In recent years, the role of wildflowers in feeding honeybees has been widely misunderstood. Yes, wildflowers are a precious resource. Yes, there are not nearly enough of them. But no, they are not going to save the day. No matter how many packets of bee-friendly wildflower seeds are nobly given out and scattered, they are just not going to supply enough forage to turn the tide. They simply cannot make up for all the lost broadleaf woodland, grubbed-up hedgerows, close-mown lawns, tidied-up railway embankments and hard-landscaped gardens that rob the environment of what many might call ‘weeds’.
Honeybees evolved as tree-dwellers, so it’s not surprising that their main source of forage is still flowering trees and bushes. However, in recent times media messaging has overlooked this fact, setting an agenda all about wildflowers, seed bombs and ‘wildflower meadows’.
Ah … the wildflower meadow, a totem of our times. Here’s the thing about wildflower meadows. Although composed of wildflowers, they are far from ‘wild’. In fact, they are managed environments that need to be either eaten off by grazing animals or mown at specific intervals to avoid them becoming overgrown with dominant species (such as tall grasses and Nettles) and to allow smaller species (such as Bird’s Foot Trefoil and Selfheal) to flourish, keeping everything in balance.
A wildflower meadow composed of the wrong plant species, planted in the wrong soil or not properly managed will quickly be lost to invasive or competitive species, becoming just another testament to good intentions but poor understanding. There are many exemplary wildflower meadows you can visit for inspiration; behind them is the expert knowledge of enlightened farmers, gardeners and horticulturalists.
So, speaking personally, as beekeepers who are simply trying to create maximum forage for honeybees, here’s where we stand on wildflowers. We literally can’t get enough of them. Nor can the bees. We’d love everyone to mow less often, to allow wild species to flourish in shaggy grass. We love wildflower patches, meadows and margins rich with simple, native species.
But we’d also welcome the broader understanding that – in the bigger picture –- wildflowers alone cannot supply the sheer bulk and variety of multi-season forage needed to sustain bee colonies. This will always be largely provided by trees and bushes, augmented by smaller plants of many different types.
Phew – lecture over! Now for a list of some important wildflowers for honeybees.
Bird’s Foot Trefoil
A member of the pea family, Bird’s Foot Trefoil is a classic component of wildflower seed mixes, providing both pollen and nectar during the summer months.
Flowering from late spring to early summer, Wild Blackberry bushes provide a feast for honeybees. Well-pollinated, they later produce abundant blackberry crops to feed birds and other wildlife. – And – if you’re quick – people, too.
From tiny lawn Daisies to the abundant Ox-Eyes flowering profusely by the roadside in early summer, daisies are a luscious resource for bees.
The chrome yellow burst of Dandelions is a joyous signal of spring. One of the most valuable plants for honeybees, dandelions give precious early-season pollen and nectar.
This wild climbing rose offers simple, abundant flowers in summer followed by rose hips that feed birds, squirrels and many other creatures, and are a rich source of Vitamin C.
A staple of waste ground and derelict buildings, this ‘fireweed’ (it’s well known for colonizing areas scorched by fire) is one of honeybees’ richest food sources in summer.
Where many flowers have their nectar flow in the middle of the day, the nectar from Viper’s Bugloss’ dense blue spires offers a dependable feast throughout the day. Summer-flowering.
Once upon a time, Clover was grown as a cash crop and was a mainstay of English honey production. Nowadays, it is rarely grown commercially, but it thrives as a valuable wildflower, blooming throughout the summer.
Wild Geranium Cranesbill
Honeybees will choose Cranesbill’s unassuming flowers time and again, preferring them to many more showy plants in bloom. Depending on the species, these wild forms will flower from late spring until early autumn.
Excerpted with permission from Planting For Honeybees by Sarah Wyndham Lewis, published by Quadrille March 2018