Want to Help Bees? Plant Flowering Herbs

06 April, 2019

Herbs are among the most useful plants in nature. We use them in food and medicines. We use them in skin care products. We even use them to scent the air.

But human beings are not the only creatures that love herbs. Bees, butterflies and other insects love them, too – as do some birds.

David Trinklein is a plant scientist with the University of Missouri Extension, in Columbia, Missouri. He told the Associated Press that people's interest in herbs has been growing and herb sales are on the rise.

People are using fresh garden herbs for cooking, he said, but their other interest in herbs is to support pollinators – creatures that help plants to reproduce.

Bee populations, for example, have been shrinking in many areas. Scientists suspect pesticide poisoning and climate change as among the main causes.

Many gardeners are trying to help pollinator populations by giving them the plants they need to be healthy.

This April 19, 2013 photo shows a honeybee on Rosemary blooms in a garden near Langley, Wash. Some herbs, like fennel and dill, also serve as host plants for butterfly caterpillars.
This April 19, 2013 photo shows a honeybee on Rosemary blooms in a garden near Langley, Wash. Some herbs, like fennel and dill, also serve as host plants for butterfly caterpillars.

Francis Drummond notes that bees enjoy many kinds of herbs. Drummond is a professor in the School of Biology and Ecology at the University of Maine.

He said that herbs with the most nectar bring bees to the garden. Bees love nectar-filled herbs, such as thyme, comfrey, oregano, lemon balm, lavender and rosemary.

Pollinators will visit most flowering herbs. But some, like cilantro and basil, lose other qualities when they grow flowers. That information comes from Ed Spevak, of the Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri. He suggests that people use leaves from the plant earlier for their own purposes. Then they can let the plant grow flowers to support pollinators.

Some herbs, like cilantro, fennel and dill, produce very small flowers that interest very small bees, Spevak said. Fennel and dill also serve as food for black swallowtail caterpillars.

Bees – especially honeybees – find flowers by their color, not their smell, notes David Salman. He is founder of High Country Gardens, a gardening supply company.

In general, annual herbs are more important for butterflies, especially swallowtails, Salman said. Annuals are plants that must be replanted each year.

Pollinators are necessary for a huge amount of the world's food production, but European honeybees are especially important, Trinklein said.

"They're the king of the pollinators," he said. But other kinds of bees can often be accidental pollinators. Honeybees are also greater in number and more active than other pollinators.

Bees must collect syrup and pollen from early spring through late autumn to support a healthy bee colony, Trinklein said. That means gardeners should plant many kinds of flowers and herbs to lengthen the flowering season.

Many beekeepers believe that herbs used for bringing in pollinators should be native to an area. But Trinklein disagrees.

"I don't think a bee minds if an herb is native or non-native," he said. He added that lavender and "anything in the catnip family" will bring bees.

Gardeners wishing to help pollinators might consider planting scent gardens made up wholly of herbs. They can make your home smell wonderful and supply nutrients to bees, he said.

However, Trinklein advises gardeners against wearing strong-smelling perfumes and hair products, which bees could mistake for nectar.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Dean Fosdick wrote this story for the Associated Press. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

gardenn. an area of ground where plants, such as flowers or vegetables, are grown

scentn. a pleasant smell that is produced by something

pesticiden. a chemical that is used to kill animals or insects that damage plants or crops

nectar n. a sweet liquid produced by plants and used by bees in making honey

caterpillarn. a small creature that is like a worm with many legs and that changes to become a butterfly or moth

syrupn. a sweet, thick liquid made from the juice of a fruit or plant

pollenn. the very fine dust that is produced by a plant and that is carried to other plants of the same kind usually by wind or insects

perfumen. a liquid substance that you put on your body in small amounts in order to smell pleasant