I recently planted most of my herb garden this past weekend and it made me so….. happy. Herbs are fragrant, charming, and useable in the kitchen or medicinally. It turns out that bees also love herbs too. Maybe herbs make the bees happy? All that buzzing. Herbs are chock full of antioxidants and some beneficial essential oils, so they are great nutrition for the bees. It is also thought that some herbs help bees fight disease.
Herbs are a win-win, for the honey bees and for us. Here are some great herbs to plant in your garden for the bees. Nearly all do well in containers. Many herbs prefer or tolerate dry conditions, a plus as many of us are experiencing longer periods of drought and are more conscious of the water we use. I starred the bee’s favorites.
Angelica (Angelica sinensis) Plant this herb where you need a bit of height or drama in the garden, for it can grow to 7 feet high. It has purplish stems, small white flowers that have a honey-like aroma.
*Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) This pretty plant with lavender to purple spiky flowers attracts bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. It is easy to grow from seed and its flowers are edible. The plant tastes of licorice-mint. As it blooms from July to September, it is a good choice for a flower bed.
*Basil-(Ocimum basilicum) Any variety of basil that blooms is a good source of pollen and nectar for the bees. I love them all. ‘Thai Basil’, with its purple stems and purple tinged leaves looks great in the garden. Grow basil in a sunny spot with well-drained soil. Since I am feeding the bees too, I no longer pinch the flowers off of basil to encourage bushy growth. Grow enough basil for yourself and the bees.
Bee balm (Monarda) Long blooming and deer resistant, bee balm is great in the garden. It can be found in shades of red, pink, lavender, and even yellow. The flowers are edible and the leaves make a delicious tea.
Betony (Stachys officinalis or grandiflora) Betony is so pretty that it is often used in flower beds. Pink or lavender flowers–it is a beautiful edging plant.
*Borage (Borago officinalis) A beautiful blue flower that bees adore and is edible for us humans. There is also a white version. See my post on borage.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) Calendula is an annual, daisy-like flower in shades of orange and yellow. Admittedly I am not a big orange fan–I don’t usually include it in my gardens. But I make an exception for calendula–it is so pretty and cheerful. Calendula is a wonderful healing and medicinal herb for the skin, while also great in the garden. It repels many common garden pests including aphids and tomato hornworms, and is a companion plant for potatoes, beans, and lettuce (I usually grow it in my vegetable garden.) Plus, it grows quickly and is easy to cultivate from seed. And edible too!
*Catmint (Nepeta spp.) If you are looking for this plant in the nursery, chances are you will find it in the perennial section. But it is an herb. It has lovely blue blossoms and is a classic in the garden. Hummingbirds also enjoy my catmint.
Catnip (Nepeta Cataria) Not nearly as showy as Catmint, but a must if you have a cat.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) If you take chives for granted, look again. It has really pretty mauve flowers when it blooms in the spring. Bees like all alliums, including Garlic Chives. Garlic Chives flowers are white and bloom in August. I really like this plant, but a warning comes with this one. Garlic chives produce lots of seeds that spread and produce lots of little chives plants, that are hard to pull out of the ground completely. So I don’t recommend garlic chives unless you can tolerate lots of spreading. Regular chives do not spread problematically.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) A source of nectar and pollen for the bees. Once the flowers go to seed, they become coriander.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) Comfrey is great for all pollinators. It is used as herbal medicine for humans, but can cause liver damage for humans if ingested. The flowers are purple, pink, blue, or white. Clever gardeners know comfrey’s trick. It has the ability to nourish the soil (and plants) around it with vitamins. Additionally, you can harvest its leaves, add them to your garden beds and compost, which will boost fertility and nutrition of the soil.
Coneflower (Echinacea) This American native is easy to grow with little requirements. Echinacea is loved by native bees and butterflies. Though I always see it on the list of flowers for honey bees, honey bees don’t have much interest in the Echinacea in my garden. It may be because there are other flowers that they prefer.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) A great plant for you, the bees, beneficial insects, and the garden. See my post on dill.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) The herb fennel resembles dill and does not bulb. It is a perennial. (The vegetable fennel grows a bulb at its base.) Fennel seeds are great for digestion.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) About 1.5-2 feet high, with white and violet flowers. This is a pretty, decorative plant. The bees get a big dose of nectar and some pollen from hyssop.
*Lavender (Lavendula spp.) The bees and I swoon over lavender. To extend the lavender season, try planting different varieties. If you live in a cold climate, like myself, and have lost lavenders over the winter, try ‘Phenomenal’ a newish variety that does well through the winters. Lavender grows well in loose sandy soil, with lots of sun, and not too much water. I use dead lavender wood in my smoker with my hives.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) I love the bright green leaves of lemon balm, the bees love the small white flowers. Traditionally people rubbed their beehives with lemon balm to encourage the bees to stay at the hive. Later people discovered that the chemical composition of lemon balm is very similar to a pheromone found in worker bees. The pheromone helps them locate their colony and sources of nectar. I am going to have to give lemon balm a try with my hives. Fresh leaves will give a citrusy flavor to salads, soups, sauces, vinegars and teas. It is said to promote relaxation and rejuvenation.
*Mint (Mentha) Spearmint (Mentha spicata) is the favorite of honey bees, as is the native wild mint (M. arvenis). Mint helps honey bees repel their enemy, the varroa mite. Most mints prefer wet, rich soils. Mints are famous for overtaking a bed. To avoid this, I recommend growing it in containers. Mint is so easy (and fun!) to eat; it is great in ice tea, salads, and with fruit.
*Motherwort (Leonus cardiaca) This plant has a coarse appearance. And it can be invasive. But the bees love motherwort and they get large amounts of nectar from it. Given that, it could be great in a wildflower bed.
Mountain Mint (Pycanthemum tenuifolium) A great plant to feed all pollinators and beneficial insects. White flowers, sometimes with purple splotches, bloom for a long time. This plant can grow in poor soil. Unfortunately, the wild rabbits in my yard keep this plant mowed down.
*Oregano & Marjoram (Origanum spp.) Both sweet majoram (Origanum majorana) and oregano (Origanum vulgare) are attractive to bees. Oregano likes it dry. Consider too the beautiful ornamental oregano, Origanum Herrenhausen. It blooms in the fall and approaches purple in color–the bees love it!
Rosemary (Rosemary officinalis) The blue flowers of rosemary are beautiful and loved by bees. Since we have cold winters here and I grow rosemary as an annual, I don’t usually see the flowers. But if rosemary will overwinter for you, consider the different varieties.
*Sage (Salvia officinalis) I love the blue-purple blossoms of sage and it is a great plant for pollinators. The flavor is nice to have in your kitchen. I find the green/yellow and purple sages less likely to produce flowers. Sage likes it dry.
*Thyme-(Thymus) Thyme flowers are extremely small and densely placed on the plant, giving the bees lots to forage in a small amount of space. There are oodles of varieties available. Look for new opportunities to place thyme, such as the cracks between pavers, pathways, or lawns. Thyme loves the sun and dry conditions. Many of the silver and golden varieties, while lovely, do not flower. Thyme oil has been shown to control varroa mites, a small insect that can kill a honey bee hive.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) When in bloom this can be a tall plant at 5 feet high. Tiny white flowers on top of stems. Thrives in moist, fertile soil.
Want to plant a grouping of herbs, but not sure how to arrange them? Take a look at the herb’s leaf shape and colors. Then put those herbs together that are different or contrast with one another. So the small leaves of thyme look good next to the larger leaves of sage. Or try purple basil next to the bright green of lemon balm. Have fun with it!
And remember, the bees might miss a single plant of one variety. So plant lots of them!