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Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds: What to plant and how to attract them

Apr 30th, 2015 | Category: Growing

by David Pike

The presence of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds incites a gentle joy. Bees are also responsible for pollinating up to 70 percent of the world’s food crops, our chances of survival without them is highly debatable. Hummingbirds, besides being sugar and nectar addicts, are also very efficient mosquito eaters.  Butterflies, well, what sort of world would it be without butterflies?

Salmonberry flowers are popular nectar sources for bees and hummingbirds.  PHOTO BY DAVID PIKE

Salmonberry flowers are popular nectar sources for bees and hummingbirds.

We can bring these creatures into our gardens in many ways. Flowers for food, shrubs and trees for habitat, and a source of clean water are essential elements. Be aware that pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are very harmful to these creatures.



Hardy native digger bees, which live underground, are among the first to begin to forage at winter’s end. This year I saw them in late February, foraging on the early blossoms of the native India plum.  Bees may have depleted their honey and pollen stores during winter, and they rely on early bloomers for the first available food of the season. Early flowers such as snowdrops and crocus, which often bloom even before the last winter snowfall, are very important; plant them in abundance. Favorite early flowers of bees are winter and spring heath (Erica). (Commonly referred to as heather, though heather blooms later.) Heath has profuse and enduring flowers which are irresistible to hungry bees.

Once spring has sprung, the bees shift away from the early bloomers to more abundant food sources. Apples, pears, plums, cherries, quince, apricots, peaches, nectarines, raspberries, blueberries, salmonberries, thimbleberries, serviceberries, and blackberries are all dependent on bees for pollination. They are all excellent for bees and delicious to us. Ornamental flowering crabapples, plums and cherries are also good bee forage and very beautiful.

A fun and creative way to see your garden is to imagine yourself as a bee. Come summertime, almost any flower may bring bees.  They are especially attracted to flowers in the ultraviolet spectrum, this means blues and purples. Yellow and orange flowers, such as sunflowers and California poppy, are also favored. A diverse garden will attract more bees. Ideal bee gardens have something blooming from early spring to late fall. If you have the space, include shrubs for food and habitat such as serviceberry, mock orange, azalea, rhododendron, pieris, ocean spray, spirea, nootka rose, cascara, Oregon grape, flowering currant, and ceanothus.  Apart from fruit trees, flowering trees such as maples, willows, and linden are tremendous sources of food for bees.

The following flowers are absolute bee magnets: anise hyssop, bee balm (Monarda), bee’s friend (Phacelia), sage (Salvia), oregano, borage, ceanothus, caryopteris, lavender, and catmint.

If you are primarily a vegetable gardener, try letting your kales, lettuces, chives, a few onions, arugula, dill, and Mediterranean herbs to go to flower.  You will attract bees and beneficial insects to your veggie garden.

Late season flowers such as asters, chrysanthemums, sunflowers, salvia, fireweed, sedum, and goldenrod can help fill in the last critical months before winter.



Butterflies are attracted to damp areas such as dripping faucets and spring puddles and brightly colored flowers. PHOTO BY CAROL KILGORE

Butterflies are attracted to damp areas such as dripping faucets and spring puddles and brightly colored flowers. PHOTO BY CAROL KILGORE

Although adult butterflies are often drawn by the same nectar bearing flowers as bees, in the caterpillar stage of life they need to eat plants, and you can expect to see some chewed leaves. The best plants for butterflies are native plants because butterflies have evolved to specifically depend on them. Trees are excellent for butterflies, providing caterpillar food and cover from predators. Good trees for butterflies are madrona, maple, alder, birch, dogwood, apple, cherry, cottonwood, oak, aspen, and willow.

A few examples of shrubs which are good for butterflies (and caterpillars) are serviceberry, oceanspray, rhododendron, Oregon grape, thimbleberry, salmonberry, mock orange, azalea, salal, wild rose, elderberry, spirea, lilac, and blueberry.

Flowers which serve as hosts for butterflies in the caterpillar stage of life are native thistles, pearly everlasting, angelica, bleeding heart, cow parsnip, lupine, stinging nettle, violet, borage, sunflower.

Brightly colored flowers in yellow, orange, pink, or purple are most popular to adult butterflies.  Plant clumps of perennials such as yarrow, aster, daisy, campanula, astilbe, coreopsis, coneflower, bee balm, phlox, black-eyed Susan, sedum, verbena, kinnikinnik, heather, wild strawberry, twinberry, and honeysuckle. Try colorful annuals such as alyssum, calendula, cosmos, sweet William, sunflowers, marigold, and zinnia.

For veggie gardeners, herbs such as mint, oregano, sage, and thyme attract adult butterflies. Your broccoli, carrots, kale, and radishes can be food for hungry caterpillars if you are generous enough to share.



A hummingbird is perched outside my kitchen window in a salmonberry thicket. It intermittently buzzes up to a feeder hanging from the eave of the house for a snack.  However, it also feeds voraciously on the flowers of the salmonberries, even favoring them over the feeder. There is nutrition in flower nectar beyond that which sugar water provides.

Western Washington has Anna’s, and Rufous hummers. Besides flowers for food, they need trees and shrubs for protection and nesting sites. They can often be seen perching on a branch, waiting to nab insects (including mosquitoes) in mid air. Many of the trees and shrubs I’ve already listed for bees and butterflies are also attractive to hummingbirds. Early blooming shrubs such as salmonberry, elderberry, and twinberry are important.

Tubular shaped flowers are specifically designed for hummingbirds, or is it the other way around? They are most attracted to red and orange. They love honeysuckle and, most interestingly, chives. When my chives bloom, the hummingbirds battle over them. To grow a hummingbird banquet, try these flowers: Fuchsia, columbine, goat’s beard, camas, delphinium, bleeding heart, fireweed, iris, lily, lupine, penstemon, foxglove, goldenrod, crocosmia, petunia, daylily, bee balm, phlox, peony, oriental poppy, red-hot poker, and coral bells.

In a diverse garden full of flowers and busy bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, symbiosis abounds. The immobile flowers provide nectar and pollen, while the winged creatures provide pollination. When we plant gardens, we participate in the symbiosis: growing plants, feeding pollinators, and receiving joy in return.

Published in the May 2015 issue of Grow Northwest

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