Bees and Bluebells: Celebrating World Bee Day By Encouraging Pollinators in My Garden

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Yesterday was a sunny early summer’s day in my Brooklyn garden, with many flowers in full bloom. At the front of the garden, rests a well-established Zephirine Drouhin climbing Bourbon rose, which I planted in the mid- ‘90s, soon after we moved in. I chose this variety because of its tolerance for poor soil and shade, of which I once had plenty. The plant is thriving, now that the two trees that once shaded my garden – a massive maple and a three-trunked river birch –  are gone, casualties of disease. At the moment, it’s covered with fragrant carmine blooms, and if I keep up with the deadheading, will throw off repeat blooms throughout the summer.

At the the back of the garden, I planted two Abraham Darby David Austin roses in September of 2019; these are just getting settled in. The flowers are huge, apricot-colored now, and shade to coral pink as they age. They carry an exquisite scent: perhaps my favourite rose scent, I decided one day when I made a slow trawl through the rose garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, sniffing dozens of varieties.

Bees buzzed around the masses of bluebells that currently carpet much of the floor of the garden, popping up around a cluster of mixed heuchera – purple, gold, nearly black –  and the many hostas I planted when the garden was a shady space. These bluebells are a legacy of our house’s previous owner. I’d not noticed before how much bees love them. It’s fitting that I twigged to this yesterday, as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) tells me May 20 was World Bee Day – something I didn’t know as I watched the bee activity in my garden. Buzzing bees got me thinking about what other plants I might add to encourage them to continue to visit throughout the summer.

I’m well aware of the plight of the bees, through a friend who keeps bees at his upstate place somewhere in the Catskills. He often seems to be dealing with some catastrophe or another – successfully I think, as he occasionally brings me honey. This short FAO publication explains  Why Bees Matter. And at this fraught time – when things I really can’t do much about often  preoccupy me – I at least can consider the bees when I select plants for the garden.

A large  buddleia sits in a terra cotta pot on my front stoop. Despite its name, this butterfly bush typically attracts more bees than butterflies. These plants tend to sprawl and another buddleia in the back garden wouldn’t really fit in. I recently picked up a large rosemary plant, which I’ve plunked into a long wooden planter along with several other herb plants. I’ll add more from the plant seller at the Saturday Green Market at Grand Army Plaza, once I decide it’s safe to go back again. I was pleased to learn that bees love rosemary too, although today, they seemed more interested in the bluebells.

I’m considering adding some blueberry bushes to fill a gap in my garden’s perimeter. Last spring, I sent some blueberry plants to my mother and they did well, even producing some berries, which she harvested before the birds got to them. The bushes flower in late spring and in autumn, their leaves turn a blazing red, their foliage so striking that blueberry bushes would more than pull their weight as landscaping plants even if they didn’t produce berries. I’m also mulling adding some raspberry plants; I believe that bees like them as well. I’d like to create a small thicket, I remember picking raspberries with my mom, at the state game land a few miles from our home. She turned them into jam. When we went raspberry picking,  I always seemed to get covered in scratches, as if I’d been attacked by a herd of nasty feral cats, So I think I might look out for thornless varieties – provided that I don’t have to sacrifice taste along with the thorns.

My efforts to encourage bees have been largely ad hoc so far. I don’t use any pesticides, and I’ve been lucky in that my plants haven’t suffered much from pests or disease.  Seeing the bees dancing around my garden yesterday brought a smile to my face on World Bee Day and I’ll be adding plants to entice them to visit again throughout the summer. So, I ask you dear readers, to offer suggestions: what do you plant to encourage bees in your gardens?

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  1. Henry Moon Pie

    It is remarkable what a difference we can make in our yards by being attentive to the needs of pollinators. Beginning with not much more than goose grass and bare dirt when we bought these old houses for $3,500 in 2011, we’ve added a lot of perennials and self-seeders until we have pollinator-friendly plants blooming from early spring until late fall.

    A few favorites:

    Spiderwort was here when we arrived, an old landscaping plant that’s not available in nurseries around Cleveland any more. The blossoms close at night, then re-open at dawn when they’re soon covered with bees in late May. Watch out though. They spread.

