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Menu For A Blooming Banquet For Bees



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Menu For A Blooming Banquet For Bees

By Vincent Laurence

If you garden in or around Newtown, you’re sure to have heard on more than one occasion “Oh, deer don’t eat x or y or z….” only to have that bit of lore proven sadly inaccurate. Two years ago, deer ate not only my arbor vitae, which everyone knows they love, but also did serious damage to a number of Chamaecyparis, junipers, and other very prickly, bristly, seemingly unpleasant-to-the-palate conifers that I’d been told “they never eat.”

Well, my experience with “plants that bees love” has been similar¾though inversely so¾and with far less traumatic results. On the one hand, many of the plants I’ve read or heard that bees will make a beeline toward (sorry, couldn’t resist), including bee balm, have elicited a merely so-so response from honeybees in my yard. On the other hand, there are a number of plants I’ve grown, about which I’d read nothing with respect to honeybees that have been bee magnets for several years now. It’s speculation on my part, but it seems to me that the “plants that bees love” may differ significantly from region to region (perhaps even locally) as well as according to what else is available. All of the above is by way of context, as well as to say that what follows is not drawn from books or magazines, but rather from my experience here in Newtown.

First of all, mint-family plants (Lamiacae) do attract bees here, though in varying degrees. I do often see honeybees on my bee balm (Monarda hybrids “Raspberry Wine”, “Marshall”s Pink” and Monarda fistulosa), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia “Munstead” and “Hidcote,” and Lavandula x intermedia “Alba”), but these plants are all visited in much greater numbers by bumblebees and other pollinators. All of these plants are attractive border plants and are fairly easy to grow, though the lavender and Russian sage need great drainage (heavy, wet soil will kill them) and low-fertility for optimal bloom.

Other mint-family members that are at least as¾and perhaps more¾attractive to honeybees here include the catmints (Nepeta “Six Hills Giant,” Nepeta sibirica, and Nepeta nervosa), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), and a salvia, Salvia guaranitica “Black and Blue,” the blooms of which the bees don’t actually enter, but rather¾it appears¾somehow access the nectar from the outside of the flower right at the bases of the calyxes. All are tough, versatile, undemanding plants, though this salvia is tender here in New England, which means you either have to dig it up and bring it in each year, or write it off and replace it.

The two mint-family plants I’ve found most popular with honey bees here, though, have been calamint (Calamintha nepeta), a long-blooming, white-flowered, mound-forming plant that’s excellent for edging, and borage (Borago officinalis), an easy-to-grow, rangy, self-sowing annual with gorgeous true-blue blooms. Borage plants do get awfully ratty looking by the end of the season, though, so they’re best used somewhere you can yank them out without their being missed. Besides the borage, all the other plants mentioned above are perennials. Another couple of summer-blooming perennials that have attracted lots of bees in our yard include globe thistle (Echinops ritro) and garden phlox (Phlox paniculata “David”).

Two late-summer/early-fall-blooming perennials that really attract bees here are Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) and Sedum “Autumn Joy.” On both plants, I’ve often seen a half-dozen or more honeybees crawling on a single flowerhead. An herbaceous vine, Clematis paniculata, the sweet autumn-flowering clematis, attracts lots of bees at this time of year, too, and another white clematis, “Henryi,” gets lots of traffic from late June on. Also, our hedge of Rosa rugosa “Alba” stays busy with honeybees from June until well into September. Finally, we also have a bunch of autumn-blooming ornamental onions (Allium thunbergii “Ozawa”) on which we’ve seen as many as nine bees (on one bloom!) at the same time¾well into October.

The most outrageous bee-plant experience we’ve had, though, was a transitional planting we put in a couple of years back. We were converting a section of lawn to mixed border on the cheap, so we opted, as we often have, to put in annuals the first year. We planted the whole bed, an area about 10-ft. wide by 40-ft. long, with white cleome, or spider flower (Cleome hassleriana). By July, the plants were nearly four feet tall, a sea of white blooms, and the whole bed just seemed to vibrate with an electric hum¾honeybees at work.

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