By Kate Deregibus, English Park Horticulturist

As most of us know by now bee populations are under threat and are experiencing serious declines. So what can we do to help? Several things actually, but let’s start with the plants.

The first thing to consider when selecting a plant list is to try to provide pollen and nectar for as much of the year as is possible, late winter to late fall. With the weirdly warm winters we have been having, this is particularly important. So if you can, provide them with plants that bloom exceptionally early.  Some of the most popular winter bee plants are Vernal Witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) and Sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana), the first being a large deciduous shrub and the second a much smaller, broadleaf evergreen with very fragrant flowers. Since not everyone has room for more shrubs, you can plant early blooming bulbs like Crocus, Winter Aconite or Snowdrops (Galanthus), or early flowering perennials such as Hellebores or Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia). If you can stand it, just leave the dandelions—the bees will thank you.

Starting later on in the spring the list gets much longer and selections should be made based on the conditions of your garden. Some of the most rewarding perennials for bees would include herbs like Lavender, Oregano, or any of the mints.  In my garden at home I grow Catmint, the weedy straight species, Nepeta cataria, (ostensibly for my cat), but it has turned out to be an extremely popular flower with several types of bee. One of the hands-down best, bee and pollinator plants going is Mountain Mint either Clustered (Pycnanthemum muticum) or Narrowleaf (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), which both bloom for an exceptionally long time.

Other great choices might be Coneflower (Echinacea), Black Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), Blazing Star (Liatris), and of course Bee Balm (Monarda). Milkweeds and Butterflyweed (Asclepias) will reliably bring butterflies to the garden as well as bees.

Honeybees drinking from a wet rock at the Swan Pond

Seen on Winter Aconite (Eranthus hymenalis)

Don’t forget the late bloomers in the fall; fall blooming plants are vital in ensuring the bees have the resources to get through the winter. Some of the most rewarding fall bloomers are Asters (Symphyotrichum) and Goldenrods (Solidago). The goal is to provide a diversity of colors, flower shapes and sizes, as well as planning for a long bloom season. If providing bees with nectar, things to avoid include many of the ‘oh so tempting’ modern hybrids, especially the ones with double flowers since they often sacrifice pollen and nectar production for a showier flower.

Another thing to consider includes bee hydration—that’s right, bees need water! I often see them clinging to a wet rock on the edge of the Swan Pond at the Morris Arboretum, getting a drink on a hot day. So maybe you could provide a shallow bee drinking station – a dish with rocks in water works well, or just a puddle on the ground.

Most of our native bees (over 400 species!), are solitary and live in hollow stems of plants or holes in the ground, so perhaps a bit of bare earth, a small unmulched, well-draining, low mound, or maybe leave that snag or old log. Finally, don’t fear the bees. It is overwhelmingly more common to be stung by hornets or wasps, bees are rarely aggressive. Thanks for keeping the bees happy in your garden.