    Echinacea or purple cone flowers are a perennial that pollinators seem to love. We’ve started them from seed and transplanted them, but all kinds of varieties and colors are available at nurseries. We also had a bunch of them that were included with the native prairie seed we planted in a rain garden where they mix with the Virginia wild rye, our little patch of Virginia bluebells. buddleia and marshmallow.

    Zinnias are an annual that’s about as easy to grow as any flower. We toss them into bare ground and spare spots at the end of the spring planting season.

    We use a lot of thyme as ground cover as we try to eliminate non-native grasses as much as possible. Its blooms seem to attract a lot of the little flying thingies throughout the summer plus it smells great when you step on it.

    In the shade underneath our Ukrainian almonds (that are full of almonds this year), a sort of foxglove forest seems to thrive, and the bees enjoy climbing down those bell-shaped flowers to retrieve some tasty nectar.

    I did notice the local nursery that I use most often has a new line of native flowering plants. We purchased a Culver’s Root plant as a memorial for a beloved dog that died at the age of 14 last summer. Native plants, being a familiar part of the local pollinators’ traditional habitat, are preferable.

    It’s quite fulfilling to see an area that was once close to dead come alive with a great variety of living things. There can even be a return of some semblance of ecological balance. I was happy to see a dragonfly gobbling up midges during the spring run a few days back. Walking sticks and wasps are other insects we have that help keep other insects under control without insecticides.

  2. Jackalope

    Some of my favorite perennials that grow almost anywhere include bee balm, phlox and obedient plant. Bees absolutely love them. The bee balm in particular also attract hummingbird moths and sometimes hummingbirds. As a bonus, the deer don’t care for them.

    1. CanCyn

      love all 3 of your suggestions Jackalope. I gave a friend some of my obedient plant one spring and by the end of season two she had nicknamed it disobedient plant. It seeded and spread all over her garden while the originals failed to thrive. Gardening is a fun exercise in observation and problem solving.
      With regard to raspberries, they tend to be vigorous growers and can be a lot of work to manage. There are varieties that stay more shrub-like rather than hedge-like, look for them for your small space JL.
      Early last fall we moved to a rural area in eastern Ontario (long planned retirement move not COVID flight) and I have just finished planting a pollinator friendly border that includes purple coneflower, phlox, daisies, Joe pye weed, thyme, bee balm and black eyed susans. Some veggies are going in tomorrow, not too many while I see what the resident deer do with them this year. Today I walked the hedge row between our property and the neighbours and to my delight found what is rugosa (wild rose) where I thought there was a bunch of dead stuff. It seems to have some leaves and new growth. My husband and I will whack it all down this week and see if it will come back this summer.
      I guess this last is a bit of a Debbie Downer sentiment but I have to say that it causes me some concern to hear about roses blooming in mid May in New York. I know it is possible to have a micro climate, especially near near a sunny brick wall but yikes, that seems way too early for roses. We are having some hot weather for spring here where I live so the climate weighs heavy on my mind right now.

  3. Cocomaan

    Nice post after reading the depressing series of articles about plastics!

    Raspberries are a lot of fun and seem to thrive in many marginal spots. I have heard thornless have fine berries but friends had trouble with failure to thrive. Worth a try though.

    Raspberries with thorns have been bred to be less prickly. Blackberries, though, are vicious and defensive. We get gallons and gallons of berries each year and freeze them.

    I’m a beekeeper. It’s difficult. 50% losses year over year are common. “Bee hotels” can be a fun way to keep bees passively for those who don’t want the frustration of keeping our inbred, introduced European strains. Plus the hotels look neat.

    1. Brunches with Cats

      A friend in Seattle introduced me to mason bees several years ago. They are phenomenal pollinators, vastly more efficient than honey bees. And, of course, they’re native. He built his own bee hotels by drilling holes in a 2×4 but you can get them in stores now. Some management is required, though. The definitive mason bee book here:

      Otherwise, plants in my garden (Upstate New York) that drew the most bees over the past three years were purple salvias, evening primrose (prolifically self-seeding biennial, bees are bonkers for them), and — believe it or not –nasturtium, which also is my favorite flower. Bonus: leaves and flowers are delicious in salads.

