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Viper’s bugloss: a top-tier honey bee plant

One of the best honey bee plants in the world is Echium vulgare, also known as viper’s bugloss, blueweed, blue thistle, blue devil, and snake flower. It produces copious amounts of both nectar and pollen for several months, May through September. The late flowering can provide plentiful nectar for much-needed winter stores.

The plant, in the same family as borage (Borago officinalis), sports vibrant blue flowers with contrasting red filaments, and anthers that produce brilliant blue pollen. It will grow in dry and barren wasteland and seems to prefer poor soil and inattention. Viper’s bugloss would be the beekeeper’s dream come true if it weren’t for the impressive list of demerits attached to it.

On the plus side

According to TheMelissaGarden.com, viper’s bugloss may produce 300 to 1000 pounds of honey per acre. The impressive yields are at least partly due to the structure of the flower. The nectaries are deep within the corolla, and the petals protect the nectar from both desiccation by the sun and dilution by rain. The result is a flower that produces a steady supply of rich nectar all day long, not just in the morning or evening. Depending on soil and rainfall, the sugar content ranges from 22% to 48%.

In Honey Plants of North America, Lovell describes the honey as light amber with a good flavor and body. Some say it bears a hint of lemon. Because the honey is high in fructose, it is slow to crystallize and may remain liquid for 9 to 15 months.

Viper’s bugloss is known as a major pollen crop as well, producing as much as 500 to 2000 pounds per acre of dark blue pollen. Beside honey bees, the plant is known to attract at least 50 species of pollinators in Canada alone, including bumble bees, sweat bees, mason bees (Hoplitis), at least eight species of butterfly, and the ruby-throated hummingbird (see “The Biology of Canadian Weeds” Klemow et al. 2001).

On the minus side

Viper’s bugloss is native to Europe, western Asia, and Central Asia, but the plant has been introduced to many parts of the world. In the United States it is considered invasive, and in the state of Washington it is considered a Class B noxious weed. It is also considered noxious in Australia, New Zealand, Alberta, Manitoba, Québec, Nova Scotia, and parts of British Columbia. Its ability to survive in poor soils and its resistance to deer aid its rapid spread.

According to Klemow et al. (2011), the plant contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which can cause liver damage in livestock and humans. The honey, too, contains these alkaloids and so it is not good for long-term consumption. Some sources recommend mixing the honey with other honeys to dilute the alkaloids. Other sources simply recommend the honey should not be eaten on a regular basis or for extended periods.

Skin irritation, too, can be a problem with viper’s bugloss. The plant is covered with prickly hairs that may cause itching and a rash, so gloves are a must when handling the plants.

A similar species

Of the roughly sixty species of Echium, E. plantagineum is nearly as problematic as E. vulgare. Known as purple viper’s bugloss or Patterson’s curse, this plant is also poisonous to livestock, and is especially troublesome in New Zealand.

It seems that E. plantagineum is not listed as a noxious weed in Washington, but it is listed as noxious in Oregon. Oddly enough, one of the big suppliers of E. plantagineum is Outsidepride, based in Oregon. Outsidepride carries a number of varieties including blue, white, and rose-tinted.

In any case, this plant seems to be nearly as attractive to pollinators as E. vulgare. So if you are interested in using Echium to build up winter stores for your honey bees, either one will work.


Order Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) here: *100 VIPERS BUGLOSS Echium Vulgare Blue Flower Seeds *Comb S/H

Order Patterson’s curse (Echium plantagineum) here: *Outsidepride Echium Blue Bedder – 1000 Seeds

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Echium vulgare. Public domain photo.
Viper’s bugloss. Notice how the base of the corolla is protected from sun and rain. Public domain photo.
Viper's bugloss. Here you can see the blue pollen. Pixabay photo.
Viper’s bugloss. Here you can see the blue pollen and red filaments. Pixabay photo.

*This post contains affiliate links.

