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Fall forage for bees: what’s blooming near you?

In much of North America, the month of August can be virtually flower-free. Where I live, the wild places are bleak. Most plants have long since dried and withered in the hot summer sun. Because forage is so sparse, I spend a lot of time trying to notice those few things that are blooming, and who is benefiting from them. Are those plants something I can encourage in the future?

Last week I took a notebook with me as I wondered the woodland trails and logging roads. I found quite a few species with a few blooms, although most things where not exactly lush.

Fall forage in my garden

My own vegetable and flower gardens are well-watered, but even they are showing signs of stress. At this time of year, the big draws for honey bees are the open-centered dahlias, oregano, and autumn sedum. Not only are these three crowded with honey bees, but they are equally popular with bumble bees and woodland skippers (small butterflies). The dahlias and sedum also sport tiny green tree frogs, who seem content to sit and watch.

The bright yellow blossoms of squash and cucumbers are also filled with honey bees, bumble bees, and solitary wasps. Of the vegetables I’ve let go to flower, the onions are favored by honey bees and solitary wasps, while the carrot blossoms are attracting Ceratina (small carpenter bees) and Sphecodes (so-called blood bees). Going into a second flowering this year is mountain hollyhock which is attracting honey bees and Lasioglossum bees. Both sage and catmint are blooming again and seem to attract anything with wings.

Other fall-blooming plants are honeywort, which is popular with both honey bees and bumble bees, and partridge pea which is favored by leafcutters.

Fall forage in the wildlands

Along the woods and trails, the blackberry vines growing in substantial shade are still blooming and attracting honey bees and bumble bees. I’m also seeing isolated patches of hard hack (Spiraea douglasii), everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), common burdock (Arctium minus), and pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea). In addition there is a spattering of Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), hairy cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata), St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), and queen anne’s lace (Daucus carota). In damper areas, I’ve seen occasional bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), hedge nettle (Stachys cooleyae), field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), and smartweed (Polygonum spp).

Truth be told, I don’t see many honey bees on the wild plants, except for the heal-all, goldenrod, fireweed, and smartweed. The bumble bees like everlasting pea, the Melissodes like bull thistle,  Ceratina and Lasioglossom like the queen anne’s lace, and the leafcutters and woolcarders are partial to bird’s foot trefoil. Of the wild plants that seem to survive the summer drought, I don’t see any I actually want to propagate. Most are introduced weeds.

What to plant next year

I go through this process every year as I try to decide what to provide for next year’s summer bees. Although it seems like I always come up short, I have to remember that the lush crop of open-centered dahlias, autumn-flowering sedums, and late-blooming mints resulted from this exercise in previous years.

Of course, the plants in your local area will be different from those I find here. But I urge you to take a look around at your garden, your neighbor’s garden, or the local wildlands and see what’s blooming during this very dry season. It may give you some idea of how you can help your bees through the next summer dearth. And remember to keep notes! These things are very easy to forget.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Perfect bee forage: this honey bee found the germander in my garden to be splendid on a hot August afternoon.
This honey bee found the germander in my garden to be splendid on a hot August afternoon. © Rusty Burlew.
A solitary wasp with minty-fresh breath, forages in the garden.
A solitary wasp with minty-fresh breath forages in the garden. © Rusty Burlew.
This honey bee is foraging on honeywort. The bumbles like this plant as well.
This honey bee is foraging on honeywort. The bumbles like this plant as well. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

lloyd
Reply

personally i don’t think gardens amount to anything of consequence unless it is one of acres. when i got into beekeeping i added bee friendly plants. pretty but not much help. as you have said many times beekeeping is a local thing. i have found that i am extremely lucy for two different reasons. i have two yards. my home which backs up to a river and in a meadow a quarter of a mile from me there are acres of wingstem now starting to bloom. zillions of bees working it from dawn till dusk. plenty of nectar and orange pollen. last year bloomed from 8-8 to 9.30. almost two months.
my other bit of local luck is my second yard. a 200 acre horse farm/brewery. no wingstem. just clover, clover and clover. and they are packing in the nectar.
i have a friend twenty miles away and he has tons of goldenrod. i have a few sparse areas of no consequence.
gardens are pretty but in my experience they don’t make any difference.