      I also have two varieties of coneflowers. Bees like them, but the real payoff was regular visits by yellow swallowtails.

      1. cocomaan

        Yep definitely some work needs to be done to keep the mason bees coming back.

        You can even drill holes into old logs to get them to nest in there.

        But Lambert was saying the other day that keeping yard detritus around attracts birds. But it also attracts pollinators. Pollinators need food sources but they also need habitat and cover!

        1. Brunches with Cats

          My yard isn’t large enough for a lot of detritus, but I do keep some. Also, a rock pile, next to the “pond,” a cheap plastic planter with a large stone and a couple of floating corks. Can’t overemphasize the need for water to attract pollinators. The birds love it, too. They line up on the fence waiting for their turn, and there’s a lovely pair of mourning doves that visits every evening. I chose the plastic planter, as it’s easy to dump every couple of days to deter mosquitoes and to scrub as necessary.

  4. Arizona Slim

    At the Arizona Slim Ranch, the bees are bonkers right now.

    What’s making them lose their heads? Well, for starters, I have two big ironwood trees that are blossoming like crazy. And the bees love it.

    In my garden, nothing’s flowering at the moment, but those cantaloupe seedlings sure look promising. So does the second round of blossoms on the lemon tree.

  5. BillS

    In our garden, the bees go absolutely nuts over the lavender, when it flowers in summer. We have since planted more than a dozen of these aromatic bushes around the property. There tends to be a dearth of flowering plants when the heat of summer kicks in, so the lavender plants seem to be a welcome stop for the local bees. Scatter some seeds for red poppies around as well, and you can enjoy a bit of Provence in your back yard! Some Calendula (Marigolds?) adds a flaming orange and/or yellow touch.

    In Springtime, we do not mow the grass, leaving the wild sage, dandelions, daisies, forget-me-nots, buttercups and a host of other wildflowers to go through their reproductive cycles. First mowing happens when most everything has started to go to seed.

    Right now, acacia and sassafras have the bees busy..if it doesn’t rain. :-/

    1. Userfract

      +1 for lavender. Our pollinators love it. I also observe a lot of activity around our oregano, but the place I regularly see the most bees is on our sedum plants. It’s not unusual to see half a dozen honey bees working on a single plant. We are also participating in No Mow May this year. The Nature Conservancy of Canada is encouraging people to avoid cutting their lawns at the start of the year so that we don’t disturb the homes and food sources of the many ground dwelling pollinators. They are also encouraging people to leave leaf cover in their gardens or on their lawns later into the spring as it provides shelter for overwintering pollinators. This means that my lawn is pretty full of “weeds” and is a bit tall, but if one adjusts one’s aesthetic preferences away from uniform green lawns and toward the beauty of an abundant nature then the diversity of a lawn thick with wildflowers and pollinators begins to look more beautiful. I wouldn’t say that all of the neighbourhood is on board, but their gardens do benefit from the pollinators we are sheltering.

  6. Appleseed

    In the Midwest, bluebells in our woodland garden were at their peak 3 weeks ago.They have been followed by bloodroot, and jack-in-the-pulpit. I learned the term “bee pasture” during a permaculture class years ago and it’s stuck with me so I sow as many flowering annuals as I do vegetables. 2 favorite perennial bee plants: comfrey & cranesbill. Neither are fussy about soil or amount of light though they do not do as well in full shade. Comfrey is deep rooted and is used as a green manure (after flowering, cut back the leaves and add to a bucket of water. Let stand for a couple of days to brew “compost tea” and use on tender annuals or sprouts. The tea (or herbal infusion) has a salutary effect. It is one of those cut-and-come-again plants. I’ve gotten 3 different blossming in one season. Leaves are good compost material or make a good mulch. Cranesbill (aka perennial geranium) have a mounding habit that makes them suitable for planting in borders. Lovely rhodamine-colored flowers that not only cheer me up, but also attract bees and other flying pollinators. I second Jackalope’s support of bee balm and phlox. Both are just now coming on and should be flowering in the next couple of weeks.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I have some cranesbill too – another legacy from the woman we bought the house from – both in the back garden and some in pots on the front stoop.

