Creating a bee-friendly herbal oasis

Story by Brenda Lynn

An herb garden is an oasis of scents, textures, and flavors that add just the right zing to summer meals. But we aren’t the only ones who enjoy a burst of flavor on a hot summer day. Honeybees and other pollinators are drawn to the delicious nectar found in flowering herbs. 

Herbs play an important role in sustaining honeybees, as well as myriad of other native bee species. Growing a diverse array of flowering plants is key to their survival. Bees prefer blue and yellow flowers, but visit every hue. They are drawn to tubular-shaped flora, or those with a landing platform, and strongly aromatic herbs, especially those in the mint family, are particularly appealing. 

Borage flowers welcome honeybees. The delicate blue petals are not only attractive to pollinators; their refreshing flavor brightens summer beverages. Photo by Cindy Shapton.

Herbs grow in a wide range of soils and need varying degrees of sunlight. This is good news, because it means virtually anyone can grow them. Tuck some thyme between stepping-stones, or plant basil between summer vegetables. Bees love all of these, as long as they are allowed to flower. Not a lot of space? Herbs fit perfectly in pots. Mediterranean herbs, such as thyme, oregano, and sage, are great for starters. They grow best in full-sun, are drought tolerant, and perennial in Zones 5 through 9.  

Thyme, both leaves and flowers, releases a heavenly fresh scent when lightly tread upon. Purple flowers cover glossy green foliage from late spring to early summer. Once the flowers die back, simply prune sprigs to use fresh or dry them for later use. 

Oregano’s trailing foliage looks lovely creeping over a low wall or spilling from a pot. Small clusters of pink/violet flowers appear in mid-July. Look for miniscule native bee species, as well as honeybees, dining on oregano’s sweet nectar. The flowers and leaves are both edible. Dry them by hanging them upside down in a cool area, away from direct sunlight and moisture. 

Catnip and basil are multi-purpose herbs in a homestead garden. Photo by Cindy Shapton.

Culinary sage is a delicious choice for a bee-friendly herb garden. It forms a low deciduous shrub that can be pruned back each season. Bees love the range of wild salvias, as well. 

Of all the herb species, mountain mint is perhaps bees’ favorite. It grows easily in part shade or full sun. This shrubby perennial can be aggressive, but it is too attractive to pollinators to live without. 

Borage is an Old World herb that fits well in a cottage or kitchen garden. Delicate blue flowers adorn borage well into fall. The flowers have a faint cucumber flavor and are a tasty addition to drinks or salads. 

Chives grow in almost any climate and will tolerate a bit of shade. The flowers, as well as the stems, are edible. They offer a colorful complement to meadow plants, where they freely fill empty space (so keep an eye on it in the garden, making sure it isn’t too aggressive).

Oregano flowers are small and delicate but support a range of native bees and other pollinators. Photo courtesy of Katie Copsey.

By now, most of us are familiar with threats to both honeybees and the 4,000 species of native bees we rely on for pollination. Herbs are sometimes subject to unwanted insects, but insecticidal treatments will harm beneficial species, as well. Always use caution when treating lawns and garden. And if it’s pollinators you really want, a clover-filled lawn is about the happiest place a bee can be.

Herbs That Attract Bees
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum spp.)
Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis)
Thyme (Thymus spp.)

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