Plants That Attract Honeybees

coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium)

I was wondering if you would please write about the plight of honeybees.  Considering our current drought and the enormous amount of water a lawn requires, I was thinking that people might consider replacing their lawns with drought tolerant, bee friendly plants.  Buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.) and clover (Trifolium spp.) are great ground covers and bees love them.  In addition to lavender and rosemary, what other bee friendly plants do you recommend for our climate?   Please let me know if the plants we purchase in nurseries are treated with chemicals that are harmful to bees.

— Theresa Porterfield, San Pedro
Upon receiving this email, I started thinking about that dark green, three-leafed clover (Trifolium repens, also known as Dutch white clover) which, until not too long ago, was a common lawn weed in our area.  You may remember those gum-drop shaped white flowers whose leaf bases were adorned with white chevrons.  You still may see white clover occasionally but, alas, it seems that white clover has gone into decline along with the honeybees that pollinate it.
Dr. R. Milton Carleton, a scientist who introduced 2,4-D, the most widely used chemical for killing lawn weeds, into the lawn care industry in the 1940’s, lamented the demise of white clover as an unfortunate consequence of herbicide use.
“The thought of white Dutch clover as a lawn weed will come as a distinct shock to old-time gardeners,” Carleton wrote. “I can remember the day when lawn mixtures were judged for quality by the percentage of clover seed they contained. The higher this figure, the better the mixture. . . I can remember the loving care which old-time gardeners gave their clover lawns. The smug look on the face of the proud homeowner whose clover stand was the best in the neighborhood was really something to behold.”
Carleton longed for a chemical that would kill every lawn weed except clover but that was impossible.  White clover is an ideal lawn grass companion for several reasons:  it has a prostrate growth habit and does not require mowing; it is evergreen yet drought tolerant; it is virtually immune to disease and free from insect pests; it’s a leguminous plant which means it adds nitrogen to the soil.  Grass growing around clover is always greener than grass growing further away.
Back to your point about the honeybees, people may wonder what the fuss is all about.  The problem or syndrome has been described as colony collapse disorder (CCD) since colonies of bees are buzzing with life one day and completely empty or full of dead bees the next.  By some estimates, the number of honeybee colonies has declined by 50% over the past several decades.  This is significant because one-third of our food supply is dependent upon honeybee pollination.  You may not think that hamburgers and steaks have a relationship with honeybees but they do.  The alfalfa hay that is used as cattle feed requires honeybees to carry out the pollination that results in development of alfalfa seeds, assuring that there will be crops of alfalfa for generations to come.  How about coffee and chocolate?  Do you enjoy them from time to time?  There would be neither coffee beans nor cocoa beans, from which chocolate is made, without honeybees.  And without honeybees, you would have to eliminate almonds and avocadoes, as well as apples, tangerines, peaches and plums from your diet.

freeway daisy (Osteospermum fruticosum)

lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

bog sage (Salvia uglinosa)

Two families of plants, daisies and mints, are especially attractive to bees.  As for daisies, bees prefer the simple, single flower types such as gazania, freeway daisy (Osteospermum fruticosum), and florists’ cineraria (Pericallis x hybrida).  It has been demonstrated that bees favor flowers that are yellow, purple, or blue.  The mint family, in addition to lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), bee balm (Monarda didyma), and thyme (Thymus spp.), includes sages (Salvia spp.), many of which are highly drought tolerant and sport flowers in the bee friendly blue-lavender-purple range.  As for Calfiornia natives, blue California lilacs (Ceanothus spp.) and purple penstemons are notably hospitable in putting down a welcome mat for bees.

In response to your question about nursery plants and whether they are sprayed with chemicals harmful to bees, nursery plants from some home improvement centers have been analyzed and found to contain neonicontinoids.  These compounds, which are present in certain pesticides, are deleterious to the health of bees.  If you want to be absolutely safe in this regard, patronize nurseries that do not grow or broker plants that have been sprayed.
I have received several inquires from readers who want to know where they can purchase native plants.  Native plant nurseries, to the best of my knowledge, do not spray pesticides so you might want to visit them if having plants that are unequivocally bee safe is a priority for you.  To find a full list of native plant nurseries, visit the website of the California Native Plant society at  When you get there, click on the “Growing Natives” tab at the top of the page and then, on the drop down menu, “Where to Buy Natives.”
I should point out that pesticides are not the only stressor on bee populations.  Bees have been plagued with virus and fungus diseases and decimated by mites that lodge in the bees’ trachea and that vector viruses as well.  The fact that bee colonies are in constant transit is also a stressor.  It is not unusual for a bee colony to be in Florida or Texas one season and in California the next.  Constant transport could cause a weakening of the bees’ immune system, making them more susceptible to disease.  In addition, inadequate nutrition due to loss of habitat as well as drought could be involved in colony collapse disorder (CCD).  Most recently, it was found that tobacco ringspot virus, commonly occurring in tobacco and soybean pollen, was transmitted to honeybees, a highly unusual occurrence since plant viruses are not typically transferred to animals.  All is not lost, however, since 2012-13 saw a decline in the incidence of CCD in some quarters.  Time will tell whether this reversal was a one time phenomenon or if the worst of CCD is over.
Tip of the Week:  Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is not only good for bees, but a tea made from it is good for people, too. If you want to live for a hundred years, it might be wise to grow it.  According to Modern Herbal (Dover Publications; 1971), the Englishman John Hussey lived to the age of 116 imbibing tea, mixed with honey, made from this herb. For 50 years, Hussey sipped lemon balm tea for breakfast.  To quote John Gerard, a 16th century herbalist, bess “are delighted with this herb above all others.”  So if you really love bees, you just might want to consider replacing your lawn with lemon balm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.