  7. ChiGal in Carolina

    Aww, this lovely post could use a picture or two! Thanks for the garden interlude.

  8. JustAnotherVolunteer

    My garden “plan” involves a base of established natives, perennials, and old fashioned roses with a generous over planting of annuals every year. I let stuff self seed and I’m a serious over planter. Oregon has a long spring to summer flowering season and there is always something for the bees. My Akebia quinata (a flowering vine and very fragrant) just went off and the roses are coming in strong this week. Foxglove, lupine, and bee balm all attracting bumblebees now and there will be poppies up next. The Danish Flag variety were very popular with bees last year so I’ve added more. Flowering Tobacco and 4-o’clock will last into August. The roses/rosemary/lavender combination helps bridge the die back. No pesticides and I’m always finding new-to-me ground bee types as I add new plants. I’ve added a bird feeder this year – my last old cat passed away in March and I wonder what that means for the insect population.

    Always something to see in the garden – better then television!

  9. PS

    Milkweed is very easy to grow from seed, is native to much of the US, and bees love it. As a bonus you may get Monarch butterflies, too! I’ve been surreptitiously planting it in open spaces around me to help out the pollinators.

    1. Brunches with Cats

      Milkweed, YES! And no need to get fancy with it. Monarchs prefer plain old Asclepias syriaca. Just don’t plant it near foundations, as once it gets established, it spreads aggressively deep under the soil.

  10. The Rev Kev

    When our “racehorse” trees come into yellow flower, the bees come from near and far to sample it. When this happens, it is good to stand underneath one of these trees and listen to the heavy buzzing above your head. It is kinda relaxing. The bees that I do see locally tend to be of a smaller size but I always appreciate their presence-

  11. Laughingsong

    Bees pretty much get to dictate what stays in our garden. The bumblebees love the lavender and lupine, the honey and mason bees love the oregano, borage, and fireweed, and everyone loves the foxglove and California poppies. As an aside, the birdies love the bachelor buttons and the hummingbirds love the iris. We love watching all the activity in the late afternoon.

  12. H Braithwaite

    A tub of marjoram and my raspberry canes attract the most bee activity in my garden. I have added a dwarf crabapple tree this year which has also seen visitor. Winter aconite and flowering current are also good earlier sources of nectar. Poached egg plant is good for summer buzzing too.

  13. Carla

    Our side yard crab apple tree succumbed to disease last year. Since I saw what was coming, I started noodling around for a pretty native to replace it (native to NE Ohio that is). After one look at the blazing fall foliage of a sourwood tree in an internet photo, I was halfway hooked.

    A little research revealed that butterflies and bees love the nectar of sourwood blossoms, which bloom in the summer, long after the crab apples, red bud, dogwood, etc. Turns out, sourwood honey is prized. Later on in the season, birds feast on the berries. But the big show comes in fall, when the leaves turn brilliant red and/or orange.

    A local amateur arborist told me there was a mature sourwood about a mile from here and gave me the address. Since then, I have walked over there every couple of weeks, watching the tree throughout the seasons. Yep, it was the tree for me!

    Our very own sourwood was planted in a place of honor in the side yard a few weeks ago and is settling in. It’s a wee thing now, but if/when it amounts to something, I will submit a photo for consideration to the Water Cooler plantidote feature. Wish us luck!

  14. polecat

    Just a few weeks ago our cherry trees (3 sour, 1 sweet) were in their glory, absolutely loaded with blossoms. They, in turn, were filled with foragers (our’s), as I noticed them heading to and from from their hives in the back of our lot. Right now, the scotch broom in the vacant city block behind our’s is in bloom, so the foragers are coming back so covered in pollen, they appear as little golden orange jewels scrambling to get inside the entrances, compared to the fanners and guard bees. We also have various blueberries, native huckleberry, and raspberries, with are a draw for our bees .. as well as or leaf cutters, orchard, and the rest.
    I’ve managed to start 2 new colonies this spring, by taking several bar frames filled with house bees, capped and uncapped brood, necter/honey, and especially .. few queen cells .. from the 3rd hive – a really strong colony, to 2 empty hives. So far, they are doing fine. I’ll inspect them both in a couple weeks to see if each has produced any new queens. They are bringing in pollen; always a good sign. ‘:]

    Keeping bees, for me at least .. is as close to spiritual as it gets!

