September has its share of silly holidays, such as International Talk Like a Pirate Day and National Butterscotch Pudding Day. While I love pudding, arrr, I think it might be a better idea to celebrate National Honey Month while there’s still time. It’s a real thing, brought about to honor and support beekeeping, and reminding us of the importance of the tiny insects that produce that sweet treat and so much of the other food we eat.
Planting for pollinators is more than just the pretty flowers in our perennial borders; I like to encourage folks to consider all of what I call “flower opportunities” in our gardens. Flowers equal food for bees, and they also occur on trees, shrubs, fruits and vegetables, herbs, grasses and ground cover. So think beyond the flower bed when it comes to feeding bees.
Planting trees for bees is one of the best gifts you can offer beekeepers and their hardworking hives. But no need to wait until Arbor Day next spring; it just so happens that early fall is also a great time to plant trees. Summer’s heat has eased, rain is plentiful and the beginning of beautiful fall color offers inspiration.
Many of the same trees that display stunning autumnal shades provide much needed sustenance for pollinators in early spring as they emerge. A trip to garden centers, local parks or the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum can provide plenty of real-life examples of well-known flowering trees, as well as some of the more unusual specimens. Visits to arboretums and other botanical gardens also help you visualize the size range of various types of trees once they reach maturity.
According to the Arbor Day Foundation, “Trees’ flowers are a critical source of forage for bees, providing nutrient-rich pollen and nectar that bees use for food and to make honey.”
Crabapples, with their explosion of flowers in May, are an obvious choice for bee-friendly blooms, in addition to their color, fragrance and fruit. They come in different sizes, too.
Fruit trees such as apple, plum, pear and cherry produce prolific flowers as well.
These floriferous trees contribute greatly to what is called the “nectar flow” or “honey flow” in spring. This is the time when two important factors — the combination of an abundance of blooms and suitable weather — create the perfect conditions for honeybees to gather the ingredients that sustain their hives and produce honey for humans, too.
Flowering trees are helpful to bees in that they yield a large number of flowers in a relatively small space. Bees can forage for food from flower to flower without flying long distances and using up their limited energy budget.
Anytime we add habitat for honeybees, native bees benefit, as well. Of around 400 species of native bees in Minnesota, striking blue orchard bees, or mason bees, are especially suited to pollinating fruit trees. They are even more effective than honeybees, with a pollination style that’s more “flop and wallow” than the honeybee’s methodical manner, flinging pollen as they travel back and forth between trees.
Mighty trees such as oak and maple are excellent bee trees, although many folks don’t realize that they actually flower. In early spring, you may notice a reddish cast to their branches when tiny flowers sprout along the stems before leaf buds appear. In botanical descriptions, these flowers are deemed “insignificant.” Tell that to the bees!
Smaller trees bees like
Not everyone can fit a large tree into their landscape, but there are attractive choices among small trees.
With a flurry of white flowers in early spring, followed by blueberry-like fruits in summer, serviceberry hits all the right notes for good habitat value.
Redbud offers orchid purple flowers and delicate heart-shaped leaves; use the hardier Minnesota strain.
American hornbeam, or blue beech, is also known as muscle wood, due to the sinewy twist of the branches. The flowers are greenish-white catkins that dangle from the branches.
Dwarf red buckeye has sprays of red flowers in spring that also appeal to hummingbirds.
Pagoda dogwood is architectural in its shape with flat fans of white flowers in early spring.
These trees are known as understory trees, meaning they can grow in the high partial shade of taller trees or other shady situations.
Don’t forget taller trees
These medium to large native trees add interest to the landscape while providing forage for bees:
Ironwood, or hop hornbeam, with hop-like blooms in spring.
Sassafras, with clusters of yellowish-green flowers in spring, and unusual lobed leaves that turn brilliant colors in fall.
Basswood or linden, a summer bloomer with fragrant yellowish-green flowers.
Sturdy standbys that feed bees:
Master Gardener Rhonda Fleming Hayes is a Minneapolis-based writer who blogs at thegardenbuzz.com. She is the author of “Pollinator-Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators,” available at Amazon.com.