Question: How do I encourage bees in my garden?
Answer: Bees are especially drawn to the fragrances and flowers of herbs, and there are many plants that attract bees to your garden. Bees will always be found working away to gather and spread pollen while they sip the nectar, to the great benefit of gardener and bee alike. I’ve always welcomed honeybees, bumblebees, and wasps to my garden. My experience has always been that if I leave them alone, they leave me alone, and I enjoy their companionable buzzing as I work around the garden. They are invaluable as pollinators.
If you've just started gardening with herbs and haven’t seen many bees yet, have faith: If you plant it, they will come. Flowering herbs are irresistible lures to pollinators. Let’s run down the list of sure-fire favorites that will draw bees from all over the neighborhood.
• Thymes. A patch or a blanket of blooming thymes will almost always have bees working it over.
• Lamb’s-ears. Bees come to these velvety plants late in the season when the plants send up their flower stalks.
• Rosemary. If your climate suits this tender herb, plant a hedge of it!
• Lavender. Bees will work these plants steadily.
• Hyssop. This tidy shrub, which comes with white, pink, and blue flowers, is a great bee herb.
• Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). Bees may pass up every other plant in the garden when this is blooming.
• Monarda. This is called bee balm for a reason. Bees and hummingbirds both love Monardas, especially Monarda fistulosa, M. citriodora, and M. punctata.
• Sages. If you have your own beehive, plant salvias nearby, because they contribute to a marvelous honey.
• Milkweeds, especially butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Bees and butterflies find these irresistible.
• Oregano and marjoram. These delicate flowers draw a crowd.
There are many other plants that will draw a steady stream of bees to your garden, moving tirelessly from flower to flower. Bees seem to love many of the same plants we herb gardeners most cherish.
I assume that herb growers, especially those who harvest for culinary use, have a commitment to gardening organically, for their own health and that of their garden. It’s especially important if you want to attract bees and other insects, as well as birds, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Be very careful of any chemicals you use on nearby grassy areas and in vegetable gardens, and be aware of what your neighbors are using. Diazinon, for example, used by some people on tomato plants, kills bees.
It is also important to know if you or anyone in your family is allergic to bee stings. The painful sting is dangerous, even fatal, for the small percentage of the population that is allergic to bee stings. If that’s the case, a bee sting is serious business, so use common sense. Keep the plants that bees are especially drawn to in out-of-the-way places, or put a small fence around them to remind yourself or your family that there may be bees there, or simply don’t plant them. You can prevent some herbs such as the mints from flowering by regular harvesting, and it’s the flowers that the bees are after. You can avoid working or harvesting in that area when they’re in bloom. And don’t plant thymes among the paving stones where you might inadvertently step on a bee!
Pets and small children also find bees so irresistible that they may be in for a painful lesson. Raised beds can discourage toddlers. Many bee attracting plants grow well in containers that can be moved out of the reach of pets and children.
Observe the bee activity in the garden at different times of the day, because bees work different plants at different times. Some flowers close up during certain hours, and the bees don’t bother with them then.
And don’t forget, if you do get stung, herbs can help ease the pain and swelling. James Duke, in his book The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997), has several herbal recommendations. If you grow calendula in your garden, grab a flower head and rub it onto the sting. Also, onion and garlic work both internally and externally. You can make a poultice of these and apply them directly to the sting. You can also get some relief by simply eating these foods. One of the best remedies for stings is plantain, found as a weed in most yards. Just rub the leaves directly on the sting to relieve pain and reduce the swelling.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a freelance writer on health and gardening. She lives in Las Vegas.