  15. dummy

    Bees are ac close as you could get to organized human society, with the difference that each bee know its place in the social strata.
    I have been keeping bees in my backyard since last time I saw a pest company who came and destroy a swarm at my neighbors house. It felt like assisting on a genocide.
    Since, I watched some youtube videos and now I hunt for swarms in my neighborhood and remove them from free. Bonus, whoever informs me of a swarm gets free honey.
    I have 12 hives now and a lot of 100% organic honey.
    Its amazing how many therapeutic virtues honey has. For example, if you ever cut your finger or have some skin irritation, try putting some honey instead, you will see how miraculous a product it is.
    I never feed the bees, and I can spend hours watching them go in an out of their hives.
    When my bees are dying, i know that the golf course nearby has been spreading pesticides, its a sorrow show as their nervous system is attacked but I cant help.
    Bees are super sensitive and it is a good sign that the environment is friendly and healthy for humans when they are striving.

  16. rjs

    urban homesteaders would do wonders for bees if they just allowed the chickweed (often the first spring bloom), dandelions, and clover to grow in their lawns, and not mow when said flowers are in bloom or going to seed…

  17. Phil in KC

    I have been creating, without knowing it, a bee lawn for the last four years. Since 2017, I have only put down fertilizer and grub control on my lawn—no pesti, herbi, or fungi-cides whatsoever. The lawn looks as good ever, and now sports some healthy patches of white clover, which is a bee’s delight. This year will skip the grub control. Figure there’s enough chemical death beneath the ground to keep grubs away for a century.

    My old lawn guy come around and asks me what I’m doing to keep the yard looking so well. “Seed, sun, water, and a little fert,” I tell him. I pull weeds by hand. And I have redefined the meaning of weed.

    And nowadays, I have bees, birds, and butterflies galore!

  18. Pinhead

    Bees are epicurian. They love variety and they prosper when they can gather pollen throughout the spring and summer. Single-crop farming, now practiced almost everywhere in Europe and North America, is bad for their health.

    Two other health hazzards for bees are pesticides and viruses of which only three have been identified. Experts think there are other and nobody ever knows where they come from. Bees are dying all over the world.

    As for the honey they produce, and especilly the honey produced by Chinese chemists, here is a somewhat tendentious but reasonably accurate report in French.

    A French start-up has shown that radiation around nuclear facilities can be detected in beeswax at a tiny fraction of the cost of taking soil samples. The French bureaucrats validated the findings but refuse to change methodology because they say “the start-up is too small for us to work with”. What they mean is “the entrepreneurs did not graduate from the right schools and have no political contacts.”

  19. Nikkikat

    We plant lavender, rosemary, nasturtium as well as cone flower. Every year I buy a big packet or two of wildflower seeds. We sprinkle the seeds as use a garden rake to cover them. We have a couple of bee houses and we use small pieces of wood and other garden debris to create bumble bee housing. The tiny bumble bees will flit around the garden for several days. I have never used an unnatural fertilizer or any pesticides. My lawn is always green and in good shape. We bring in compost from the local composting lot and rake it over our small lawn area. My soil is rich and full of earth worms. We keep several bird baths full of water and we have bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. The finches love the salvia and little flocks of them will rush the yard, peeping and chip chipping as the cling to the plants.

  20. Bailer Blackford

    More Ways to Help Bees Thrive (from Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation):

    1) Eschew Traditional Mulch. Choose a Material Other than Wood Chips. (Ground-nesting bees cannot pass thru even an inch of chip mulch.
    2) If a Dead Tree or Log Appears in Your Yard or Garden, Let It Be. Provides Habitat for Bees & Lots More.
    3) Build a Brush Pile. Again, Habitat for Bees & More.
    4) Make a Bee Hotel. But It Will Need to be Maintained, So It Doesn’t Become a Magnet for Pathogens & Mites.

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