Rusty
Reply

Lloyd,

Agree and disagree on small gardens. As far as honey bees go, I agree they don’t make any difference. But some native bees can only forage about 300 feet, while honey bees are still on the runway at 300 feet. So for those little guys, a small flower garden can make ’em or brake ’em.

Ray
Reply

I agree Rusty, our little garden is packed with flowering plants from April through to October and although I see precious few of ‘my’ honey bees we have an abundance of bumbles and solitary bees, which are also assisted by my penchant for creating housing for them!

Rusty
Reply

Excellent!

Richard Rurup
Reply

Plant anything you can my friends, especially summer and fall bloomers. My plants may not do much, but if everyone has 10 plants multiplied by the whole community, it adds up to a better life for the bees.

Rusty
Reply

Richard,

Yes! And when many people have a few plants, it establishes corridors which allows native bees to move further from home. They can stop every so often for a snack, which means they can actually spread away from their birth location and move into new locations. The more flowers, the better. My motto: A plant on every porch.

Jeffrey
Reply

Rusty,

Here are two mythical plants you may want to look into for honey bees. Old wives’ tale’s, or truth is yet to be seen, as I don’t have the land to plant them.

Scrophularia lanceolata = Early Figwort, bloom May to July
Scrophularia marilandica = Late Figwort, July to October

Stories told talk about the early settlers planting one or two acres of these plant near by their hives and collecting hundreds of pounds of honey off of their bees per season. It almost sounds mythical.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Rusty wrote about this here: https://honeybeesuite.com/figwort-nectar-rich-bee-favorite/

Jeffery, figwort is indeed an amazing nectar plant. The flowers are small, bur phenomenally good at nectar production, We grow a few plants in our little “hummingbird garden”, and both hummers and bumbles visit dependably. “I don’t have an acre” is a weak excuse — plant enough to learn about the plant and be content. As a tall shinny plant they fit nicely into random spots of border gardens.

• Nectar production improves with soil moisture. Sort of a “Duh!”, but….
• Let them set seed. Plants are short-lived self-seeding perennials. (at lest around Puget Sound).
• They are almost weedy in looks. Don’t make my mistake and weed out all the seedlings

Glen B

Dave
Reply

Rusty,

After reading your blooming article, I noticed little for the bees to forage on except for the massive clumps of Japanese Knotweed. It is covered with hundreds of bees and wasps and even some hornets. I realize it is an invasive plant and very difficult to get rid of, but the bees sure do keep it covered. Depending on where it grows in the sun or in the shade or on the edge of the wood line, the bloom lasts about a month. They tear the blooms apart and the white flowers look like snow on the ground. The plant is nasty, but gives some forage to the bees.

I enjoy your site. Thank you!

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

That’s what I’ve heard about it, a great honey plant with lots of bee activity. Still, glad I don’t have it (yet).

David Newman
Reply

Interesting. In Upstate New York, we look forward to the vast fields of a few types of goldenrod that starts blooming around August. Then there is Boneset (Joe Pie weed), Purple Loostrife, Japanese Bamboo or Knotweed (awesome honey), Spotted Knapweed, several thistles (Burdock, Canadian..), Buttercups and Clover. I’ve also got some bees on 50 acres of Buckwheat.

Rusty
Reply

David,

I’m jealous of the buckwheat. Great honey.

David Newman
Reply

Rusty,

I was lucky to get the hives to the buckwheat just in time. I’ve have a customer following for buckwheat honey in products such as Krupnik (a Polish honey liqueur) and Mead.

I also wanted to share that I’ve learned recently, of a phone app that helps identify plants. All you do is take a picture of a plant, leaf or fruit and the App will use some algorithm to identify the plant, tree, shrub…etc. I’ve heard there are a few of these apps available but I found Pl@nt.net to be the best.

You may want to write about them in your blog. Someday I’ll start a bee blog but I’ll have to make the time.

