As it turns out, hydrangeas vary in their ability to feed the bees. Unfortunately, the very common and showy Mophead hydrangeas, or Hydrangea macrophylla hortensis (some seen above) do not feed the bees or other pollinators because their flowers are sterile. The common H. paniculata ‘Limelight’ that I am seeing everywhere, unfortunately, does not feed the bees. But there are other hydrangeas that feed the bees and pollinators while also being great plants for the garden. So perhaps it is time to reconsider your hydrangea.
Hydrangeas That Feed the Bees
While the following hydrangeas all offer food, I have starred the hydrangeas that give the most food for bees (and, yes, other pollinators).
Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala petiolaris) If you have seen this plant full-grown you know how gorgeous it is. A warning though–this one is a climber and has aerial roots that stick to a surface like cement. A great choice for a dead tree or an old shed, but probably not good for your house.
Warning aside, this is one beautiful plant with dark green leaves and white flowers. It grows 30-40′ long or high–although it can be pruned. The lacy white flowers on heads are about 8-10″ wide. The flowers give both nectar and pollen for pollinators and it blooms from June to July. A mature Climbing Hydrangea gives you the feeling that the garden has been there for a long time. Zones 4-8.
*Lacecap Hydrangea (Hydrangea mycrophylla) Flat heads of fertile flowers, fringed with the showy sterile ones. A beautiful and elegant choice for the garden. Flowers range from blue to white to pink and may change as the bloom ages. Soil pH affects the flower color: blue in highly acidic soils (pH below 5.5) and pink to purple pink in alkaline soils (pH above 7.0). Add aluminum sulfate to make the flowers bluer or add lime to make the flowers pinker. Grow in either sun or partial shade. If you are in a cold climate, look for more hardy varieties. Zones 6-9.
*Oak-Leaved Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) A terrific source of pollen and nectar. I love oak-leaved hydrangeas for their large assertive leaves. The edges do resemble an oak leaf. This hydrangea will stand out against other shrubs, even when not in flower, because of its leaves. The plants can reach 5-10 feet; the white oblong flowers are 10-12 inches long. The leaves turn a beautiful deep red in the fall. Consider this plant for both “cultivated” areas as well as more natural woodland settings. Grow in acidic, well-drained soils, in full sun or partial sun. Zones 5-9.
PeeGee Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’) Reviews are mixed on how well this plant feeds the bees. If you are serious about providing a food source for bee and pollinators, I would probably choose another hydrangea–for PeeGee has a large amount of sterile flowers. White flowers bloom in mid-summer and age to a dusty rose. Can grow in most soil conditions. Grows to about 20 ft. tall and wide. Zones 3 to 8.
* Rough-Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea aspera) Unlike other hydrangeas, Hydrangea aspera’s flowers are nearly all fertile. The bees love them and they are also fragrant. Best grown in rich, evenly moist, well-drained soils in part shade. Tolerates full sun only if grown with consistently moist soils. Soil pH generally affects the flower color for this shrub. See the Lacecap description for how to change the color. Zones 6-9.
‘Tardiva’ Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) I highly recommend this hydrangea if you have the space for it. Tardiva’s flowers are a mix of sterile and fertile flowers. Nonetheless the bees seem to love mine. White flowers open in August and age to a dusty pink. This hydrangea can get big for a shrub–about 20 feet. It shines in the shrub border. Or perhaps you have a privacy border with mostly trees? A tall shrub, like ‘Tardiva’ will look more in proportion with trees and work as a better companion than your average-sized shrub. ‘Tardiva’ tolerates any soil conditions, except wet. Zones 3 to 8.
Wild or Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) Last but not least. This is a native hydrangea with white flowers that feeds bees as well as pollinators. Blooms from early to late summer. Grows 3 to 5 feet. Great in masses or groupings. Provide moist, organic-laden soil, well-drained soil. It can work in either shade or full sun. Zones 3 to 9.
For other flowers that feed the bees well, see my section Flower Power.