Bee Friendly!

Kathy Roth
Colorado State University Extension Master Gardener in Larimer County
April 20, 2013

As you choose plants and flowers to add to your garden, seek out those that support bees. Unlike wasps, bees pollinate flowers and play an integral role in providing a bountiful garden harvest, dramatically increasing fruit and vegetable production.

Consider native plants and flowers to sustain insect diversity. Natives have evolved with our local pollinators and are adapted to our area’s soils, weather, and wind. Natives need little additional water once established.

With current water restrictions, many homeowners may choose to change out areas of lawn that aren’t used for recreation for children or pets, and replacing these areas with flowering plants to provide food and habitat for bees. Not only will you decrease water use (lawns generally need more water than native, waterwise bee-friendly plants), you may not spend as much time and effort to maintain your pollinator garden compared to the lawn. Step-by-step instructions for converting your lawn to a garden can be found on CSU Extension Fact Sheet #7.234, “Xeriscaping: Retrofit Your Yard” on the Extension website: www.ext.colostate.edu.

Adding even a handful bee-friendly plants is a step in the right direction, but for best results, plant in 4’ x 4’ patches or swaths, making foraging more efficient and easier for bees. Flowers in mass plantings don’t force our buzzing friends to hopscotch around to their preferred nectar producers. A complete list of natives can be found on CSU Extension Fact Sheet #7.242 “Native Herbaceous Perennials for Colorado Landscapes”, which lists bloom color and times. Target the blue, purple and yellow colored flowers that bees prefer; plants choices include: aster, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, lupine, penstemon, coneflower, currant (shrub) and rabbit-brush.

Certain flowers, from years of artificial breeding and selection, have lost their ability to attract bees. Steer away from highly hybridized or double flower plants—they produce little to no nectar. Choose plants for continuous, overlapping bloom throughout the growing season to provide bees a constant food source. The first bloomers of the season welcome bees out of hibernation (crocus, tulips, white clover and dandelions). For more information on selecting bee-friendly plants for the garden, visit www.pollinator.org. On the site you will find a document entitled “Selecting Plants for Pollinators”; page 20 of this article gives an alphabetical list of plants preferred by seven native bees, beginning with catnip and ending with thyme.

It is important to avoid, or at least restrict, the use of pesticides and herbicides. If you must apply them, use them just after dawn when bees are not as active. Another resource is the Xerces Society (www.xerces.org). This non-profit protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. Plants they recommend for attracting bees include: blue wild indigo, purple prairie clover, beebalm, lavender hyssop, bottle gentian and prairie dropseed. A final resource to consider is the NAPPC (North American Pollinator Protection Campaign), a partnership with Pollinator.org. They name the top 13 nectar producers for the northern Colorado area:

  • bellflower (Campanula rotundifolia)
  • blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
  • choke cherry (Prunus virginiana); shrub
  • dotted blazing star (Liatris punctata)
  • prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)
  • purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea)
  • scarlet globe mallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea)
  • showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
  • sidebells and blue mist penstemon (Penstemon secundiflorus and P. virens)
  • three-leaf sumac (Rhus aromatica ssp. trilobata)
  • Western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis); shrub
  • wild bergamot/beebalm (Monarda fistulosa)
  • Woods’ rose (Rosa woodsii); shrub

Besides food (nectar to provide energy and pollen for protein), both shelter and water are important for attracting and keeping bees in your garden. Shallow birdbaths or water features provide bees needed water sources. Most native bees are solitary and nest in the ground. These nests tend to be in abandoned rodent holes. Others nest in undisturbed, bare, sandy spots, while others use plant stems or fence posts. Ground nests resemble anthills, but with a larger opening. Please leave nests alone unless they pose a hazard to a family member. Flowers need bees and so do you. Please invite bees to your garden—you won’t BEE sorry!


The author has received training through Colorado State University Extension's Master Gardener program and is a Master Gardener volunteer for Larimer County.
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Larimer County is a county-based outreach of Colorado State University Extension providing information you can trust to deal with current issues in agriculture, horticulture, nutrition and food safety, 4-H, small acreage, money management and parenting. For more information about CSU Extension in Larimer County, call (970) 498-6000 or visit www.larimer.org/ext
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Looking for additional gardening information? Check out the CSU Extension Horticulture Agent blog at www.csuhort.blogspot.com for timely updates about gardening around the state.
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Visit PlantTalk Colorado ™ for fast answers to your gardening questions! www.planttalk.org PlantTalk is a cooperation between Colorado State University Extension, GreenCo and Denver Botanic Gardens.



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Updated Tuesday, August 05, 2014