Comments

Alexis, Baron von Harlot
Reply

Oh yes, this is known as Paterson’s Curse here in Australia, a name which indicates how unloved it is by farmers, because of its toxicity to ruminants when eaten in great quantity – and it has a habit of growing in huge swathes and replacing grasses so it does risk being eaten in great quantity. But it’s fabulous for bees (and beekeepers). I read somewhere recently that it accounts for some massive amount of my state’s honey production (in south-east Australia) – something like 30%.

Rusty
Reply

Wow, 30% is huge!

christina
Reply

in my limited experience with livestock they only turn to the poisonous plants when they have run out of the good ones, the fault of their owners pasture management, not the fault of the plants. And that invasive species scare was invented in large part by the chemical companies who make a lot of money selling poisons to eradicate ‘alien’ plants. If it lives on the planet earth it is not an alien. If there is a problem it generally will sort itself out & achieve an equilibrium if left alone, what happens when you douse a place with poison? Also many of these sites that recommend plants for honey bees don’t make a distinction between bumble bees with their longer tongues and honey bees. My experience with critters is that they are so much closer to nature & their instincts than we are which makes then so much smarter that i would trust them way before i would a person with a podium.
I just received & went thru J.L. Hudson seed catalog & he now has many honey plants listed, great catalog
http://jlhudsonseeds.net/

Rusty
Reply

Christina,

There are ways to control invasive species without using pesticides.

Also, many pollinator species have a one-to-one relationship with a certain plant. The insect and the plant are interdependent on one another. If an invasive weed displaces the plant, the plant will disappear and so will its pollinator. Worldwide, thousands of bee species have already been lost in this manner.

Ross Pearson
Reply

Exellent points.

Bill Castro
Reply

Rusty,

I have found that invasive are now filling the gaps in the summer deaths here. Porcelain berry and Algerian ivy are taking over everything here and yet the apiary here has the intoxicating odor of curing honey during the months of July and August. The amount of pollen being brought in at this time is staggering. I give some credit to our survival rates here to these invasive plants…And I am most certainly ordering seeds from the link you included to add to my areas forage.

Plantings should be at the top of every beekeepers agenda and encouraging everyone we come into contact with to plant more…natural forage is the only thing that can save the honey bee!!!!

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

Many of these plants originated in the same places that honey bees did, so it makes sense they thrive off each other.

WesternWilson
Reply

I have a big Pacific Northwest area garden patch with some beehives on the site of an ancient manure pile…the garden Cleome I grow there get 7′ high, as opposed to 3′ tops in a normal soil, to give you an idea of how fertile this place is! I planted catmint, Phacelia and E. vulgare here as well. The catmint seems the most attractive to the bees, then the Phacelia then the Echium. And while both the Phacelia and E. vulgare reseed themselves, the Echium was not that great at reseeding. Phacelia did much, much better. I won’t discourage the Echium seedlings, but there aren’t enough to worry about, and I would prefer to plant more catmint, Phacelia, dills, fennels and clovers.

Rusty
Reply

W2,

I did a lot of research while I was writing this post and, based on that, I would say high fertility discourages E. vulgare. It actually prefers poor soils. If I remember correctly from my agronomy days, some plants (or their seeds or seedlings) will actually rot in overly-fertile soils.

Willie Kennedy
Reply

Where can we get some of these plants and/or seed?

Rusty
Reply

Willie,

There are links to both species at the bottom of the post.

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

Hey, thanks. Interesting article.

Emily
Reply

Very interesting. It’s not listed in the chapters on toxic honeys in my books. I wonder if it’s more of a problem outside Europe, I’ve never come across fields of it in the UK.

shawn
Reply

This year was the first time I took notice of it. Mostly because it does seem to grow in poor soil, and not where I usually look to see if the bees are foraging.

The science looking into it’s toxic effects is relatively recent. That might be why it’s missing from your book. What I’ve read is similar to what Rusty reported, the honey is probably okay if not in large frequent quantities. On the other hand, the studies I’ve seen on the pollen suggest it could be a problem in commercial pollen in stores. Here’s a shot of what the pollen looks like: https://www.flickr.com/photos/7953357@N06/14389860320/

susan
Reply

Do we know if Echium fastuosum (“Star of Madeira”) also contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids? I have lots in my garden and my bees love it. I would like one day to eat their ‘spare’ honey.

