Gardening for Bees
How to approach gardening for bees, is a question people often ask me, particularly in respect to what sort of plants are good for bees. I'm also often asked what new beekeepers should do to their garden to help their bees. This is a much more difficult question than first, for a number of reasons.
If you have a beehive or two in your garden you can certainly provide some plants from which the bees will collect pollen and nectar. The difficulty is that bees won't stay in your garden to forage, they'll fly anywhere in a radius of a mile to 1½ miles, an area of about 6,000 acres. Unless you have a huge backyard, anything you plant there is unlikely to make a lot of difference.
If you're approaching gardening for bees from the perspective of wanting bees to pollinate your fruits and vegetables you might also consider that while they are great at pollinating many plants, they aren't necessarily the best option for particular plants. For example solitary bees such as mason bees and bumble bees are much better at pollinating tomatoes and strawberries, because they 'buzz' the flower which vibrates the pollen loose.
The other consideration when choosing plants suitable for bees is of course your location. We're in San Diego, which is basically a desert, the choice of plants would be very different to someone who lives in an area which has much more rainfall. Visit Julie's garden to learn more about zone 5 perennials, annuals, herbs and vegetables, with a focus on gardening for nature and family.
Since bees fly for quite a distance when foraging it's worth considering what other plants are in the neighborhood. I have found in some circumstances my beehives have been much more successful in residential areas, where people liberally water their gardens, rather than agricultural areas which have huge numbers of flowers, but perhaps have only one of two different crops.
It's interesting to remember that bees will not concentrate on one type of flower. Like us they need a a varied diet. If a hive is sited next to a field which has acre upon acre of a flowering crop, such as oil seed rape or linseed, many of the bees will forage there, but many will continue to explore other options. This means that when the crop finishes, the hive already 'knows' of other flowers on which they can forage for pollen and nectar.
You will find a great deal of information about gardening for bees and Urban Bee Gardens at the Berkley University of California website.
If helping your neighborhood honey bees is your motivation I think the single most effective thing you could do would be to build a small pond to provide water for bees and other insects. The critical thing is to provide places for the bees to land when collecting water, without the danger of drowning. Water plants or some sort of 'beach' with gravel and stones are ideal for this since there are footholds for the bees when drinking. This can be an effective mention of discouraging bees from trying to collect water from swimming pools, where they inevitably cause a nuisance and often drown.
If you know of other plants which seem particularly popular with bees in your area, or experiences you've had with gardening for bees, please share your ideas with us here.