Bees in the Garden

Steps you can take to protect and encourage bees

By: Sandy Feather ©2008
Penn State Extension

Q. I have been reading about the decline of honeybee populations and wondered what I could do in my own garden to encourage and protect honeybees?  What plants do honeybees like the most?

A. Honeybee populations have declined at an alarming rate. Researchers participating in the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (including faculty from Penn State University’s Entomology Department) studying the phenomena of colony collapse disorder (CCD) found that roughly one-third of honeybee colonies died out during the winter of 2006 – 2007.

They theorize that no one factor causes CCD, but rather the combination of several factors impacting honeybee populations at the same time. These include varroa mites, diseases such as the recently discovered Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), pesticides and poor nutrition. This decline also affects other pollinators (other bee species, butterflies and moths, some beetles and flies, bats and hummingbirds), and has been well documented in Great Britain and the Netherlands as well as the United States. The loss of pollinators could have significant consequences for the world’s food supply. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and to a lesser extent, legumes such as peanuts and soybeans are dependent on insect pollination. The crops impacted make up about one-third of our diets.

dead honey bee

There are a number of steps you can take in your own yard to attract pollinators and keep them safe while they are visiting. One of the most important things you can do is to plant a diversity of flowering plants to provide the pollen and nectar they depend upon. A combination of flowering trees and shrubs and perennial and annual flowering plants provides a range of flower shapes, colors, sizes and fragrances.


Adding some native plants to the mix will make your yard more inviting to native bee species such as mason bees. Try to have something in bloom from early spring through late fall so there is a constant supply of pollen and nectar. It is best to avoid double flowers because they produce little, if any, pollen. Plants that are especially attractive to pollinators are listed at the end of this article.

Honeybee on a flower collecting pollen
Honey Bee collecting pollen

Limit pesticide use
as much as possible, especially insecticides, and choose the least toxic product that will control the problem effectively. Least toxic products include insecticidal soap and horticultural oil that have no residual activity once the spray has dried, and botanical insecticides that have very short residual activity because they break down very quickly on exposure to sunlight. If you do have to spray, do so in the evening after bees have returned to their nests. Avoid spraying any crop when it is in bloom, and mow the flowers off blooming weeds under plants before you spray them.
A shallow source of water is also attractive to pollinators. A pot saucer partially filled with sand, then topped with water so that it just covers the sand works nicely. Add a few flat stones to give them a place to rest.
If possible, stop mowing a strip of lawn and allow any weeds to grow there as well. An area like this provides a protected place for some pollinators to lay eggs and pupate, while the flowers on the weeds offer pollen and nectar. When cleaning up your flower beds at the end of the season, allow healthy plants to remain, just in case a pollinator is spending the winter there.

Trees & Shrubs bees like

Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii)

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)

American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Apple (Malus spp.)

Crabapple (Malus spp.)

Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica)

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

Cherry (Prunus spp.)

Black Currant (Ribes)

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)

Blackberry, Raspberry  (Rubus spp.)

Linden (Tilia spp.)

Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.)

Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)

Annuals & Perennials bees like

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)

Root Beer Hyssop (Agastache rupestris)

Ornamental Allium (Allium spp.)

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias spp.)

Aster (Aster spp.)

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Cosmos (Cosmos spp.)

Crocus (Crocus spp.)

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)


Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro)

Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp.)

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Blanket Flower (Gaillardia grandiflora)

Snowdrops (Galanthus spp.)

Perennial Geranium (Geranium spp.)

Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)

Lavender (Lavandula spp.)

Blazing Star (Liatris spp.)

Four O’clock (Mirabilis jalapa)

Mint (Mentha spp.)

Bee Balm (Monarda spp.)

Catmint (Nepeta spp.)

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Oregano (Origanum spp.)

Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata – plant powdery mildew resistant varieties such as ‘David’)

Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incana)

Sage (Salvia spp., annual and perennial varieties)

Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa columbaria)

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

Germander (Teucrium spp.)

Thyme (Thymus spp.)

White Clover (Trifolium repens)

Verbena (Verbena spp.)

Zinnia (Zinnia spp.)



Spraying pesticides

Storing Seeds from your Garden


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