This is an updated repost of "Flowering Plants Native Bees Love," first published July 26, 2013. 

Given that here in the Midwest it’s still planting season, and pollinators still (always!) need good habitat, I hope that anyone reading this will feel inspired to add more native plants to their gardens. Even if you already have a good selection, there’s always room for one more species: biodiversity is one area where more is always better. This goes double for food gardeners. Every vegetable plot should have native flowering plants (and grasses) nearby to provide habitat for the pollinators and beneficial insects that act as partners to your gardening efforts. 

In general, not including annual vegetables, a proportion of 70-80% native plants in the garden seems to provide good habitat for pollinators, beneficial insects, and, of course, the birds everyone loves. Even one native species, such as a decorative serviceberry planted in the front yard or some butterfly weed or other milkweed species tucked in the perennial border, will help bring any garden into better ecological balance–and greater beauty. 

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For those new to native plant gardening, here are some planting guidelines and a list of species suggestions. I have experience with every plant listed and therefore feel I can recommend them. Native bees, honey bees and butterflies will all take advantage of the foraging opportunities you offer.  

In general

Bees and other pollinators such as butterflies prefer sunny areas that are protected from wind and offer plenty of different kind of flowers. Ideally there would be several types of flowers in bloom spring through fall. In my yard, different areas might be blooming at different times–but I have a small yard, so the bees don’t seem to mind. Those with larger yards might plan for groupings of different varieties in one or more beds. No matter what size your yard or garden is, every area planted with mostly native flowers will be beneficial for pollinators, particularly in urban and suburban areas, because it increases the availability of pollen and nectar these creatures need to thrive. The plants listed here are suitable for large parts of the Midwest. This is not a complete list and something that works well for you might be left off. There are many more species of Midwestern prairie and savanna plants that could be included. If you live elsewhere, this simple rule applies: bees and butterflies native to a region are best adapted to plants native to that region. Finding out what those plants are and adding them to your garden can be a worthwhile, enjoyable endeavor.

Minute pollinators on Siderwort Tradescantia spp.

Learn more about native plants and use them in your garden

According to the Xerces Society, "research suggests native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers." Garden herbs (allowed to flower) and annuals, especially heirloom varieties, can also provide good foraging. Avoid hybrids that have double blooms, since they often do not produce as much nectar or pollen. Native flowering shrubs also provide nectar and pollen for bees and serve as host plants for caterpillars. If using non-native garden plants, please make sure they are not invasive where you live. Also, certain kinds of weeds (but definitely not all!) can be a good thing: early-appearing bumblebees appreciate dandelions and creeping Charlie, for example.  

Two essential books are Attracting Native Pollinators, from the Xerces Society; and Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy. One essential website is Xerces.org. Other like-minded gardeners can be found by joining a chapter of Wild Ones (www.wildones.org),

Plan to have something in bloom all season long

Bees and butterflies fly at different times. They, and humans, appreciate a garden that has many varieties of flowers and a long season of bloom. If you mostly have native perennials, it’s good to slip some long flowering heirloom annuals in various areas to keep going during perennials’ in-between times. This is also a good strategy when starting a new area of young natives that might not bloom the first year.

Group flowers together in attractive drifts 

This old design rule makes good sense to bees as well as humans. Bees find good forage by sight. Clusters of flowers of the same species will attract more pollinators and enable better foraging than individual plants scattered through the garden. Where space allows, plant big clumps (at least four feet in diameter) or sizable drifts, which might require five or more plants.

Plant different types of flowers to support a wide variety of bees

Bees range in size from minute sweatbees at less than 1/8-in. to robust carpenter bees over an inch long. They also have different tongue lengths, and need suitable flowers. Some prefer flat, daisy-like flowers, while others prefer tubular blossoms. They are also attracted to brightly colored flowers that are blue, white, purple, and yellow–nor, in my observation, do they object to red. Please include milkweed. It is the only plant that serves as a host plant for monarch butterflies.

Do not use insecticides in your garden

Even organic pesticides can be harmful. Other chemicals such as fungicides can be dangerous–to humans as well as bees.  I have discussed the dangers of neonicotinoids in "City Bees, Country Bees." Habitat loss and insecticide use are the two main threats to bees and butterflies. A well-run ecological garden attracts birds and beneficial insects that help keep pests to a minimum. Purchase native plants through plant sales hosted by native plant organizations or at nurseries that do not use neonicotinoids when growing plants. These are usually independent nurseries that grow their own stock.

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Suitable Plants

Spring can be a difficult time for native and honey bees, especially in urban areas with few early-blooming perennials. Queen bumblebees emerge at this time and fly for several weeks foraging before settling down to make their nests. An asterisk denotes species that flourish in areas that become shady when the trees leaf out. These are just a few examples.

Native Perennials

Amsonia Amsonia tabernaemontana
Columbine Aquilegia canadensis 
*Violets Viola spp. 
*Virginia bluebells Mertensia pulmonoides 
*Virginia waterleaf Hydrophyllum spp. 
*Wild geranium Geranium spp.
Wild indigo Baptisia spp.
Wild Strawberry Fragaria spp. 

Non-native Perennials 

Siberian Squill Scilla spp.
Chives Allium spp.
Periwinkle Vinca minor

Bumblebee on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)

Summer-Late Summer (into Fall) is a halcyon period for all bees if the foraging is good. Plenty of sources of nectar and pollen ensure good populations, which in turn insure a continuation of the species. Male bees use flowers as sheltered places to rest while they look for young queens with whom to mate.

Native Perennials 

Aster Aster spp. 
Beebalm Monarda spp.
Asters Aster spp.
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia spp.
Blazing Star Liatris spp.
Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa
Compass plant Silphium lanciatum
Cup plant Silphium perfoliatum
Giant hyssop Agastache spp.
Goldenrod Solidago spp.
Joe-pye weed Eupatorium spp.
Milkweed Asclepias spp.
Penstemon Penstemon
Liatris Liatris spp.
Phlox Phlox spp.
Purple coneflower Echinacea spp.
Rattlesnake master Eryngium spp.
Sage Salvia spp.
Spiderwort Tradescantia spp.
Sunflower Helianthus&bsp;spp.
Tickseed Coreopsis spp.

Non-native Annuals and Perennials 

Basil Ocimum spp.
Catmint Nepeta spp.
Cosmos Cosmos spp.
English lavender Lavandula 
Marjoram Origanum 
Marigold Tagetes
Parsley Petroselinum crispum
Rosemary Rosmarinus
Salvia Salvia spp.
Stonecrop Sedum spp.
Zinnia Zinnia

Flowering Trees and Shrubs  offer more foraging opportunities from early spring through summer, and are often butterflies’ preferred host plants.

Natives are Best

Chokeberry Aronia spp.
Currents and Gooseberries
Dogwood Cornus spp.
Lilac Syringa vulgaris
Raspberry Rubus spp.
Redbud Cercis canadensis
Rose Rosa spp.
Serviceberry Amelanchier spp.
Viburnum Viburnum spp.
Willow Salix spp.

Note: This is part of a series about how urban areas might offer the best hope and some of the best habitat for native bees. "City Bees, Country Bees" is here; "City Bees, Country Bees, Part 2" is here.

References: Illinois Wildflowers, www.wildflowers.info;  Xerces Society Fact Sheets, “Upper Midwest Plants for Native Bees” and “Butterfly Gardening,” the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, www.xerces.org; USDA.