Cheers.

Rusty
Reply

David,

Thanks for the tip. I will try it out. Right now I use iNaturalist, which does a pretty good job.

Jeffrey
Reply

Rusty,
I have to say, what an ass I am. It was here that I first read about Figwort plants. The Mythical plant….lol…..have a nice day. I will measure the depth of the water before I jump in next time…. 🙂

Rusty
Reply

Jeffrey,

No problem. I planted both this year. The early is done blooming, but the late hasn’t started yet.

Chris
Reply

I’ve tried to do the same but am somewhat befuddled that the things they seemed to love one year are virtually ignored the next. I suppose there are variations in nectar production even in the same plant variety due to weather conditions, etc. Have you noticed this?

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

Yes, absolutely. Some plants thrive under different weather conditions than others, perhaps producing more pollen and nectar in some years. Also, the other things in bloom make a difference. If something is in bloom the bees like better, that’s where they will go.

Peter Borst
Reply

Hi Rusty
Our main honey flow starts soon, from Japanese Knotweed. It’s in full bloom now around town, but the weather has been wet and rainy so I don’t know if we will get a real honey flow. There are a lot of other things blooming here now, like Joe Pye Weed, which I saw covered with bees. Chicory abounds, black-eyed Susan is prevalent. Goldenrod is coming on but doesn’t usually produce honey until September, or after the Japanese knotweed is finished.
Pete

Rusty
Reply

Pete,

That sounds like heaven compared to the tinder box we have here. No fires in the immediate area but we’re overwhelmed with smoke. First it came from California, now it’s coming down from BC. Dry, dry, dry.

Mike Riter
Reply

Upstate Eastern New York has no time of dearth all warm-season. The wild teasel have just finished, overlapped by purple ironweed everywhere and now purple loosestrife, soon to be followed by goldenrod and all sorts of asters.

Ken Rhodes
Reply

Most things here in South East Idaho (Idaho Falls) have stopped blooming unless you are in town. Even then it is sparse. The wild sunflowers are still in bloom, and the sage is starting. One plant that can give a fall flow is the rabbit brush. I leave it for the bees cause it makes for a bland honey. The third crop of alfalfa is blooming now if it hasn’t been cut yet. Last year I was surprised to get almost a supers worth of honey in mid September I think due to the late cutting of alfalfa.

I have noticed it is beginning a dearth. A bsit hive left in a tree has a lot of visitors recently. I think it they are robbing though there is nothing left in the few frames in the box. Maybe it is a swarm or absconded colony. (Could be because of an overload of mites). I will keep an eye on it.

Curious to see what is up. My hive around the corner is unaffected so far.

Joe C
Reply

We live on 21 acres in Texas and currently have ~ 15 hives on the place. I have been planting Crape Myrtles that start blooming in Mid summer and bloom like crazy until fall. I like the deep red ones, the bees have no use for them, so my compromise has been 4 whites and a red down our 1/4 mile driveway….

The white ones are abuzz every morning, but by noon they are virtually devoid of bees. I also have a few Texas Sage plants that bloom a couple of days after a good rain and the bees cover them for the ~ week they are in bloom.

claire jones
Reply

My top plant for bees is Mountain Mint or Pyncanthenum muticum which is alive with pollinators of all kinds. It is a mint and so can spread like crazy, so plant it on a bank where it can do its thing. The bloom time is at least 2 months and it is still blooming profusely for me here in Maryland. Literally, this plant is a moving mass of insects in August and September.

Rusty
Reply

Claire,

This is one plant I put on my list every year, but I’ve never planted it. Everyone says good things about it, so I just moved it to the top of the list. Thank you.

Eileen Dickinson
Reply

Small gardens make a difference for natives as well as honeybees. Right now honeybees are on garlic chives, oregano, mint, zinnia, bachelor buttons, scabiosa, anise hyssop, wingstem, and mountain mint (muticum) to name a few. Bees need variety and I encourage everyone to plant what they can for any pollinator.

Rusty
Reply

Eileen,

I absolutely agree.

