Fast of a polar bear laying in a field of fireweed is both striking and beautiful. 

This crude sketch illustrates how one could make an effective perennial garden catered to honey bees using the plants we suggested in large patches. Like the image of the polar bear you (and your bees) want to experience a sea of color - extensive patches of flowers. The larger the patch the better, if you have more than a garden and actual land think about curated meadows with hundreds of plants flowering, then create a series of meadows adjacent to each other which bloom at different times.

This crude sketch illustrates how one could make an effective perennial garden catered to honey bees using the plants we suggested in large patches. Like the image of the polar bear you (and your bees) want to experience a sea of color - extensive patches of flowers. The larger the patch the better, if you have more than a garden and actual land think about curated meadows with hundreds of plants flowering, then create a series of meadows adjacent to each other which bloom at different times.

 

Several shrubs that bloom at this time and are extremely beneficial to honey bees are button bushsweet pepperbush and  winged sumac. These shrubs should be used in long rows or as boarders to your meadow or perennial bed. Watch the video below to see how attractive winged sumac is to bees!

 
Blazing star & coneflower: Photo by Mackenzie 

Blazing star & coneflower: Photo by Mackenzie 

Mountian mint: Photo by Mackenzie

Mountian mint: Photo by Mackenzie

Anise hyssop: Photo by Mackenzie

Anise hyssop: Photo by Mackenzie

 
 

6. Fall

Late summer and into fall (September-October-November) is the time for native goldenrods, asters and sunflowers. This is another bummer crop season and your bees will produce loads of honey if you create well-designed meadows or large perennial beds. You should use many verities within these species to prolong bloom periods and once again the more plants the better! 

Asters and goldenrods blooming in meadow - Early October: Image source here

Asters and goldenrods blooming in meadow - Early October: Image source here

 
Stiff goldenrod: Photo by Mackenzie

Stiff goldenrod: Photo by Mackenzie

New England aster: Photo by Mackenzie

New England aster: Photo by Mackenzie

Giant sunflower - Helianthus giganteus: Photo by Mackenzie

Giant sunflower - Helianthus giganteus: Photo by Mackenzie

What plants your choose and how their curated is up to you but for sake of providing an example heres a sketch illustrating a native plant, honey bee garden. 

 
Summery
Use these species in mass plantings, make sure there’s always something in bloom from early spring to late fall and your bees will love you more than anyone else. Beyond their love, they’ll also produce more honey than you’ll know what to do with! And of course, your contribution to the environment by using native plants, will enrich your life and lives of the organism’s that live around you.  
 
 
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