When people ask me how they can help bees, I used to say, “Plant a pollinator garden!” I would then rattle off a list of bee-friendly flowers and shrubs to get them started. Then I had an epiphany. A tree provides much more forage than any patch of flowers ever could. It’s so obvious, but it isn’t often discussed. The more I read, the more I realized that trees have many benefits for bees. Read on to discover them all.
Honeybees need millions of flowers to feed their colony. Individual foragers prefer to collect from a single type of flower and so, they favor plants that can provide large amounts of blooms or gardens where single varieties are planted in groupings. Now, imagine what a mature tree can offer compared to what a 10′ X 10′ pollinator garden offers. There is no contest. The tree would provide much more food for bees. So, if you have an open hillside to fill or an empty parkway, don’t fill it with shrubs — plant trees!
Trees provide more than just nectar and pollen, they also provide the ingredients bees need to make propolis. Bees visit trees to collect saps and resins then they mix them with saliva, beeswax, honey and enzymes to make propolis. Propolis is used to secure, waterproof, and sterilize the hive cavity. It is also used as a disinfectant for brood cells. It is a key component to colony health.
Not only does a tree provide more forage for bees, it will continue to do so for much longer than a pollinator garden would. Pollinator gardens take work and ongoing maintenance to keep them thriving and productive for bees. I often see abandoned school pollinator gardens dry up and die, but once a tree is established it can live hundreds of years with little to no maintenance. Established trees are also difficult and expensive to remove so, even if you sell your property, there is a good chance the new owners will keep the tree you planted. Planting a bee tree will mean a lasting food supply that may continue even after you have gone.
One of the most overlooked threats to bees is air pollution. Studies have shown that honeybees are negatively impacted by poor air quality. The pollution interferes with honeybee navigation and foraging, resulting in reduced honey production and pollination. Trees help to counteract this, not only by providing a wealth of forage, but by cleaning the air. Trees absorb odors, pollutant gases, and particulate matter in the leaves and bark.
Bees are especially vulnerable to changes in climate and extreme weather events brought on by the climate crisis. Climate change is driven by an excess carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere, but trees absorb CO2. They remove and store carbon and send oxygen back into the air. They also help to cool cities and homes with their shade. Trees bring many levels of long-term benefits to bees and everyone else too!
There are many types of trees that feed bees, but you should make your selection based on what thrives in your area. Whenever possible, plant trees that are native to where you live. Native trees will support not only honeybees (which are not native to the U.S.), but many other species of bees and pollinators that may rely on native fauna. Some excellent trees for bees include: Maples, Alders, Redbud, Hazels, Tulip poplar, Tupelo, Black locust, Willows, Basswood/linden, and Sourwood. In Southern California, where I live, drought tolerant trees fair better. My bees love enjoy Eucalyptus, Bottle Brush, New Zealand Christmas Trees, Pepper Trees, and Mesquite.
For more on helping out the bees, see Establishing a Successful Bee Garden.