Rusty
Reply

Susan,

I couldn’t find anything on Echium fastuosum in particular, but I’ve read that quite a number of different plants contain some amount of this alkaloid. Personally, I don’t see it as a big threat considering most of us don’t eat huge amounts of honey.

Glen B
Reply

I find it highly imprudent to recommend highly invasive plants. There are good reasons why plants get labeled “noxious”, but instead beekeepers play their beekeeper status as some winning trump card and assume that people will support them because obviously the other choice is going hungry. Come on Rusty, this plant should be treated as the noxious weed it is, not as some beekeepers godsend.

Rusty
Reply

Under that theory, humans, their crops, their livestock, and their honey bees ought to leave. I can think of nothing more invasive and noxious than humans.

We are constantly told that the food supply is going to collapse without a continual supply of bees, especially honey bees, and that to reverse colony collapse and increase honey bee health we must maintain a supply of flowers spring through fall. Those fall-flowering nectar producers are hard to find, so I believe plants must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Washington is the only state that lists Viper’s Bugloss as a noxious weed, and the counties involved are mostly those with deserty climates.

In my post I clearly state both sides of the argument—I even divide it into pros and cons—and I do not believe beekeepers are stupid. Beekeepers are intelligent enough to make a decision for themselves based on their bees, their climate, and their local government.

Education is key in any endeavor. The information is out there and people need to make choices. I do not presume to tell any beekeeper how to do it, nor am I some kind of hall monitor. I personally do not grow this plant, but others may want to. Also, Glen, a large percentage of my readers live in areas where the plant is native and natural. Am I not allowed to speak to them?

Glen B
Reply

I will agree to disagree.

My source has vipers as a noxious weed in WA, ID, MT, and WY. Yes you can speak to whomever you want, and I respect that you have a wide audience. But people do not seem to take invasive plants seriously. While there are ways to control weeds with out chemicals, often the means are ineffective and extremely labor intensive.

Glen

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

I too saw those other states listed in some places, but when I contacted the sellers of seed, they each said the only state where sale was prohibited was Washington.

Your previous comment got me to thinking about invasive plants. If the climate continues to change in the coming decades, plant distribution could change radically if “natives” can no longer live in their places of origin and move into other regions where, conceivably, they could become invasive or simply die out altogether. I think our concept of what belongs where will have to change along with the climate, if it comes to that. Depressing thought.

Rusty
Reply

Willie,

There are links to buy the seeds at the end of the post between the dotted line and the photographs.

Steve
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I live on one acre. The front lawn, which is rather large, is made up of Bermuda grass, but my backyard contains fescue. The fescue has died out because of the intense heat in Oklahoma. What to plant? Well, after some research and thought I have decided to plant Dutch clover to replace the dying fescue. From what I have read white clover will make a decent lawn and it will also feed the bees. The clover will grow anywhere from two to 10 inches and it has a good root system, something which fescue does not have. We shall see.

Rusty
Reply

Steve,

Clover also fixes atmospheric nitrogen, so you won’t need fertilizer.

mr ion
Reply

DRACULA

2016 Sydney Australia

The idea to make more food it is very old therefore most of plants contain chemical which is used by human being in order to have big production.

In Romania a lot of people drink contaminated water with water for surge and children death.
The human being poison all nature, e.g instead to use steam for weed, use herbicide.

I do regret for beekeepers with the club and association which one children do not follow them why? I do regret I offer free education for beekeepers to get respect for themself, knowledges. I was refused because I’m not part of gang in power.

Myself I have two hives which collect honey from gum plants in my area. I e-mail to 3 government and minister of agriculture in NSW but no even today I have number for received not ANSWER TO ME.

signed mr ion chirita

Hope nicholson
Reply

What do I do with the vipers bugloss at the end of its season? Solo. Pull up, leave to seed itself?????

Rusty
Reply

Hope,

I let mine reseed, but it didn’t.

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