Marta Martinez-Evans
Reply

Southwest Colorado has had a rough year of fires, smoke and floods but the bees were pretty happy with the many loaded fruit trees, cultivated and wild. Chokecherries, service berries, raspberries etc. made for full little baskets. End of August and we have lots of purple sage, rabbit bushes and mint that keeps them happy. Because of the drought, many alfalfa farmers who usually cut before the plant flowers had to hold on so the bees got lots of those alfalfa flowers too.

Matt
Reply

Give caryopteris a try this time of year it goes beyond being a bee magnet and turns into a virtual bee black hole sucking in pollinators from miles around. The blue blooms are nectar rich and the pollen is a dark blueish purple. From mid to late summer right up to a good hard frost the plants are mobbed by honey bees and native bees.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Matt. I always get great ideas from these recommendations. “A bee black hole”…I like that!

Linda Corbin
Reply

The liriope is covered in honeybees right now. There are several other types of bees which I can’t identify on there, too, and I can see they are wearing a lot of pollen. Though not one of my favorite plants, I am grateful to have it around at this time

Elaine
Reply

One thing I wish is for all these different websites to publish somewhere prominent on at least their home page, their location. It would be very helpful. As I search for information, it is helpful to know where they are located and I find myself searching all over to try to get a clue where they are. I notice several people on this thread have mentioned location and I really appreciate that. I think Rusty must be in Montana because I just saw the “Master Beekeeper University of Montana” patch below.

Rusty
Reply

Elaine,

My location is explained on the “About Me” page.

Dayna
Reply

I live in PA and one of the plants that I haven’t seen mentioned (that all the bees seem to love) is my Japanese anemone. The variety I have is called ‘September charm’. I was watching it yesterday and must have counted 50 bees of all varieties visiting. It seems to be a favorite with honey bees, bumble bees, tiny sweat bees, green metallic bees, etc. I have had this perennial for 5 or 6 years and it has a spreading habit but not an overly aggressive one and is definitely a favorite every fall.

Annie Myers
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Strictly speaking for honey bees I think unless you have acres to plant the best bang for your buck is in planting trees or flowering hedges. I live in an area that is mostly forest and my bee plants are as follows: Alder, Hazel Nut, Willow, Maple (big leaf and vine), Cottonwood, Hawthorn, Holly, Madrone, Black Locust, Chestnut, Blackberry, Snowberry, Huckleberry, Little Leaf Linden, Korean Evodia (bee bee trees) Japanese Knotweed and Ivy. All of these were present before me except for the Little Leaf Linden and Bee Bee Trees. I have also been trying to establish wildflowers along roadsides anywhere I can…

Jim Woodyard
Reply

From what I have researched there are approx 125 varieties of goldenrod. Does anyone have any info as to what variety would produce the most nectar and grow in the north TX southern OK area. I am looking for something that can get started for my bees. We are coming off a very low nectar summer.

Valerie O'Brien
Reply

Asters are wonderful last summer and early fall nectar and pollen sources for bees. My honey bees as well as many types of native bees are all over the cosmos, asters, coneflowers, black-eyed susans, Russian sage, Walker’s Low catmint, oregano, blooms on the squash and cucumber plants, and a hedge of potentilla.

Our dachshunds aren’t delighted with all the bees in our yard from April to October, but the pollinators seem to be in heaven.

Kirsten Redlich
Reply

Lloyd, one small home garden full of flowers may not be of much significance, but one block, 2 blocks and so on consisting of many home gardens adds up. People shouldn’t be put off growing what they can because it may not be enough to be of worth. Bees don’t acknowledge boundary fences! 😉

Chris
Reply

My daughter in Arvada, Colorado, has orange trumpet vine growing along the privacy fence in her small backyard. It started blooming in early July and it’s still going gangbusters in September. It’s gorgeous and absolutely covered with enthusiastic honeybees and other bees and hummingbirds. I dug up some suckers from her yard and am going to plant a bunch in my bee garden. These are impressive vines that can be invasive but I’ve already given up any hope of control out there.

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